Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had a hard act to follow. Former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the roof on with an idealistic yet steely speech in defense of American leadership and, surprisingly, in significant part about education:
You might not be able to control your circumstances but you could control your response to your circumstances. And your greatest ally in doing so was a quality education.
Let me ask you, though, today, when I can look at your zip code and can tell whether you are going to get a good education – can I really say that it doesn’t matter where you came from – it matters where you are going. The crisis in K-12 education is a grave threat to who we are.
My mom was a teacher – I have the greatest respect for the profession – we need great teachers – not poor or mediocre ones. We need to have high standards for our students – self-esteem comes from achievement not from lax standards and false praise. And we need to give parents greater choice – particularly poor parents whose kids – most often minorities are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights struggle of our day.
If we do anything less, we will condemn generations to joblessness, hopelessness and dependence on the government dole. To do anything less is to endanger our global economic competitiveness. To do anything less is to tear apart the fabric of who we are and cement a turn toward grievance and entitlement.
No one is better at calling for individual responsibility. (“Ours has never been a narrative of grievance and entitlement...Ours has been a belief in opportunity and a constant battle — long and hard — to extend the benefits of the American dream to all — without regard to circumstances of birth.”) Hers was the highlight of the night, delivering ovation after ovation...until Paul Ryan.
His arrival lit up the crowd. In some respects he played the traditional role of VP, attacking the other side:
I have never seen opponents so silent about their record, and so desperate to keep their power. They’ve run out of ideas. Their moment came and went. Fear and division are all they’ve got left. With all their attack ads, the president is just throwing away money – and he’s pretty experienced at that.
But quickly he turned to introducing himself and his family, making his own life story into a tender recollection: “My Dad, a small-town lawyer, was also named Paul. Until we lost him when I was 16, he was a gentle presence in my life. I like to think he’d be proud of me and my sister and brothers, because I’m sure proud of him and of where I come from, Janesville, Wisconsin.”
And he used that Wisconsin connection to make a strong play for the swing state: “My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.”)
For the most part, his tone was “more in sadness than in anger” with great expression of empathy for fellow citizens. “Twenty-three million people, unemployed or underemployed. Nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty. Millions of young Americans have graduated from college during the Obama presidency, ready to use their gifts and get moving in life. Half of them can’t find the work they studied for, or any work at all.”
He then marched through the Obama failures — the stimulus, Solyndra and Obamacare. He revved up the crowd (after a brief Code Pink duo was escorted from the hall) with this swipe: “The president has declared that the debate over government-controlled health care is over. That will come as news to the millions of Americans who will elect Mitt Romney so we can repeal Obamacare.” To a hushed room he recounted, ”You see, even with all the hidden taxes to pay for the health care takeover, even with new taxes on nearly a million small businesses, the planners in Washington still didn’t have enough money. They needed more. They needed hundreds of billions more. So, they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it.” Yes, the RNC delegates rose to their feet in defense of...Medicare. In welcoming the fight he got the crowd back on its feet: “Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program, and raiding it. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate.”
He made the president out to be a slacker and a snake oil salesman.
It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new. Now all that’s left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind. . . . He said, well, ‘I haven’t communicated enough.’ He said his job is to “tell a story to the American people” – as if that’s the whole problem here? He needs to talk more, and we need to be better listeners? Ladies and gentlemen, these past four years we have suffered no shortage of words in the White House. What’s missing is leadership in the White House.
That got another loud ovation.
He then made his way to what will follow Obama. He said simply, “We need to stop spending money we don’t have.” After his sweet recollection of his mother’s efforts to start her own business and yet another “Yes, you did build that” ovation, he promised: “We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years. In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, or less. That is enough. The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.”And in a Reagan-esque declaration of national security, he told the crowd, “ Wherever men and women rise up for their own freedom, they will know that the American president is on their side. Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known.”) In his best line of the night he cracked: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
His speech, oddly for a conservative known for wonkish attention to detail, chose to go for the big, uplifting phrases: “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” In another roar-inducing turn of phrase he declared: “When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.”
And he wound up with a humanizing, teasing comparison too the top of the ticket. (“There are the songs on his iPod, which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators. He actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies. I said, I hope it’s not a deal-breaker Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin.”) It worked to make Romney a little old-fashioned and to simultaneously appeal to younger voters.
And he ventured into Romney’s faith in a way others including Romney have avoided. “Mitt and I also go to different churches. But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example. And I’ve been watching that example. The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best. Not only a fine businessman, he’s a fine man, worthy of leading this optimistic and good-hearted country.” His pro-life statement was delivered with sweetness : “We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life. We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” He ended with what he called a pledge: “We will not duck the tough issues, we will lead. We will not spend four years blaming others, we will take responsibility. We will not try to replace our founding principles, we will reapply our founding principles.The work ahead will be hard. These times demand the best of us – all of us, but we can do this. Together, we can do this.We can get this country working again. We can get this economy growing again. We can make the safety net safe again. We can do this.
The irony is that the wonk has turned out to be a skilled politician and a powerful orator. He did not disappoint.