Takeaways From the Republican National Convention

It’s important to remember where we were a week ago.  With the aura of Hurricane Issac reigning over the RNC to the point where they had to actually scrap the entire first day, I think we can say that things went about as well as could be expected.  Unless you’re a fact-checker that is, in which case you’ve spent countless hours pulling your hair out and screaming obscenities at the Romney campaign and cursing the idiot staffers that even suggested the notion of Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney.  But, other than that things went fine, right?  Not exactly.  There are few words that could adequately describe the events of the last day, but I believe that “the Clintastrophe” fits the bill as well as anything else.  That is how it has become known on social media.  In the wake of whatever bizarre cat and mouse routine Clint Eastwood was trying to pull off people on both sides of the aisle are wondering whether he has an ounce of sanity left in him.  That’s not exactly the kind of word of mouth publicity you want to have coming out of your convention.

The final day was a mix of humanizing stories about Mitt Romney and elements that actually helped us get to know our potential outsourcer-in-chief a little better.  I have to admit that – even as a Democrat – I was moved by what appeared to be his sincere kindness to friends and neighbors.  You’d have to be inhuman not to be moved by their stories they made Mittens seems like a real likable guy.  Too bad he didn’t showcase any of that in his acceptance speech.  Marco Rubio (R-FL) also had a bit of a coming out party for those in the national audience unfamiliar with the Junior Senator’s striking speaking style and brash bravado.  Again, too bad that his speech was overshadowed by the bizarre events of the Clintastrophe because Rubio’s speech really was a very good story and one that clearly articulated the conservative values that Republicans hold dear to their hearts.  One Republican official, Steve Schmidt, the former aide to Sen. John McCain said that the speech reminded him of Reagan’s 1964 speech and I couldn’t agree more.  Rubio is likely to be the kind of lightening rod that Reagan was if he can clean up his act in the local media and actually come up with some legislative ideas to back up his rhetoric.  He could be the idea man that conservatives thought they were getting in Paul Ryan.

Speaking of Paul Ryan, he probably gave the most factually challenged speech I’ve ever seen a candidate for national office give.  When Ryan tries to pin the blame for a factory closing in his hometown of Janesville on President Obama, the fact checkers pointed out the absurdity and utter falsehood inherent in his claim.  That did not stop or even in any way impair the Romney campaign from insisting on the intellectual honesty of the question.  Ryan also tried to drive home the point that President Obama is “gutting” the work requirement in Medicare – a point that has been so disproven by fact checkers that they simply say: “see notes” to go through the history of the lie – this point was also reinforced by almost every other major Republican speaker throughout the convention as was the bizarre “we built that” theme.

The Romney campaign is proving to be one of the most factually dishonest campaigns in human history and one just has to wonder whether anyone will trust them on anything when it comes to the facts come November.  Ryan also claimed that President Obama was taking $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund to help fund the Affordable Care Act.  This again is untrue.  Ryan’s own budget does the exact same thing only rather than using the money from the beneficiaries side of the equation for lower health costs, Ryan uses the money for tax cuts.  Ryan also blamed President Obama for the S&P downgrade of our credit rating, which is also false.  The S&P noted in their statement that it was in fact the Republican Congress’s inability to come up with a balanced approach to solving our nation’s fiscal issues that led to the downgrade and that the perception that Washington cannot get anything done even when everything hangs in the balance had permeated many in the financial communities that gave credibility to the downgrade.  There are various other points on issues like the deficit where Ryan is wrong as well, but frankly there isn’t enough room in my column to debunk all of the lies that Mr. Ryan told on Wednesday night.  The simple truth is that Mr. Ryan lied up and down throughout his speech and regardless of how it was received by the political partisans in the room we should measure his speech based on it’s merits and not on it’s reception.  If Ryan were to look at the facts in this case he would not only find that his pants are on fire, but that he has become engulfed in flames.

The final act of the night was Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech which was marred as much by his bizarre entrance to the arena as it was by his complete inability to articulate a speech with structure or a cohesive story.  It was striking in that way, the way that it didn’t talk about overarching values or simple, honest themes from his life, but that it was more of a mish-mash of memories from his childhood, observations about his career and complaints about the world around him.  It was like listening to that Uncle at the Thanksgiving table who isn’t entirely happy with where he finds himself in life and feels the need to take it out not only on the world around him, but the people around him.  No one feels inspired by listening to their Uncle’s sorrow towards the world, it doesn’t make us feel confident in his abilities nor does it give us a case for what really went wrong in his life.  His soliloquy gives us an opportunity to think about whether we’re really full or not or perhaps what we’d like to have for desert, it does not on the other hand make us think: “gee, this guy should be President.”  No one ever thinks that and it really fits into the whole convention narrative of not really understanding what’s wrong with America and only thinking that surely there must be someone to blame.  It is no wonder that Republicans spent the entire convention imagining how great 2016 could be.

