Opening Night for the GOP

The Republican National Convention opened one day late…and a dollar short, or was I the only person who found all the speeches either flat or strangely disconnected from reality? One thing was obvious, or better to say confirmed what has been increasingly obvious for some time: The Romney campaign may not be very good at running campaigns.

Surely, they vetted the speeches, yes? Then how to explain that Ann Romney, the nominee’s wife, began by invoking, repeatedly, the importance of love and the next speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie began by saying, also repeatedly, respect was more important than love. Most of the speeches before the two main events portrayed Mr. Romney as supremely competent, the turn-around artist from Bain and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, but I couldn’t help thinking how the adjectives used sounded just like those I heard in Atlanta in 1988 when another Massachusetts Governor, Mike Dukakis, accepted the nomination of his party. He, too, was presented as “Mr. Fix It!” He, too, was the non-ideological candidate, the candidate of competence and technical know-how and hard work. He lost.

Mrs. Romney stepped on to the stage and it was difficult not to think she was there to hit a home run. A woman with a compelling life story, it didn’t hurt that she looked fabulous. Her task was simple, to humanize her ever-button-downed husband, to share some of the kind of familial insights that make him appear less of an automaton, to relate the kinds of anecdotes that would make her listeners feel they were there when her husband cracked that joke, or dealt with that crisis. Strangely, her speech fell mostly flat. There were some fine points, most especially the suggestion that her husband does not help other people so as to garner the spotlight, but perceives the great human privilege in helping others. That was believable about the man, at least in his personal life, and it spoke to the kind of human truth we should all appreciate more than we do.

Nonetheless, as GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan commented after the speech, “Ann Romney didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” There were no anecdotes. She spoke about his devotion to her and to their family, but there was no verbal picture, no details. She said, in effect, “my husband is a good man” the way she would say “the Sun rises in the east.” Her presentation, especially at the beginning, was all infectious emotion, but the text of her speech was flat. As if to put an exclamation point on the GOP’s central problem, at the end of her speech, the nominee himself appeared on stage, as stiff as a pole.

A side note: Mrs. Romney was introduced by the wife of Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuno. Gov. Fortuno will be addressing the convention tonight. I suppose Republicans must get Latino speakers where they can find them. But, how does the prominence of the Fortunos fit with the GOP’s strategy of appealing to Catholics? Gov. Fortuno has waged, not a war, but an on-going set of struggles with Catholic Church leaders in Puerto Rico.

Gov. Christie gave a great speech….about himself. Halfway through, Obama’s chief campaign advisor David Axelrod sent out a tweet asking when Christie would get around to mentioning Mr. Romney. But, what was really jarring was the disconnect from reality. There was no mention of President George W. Bush. There was no mention of the GOP House. There was no mention of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christie reminded us that he does not like public sector unions, and he has been willing to take them on, but was that news to anyone? Most surprisingly, Christie repeatedly invoked the need for “hard truths” and for “shared sacrifice” but Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan have not asked for much in the way of sacrifice from America’s wealthiest citizens, have they? And, there is one “hard truth” no Republican wishes to acknowledge, namely, the reason this recovery is not as robust as previous ones is because the hole their party dug was deeper than previous recessions.

Gov. Christie also made reference to the Affordable Care Act, saying the GOP, unlike the Democrats, did not want to put “government between a woman and her doctor.” I wonder what Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who supported and signed requiring vaginal probe ultrasounds of women, thought of that line. And, of course, the ACA does not come between anyone and their doctor, only between citizens and their insurance company.

House Speaker John Boehner was relegated to a late afternoon speaking slot. The GOP convention organizers had evidently not even thought to check the microphone, which had such a heavy drag, it sounded as if Boehner was slurring his words. It did not help that he opened his speech with a metaphor about being in a bar and throwing out anyone who said what Boehner claimed President Obama has said. It was a sorry performance and the convention planners were right to keep Boehner out of the primetime spotlight.

The GOP has three nights with the stage to themselves. They really need to use this convention to improve Mitt Romney’s unspeakably bad personal polling numbers. Maybe last night worked in ways that I did not detect. But, I did not wake up knowing anything about Gov. Romney I did not know before, I have no clearer sense of how he will govern or what drives him politically beyond his own success. One night down, and two to go. The next two nights had best be better than the first.

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