Advancing a Free Society

Romney's Big Speech: A Viewing Guide

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I won’t bore you with yet another discussion about the pundit-imposed expectations surrounding Mitt Romney’s convention acceptance speech.

Depending on the opinionator’s politics and perspective, the no-longer-presumptive Republican nominee has to: (a) make up for missing empathy; (b) offer a vision as to where he’ll take America; (c) play to the crowd and reinforce conservative, libertarian and Tea Party sensibilities; (d) play to the national viewing audience and de-fang conservative, libertarian and Tea Party sensibilities; (e) make an undecided electorate regret having voted for Barack Obama; (f) bring peace to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Apple and Samsung, and Red Sox Nation.

All in less than an hour’s time.

As Jerry Seinfeld liked to say: “good luck with all that”.

This much I can assure you: Romney will give a terrific speech. The circumstances dictate as much. His speech will be polished and well rehearsed, and there’s the adrenaline rush provided by a wildly enthusiastic crowd – a rhetorical tailwind, if you would.

Years go, I asked George McGovern about his acceptance speech in Miami in July 1972, at the end of a tumultuous convention. Said he: “I gave the speech on my life. Too bad it happened at 3 a.m.” Romney’s speech won’t get lost in the dead of night, nor will he stumble in the dark on the stage.

Think, for a moment, of any party nominee in recent years who gave a bad acceptance speech. That includes Bob Dole, hardly a gifted orator (Dole, a creature of Congress, would drift off into “legi-speak”, tossing around Capitol Hill nouns like “mark-up” and “cloture”). But at the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, Dole rose to the occasion (the other Dole speech that stands out – when he broke down at Richard Nixon’s funeral).

Look for Romney to do the same on Thursday, as should President Obama a week later at his party’s get-together in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, if you want to look inside the speech, see if the following applies to Romney’s acceptance speech:

1) Finger on the Pulse. A candidate wins a party’s nomination by understanding his field of rivals (for Romney, correctly assuming economics would outlast social issues). But to win in November, the candidate has to demonstrate a finger on the electorate’s pulse. Such was the key Ronald Reagan unseating Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton doing the same to George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Here’s Clinton, in his acceptance speechWe meet at a special moment in history, you and I. The Cold War is over. Soviet communism has collapsed and our values – freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise- they have triumphed all around the world. And yet, just as we have won the Cold War abroad, we are losing the battles for economic opportunity and social justice here at home. Now that we have changed the world, it’s time to change America.”

Now, here’s Reagan in his acceptance speechThe major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership – in the White House and in Congress – for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.”

Litmus Test #1 for Romney: defining the times in which we live.

2) Defining Himself.  In the same acceptance speech, Clinton credited three people with shaping his life – his mother, who struggled to raise him and later battled breast cancer; his grandfather, who ran an inclusive country store; and his wife, for championing children’s issues.

Reagan, on the other hand, didn’t tug at heartstring – the only individuals mentioned in his acceptance remarks are historical figures – Lincoln, FDR, Thomas Paine, the Plymouth colonists. There was no autographical detour – his journey to California, finding happiness with Nancy, or the childhood trauma of dragging an alcoholic father out of the snow and into the family home. Different man, different speech, different practice of candidates willing to go psyche-spelunking.

How far Romney should dip into the well of pathos has been much discussed (ad nauseum) in recent days. Does he invoke the car crash in France that almost killed him, his wife’s health struggles, or the tragedy of the Romney’s stillborn son?

Litmus Test #2: Let’s call it the People standard: sharing one’s up’s and downs (what Ann Romney tried to do on Tuesday night).

3) Toughness.  Someone who’s been absent in body and spirit at this year’s GOP convention – the elder George Bush. In 1998, Bush approached his acceptance speech with a challenge similar to Romney’s: dispelling a media-bred (and unjustified) “wimp” label (you’ll notice the similarity between Newsweek’s 2012 and 1987 covers).

How did Bush dispel the slur? In his acceptance speech, the then-Vice President famously drew the line on new taxes, embraced the concept of “kinder, gentler” and distanced himself from the administration he intended to succeed. Overall, it worked.

Litmus Test #3: Romney demonstrating he’s his own man.

One final thought: once Thursday night and the GOP convention dismantles the big tent, we’ll enter a 72-hour phase in the campaign, until the Democratic show in Charlotte: talk of a bounce.

There may not be much of one, for either candidate, in this election. Reasons why: the pool of undecided voters is shallower than normal (perhaps as little as 3%-5%); both national conventions are carefully choreographed affairs offering little in the way of a dramatic departure.

Which means the presidential debates may take on added weight – and, yes, more raising and lowering of the expectations bar.