Mitt blew it.
If the goal of last week’s Republican National Convention was to render Mitt Romney a trustworthy alternative to Barack Obama in the eyes of the handful of “persuadable” swing-state voters who will decide this election, it left too many doubts to have made the case: doubts about Romney’s intentions regarding women’s reproductive rights, about his plans for the economy and budget, and about his prudence in matters of war and peace. What it left no doubt about is his subservience to the extremists who now make up the GOP’s base. Journalists traditionally describe a party’s nominee as its “titular head.” Romney is that – and no more. The crazies are in control, and he has no choice but to mind them lest they give voice to their suspicions that secretly he is that dirtiest of dogs, a pragmatist.
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Clint Eastwood may have lectured Pretend Barack that he should have consulted the Russians before invading Afghanistan. (If the Kenyan Muslim can be blamed for a GM plant that closed in 2008, why not a war that started in 2001?) But the unseen presence that really dominated the proceedings in Tampa was Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. With Akin’s junk science shining a bright and unwelcome spotlight on the GOP’s junk policies regarding abortion and birth control, Romney and his team scrambled to compensate – but by adjusting atmospherics, not policy. One male speaker after another let us know that he loved his mother. Ann Romney shouted,“I love you women!” and offered up a paean to them as the long-suffering, all-knowing partners of the clueless slobs who never shop for groceries, pick up their socks, or lift the toilet seat.
But no one went beyond acknowledging the difficult lives women lead. Imagine if Mitt had followed his tribute to his mother by saying, “And I will honor Mom’s memory by ensuring that women receive equal pay for equal work.” We’re told that Romney, unlike Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, and the Republican Party’s platform, favors allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest, but you wouldn’t know it from Tampa. Romney could express no departure from GOP orthodoxy lest the economic and religious theologians in charge of the party excommunicate him.
And of course, there could be no question of offering women help with day care or job training, or by making sure that those eligible for food stamps apply for them, or by trying to improve the welfare system instead of using it as convenient symbol of dark-skinned lassitude with which to stir up white resentment.
The outreach to women last week had a retro feel. Male and female speakers proclaimed that women deserve respect and the opportunity to hold good jobs. The people taking such self-congratulatory pride in their forward thinking seem to have only recently discovered feminism, as though the movement had begun to gather steam just this year, not decades ago, and women had not long ago realized that talk is cheap. Ann Romney’s generalizations ( “It's the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together.”) and Chris Christie’s recollection of who wore the pants in his family (“In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver.”) seemed to come from a world unenlightened by Betty Friedan’s deconstruction of the “feminine mystique.”
The GOP delivered no goods to women save condescension. It refused to treat women as sapient creatures who might appreciate substantive steps to make their lives easier rather than just the flowers and candy of empty flattery.
The best the GOP could say last week to women was “Trust Mitt.”
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At least women got a shout-out, as did Latinos. But if anyone paid a single lip’s worth of service to African Americans and gay people, I missed it. In his tribute to the immigrants who came to these shores in search of freedom – freedom of religion, speech, and entrepeneurship – the GOP nominee might have taken the opportunity to note that some immigrants arrived not to seek liberty but because theirs had been stolen from them by force. But I suppose they boarded the slave ships without their picture ID’s, and thus deserved their fate.
In GOP world, black people exist only to stand on the stage and reassure the all-white crowd that just because they think African Americans are lazy and unappreciative of white America’s gifts doesn’t mean they’re bigots. And gay people exist only as symbols of the other party’s depravity.
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The most bizarre statement I heard in Tampa from anyone who didn’t star in Magnum Force came from Ann Romney when she concluded her remarks by advising the nation to trust Mitt the way she trusted him to see her safely home from the dance at which they first met. If Obama’s imagery in 2008 seemed to suggest we were all spiritual strivers and he was our Jesus, Ann seemed to be saying that we are all fifteen-year-olds afraid of the dark and Mitt is our Prince Charming.
The other prominent speeches achieved little of value to Romney’s campaign. Chris Christie assured the nation that Republicans tell hard truths, then told none. (After the speech he decked the first ten people who informed him that someone other than he is this year’s nominee.) John McCain’s warmongering scared the bejesus out of anyone who heard him. If the arena’s technical facilities didn’t allow for a hologrammic representation of W’s Mission Accomplished moment, Condi Rice’s appearance was the next best thing to remind the nation of the debacle the last Republican administration produced in Iraq.
