Clint, What Was That?

08.31.12

Romney's Speech: Not Bad, Not Great, Not Much Change

It’s 11:20 pm as I’m writing this, and Ross Douthat just tweeted of Mitt Romney’s speech that “it was a highly effective reintroduction to Romney the man, w/ absolutely nothing in it to make Americans nervous about voting for him.” I suppose not, but there’s a flip side to the second half of Douthat’s statement: was there anything in it to make Americans, especially undecided ones, really want to vote for him?

There, the speech was uneven. Romney’s backers say he just has to make himself into an acceptable alternative to beat Barack Obama. This speech didn’t clearly succeed or fail, but that conclusion itself tells you all you need to know. B minus, let’s say, or maybe a C plus.

I’d divide the speech into thirds. The first third was, lucky for Romney, the best. The stuff about women and some comments he made about the failed economy probably resonated to some extent with swing voters. It’s actually pretty infuriating to hear Republicans talk about the hope that existed in November 2008. Mitt Romney didn’t feel any hope in November 2008. But I get it. He’s trying to talk to people who did.

“I wanted the president to succeed because I want America to succeed” may not be true, and it sure isn’t what Mitch McConnell felt, but it probably struck the right note with swing voters. And he probably did a slightly better job of humanizing himself than his wife did the other night, so that was a plus as well.

The second third was the alleged “here’s our program” part, and it was weaker. Again, threaded into here were several tough jabs at Obama, and they weren’t bad. He was very brief and general about his plans, reiterating the standard five points from his stump speech. This may not matter to many people, but if I were a swing voter with genuinely curiosity about his plans, I think I’d come away from this speech with more questions than answers.

The final third bordered on, or simply was, belligerent. That was in there to please neocons. Aren’t they voting for him already? Hasn’t he said enough to satisfy them already? Hasn’t he probably promised them that John Bolton will be his secretary of state already? What more do they need from the guy? Do swing voters really want a war with Iran? Of course not. And to end on that! The speech ended abruptly, and that was a strange note on which to end it.

The lies aside, Paul Ryan’s speech was much better. Sure, the people in that hall love Ryan in a way they don’t love Romney, but Ryan just had better writing and a clearer point of view. Ryan has sharp edges. Romney has soft edges. He speaks in fuzzy generalities, and most of the time, people who speak in fuzzy generalities think in them, too.

Which brings us back to the place we’ve been anyway for months now. If the American people are really in a frame of mind to throw Obama out on November 6, Romney has probably passed the audition as good enough. He probably made himself a little more likeable (less unlikeable) in this speech.

But it’s hard to imagine that there’s much excitement for him out there. And that is still Obama’s basic opening and advantage. And it can’t help Romney that around the water cooler Friday, it’s going to be less about Romney than about Clint Eastwood, who was, alas, all too visible. We probably won't be talking about Clint in November, but there's a chance that the decision to have him on that stage in the final hour of a convention night doing that, without apparent vetting--or worse, with vetting!--could live on as one of the most bone-headed political decisions of recent times.