Lincoln. Roosevelt. Eisenhower. Reagan. Romney. Why do I suddenly hear the song from Sesame Street playing in my head: “One of these things is not like the others . . .”
How did the former governor do tonight? Unfortunately for him, he followed Marco Rubio of Florida, who delivered a curiously (or perhaps not so curiously) self-reverential speech—and with the passion and conviction for which Romney has long searched. By far the best tributes to Romney came an hour or so earlier, in moving testimonials from his fellow Mormons about his kindness and compassion. As for the nominee himself, his presentation was, as expected, mechanically flawless—even his lame game-show style entrance was accomplished with robotic, pizzazz-less efficiency. At least he didn’t argue with a talking chair, like Clint Eastwood did.
Undoubtedly in the coming days we’ll be hearing reviews like “ten strike,” “homerun” “out of the park” from the usual suspects, and maybe some unusual ones, too. It wasn’t that. But it wasn’t bad. Romney, in his obligatory red, white, and blue uniform, did have some well-crafted zingers, but none were particularly poetic. Nor will many linger in history—unless you’ve never heard a politician find 60 different ways to call America “the greatest nation on the face of the earth.”
By the way, President Obama clearly has a healthy ego, but did he really promise to “slow the rise of the oceans” and “heal the planet”? I hear stuff like that all the time from conservative friends, and never really check it. (Update: I checked. No, he didn’t promise that. Still, for someone promising “profound humility,” Obama in the same breath offered a pretty daunting agenda. (Second Update: Romney talked about “healing the world” in his own speech this very night. Why am I not surprised?)
I’m also not going to linger on how Romney can possibly claim credit for the successful day-to-day operations of a business like Staples. Should I give him the receipt for the printer ink I mistakenly bought there yesterday?
Mr. Romney actually did reveal some important things Thursday night– things that will reverberate in the election and, if he wins, his presidency. In no particular order, here they are:
1. Barack Obama’s administration is “disappointing.” I don’t think anybody would argue with that—including, I’d wager, Barack Obama. But it was interesting that Mr. Romney generally chose gentler jibes as opposed to a more ferocious assault on Obama. This was Mike Brady lingo—“I’m really disappointed that you missed curfew, Marcia.” “Greg, your hippie attitude is really ... disappointing.” This either tells us that Romney is trying to appeal to independents and Democrat-leaners who don’t cotton to rants about how Obama stays up at night burning copies of the Constitution. Or it tells us that Romney’s negative ratings are really high and he doesn’t want to make them any worse. My bet is that it’s both. This posture may also be a smart strategy, too, though that’s probably an accident.
2. Mitt Romney is no George W. Bush. President Bush was a master at using words like “unconditional love” and “hugging your kids” and “loving moms and dads” and other touchy feely stuff that men don’t usually say and yet still make it sound like something a real person would say. By contrast, when Mitt Romney, flashing a weird smile, talked about his “pile of kids” going to sleep “wrapped in the love of their family” I felt like I was listening to a line someone wrote for him. And I also got a little creeped out. (Oh and by the way Jeb Bush ain’t no W, either. Good thing no one was watching his snoozer of a speech that went into a long tangent on different kinds of milk.)
3. Mitt Romney wants women. Romney made overt references to his mother’s campaign for the Senate . . . noted that his parents were life “partners” . . . and praised himself for of all things picking a real, live “woman” as his lieutenant governor and, as he put it, “a woman chief of staff” – both of these revelations offered in a tone that sounded like he’d discovered the ark of the covenant. In the ham-handed manner Republicans often have when talking to minority groups, Romney his team demonstrated how badly he needs to cut the gender gap. All that was left for Romney to do was read a haiku that he crafted with Lena Dunham and hum a few bars of “I am woman hear me roar” with the cast of “Bridesmaids.”
4. The Reagan-Carter argument. Romney’s obvious and far less pithy effort to mimic Ronald Reagan’s killer line against President Carter in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—is really the most important aspect of this speech. That sentiment is the most powerful weapon he has to deploy against a relatively unpopular president saddled with a gloomy economy. The challenge for Team Romney will be to keep up that focus for the next two months, instead of discussing Medicare and the death of bin Laden and Planned Parenthood funding and any other distractions the press can conjure. The challenge for Team Obama, meanwhile, is to find a better question for voters to ask about Mitt Romney.
5. Romney Recycles. I listened to Romney outline the “five steps” of his groundbreaking economic plan and then suddenly realized it sounded an awful lot like economic plans I used to write for President Bush. Parts of it even sounded a lot like economic plans outlined by Barack Obama. Give everyone a job who wants one? Build world-class schools? Empower small businesses? This is the best that the proud proprietor of Staples and the Sports Authority has got? Team Romney better hope nobody notices their guy is turning in someone else’s homework and claiming it as his own.