The one thing that I kept thinking as I watched the day’s events was: “what a missed opportunity.”  At every turn in the day they had an opportunity to make inroads with independent voters and rather than do that they chose to double down on their own party rhetoric and intrinsic beliefs.  They have every right to do that after all this is their convention, but I do think if we look back on this as a point where the momentum could have turned we will look at it as one of missed opportunities.

Rick Santorum went out and made the false accusation that President Obama is gutting Welfare’s work requirement – an attack that has been called out as a lie by every independent fact-checking organization in existence – and made the case that we should want to have big hands like his grandfather.  I thought during the primaries that Rick Santorum was much better at connecting with suburban white and middle class voters than anyone else in the race.  The smart thing to do would have been to use Santorum to talk about values because that’s what he cares the most deeply about and when you’re writing a speech you want to write to the person’s strength.  The Romney people thought otherwise and I think that was a mistake.

Ann Romney gave one of the more interesting speeches of the night.  I’m not sure how effective it was, but I do think it was interesting.  Two themes were repeated over and over in the speech, one was love the other was pride.  I thought those were good themes to talk about to the Republican audience, but perhaps not the best themes to use when talking to a broad national audience.  The area that I think most women who saw her speak or heard her remarks will take away from it is that she knows what it is like to be a mother.  That is certainly how it came across to me.  But what was missing was really the piece that was missing from all the night’s commentary and it’s the piece that Republicans are missing across the board in this election and that is compassion for people whose experiences they do have not shared.  If you are not a mother or a wife you were probably left wondering why all of her experiences were told from those two perspectives.  I kept thinking: “my god, has she ever thought for herself?”  All of her experiences were told through the eyes of a giddy schoolgirl and if you listened to the other speakers, aren’t those the feelings they don’t want us to have?

Ann Romney’s speech was a stunning display of maternalism and I think it embodied the Republican’s complete lack of compassion for people who are not like them that has becoming the defining issue of today’s Republican party.  When she talked about things like finances they were always talked about in a manner that showed she was thinking about the family, which is what you want in at a Republican convention, but not necessarily what you want if you’re trying to appeal to a broader coalition of people.  She talked about Mitt setting up a scholarship fund, which is a fine thing to do, but it is not something that most middle class people have done.  Setting up a scholarship fund is something you do when you’re rich, applying for scholarship funds is something you do when you’re a struggling member of the middle class.  It probably seemed like a moment to show Mr. Romney’s human side to her since she is a member of the rich aristocracy, but those of us who are not in the same social class as her have a hard time relating to that.

The one thing that Ann Romney could have done that would have been an absolutely brilliant moment of humanism would have been to talk about her Multiple Sclerosis as she does on the campaign trail and talk about how she was unable to get out of bed for days at a time and talk about Mitt’s reaction which was to say: “that’s alright.”  That’s an incredibly human moment and it’s one that does show a human side to Romney that most of us don’t get to see.  My best guess is that the campaign thought that those kind of moments showed Romney to be too vulnerable, but those are precisely the kinds of moments that independent voters are looking for at this point in the race.  When you look at Ann Romney’s speech it was one that really embodied a lot of the Romney campaign.  It was withdrawn and came across as condescending at many points.  Other moments were forced such as the spontaneous shout of: “I love you women!”  Is that like “you people?”  That was distancing language that was infused into those remarks and if you look at her body language; specifically her raised cheek bones and high shoulders, you can tell that it is a moment of very sincere condescension.

Chris Christie gave a great speech for Chris Christie, but if you were to look at this in the context of the fact that he is not the Republican nominee for President I think it comes across as extremely arrogant.  It almost seemed dismissive of Mitt Romney because of his over-reliance on polls.  I don’t know where his speechwriters were coming from and I really don’t know why he asked the audience to “stand up” during the speech.  That was probably the most awkward part of the speech and it was probably one of those moments that sounds better in your head than it actually looks in practice.  All in all, Christie’s speech seemed to give Republicans hope in the sense that he said they didn’t need to apologize for their beliefs.  This was without a doubt a reference to Todd Akin, a man who has had to spend the better part of a week apologizing for his “legitimate rape” comments and I suspect that we will hear some of that same language adopted by Mike Huckabee tonight.

I want to address one moment that hasn’t been talked about a lot and that is John Boehner’s speech opening up the convention.  Speaker Boehner engaged in some of the most vicious race-baiting that I’ve seen in the modern political era.  The idea that we should throw an African-American man out of an establishment such as a bar because he doesn’t understand “how America works” is not only offensive, but brings back the scars of our nation’s awful history on the issue of civil rights.  It was particularly offensive given that it occurred in the wake of the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Speaker of the House needs to issue an apology to the American people for engaging in such vitriolic and divisive rhetoric.  There is no doubt in my mind that you can beat your chest without beating the images of the Jim Crow era back into our heads and it is absolutely shameful that a man third in line to the Presidency would reduce our political discourse to such a level.

