A single phrase book-ended former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s announcement speech for the 2012 presidential race: “Believe in America.”
Those three words, which Romney uttered in the opening moments of his address in Stratham, New Hampshire Thursday and which he repeated in its closing sentences, typified the broader message of Romney’s speech — a message that although times are hard now, brighter days are ahead.
In adopting such a message, Romney was — whether intentionally or not — channeling the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the ur-president for Republican primary voters.
The similarities between Romney’s announcement speech and Reagan’s 1980 announcement speech are everywhere.
* On American exceptionalism: Romney — “I refuse to believe America is just another place on the flag”; Reagan — “I don’t agree that our nation must resign itself to inevitable decline, yielding its proud position to other hands.”
* On states’ rights: Romney — “This president’s answer to every problem is to take power from you”; Reagan — “The federal government has taken on functions it was never intended to perform and which it does not perform well.”
* On the economy: Romney — “With the economy in crisis, [Obama’s] answer is to borrow money we can’t afford and throw it at Washington bureaucrats and politicians”; Reagan — “The people have not created this disaster in our economy; the federal government has. It has overspent, overestimated, and over-regulated.”
* On the future: Romney — “The principles that made us a great nation and leader of the world have not lost their meaning...I believe in America”; Reagan — “I believe that you and I together can keep this rendezvous with destiny.”
There are more rhetorical similarities between the two speeches but the examples cited above prove the point that Romney was heavily channeling Reagan in his speech. And, in the context of a Republican primary, it’s a sound strategy.
Republican voters see President Obama through a similar lens that they regarded former president Jimmy Carter back in 1980 — as a failed experiment in a new leadership style.
“We didn’t know what sort of president he would make,” said Romney of Obama. “Now in the third year of his four-year term, we have more than promises and slogans to go by. Barack Obama has failed America.”
And, GOP voters are clamoring for someone to return the country back to what they believe to be its roots — a leader who sees an optimistic future ahead despite the challenges.
Reagan epitomized that optimism, able to embrace it without seeming either cavalier or cheesy. Romney spent much of the 2008 campaign talking about his hopeful vision for the country but saw Republican voters opt instead for a more proven messenger in Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Channeling Reagan rhetorically is a smart move by Romney as it seeks to draw a direct line from the rebirth of the Republican party under the Reagan to what Romney hopes to do with his campaign in 2012 and beyond.
It also sets a high bar for the at-times charisma challenged candidate. Reagan wasn’t known as the “Great Communicator” for nothing and Romney will need to step up his game to match the Gipper on the trail.