TAMPA – In the daylight glow following the Republican big night, it is clear that the Romney campaign deliberately decided to leave the substance for the Friday night session of the convention. Except, of course, there is no Friday night session.
The robust policy debate that seemed inevitable a few weeks ago when Paul Ryan was tapped for vice president ended up on the cutting room floor. Sure, there were flicks at campaign issues in the Romney and Ryan acceptance speeches. But they were mostly restatements of the obvious like Romney boldly declaring: “We must rein in the sky-rocketing cost of health care by repealing and replacing Obamacare.”
Bulletin! Stop presses! Republicans don’t like the health care law.
Back in May, the Romney high command launched the general-election campaign with a series of television ads built around answering the same question: “What would a Romney presidency be like?” The 30-second format understandably limited the answers to bullet points: “Day One, President Romney announces deficit reductions ending the Obama era of big government.” But, at least, there was an initial effort (soon lost in the fusillade of attack ads by both sides) to confront the threshold question for any presidential challenger: How would you govern from the Oval Office?
Rather than amplifying these themes in his acceptance speech, Romney in the biggest moment of his political career decided to go in a different artistic direction. (Clint Eastwood interlude: Do you think presidential candidates will be vying for his endorsement in 2016?) The GOP nominee could have offered intellectual arguments that fit with his political philosophy. For example, he might have taken the Reaganite tack of contending that tax cuts fuel economic growth or unveiled a free-market solution that would provide all Americans with health-care coverage.
Instead, Romney’s prime-time extravaganza on Thursday revolved around trying to placate the polls by appealing to distinct voting blocs. Marco Rubio’s speech was far more about his personal odyssey than it was about introducing Romney. But, hey, Rubio is a Cuban-American and Romney is desperate to improve his numbers among Latino voters.
The gender gap, especially among single women, is becoming a chasm for Romney. So the shout-outs in his speech were frequent: “Today, women are more likely than men to start a business. They need a president who respects and understands what they do.” About the only way that Romney could have been more blatant about wooing women was if he had bounded onto the stage brandishing a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Horserace handicappers were eager to rate every speech in Tampa as if it alone would decide the election, but the lasting political effects of a convention depend on what sticks in the memory of voters. (Eastwood interlude: Is there a single voter anywhere who was persuaded by the empty-chair debate with Obama? Persuaded to vote for Romney, that is.)
So at the moment it is still hard to tell whether the strategy behind the too-vague-to-fact-check Romney acceptance speech worked. We are about to enter the pogo-stick phase of the campaign where everything is about the convention “bounce.” But a warning: Don’t over-react to the data dump of instant post-convention polls, whatever they say. Polling over a holiday weekend is particularly tricky, and then we move right into the Democratic counter-programming from Charlotte.
But lost opportunities involve more than just politics. By not framing the campaign as a battle of ideas, Romney forfeited his chance for a mandate that goes beyond being Not Obama. In his struggles with the “vision thing,” Romney resembles another well-born and highly competent Republican who seemed more interested in governing than in explaining himself to voters. The George H.W. Bush precedent is a double-edged sword–some admirable deeds in the White House and a low-road 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis.
When it comes to policy specifics, this may be a fall campaign built around the bland leading the bland. Obama himself has shied away from the Big Questions hovering over his reelection: How would his next four years in the White House be different from what Americans have already seen? What has he learned–beyond the need for a better communications strategy–that would transform his second term?
Romney hit this point in one of the stronger passages from his acceptance speech: “The president can ask us to be patient … The president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But the president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office.” That kind of Romney attack–more in sorrow than anger–is what Obama must answer in Charlotte. Because, it is a near certainty that a song called “Don’t Make the Same Mistake Twice” will be near the top of the Republican playlist from here until November 6.
As a reporter who has covered nine presidential campaigns, I left Tampa feeling melancholy rather than exhilarated. My mood has nothing to do with partisan feelings for or against Romney. Rather, it is triggered by the parlous state of our politics and the fear that Charlotte will be no better.
At a time when the American economy is still reeling and national self-confidence is at low ebb, it is tragic that substance and vigorous debate over issues seem to have been banned from our politics because–to put it bluntly–ideas don’t poll well.
But maybe that’s the way presidential campaigns have always been since Lincoln. In 1956, as legend has it, an exuberant woman shouted to Adlai Stevenson at a campaign rally, “Governor, all the thinking people are with you.” Stevenson replied, with a tinge of sadness in his voice, “That’s not enough, madam, I need a majority.”