Thursday night was anticlimax. It reminded me of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City. After Gerald Ford had given his acceptance speech, he invited Ronald Reagan down to give a few remarks, an unprecedented gesture to a rival, which Ford must have regretted immediately. The Gipper essentially delivered a condensed version of what would have been his acceptance speech. Reagan’s challenge to the incumbent Ford had come very close to succeeding, so he had been prepared. The convention hung on Reagan’s every word, and very few delegates could have left the hall without thinking they had nominated the wrong man.
Tampa was different, of course, because Ryan was younger and had not entered the presidential primaries. He was not a rival. Nonetheless, the contrasts between Romney tonight and Ryan last night were manifest. Ryan spoke from strength, Romney from weakness, in several senses. Romney’s speech seemed to have been written by consultants who regarded two goals as uppermost: Mollify women voters, and justify why a businessman should be president. In pursuit of the former he “humanized” himself by invoking his parents, his undeniable love for his wife and kids and grandkids, and his appointment of women to high positions at Bain Capital and in the Massachusetts governor’s office. His advisers must be very worried about the female vote. He didn’t exclaim “I love you women!” but he did everything short of that to poach votes from Obama among that demographic. This pandering may have been necessary, but it did not make him look more presidential. On the second point, he went as far as he could to conflate the presidency with a kind of super-corporate CEO, who would provide “jobs,” “lots of jobs” for the American people. Our circumstances demand a strong appeal for jobs, but he seemed to be saying that Obama’s problem is not so much that he’s a liberal statist as that he has never had to meet a payroll in the private sector. What about Warren Buffett then? Or George Soros? Plenty of billionaires, worth much more than Mr. Romney, find Obama’s programs eminently practical and reasonable. The problem is with their liberalism, not their business acumen.
Romney shunned that sort of direct political confrontation, probably because he’s not naturally very political and because his advisers aren’t either, understanding politics only as small ball. He assured us that it was all right to be disappointed in Obama’s performance. Why shouldn’t we be indignant about it? Perhaps he left that line of appeal to Ryan, who gave plenty of reasons why Obama’s administration was dangerous to liberty and self-government, as well as prosperity. In fairness, Romney pointed out that Americans deserved better policies, which would have provided the basis for indignation had he pursued the argument. But he didn’t, at least not with gusto. Politics means, in the elementary sense, friends and enemies, but Romney is not comfortable with the enemies part. As a result, he came across tonight too often like a motivational speaker at a business seminar who is working a difficult and rather distracted audience. (The “Believe!” signs in the audience were depressing reminders of lack of belief.) He left too much not only of the political heavy-lifting (a traditional VP role) to Ryan, but also too much of the statesmanlike role of educating the voters. The presidential nominee said nothing about the Supreme Court (one of the biggest prizes at stake in 2012), nothing about Obama’s crony capitalism and corruption, and very little about Medicare and (or should I say versus) Obamacare, a big theme of Ryan’s remarks. Then there was the five-step plan to “create 12 million new jobs.” Here Romney pledged to “cut the deficit” but said almost nothing about cutting government. And he promised to repeal and replace Obamacare in order to “rein in the skyrocketing cost of health care.” That’s good, but what about the program’s threat to liberty, equality, democracy, and quality health care? He didn’t say much about Romneycare and his governorship of Massachusetts, either. A political realignment that would move the country rightward for a generation or two seemed, to say the least, to be the last thing on his mind. He foresees, and may guarantee, a squeaker.
To his credit, Ryan was not bashful about pressing any of the sharp political arguments. Whereas Romney’s speech seemed born of the fear of losing the election, Ryan’s seemed inspired by confidence in the conservative case and its noble future, or rather its possible noble future. He sees himself, of course, as a key to that future. But in 2012, or in 2016 or 2020? That remains to be seen.