Is Romney responding with sufficient toughness to Obama’s attacks? This seems to be the main topic of the day. But I’m more concerned with the question of why — according to Newsweek — the Romney campaign won’t be asking Sarah Palin to speak at the Republican convention. Come to that, why won’t the Romney campaign be asking Senator Santorum to speak at the convention?
Maybe they will ask both in the end. But if the campaign were thinking seriously about the GOP’s image, it would be begging both to turn up and deliver their liveliest vaudeville acts.
The problem facing the Republicans is not that they aren’t tough enough, but that they aren’t funny and odd and engaging and human enough. Look at the names thrown around for veep — Rob Portman, Tim Pawlenty, Bob McDonnell, earlier Mitch Daniels. All solid citizens, competent, workmanlike, equipped with impressive CVs, able to start on Day One, etc., etc. Each of them as an individual has a good life story to tell. Collectively, though, isn’t there something a little, well, similar about them? And when you add in the top of the ticket, Mitt Romney himself, they might be a final list of candidates for the presidency of the Acme Widget Corporation.
Richard Nixon used to say that Democrats couldn’t win with a cold fish at the head of the ticket — he was thinking of Senator Gary Hart, who sort of disproved this characterization quite quickly — but that the voters would usually tolerate a Republican candidate who was a cold fish. Indeed, they more or less expected Republicans to be cold fish; the GOP is the green-eyeshades party, after all. But Nixon was indulging in a mildly sarcastic put-down; he wasn’t offering a recipe for the ideal candidate. The Romney campaign this round, in its anxiety to play it safe, looks as if it’s advertising for the most presentable cold fish on the slab. This may produce a good vice-presidential candidate, but it won’t begin to dislodge the damaging media caricature of Republicans as Suits on stilts. Indeed, it will confirm the caricature.
What makes all this doubly frustrating is that this corporate parade doesn’t happen to be at all representative of the GOP. As someone who has reported politics across the U.S., I know from experience that the GOP is packed full of amusing, witty, and eccentric people with genuinely independent minds (and occasionally screwy panaceas). That’s why the early Republican debates last year were far more entertaining than the later ones. In addition to the eventual winner, they had Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all — and as a result they were impressive, entertaining, and good-natured, and had a lollipop of policy for almost everyone. Likewise, the nominations of potential veep candidates that are still rising up from the multitudes on the Corner testify to the variety (I won’t say diversity) of personalities on the right: Mighty Chris Christie, Singing Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio (the Latin Heartthrob), Bobby Jindal (Ask the Professor), and Nikki Haley (the Vanishing Lady). Okay, maybe Romney has made his choice already — say it’s Portman — but it would do no harm to leak these other names as being “under consideration” in order to boost them and to remind the voters that Republicans aren’t all Suits.
If the big surprise of the convention is to be a Suit, however, then we definitely need some very strong supporting acts. Sarah Palin has to be one. Not only is she a great performer, a diva, a star, but the hall would fill — as would the Barcaloungers nationwide — from sheer excited curiosity at what she might say. The Romney campaign is said to fear that she would go “off message” — but that would be the point. America would watch open-mouthed to see if she went off message, and even off the tightrope. Again and again she would seem about to do so, then at the last moment she would veer brilliantly back into party orthodoxy, and the audience would sigh with relief and/or disappointment. She would probably end up by endorsing Romney and calling on the Tea Party to support him. Whatever she said, however, she would make the GOP convention an exciting place — indeed, the only place to be. When was that last the case? It’s achievement enough.
Rick Santorum is a more conventional figure, and he will not arouse the same kind of excitement. But he has a very necessary task to perform. He can claim some appeal to a national constituency that is on the verge of becoming solidly Republican but that is not personally warm to Romney — namely, the white working class.
And if the Republican high command can’t see that Mike Huckabee is the Will Rogers of the GOP and give him a prime-time slot for a folksy appeal to social conservatives, maybe accompanying himself on the guitar, they shouldn’t be running even such a suburban version of show business as a political convention.
Whenever President Eisenhower was approached by someone who had ideas for running the Republican convention, he always said: “Clear it with Bob Montgomery.” This was the distinguished Hollywood actor, Robert Montgomery, who was a staunch Republican (like many of the early Hollywood aristocracy) and whom Eisenhower asked to ensure that the GOP convention got the party’s message across effectively.
My proposal is that the Romney campaign ask the only living Hollywood Republican to do the same. There are now quite a few Hollywood conservatives, but there is only one Hollywood Republican — namely, Rob Long of this parish. Unfortunately, however, Rob is at present fully engaged in producing the new hit show Sullivan and Son (Thursdays on TBS), and so he probably won’t have the time to help Romney save the GOP convention — or, by extension, the United States.
But I suppose that’s show biz.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.