It’s convention season! Wiesman was too busy blissfully ignoring the fact that 90%+ of fantasy football outcomes are determined by blind luck to even watch the speeches last night, so it seems the task of recapping and analyzing what those crazy Republicans got up to last night falls to me.
The GOP actually had an incredible number of speakers on their schedule last night (click here for the full lineup), but since I was watching on MSNBC rather than C-SPAN, I can only give commentary on the following speakers: Ohio governor John Kasich, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, First Lady hopeful Ann Romney, and the convention’s keynote speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
The predominant theme for the early speakers was clear: Republicans are better than Democrats at creating jobs and balancing budgets. John Kasich talked enthusiastically about the economic turnaround in Ohio; Scott Walker went on ceaselessly about how business owners are more confident in Wisconsin; Bob McDonnell treated us to a litany of statistics both about his own state of Virginia, but successful Republican governorships across the land; and everyone touted how they had balanced their budgets.
I don’t really want to wade too much into the substance, or lack thereof, in these speeches. You can read pretty much any other liberal blog on the internet to hear about how Kasich cheerfully ignored the fact that much of Ohio’s good economic fortune can be attributed to the auto bailout Kasich opposed, or how Wisconsin has actually been bucking the national trend and losing jobs, or any of the myriad reasons Virginia has become recession-proof thanks to federal spending. Republicans have trouble with facts and intellectual honesty, nothing new.
Instead, I’d like to focus on whether or not these early Republican governors speeches were successful or not. If we accept the premise that the primary purpose of a modern nominating convention is to serve as three days of free, prime-time advertising for the nominee, then each speech should serve at least one of two goals: promoting the nominee and bringing down his rival. Were the governors successful in that?
A common criticism coming out of the first day of the convention is that the Republicans on display seemed far more interested in self-promotion than in helping Romney. Indeed, at times the convention seemed like a series of auditions for the 2016 nomination, with Bob McDonnell in particular reminding me of how terrified I am that Republicans will be smart enough to nominate him one day. The majority of the speeches were dedicated to the speaker’s own accomplishments, with the only connection to Romney being “Imagine what we could do with an advocate in the White House!” I suppose this message is OK, but if the states are already doing well, why should I care who the President is?
As for attacks on Obama, there was nothing that made me stop and go “woah,” as I did during Paul Ryan’s speech two weeks ago. It was rote stuff that honestly could have been levied against any Democratic nominee ever. Probably the best attacks came from Nikki Haley, who used the federal government’s various lawsuits against her state as fodder for the now-standard “Obama hates success” line of attack. If you didn’t know what she was talking about, it was an effective conceit.
However, I’d like to entertain a different idea. What if this convention is not so much about promoting Mitt Romney specifically as it is about promoting Republicans and Republicanism generally, in hopes that Romney would get swept up in that wave? I can’t help but think of the polls from the primary season that found “generic Republican” would defeat Obama by a couple points. I also can’t help but remember Rick Santorum’s attacks on Romney, when he called Romney “uniquely unqualified” to prosecute the case against Barack Obama, a view I happen to wholeheartedly agree with. The strength of the modern Republican Party has never really been in its individual leaders, but in its collective discipline and unity. Mitt Romney has lots of problems as an individual candidate, but if they can turn this into an election of Obama vs. Republican rather than Obama vs. Romney, they may stand a better chance.
Viewed from that perspective, I think a case can be made that last night was a reasonably good one for the Republicans. With no exceptions that I saw, these were rousing speeches from solid performers. If I had no prior information, I would have come away from those speeches feeling good about Republicans, confident in their competence at governing, and with the impression that they had a definite – if not specifically articulated – vision for what they wanted the country to be. Rick Santorum, of course, put the capper on this with a speech made dynamic by his apparent earnestness, passion, and particular brand of conservative populism.
Ann Romney sort of threw a wrench into these works. I thought hers was a good speech, and it seemed clear that the crowd received her with great enthusiasm. But I fear that Ann may have been sent on a fool’s errand. I’m sorry, but her stories about how she and Mitt used to live in a basement apartment with an ironing board for a kitchen table fell completely flat in my opinion, and I don’t see how she can achieve any real resonance with that kind of message. At this point, I think the image of Romney the born-rich plutocrat is too firmly entrenched to be dispelled with tales of the only tight 4 years in either of their lives. Rather than incessantly trying to pretend that they are normal people, Ann and Mitt would be better served to embrace their 1%edness and project an aspirational image, as the Kennedys did. They have tried to do some of this, but every time Mitt awkwardly goes through an interview pretending that he “loves Costco” and buys dress shirts there, or does a bizarre photo op at a grocery store (skip to 2:31 to avoid the obnoxious douches that open this video), the image of him as the hyper-competent executive who’s going to sweep into Washington and Get Things Done is severely undercut. Part of the reason the Obama campaign was so successful four years ago was that Obama was not afraid to appear “above” normal people; people idealized him and he threw himself wholeheartedly into that embrace. If Romney weren’t so fixated on trying to be something that he’s not, I think things would be going much better for him.
Finally, Chris Christie. There’s a lot of commentary out there today criticizing Christie’s speech as being too aggressive, too mean, too ego-driven, and too stiff in comparison with Christie’s normal performance. I hear these criticisms, and I understand them, but I have to disagree; as I was watching the speech – and I do try to just watch speeches as they air, I don’t like to try and intellectualize them until after I’ve formed initial impressions – I found myself liking what was going on. Christie may not have been quite his usual self, but he was still energetic, emphatic, and triumphant in his delivery. As Chris Matthews said afterward, it was a barn-burner of a speech. It certainly didn’t make me think very much about Mitt Romney – an interesting analysis being frequently repeated on MSNBC finds that Christie mentioned himself 62 times and Mitt Romney only 8 times, and that it took 1800 of the speech’s 2600 words before the first of those Romney mentions – but it did make me think good things about Christie and, by extension, Republicans. It was the perfect distillation of everything that went on on the first night of the Republican National Convention. The only question, I suppose, is whether this strategy can work.