Undisciplined is an adjective not normally associated with Republican conventions. But the event just concluded in Tampa was surprising for the muddled messages and missed opportunities — and I’m not just talking about Clint Eastwood’s bizarre performance.
The first muddled message was the disconnect between the promise of the lead-up speakers, most notably keynoter Chris Christie and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, to be truth-tellers about hard choices, and the absence of any such detail in Mitt Romney’s light-on-substance acceptance speech. Romney’s speech was fine, but why tee up that expectation if you’re not prepared to deliver?
The theory of the Ryan pick had seemed to be that Romney wanted to present himself, and his party, as being willing to take on the tough issues that Barack Obama has ducked: “They’re the can-kickers, we’re the grown-ups.” That’s a potentially strong argument but not one that Romney has done much with or chose to make Thursday night.
Also, if you’re going the truth-telling route, why muck it up with the questionable insinuations (Obama’s responsibility for the shuttered auto plant in Janesville) and disingenuous omissions (Ryan’s service on the Simpson-Bowles commission whose “urgent” recommendations he faulted Obama for ignoring) that dotted Ryan’s speech. It would have been easy enough to leave those out and still deliver the same message.
Speaking of which: The second muddled message was the divergence between Ryan’s and Romney’s depictions of Obama. Ryan portrayed Obama as sinister central planner, leading Americans on “a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”
Romney presented a kinder, gentler critique of the president as a nice guy who “hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to.” Instead, Romney said, Obama lacked the necessary business background (an odd jab given the Ryan pick) and failed to deliver the hope and change for which many Americans had understandably voted.
The biggest problem with the convention, though, was the failure to use the time to greatest advantage. The single most powerful moment came when several of Romney’s fellow parishioners — a couple who had lost their young son to cancer, and a woman whose daughter was born several months prematurely — described Romney’s extensive efforts on their behalf. Romney with legal pad at the hospital of a dying teen, helping him prepare a last will and testament to dole out his prized possessions. Romney stroking the tiny newborn in her tangle of wires, then turning up at the family’s door with a Thanksgiving feast.
This made me like Mitt Romney. It made me want him for a neighbor. It made me weepy — and it would have made you weepy, too, if you happened to see it. But you probably didn’t, because, inexplicably, it wasn’t part of the allotted prime-time hour. Even if Clint Eastwood hadn’t eaten up 10 minutes talking to an empty chair, nothing he could have done — not the most rousing, most conventional endorsement speech — could have surpassed these testimonials. How convention planners failed to ensure the maximum possible audience for them is beyond me.