Mitt Romney’s opening act – the walk in – was supposed to be some sort of bizarre “State of the Union” moment that didn’t really hit home.  My guess is that the Romney team thought it made him look Presidential, but that’s only a guess.  He took his time making his way down the red carpet (and yes it was a real red carpet!) shaking hands with various figures and walking by members of the media as if he had never met them.  It was an odd mix of cultural faux pas and old man forget-me-nots.  Whatever humanization effort was begun that evening surely ended when Romney entered the room.  The “applause” sign must have been left on for the audience because no group of people (outside of his former board of directors) has ever stood so long to applaud Mitt Romney.  When Mr. Romney actually got to his speech it was very businesslike.  He seemed most excited (as always) when talking about his bromance with Paul Ryan.  Romney described himself as “a classic baby-boomer,” which demonstrates that he either doesn’t know what the normal definition of “classic” is or he is so disillusioned with himself that he doesn’t care.  The one thing that really summed up Romney’s speech were the empty applause lines.  It seemed like the audience was prepared to clap no matter what and that was probably good for Mr. Romney because they certainly didn’t like a lot of the substance that was in his speech.  The moments where Romney moved from the prepared text were to invoke names like Neil Armstrong and he put in a controversial remark saying that we “need an American” to lead America to greatness, whether that was implying that President Obama is not an American or not is apparently something that Romney wants left up in the air.

Romney did try to address the Obama Presidency in a manner that many Americans could relate to.  Romney started by saying that: “four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president…but today, four years from the excitement of the last election, for the first time, the majority of Americans now doubt that our children will have a better future.”  Those are strong lines that are very true and ring very true to many Americans.  But were you to ask Mr. Romney’s children whether they felt they had the same opportunities that their father had – and if you did so outside of an election cycle – the answer would be a resounding ‘yes!’  It’s not because Mr. Romney’s previous statement is untrue, rather that it is only true for those who want to believe it.  If you believe in the unbridled American spirit and if you truly believe in the promise of America you’re not going to let a politician dictate to you whether you can make a better life for yourself.  The whole theme of the convention seemed to be that individual change will always beat out societal and collective change.  To that point, Romney said: “every small business wanted these to be their best years ever, when they could hire more, do more for those who had stuck with them through the hard times, open a new store or sponsor that Little League team.”  That makes a nice sound bite but it doesn’t match up with what most small businesses do.  Most small businesses don’t look to hand out charity and most businesses that Romney managed as head of Bain Capital didn’t do that.  It’s a misnomer about small business that they are always wanting to help people, wanting to provide jobs to all who are able to work and are somehow removed from their bottom line.

The one bit of red meat that was thrown out to the GOP delegates was a line that he delivered in the beginning almost exclusively for them and he said: “this is when our nation was supposed to start paying down the national debt and rolling back those massive deficits.  This was the hope and change America voted for.”  We voted for an austerity package in the middle of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression?  NO.  That is the biggest bit of revisionist garbage I’ve heard this side of Paul Ryan’s speech at the convention.  We voted for stimulus, we voted for a change FROM austerity policy and AWAY from wars in Central Asia.  Suggesting otherwise does a serious disservice to all of us who voted for President Obama.  You couldn’t possibly understand why we voted for President Obama because there would never be a moment in your life where you would have stood by someone like President Obama.  This was a moment in the speech where you could tell that Mr. Romney was indeed talking down to us.  He was telling us what we believed in 2008 and what we should believe in 2012.  It was just insulting language and seemed to suggest that the American people have amnesia and couldn’t possibly recall why we voted for President Obama.  It was derogatory to the American voter and implied a cynicism about electoral politics that should make many wonder why he is running at all if he doesn’t understand why people vote the way that they do.

Mr. Romney went on to try and sell us on his story which told by him doesn’t sound in any way improbable or even unlikely.  We would be left wondering what went wrong if Mr. Romney hadn’t wound up being the prodigal son of Governor George Romney of Michigan.  All of the language in the middle of his speech was about his parents and his wife, this was supposed to show us who the “real” Mitt Romney is, but instead it left many with a few good moments like the story of how his father always got his mother a rose every day to show her that she cared and that she knew something was wrong when the rose wasn’t there.  That was beautiful imagery and that’s what should have defined the speech, but it didn’t.  Romney tried to define “American moments” using little cuplets of broad images to drive home his message of what it meant to be an American.  Romney mentioned that: “it’s when our son or daughter calls from college to talk about which job offer they should take….and you try not to choke up when you hear that the one they like is not far from home.”  That’s a relatable moment, so play it up!