And then there was Paul Ryan, Eagle Scout in Troop Ayn Rand. Ryan went Galt in a big way, suggesting that only moochers need to tell the truth. It’s correct to say that Ryan’s lie-a-thon damaged his reputation as a man of bracing honesty. But it’s also true that no vice-presidential candidate gives a convention speech that has not been entirely approved and ordered by the top of the ticket. The responsibility for the lies falls directly on Romney, and it says volumes about his character.
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As poorly as the convention made Romney’s case during its first two days, the candidate had the chance to make up for it on the last.
Over the six years of his public quest for the presidency, Romney, with a recent boost from the Obama campaign, has defined himself neatly: As a callous rich guy with something to hide. As someone whose life of extreme privilege makes it almost comical to think he understands and cares about the problems of ordinary people. As a man determined to spread even more wealth to the members of his privileged class. As a tax cheat.
When the Democrats convened in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign faced a similar problem. The general public knew little about the candidate aside from his history as a pot-smoking, draft-dodging adulterer who attended Oxford. Voters connected those dots by assuming the Arkansan was a spoiled rich kid whose most searing test in life had been learning the gear shift on the Alfa Romeo Daddy had given him for his sixteenth birthday. The antidote the campaign came up with was to make Clinton “The Man from Hope,” the kid from a broken family in a small town who rose on his own talent and whose strength of character showed itself at an early age. The most powerful piece of that redefinition came during the biographical film that immediately preceded Clinton’s acceptance speech. Clinton and his mother, Virginia Kelley, recalled that one night when Bill was in ninth grade he witnessed his stepfather beating Virginia. Bill stood up to the older man, telling him that he was never to hit Virginia again.
The Man from Hope theme ran throughout Clinton’s speech, which ended, famously, with the line, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” But, as one writer recently noted (my apologies to that writer, but I can’t remember where I read this), what gave the message its particular resonance was its translation into the policy program Clinton outlined. Here was a man who knew the pressures families face. He knew the hardship his working mother had endured to learn her profession as a nurse anesthetist. He knew from his grandfather the evils of racial prejudice. These lessons found their expression in the plan of action called “Putting People First,” a set of measures to support people who “work hard and play by the rules.”
Romney’s biography is missing the galvanizing incident, and his policy program lacks the populist thrust, to turn around the public’s picture of him. On the convention’s final night, the campaign paraded a long line of people Mitt had helped along the way – Olympians, church members, a woman he appointed to high office in Massachusetts. But it’s one thing to do private acts of charity that help one or two or a hundred people, quite another to act as president on behalf of millions. As Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out on MSNBC, Romney’s most substantive contribution to improving people’s lives went entirely unmentioned, because the anti-Obama orthodoxy enforced by the party’s masters prohibits the praising of anything remotely resembling Obamacare – and in the case of Romneycare, the resemblance is anything but remote. And these testimonies suffered from another flaw: they were delivered before the broadcast networks tuned in for their nightly hour of convention coverage.
Romney’s own biographical film convinced everyone that Mitt Romney is indeed a fine husband and father, that his wife is sensational, that his dad was great, that his mother was terrific. But where Clinton’s film depicted a young man of exceptional backbone, Romney’s showed its subject to be, at best, a generic good guy. If the Romneys expected the film – or Ann’s talk of tuna fish and pasta – to convince skeptics that Mitt appreciates the everyday hardships of working men and women, they were deluding themselves.
Besides, the film was bumped from the crucial final hour of network coverage – and it was apparently Mitt’s idea – in order to open that hour with Eastwood.
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The hour of prime time failed, and not just because of the cranky octogenarian and the foul-mouthed chair.
Marco Rubio’s speech, though heavy on autobiographical details, was a well-delivered statement of the GOP’s perfervid devotion to pure capitalism. As a keynote address it would have been fine – much better than the preening mess offered by the governor of the Garden State two nights before. But what the moment called for was an introduction of Romney. This year, Romney’s formal nomination took place on the first night of the convention; if you didn’t watch early on Tuesday, you missed the nominating speeches. Again, think back to 1992, when the Democratic Party’s – and the nation’s – best orator, Mario Cuomo, delivered a prime-time stem-winder all about “Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas.” Rubio’s speech was about many things – among them Cuba, reflecting the importance of Florida to Romney’s electoral calculus. But it was not about Romney.
