August 31, 2012
Mitt Romney wasn't speaking to the delegates at the Republican convention in Tampa on Thursday night.
He stood before them, but he wasn't speaking to them. That's probably why he didn't exactly swing his message like some sack of red meat to throw at their feet.
Instead, he reached past them — through the TV set — to whatever independents remain in swing states such as Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. Because eight or so battleground states will likely decide the election between Romney and President Barack Obama.
The political math decrees this to be true. The rest of us are just witnesses.
Romney spoke of what he'd do to change things, but he also spoke of disappointment and disillusionment with all those grand promises and all that flowing, messianic rhetoric offered by the president at the beginning of his term.
And Romney also spoke, naturally, of joblessness, of families that can't afford college for their kids, and of that nagging weight that presses down on people after years of uncertainty about keeping their jobs, if they're lucky to have one.
It's not Republican anger that will sway those independents in the swing states. It's disillusionment with the dream they had of Obama. That's what Romney targeted Thursday night. It was a message that had been polled and focus-grouped and sharpened. It was whetted, and fletched and notched, and Romney drew back and fired from that television longbow at those targets far away.
"But for too many Americans, these good days are harder to come by. How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America?
"Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago," Romney said. "Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight, I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him."
Not many at the convention hall in Florida voted for Obama. Romney's certain of getting their votes.
But these are uncertain times, and the rest of America is still afraid and exhausted, and oddly, it is Romney who is the uncertain personality in all of this.
America knows what Obama has done, either to them or for them. They remember the wind out of Obama's mouth in Boston when he didn't want those red and blue states dividing us, and again in Denver and then onto Chicago on his election night. They were bathed in his rhetoric and his promise, and now they're faced with the reality.
So they've made up their minds about him, for him or against him, but they haven't yet made their minds up about Romney. He's a fabulously wealthy man, a second-generation presidential candidate whose convention scripters kept offering us stories about poor immigrants searching for the American Dream as if somehow that was Romney's story.
It's a nice touch, and the Clint Eastwood walk-on was entertaining too, the laconic Hollywood Clint in a place of words and more words. But that alone won't do it for Romney. What he must do is not only stoke uncertainty among the independents, but feed it, and contrast that with the promise of the messianic Obama of four years ago.
You don't do that with a war hammer. You do it by reminding them of how good they felt then, and how they feel now.
Romney did get off a decent line about a ridiculous statement Obama made in June of 2008, after Obama secured the Democratic nomination. To a delirious crowd, Obama shouted that his nomination would be remembered by future generations.
"This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal!" Obama shouted, revealing the fact that the galaxy is not big enough for his ego.
On Thursday night, Romney quipped: "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family."
Whether Romney succeeded or not in his acceptance speech is for you to decide. If you like Romney, then you probably liked the speech and you'll hate the one that Obama will deliver next week. And if you're with Obama, the reverse is true.
What's a bit more unsettling — and now I'm just talking about the theatricality of politics — is the importance the TV people attach to the speeches, making them life-or-death affairs.
"He must define himself tonight," said one.
"This is the most important speech of his life," said another.
"He'll have to connect on a deeply emotional level with the American people," said a third.
Emoting? Connections? How do these have anything to do with making executive decisions? They don't.
Since TV has hijacked our politics, the demands of entertainment seem to foist Oprah moments upon us. Some of our best presidents have been our least entertaining, and vice versa.
Speeches are good for laying out a candidate's policies and priorities, but they only go so far.
Fancy words in large arenas don't keep this country great. Quiet decisions in closed rooms often do.
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