After the first debate, Mitt Romney pulled even with or slightly ahead of President Obama in the polls. The question now is whether he can close the deal. He can, but only if he realizes why he was behind for weeks and how his debate appearance has begun to solve his problem.
Romney’s pre-debate problem was easy to recognize, if painful to acknowledge. The president’s campaign, aided by numerous unforced errors from Governor Romney, had painted the wealthy businessman-turned-politician as a paladin of plutocracy. They told a nation wracked with doubt and worry that if Romney becomes president, he will make decisions to help the successful at the expense of the middle and working classes. And, before the debate, swing voters who supported Barack Obama four years ago believed the caricature.
The state of the campaign was analogous to the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. The Obama campaign had cast the race as being between the hardheaded, hardhearted banker of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, and the softheaded but kindhearted manager of the Building and Loan Association, George Bailey. Everyone knows that Mr. Potter is a competent businessman — but also that, when the chips are down, he won’t hesitate to foreclose on a mortgage. Bailey, on the other hand, will make allowances for people who need a hand up when they’re down, even if it’s not the best business decision for him.
The bottom line in this election is that Americans want to be governed by George Bailey, not Mr. Potter. They may respect Mr. Potter’s business acumen, but they want someone who will give them a break.
The Obama campaign adapted a model perfected in a recent Canadian election. Last year the Conservatives attacked Liberal-party leader Michael Ignatieff, who had returned from Harvard to enter politics a few years earlier, as an egomaniac motivated more by ambition than by love of country. The tag line in their TV ads was succinct and brutal: “He didn’t come back for you.”
The Obama campaign was running an equally savage and personal campaign against Romney. Their subliminal tag line was “He’s not running for you.”
The Romney who showed up in Denver cast doubt on that line. He was smart, but kind — principled and prudent, a man of judgment and, strikingly, character. He spoke so effortlessly and honestly about middle-class suffering that it was impossible to believe this was the same man described by the president.
If Romney wants to keep his Colorado mojo going, he needs to continue impressing on average voters that he actually cares about them. He needs to keep showing he’s really Bailey with better business sense, not Potter with a better PR agent.
He can’t rely on people to simply say why he’s a generous fellow, a solid citizen, and a loving father. That might have sufficed five months ago, when Americans were just getting to know him, but now they will need to see and hear, without filters, what motivates the man who is asking for their trust in the difficult years ahead. Mitt Romney must show Americans what’s in his heart.
There are many ways he can do this, but he can start by learning from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.
Nixon faced a similar challenge when he ran for president in 1968. He and his advisers (including a young Roger Ailes) knew he had to humanize himself. He needed to show that he could relate to average people and poke fun at himself, but also that he had the experience and knowledge to make sound decisions in America’s best interests.
The campaign devised a variety of ways for Nixon to do this. One was to place him on the Nielsen ratings’ top-ranked TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which was not just highly popular but also firmly countercultural. One of the show’s running gags was to have an actress, Judy Carne, tricked into saying “Sock it to me,” after which she would be doused with water. In an unannounced September appearance, Nixon showed up to utter the magic line. He spoke in humorous disbelief — “Sock it to me?” — and did not get doused, but he connected with millions of viewers in a self-deprecating spirit. Hubert Humphrey, his opponent, refused to make a similar appearance, believing it undignified, a decision he later thought might have cost him the election.
Nixon also appeared in a series of 60-minute live TV shows. Without a podium or notes, he took questions from the audience and answered them, showing that he was both open to the average person’s concerns and able to respond to them effectively. Finally, he appealed to the average voter’s sense of unease at the turmoil of 1968 by speaking of the “silent majority,” contrasting its quiet, law-abiding dignity with the anger of sophisticated but rancorous political demonstrators.
To be successful, such campaign tactics have to be joined to a moving message. Romney and his advisers can learn how Nixon accomplished this by reading his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican convention.
It was masterly, evoking a love of America that transcended class and race and tying it to an America that reined in government spending but promoted public virtue. Its conclusion in particular captured the essence of how the average voter understands the American Dream.
Tonight, I see the face of a child.
He lives in a great city. He is black. Or he is white. He is Mexican, Italian, Polish. None of that matters. What matters, he’s an American child.
That child in that great city is more important than any politician’s promise. He is America. He is a poet. He is a scientist, he is a great teacher, he is a proud craftsman. He is everything we ever hoped to be and everything we dare to dream to be.
He sleeps the sleep of childhood and he dreams the dreams of a child.
And yet when he awakens, he awakens to a living nightmare of poverty, neglect, and despair.
He fails in school.
He ends up on welfare.
For him the American system is one that feeds his stomach and starves his soul. It breaks his heart. And in the end it may take his life on some distant battlefield.
To millions of children in this rich land, this is their prospect of the future.
But this is only part of what I see in America.
I see another child tonight.
He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go.
It seems like an impossible dream.
But he is helped on his journey through life.
A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college.
A gentle Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war, but she understood why he had to go.
A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way.
A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat.
And in his chosen profession of politics, first there were scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success.
And tonight he stands before you — nominated for president of the United States of America.
You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.
For most of us the American Revolution has been won; the American Dream has come true.
And what I ask you to do tonight is to help me make that dream come true for millions to whom it’s an impossible dream today.
See what Nixon does here with vivid imagery rather than plain fact. He ties his dreams and accomplishments to those of others; his success is merely an example of the success every American can have. There are no “makers” or “takers.” There are only normal Americans who dream of comfort and self-reliance, or perhaps something more. Nixon “builds” his success, but he does so with the sacrifice of others — his success is a joint venture and a shared journey. He’s running to help every American achieve the American Dream, and he’s going to use government to do it.
President Obama is painting Governor Romney as someone who cannot express similar sentiments. In a sense, Obama is casting Romney as a stereotypical aristocrat — someone who believes, to borrow Jefferson’s terms of disapproval, that “the mass of mankind has . . . been born with saddles on their backs,” while “a favored few [are] booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.” Rejecting that idea is the heart of the American Dream.
Americans are ready to vote for Mitt Romney. But they need to be convinced that he seeks to lead them; they need to know that his presidency will be something they are part of.
My advice to Mitt Romney consists of three short sentences.
Win your race. Save your land. Open your heart.
– Mr. Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.