Mitt Romney's Etch-a-Sketch Speech Lands with a Thud

Election '16

Aside from a bizarre performance by Clint Eastwood that will likely grab a good deal of the coverage of Mitt Romney's big evening – Eastwood had a rambling discourse with an empty chair that was supposed to house an imaginary Barack Obama  – the final night of the GOP convention was carefully calculated to appeal to demographics with which the Republican Party struggles to engage. There was lots of talk about the importance of education – Romney faces a significant gender gap – the podium featured more people of color than were present in the audience, and there were plenty of references to the speakers' immigrant backgrounds. With Obama holding a slim 1-point lead in Florida, we were also treated to three references to the horrors of Castro's Cuba and of course a lot of love for Israel. The idea wasn't to try to win the Latino, Jewish or women's vote, but simply to narrow the gaps to a sufficient degree that Romney can ride his advantage with white voters to victory in November.

Romney's task for the “speech of his political life” was simple, but not easy: to make himself seem human, accessible, one of us. To that end, he was somewhat successful, at least if one considers how low the bar was set. Romney led us through some relatively boilerplate uplifting imagery. He talked about his family and his faith – and his immigrant past – and indulged in the kind of soaring rhetoric about America's exceptional gifts that one might expect to find in any politician's speech.

But he lacked focus. The address was oddly without structure, and didn't appear to have a driving theme. He only seemed to focus when he was going after Obama. For the most part he did this with a whistful tone – the subtext was, 'we wish the president had succeeded but he hasn't.' “Today,” he said, “four years from the excitement of the last election, for the first time, the majority of Americans now doubt that our children will have a better future. It is not what we were promised.”

The biographical film of the Romney family was well produced, and even moving at times, but in an epic screw-up of timing, it was played before the networks cut into the event for prime time. Most Americans missed it.

As far as policy, or presenting a concrete vision for the future of the country, the speech was pretty thin soup. He said that he would begin his presidency with a “jobs tour,” and promised to create 12 million of them with a 5-point plan that sounded like every conservative politician's talking points for the past 30 years: cut spending, new trade deal, less regulation and education. There was no additional meat on those bones, and that was the closest he came to offering specifics.

As has been typical of the campaign, Romney offered some foreign policy clichés about achieving peace through strength. “We will honor America's democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world,” he said after accusing Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.” “This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again.”

Romney promised to be a uniter. “That united America,” he said, “can unleash an economy that will put Americans back to work, that will once again lead the world with innovation and productivity, and that will restore every father and mother's confidence that their children's future is brighter even than the past...That united America will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need.” It was, he said, the America we “want for our children.”

If that sounds like standard-issue political pabulum, it was, and that – along with the rushed delivery, which may be a result of Clint Eastwood going long -- may account for the fact that Mitt Romney's address was one of the least enthusiastically received acceptance speeches in recent history. Romney certainly didn't seize the narrative or change the game or whatever trite go-to the pundits favor.

But ultimately, that may not matter in the post-Citizens United era. With billions of supposedly “independent dollars” in mostly negative advertising hitting the airwaves, these televised marketing excercises may no longer be relevant to our electoral process.

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