There was tremendous political talent on display at the Republican National Convention. Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Susanna Martinez, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, Jeb Bush, Condi Rice, and a host of other GOP prospects proved more than capable of holding the stage.
But the surprise of the convention, for me at least, was how poorly scripted it was. Night to night, the speeches proved themeless. Key speakers barely mentioned the Republican nominee, and, perhaps worse, gave speeches that were thematically contradictory to his campaign and record.
It looked small to devote the first day of the convention to an out-of-context soundbite from President Obama. Yes, “you didn’t build that” fires up Republicans. But Republicans are already fired up. There were any number of themes — for instance, 8 percent unemployment — that would have made the Republican Party look bigger and Obama look smaller. Imagine if the Democratic National Convention spent a day attacking Mitt Romney for saying “I like to fire people.” It would be ridiculous.
It was comical to hear Christie’s speech follow Ann Romney’s address. Mere minutes after Romney told the audience, “tonight I want to talk to you about love,” Christie was telling them, “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”
But the amusing dissonance presaged Christie bragging about his conservative accomplishments in New Jersey, his blithe indifference to polls, and his willingness to deliver tough truths — all in a speech that was meant to endorse Romney. It felt like Romney was being taunted with a vision of the candidate the Republican Party wished he was.
Like Christie, Paul Ryan delivered a blistering address. But he spent the next day being hammered in the media for its many, many untruths. What’s worse, the untruths were unnecessary. Almost every one of them could have been rephrased as an equally devastating, and reasonably accurate, attack. Obama, for instance, has released a debt plan. So rather than say he hasn’t, why not just say “the president has never proposed a path to a balanced budget” or “even the president’s own party rejected his budget when it appeared before Congress.”
And then, of course, there was the dada spectacle of Clint Eastwood haranguing an empty chair that was supporting an invisible President Obama. Of all the failures of planning, this was surely the most severe. They took one of the three hours the networks were showing live and handed a large chunk of it to an elderly actor without even asking to read his speech beforehand. It was as if whoever was vetting convention speeches also didn’t know who Thursday’s “mystery speaker” was. This was time that could have been used for the excellently produced biographical video that came on shortly before Eastwood, or for a personal testimonial from one of Romney’s admiring friends or business partners.
As always, it’s not clear to me whether marginal differences in the quality of political pomp and pageantry matter in elections. But the looseness of the Republican convention was, to me, a surprise, as Romney has run an extremely tight and disciplined campaign operation.