Mitt Romney’s speech last night, like every convention address by a presidential candidate, implies a theory of the race. Romney’s assumption is that conservatives are going to support him because he has a broadly conservative program and is running against a thoroughgoing liberal. To win a majority he must also appeal to a non-ideological segment of the population that supported Barack Obama in 2008 and is now disappointed in his performance but has reservations about Romney and his party.
So he must critique the president — converting disappointment to rejection — but carefully: in a way that treats these voters’ past support for him as honorable. Romney did a fine job of making that case, as Paul Ryan did the night before. He drew an effective contrast between the president’s messianic words and a record of lost jobs and declining national confidence.
He must assure these voters that he is an acceptable alternative to the incumbent: and thus Romney offered them many reassurances. To those who wonder what to make of the talk of a “war on women,” he explained how pleased he was by the success of female Republican governors. Against those who say he is out of touch, he promised that he would help average families — and cut middle-class taxes. And both his remarks about his family and a line of affecting speakers who testified to his many heretofore unsung acts of charity destroyed, for any fair-minded viewer, any impression that he is personally cold or callous.
Both the offensive and defensive segments of his speech — as of this convention as a whole — strike us as a success. Romney’s remarks about his own agenda were sketchier but promising, and conservative. In the past Romney has described conservatism as a three-legged stool resting on free markets, moral truth, and national strength. He mentioned all three elements tonight: promising to protect the sanctity of life, to guard against unwise cuts to the defense budget, and above all to remove governmental impediments to economic growth. The economic policies he suggested — energy development, school choice, new trade agreements, spending restraint, reductions in taxes on business, regulatory simplification, and the replacement of Obamacare — impress us as sensible if incomplete. (We also need a monetary policy, for example, that reduces uncertainty rather than adds to it.)
We would not be surprised if the president delivers a finer literary production in his speech next week. What he cannot talk away is a high unemployment rate, a legislative record most Americans dislike, and a philosophy they do not share. Last night may be remembered as when the Obama tide began to recede.