As I have said repeatedly, I don’t watch highly scripted events like party political conventions. But I do follow media reports on them. Political conventions are not aimed at informing the voters directly, they are aimed at influencing the media narrative in the days to come.
The party in the opposition usually has the easier task. The conventions of the party in opposition tend to be more interesting because they have new faces and change is always attractive, while the incumbent party running for re-election tends to be kind of familiar and blah. Critiques of the existing state of affairs are always easier to make and more appealing to the media than defenses of them, just like reviews that savage a performance are usually more fun to write and read than the ones that praise them. And there is plenty to criticize about the performance of the Obama administration in its first term.
When it comes to convention speeches, while the speeches of the lower-tier can help set the atmosphere, it is those of the top two people on each ticket that are crucial but the bar they have to meet is pretty low. All you have to do is deliver a coherent speech that hits the talking points, be fairly fluent and occasionally passionate, have one or two memorable ‘zingers’, and avoid any verbal missteps. If you do that, then you are guaranteed to be a success and reporters are going to use admiring clichés like “He hit it out of the ballpark.” “It was a home run.” “He did what he had to do.” “He hit all the right notes.” And so on. That is the standard response to the main speeches.
On that score the RNC failed. What Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had to do was to put the Democrats on the defensive, but that did not happen because both made unforced errors. Ryan’s foolish mention of a hometown plant that closed during the Bush term while he implied that it was an Obama failure was a fumble because it was so unnecessary. It violated the prime condition of a successful speech: don’t give your opponents an opportunity to put you on the defensive and have to explain yourself away. Surely there must have been other moving anecdotes that he could have used to make his point? It looked like in his desire to make the anecdote personal by finding one in his home town, he stretched too far and fell over the edge. He was already flirting close to the edge of gaining a reputation as a liar. Why add to that fire?
The Romney speech, taken by itself, would have met the standard for fulsome media praise. The unforced error there was, of course, the Eastwood appearance. By all rights, it means nothing that Eastwood trampled all over the party’s talking points, supporting some and undermining others. After all, why should anyone care what Eastwood thinks about politics? But the media loves this kind of thing, because it is easy to talk about and way more entertaining that policy wonkery. That bizarre performance set Romney so far back that he was starting from his own end zone and needed to throw a Hail Mary to overcome that deficit, and he just does not have the arm for it. As a result, the best he could do was gain some yardage. (I am going to use my entire repertoire of sports metaphors even if it kills me.) It is no surprise that the media commentators, even amongst his ardent supporters, could only say was that it was a ‘solid’ performance, which is the equivalent of the Miss Congeniality prize in a beauty contest.
Stephen Colbert gave a good review of the Romney speech.
(This clip appeared on August 31, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)
Although the opposition party has the advantage of freshness and hope for change, the catch is that they have their convention first and the incumbents get the last word. Their goal had to be to put the Democrats on to the back foot (to switch to a cricket metaphor) by relentlessly focusing on their failures, so that the Democratic convention would have to try and counter the negative image. But instead, they allowed them to escape relatively unscathed by focusing on the trivial and on verbal trickery. The Republicans failed to articulate a positive vision of themselves or a strongly negative view of the Democrats and thus left themselves open to a massive retaliatory broadside this week.
The shallowness of the attacks on the Obama record will make it easy for the Democratic convention to switch the argument from their own record to that of Romney and Ryan. In short, they can act as if Romney and Ryan are the incumbents with a record to defend. Running against an incumbent is usually easier. You only have to say what you are against, rather than what you are for and the Romney-Ryan ticket has several disadvantages: Romney’s personal privileged history, his record as governor and at Bain, and Ryan’s record in Congress, all of which will now become the focus.
I expect the Democrats to hammer away relentless at two major themes: (1) Romney-Ryan are heartless plutocrats who will happily fire you from your job, take away your health care coverage, privatize social security, voucherize Medicare, are anti-woman, all the while implementing tax policies that benefit themselves and their wealthy friends while hurting everyone else; and (2) they are liars who can’t be believed when they deny all those things.
I don’t expect to hear much on minority, immigrant, and gay issues because the Democrats likely feel that they have locked up that vote because of the startling insensitivity of the Republicans party towards those groups, and so can make just passing references to them.