With the Republican National Convention having just ended, there has been a lot of talk about whether the Republicans accomplished what they set out to do, whether Mitt Romney was able to successfully introduce himself to the majority of Americans who aren’t political junkies, and whether that much coveted convention bounce would finally tip the polls from narrowly favoring Obama to at least narrowly favoring Romney.
While Romney’s speech was an important event in his personal campaign narrative it seems to have, after initial reactons and polling, done little to accomplish any of the goals he and the RNC set out to do. Let’s face it. I know that Rahm Emanuel is as partisan and pro Obama as they come but he has a real point. If three to four days after the convention everyone is still talking about Clint Eastwood appearing to channel former Perot VP Candidate Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s disheveled ramble while talking to an empty chair then Romney’s speech was, in fact, of no substance and no splash. The whole convention seemed much “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (and by that the Faulknerian version of a family lost and imploding, not the Shakespearean drama of royal tragedy).
In context, the speakers at the convention seemed more focused on touting themselves to a room of Republican faithful than making a case for Romney to the folks watching at home. New Jersey Goverrnor Chris Christie spent most of his key note speech talking about himself, but to those who say that’s nothing new; Gov. Christie supporters should note it was a convention theme. Folks ranging from New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who spent most of her speech regaling her accomplishments, to gaffe prone Texas Governor Rick Perry saying he was considering running in 2016 seemed to be acting as though the thought that Romney might win didn’t occur to them.
If the highlight of the convention is your running mate’s fact challenged but genuinely zealous speech then you have trouble brewing as to whether you can gain control of the message and the momentum. Just ask “Presidents” McCain, Dukakis and President Carter’s re-election convention what happens when your convention becomes about other speakers, other candidates, and other elections. McCain was eclipsed by Palin, the little remembered Dukakis convention speech was upstaged by a far more charismatic Lloyd Bentsen, and a show stopping speech by Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter lost control of the convention and even the party platform to the rousing oratory of his rival/nemesis Sen. Ted Kennedy. All lost. But a forgettable speech that even Gallup polls as one of the least effective in memory isn’t the most telling problem.
Folks lobbying for shorter conventions forget that part of the convention is not just to put on a reality tv show for the undecided voters. It’s a last push to organize and inspire the base that has to go out and sell this election over the next 65 days. The crowd was happy and excited but seemed confused and certainly didn’t seem to know what, if anything, they were to cheer for. Gov. Christie even had to go before delegates later in the convention and chastise subdued crowds to cheer for Romney more.
The RNC aiming to excite a base that has been continually unenthused by Mitt Romney as a nominee really didn’t have a chance. While Romney’s team has tried repeatedly to energize the base, it continues to be an issue within the Republican Party itself. Delegates had to be courted and pleaded with to show a unified front to the cameras, leading to a few instances of rebellion from Ron Paulites who strained against the strict control placed over their voices. Whenever the enthusiasm waned, speakers were quick to point at Obama and invoke the fear his second term carries within the base.
The entire exercise became nothing more than crying “not Obama” because the crowd couldn’t bring itself to cheer unabashidly FOR Romney.
This is in part a reap what you sow phenomena writ large. The convention attendees and the Romney campaign exist in a difficult place. Many of the views which excite the far-right base now are too radical to appeal to independents or moderate Democrats, such as the Blue Dog Coalition.
If you have a convention full of conspiracy theories about Obama being a secret Muslim, birther nonsense, and the idea that anyone who disagrees with you is a “Nazi communist” (something like “legitimate rape” only exists in the right wing world), and radical right wing views on abortion, gay rights, and immigration you scare people in the primetime audience outside the convention hall. And you don’t scare them into voting for you. The Romney camp conveniently made sure these “platform” views were rarely discussed and very controlled. Romney has tried to use more subtle euphemisms to excite the base saying that he’ll “respect the sanctity of life. I’ll honor the institution of marriage.” But euphemisms don’t get applause lines, and don’t inspire folks to canvas and phone bank in September and October within battleground states that, exempting Florida, will be very cold and wet during those months.
Romney’s speech, in fact, the entire convention highlighted a growing self created schism within the Republican Party between the political operatives and strategists and their base. The campaigns know that to pander too aggressively to the base is to court destruction in the moderate arena. But at the same time, the Republicans are more dependent than ever on this vitriolic, if shrinking, base to deliver volunteers, money and primary victories as more and more other voting blocs shift Democratic.
Romney’s speech and this convention illustrated that in this election fear of Obama being re-elected is all he and his party have to offer. Win or lose. It’s a shame to see the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and even Reagan – a party of ideas and a desire to inspire with those ideas (agree with them or not) has become little more than corporations wedded to “know nothings”.
If the Romney and the GOP were hoping to break out and break away with this race at their convention they failed. Only sixty plus days to see how this bodes for the final verdict in November.