Romney mentioned things like being a “mentor,” which coincidentally is exactly what I thought about when he picked Paul Ryan as his running mate.  I thought that he was picking his Vice President like he would pick a Vice President of his company.  It seemed like a shrewd business move and one that made sense for him.  But one of the strangest things about Mr. Romney’s candidacy and one of the strangest things about the convention was that they spent time praising things in society that they don’t support in policy.  Mr. Romney talked about how proud he was to hire lots of women, he talked about Neil Armstrong and the great pride that he got from watching us land on the moon, but these are things that his policies are dead set against.  Romney is against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which seeks to end discrimination against women in the workplace.  Romney is in favor of slashing spending for NASA, he is in favor of Voter ID laws that make it incredibly difficult for people like Gov. Suzanne Martinez and her constituents to get out and vote.  Overall, Mr. Romney payed tribute to a lot of things, but didn’t talk in detail about any of these things.  He made no mention of Iraq and Afghanistan, but did talk about “standing with Israel” which seems to be the extent of the intellectual development of his foreign policy.

All in all, this was a very careful and meticulous, but was inartful and downright upsetting when it comes to “climate” references, success, and seemed to minimize the importance of what ordinary workers do.  There were many times where Romney delivered the lines that Republicans wanted to hear, but failed to strike at the frustration and underwhelmed feelings that many independent voters feel.  Romney’s best line of the night was: “many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. 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.”  That whole idea is very long and difficult to put into an ad or deliver as a piece of partisan messaging, so I have to question why the speechwriters didn’t try and clean it up a little more.  That line should be the final pitch to independent voters, but instead he left us with this: “America has been patient.  Americans have supported this president in good faith.  But today, the time has come to turn the page.  Today the time has come for us to put the disappointments of the last four years behind us.  To put aside the divisiveness and the recriminations.  To forget about what might have been and to look ahead to what can be.”  That last part there is simply misleading.  The Americans that will be voting for Mitt Romney have not been patient, they never supported this President in good faith and the divisiveness of the last four years was brought on by Mr. Romney’s party and later on it was brought on by Mr. Romney himself.

This speech was a speech that didn’t have a structure to it and to many Americans it felt like that.  Many don’t really know what Mr. Romney aspires to do as President of the United States and that was one of the things he needed to do in that speech.  If he was going to be this Reagan-esque, transformational figure then he needed to lay out a vision.  Instead he chose to tell us what the CBO has told us and that is that regardless of who is President, we will create 12 million new jobs.  Great!  But, Mr. Romney did not provide a case for why he should be the one in charge of administering his budget and policy priorities from the White House.

Mitt Romney, in the end, provided a loose case for why he is a good guy.  Mr. Romney talked very broadly about stories, but didn’t really tell one and that is the disappointment that many American voters feel with his candidacy.  Many feel that a President is more than a person who presides over a series of job reports, but someone who is in charge of delivering a better tomorrow to the American people.  It’s difficult to do that when you don’t have an aspirational vision of where you want to take America in the future, but rather Romney said: “If I am elected President of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it, our nation depends upon it, the peace and freedom of the world require it.”  Well, does anyone really believe that President Obama wakes up in the morning and says: “aw, screw it?”  If they do then Mitt Romney might have a chance, but if you’re going to stick to your message that Mr. Obama is someone who meant well but doesn’t understand how to create jobs then shouldn’t you provide some sort of evidence to back that up?

Let there be no doubt: Mitt Romney didn’t fail last night at telling America a story, but the problem that he had at the end of the night was the same problem that he faced at the beginning of the night.  People simply don’t know who Mitt Romney is, what drives him, why that is important and what he would do differently as President of the United States.  He did not say in unabashed terms how he would get the economy rolling again.  He did not tell us why companies would simply start hiring en masse after his election.  He did not tell us anything about his foreign policy other than the fact that he really likes Israel (something that can be said about all recent U.S. Presidents.)  He did not tell us by what rubric we should measure his Presidency.  He did not tell us why we should vote for him.  All of this is extremely problematic for the Romney folks if they do indeed want to win this election because when you’re running against an incumbent you need to tell us not only why he’s wrong, but why you’re right.  Mr. Romney may convince people at the end of the day that Mr. Obama is wrong on the economy, but if that is the only case he makes it will not be nearly enough to become President.  In order to become President you need to lay out a vision like Reagan did, like Clinton did, like George W. Bush did and like Barack Obama did.  Mr. Romney has been reluctant to do this because it doesn’t seem as if Mr. Romney knows what he would do as President or what America would look like after becoming President.  It has been and will continue to be very difficult for Americans to picture America with Mr. Romney as President since he can’t explain to the American people what America would look like with him as our President and so long as that remains the case, Mr. Romney will not be President of the United States.

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