Then Romney took the stage to tell us, yet again, of his love for his parents, wife, kids, and church. But where was the animating principle? Where was the life experience that told him, “Here’s what I need to do to make people’s lives better”? The candidate was a child of privilege; now he’s filthy rich. He would have been better off admitting his wealth, and acknowledging that it gives people pause. Rather than try to change the subject, the Romneys would have been smart to emulate Michelle Obama, who four years ago sought to help people over their discomfort with her husband by recalling that she, too, thought his name was awfully strange the first time she heard it. But then again, the Romneys just don’t seem to understand that their wealth presents a political problem.
Beyond general impressions, however, what makes Romney’s biography so difficult to overcome is that it is matched by his policy proposals. We don’t know much of what he plans to do once in office, but we do know that he will cut taxes on members of his own class. FDR and Kennedy came from money but in their policy approach worked against type. Nixon and Reagan came up the hard way, and so had credibility in presenting pro-business policies as ultimately beneficial to the masses. The Bushes were rich, but special circumstances enabled them to overcome class prejudice: H. W. faced a feeble opponent and W. had the help of Ralph Nader, Monica Lewinsky, and Antonin Scalia.
But Nader’s not running in 2012 and Obama doesn’t fool around with interns. Only if the election’s another nailbiter will Nino & Co. again be able to come to their candidate’s rescue.
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Biography aside, Mitt’s speech had little in it to make the case for his election. It contained nothing particularly inspiring, and no overall theme.
In that final hour of the convention Mitt took five risks – all of which may backfire on him.
One, Clint Eastwood.
Two, while Romney’s speech was long on GOP boilerplate, it did repeat a few of the striking lies given their showcase by Paul Ryan: about Medicare and defense cuts, in particular. And he trotted out his hoary line about the Obama apology tour that, in fact, never took place. As many have pointed out, Romney seems to be relying on the mainstream media’s timidity to protect his campaign from punishment for its egregious mendacity. Mainstream reporters, however, are showing signs of feeling that they’re being played for fools. What’s more, the lies seem to ignore an important fact: the Republicans went first, and this week the Democrats will have the nation’s attention as they present their rebuttal. If swing voters come to believe Romney’s a liar on these issues, they’ll have no trouble believing the worst about Bain Capital and those tax returns.
Three, he doubled down on the Tea Party line, most notably in his revolting joke about global climate change. Identifying yourself as a friend of drought, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods may not prove to be a successful political strategy. Nor may rigid opposition to abortion. The country may be dissatisfied with Obama, but it is not likely to replace him with someone it perceives to be a prisoner of radical ideologues.
Four, he practically declared war on Iran and needlessly insulted Vladimir Putin. He should have recalled that there were reasons W. was nowhere to be seen in Tampa last week, and his free way with war was one of them.
The fifth risk was his attempt to avoid risk. Apparently in the belief that an honest statement of his policy plans would repel voters, he spoke of them in only the vaguest terms. He promised a tax cut. How much? Didn’t say. He said he’d repeal and replace Obamacare. With what? Didn’t say. He said nothing about the tax loopholes he’s elsewhere claimed he wants to close, about cuts to popular federal programs, or about what he will do in Afghanistan. “I’m a good guy, I’m a smart guy, I’m not Obama,” he was saying. “That’s all you need to know. Just trust me.” Will the country elect him on faith?
After the failure of his convention I wish I could say Romney’s toast, but a weak economy, a normally cowed press corps, the overflowing coffers of pro-GOP super-pacs, and Obama’s clumsiness in relating to white working-class voters mean that Romney may still win. And then there’s Obama’s biggest sin in the eyes of at least a few percentage points’ worth of the American public: being president while black.
Maybe “Trust me” will be enough.
[Editor's Note: For those who care about America's furture, it certainly shouldn't be. "Trust me" shouldn't work when your boyfriend begs you not to use a condom, and it damn well shouldn't work when the protection of our country is at stake. Mitt Romney should not be trusted.]
Michael Takiff is the author of "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him," published by Yale University Press. His writing has appeared on the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in The Nation and Salon. We are grateful that he has generously allowed us to publish his work here, as well. Find other articles by Michael at The Winning Words Project here.