For months, Mitt Romney’s general-election plan was to pick off voters who rather liked Barack Obama but considered him in over his head. As of the convention, that strategy had come up short. Whatever people’s ambivalence toward Obama, they found him so much more likable it was hard to see Romney winning. That put enormous pressure on Romney’s convention speech to change perceptions of him personally. But, after watching him deliver it, I don’t get the sense he succeeded.
I counted four feints in the direction of image-softening. The first was to show empathy for the economically marginal. (“[W]hen you lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour with benefits, you took two jobs at 9 bucks an hour and fewer benefits.”) The second was to fill in family back-story. (“When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way.”) The third was to describe the influence of his church on his character. (“We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregants from all walks of life and many who were new to America.”) And the fourth was about Bain Capital’s role in the economy. (“Some of the companies we helped start are names you know. An office supply company called Staples … The Sports Authority … an early childhood learning center called Bright Horizons.”)
All of these riffs were nicely delivered—in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better Romney delivery this campaign. But they all suffered from the same basic flaw: Though they succeeded in showing a bit of humanity, they never connected that humanity to what he might do as president. Romney never explained how he would help the person working two jobs at 9 bucks an hour. He never so much as hinted at the steps he would take to welcome those “new to America.” He never walked us through how his experience building Staples and The Sports Authority would translate into jobs for the rest of us. The closest he came to an explicit link between experience and program was to suggest he would appoint women to high office thanks to his parents’ precocious feminism. But that was still miles away from an actual agenda. As a whole, the speech was all windup and no punch-line.
Contrast this with the last presidential challenger who came into his convention needing a big likeability boost, and you see the missed opportunity. In 1992, Bill Clinton was still struggling to shed his image as a skirt-chasing, draft-dodging, pot-dabbler on the eve of his big night. When he took to the podium in New York, he didn’t riff aimlessly on his personal story. He mined it with a purpose. He didn’t just recall the way his widowed mother sent him to live with his grandparents while she studied nursing. He used it as a prelude to tout job-training and education for the economically hard-up. He didn’t just remark on the pain of watching his mother battle breast cancer. He cited it as his rationale for universal health care.
The numbers suggest Romney needed a bit of that Clinton-esque predicate. After all, it’s not just that Americans are personally fonder of Obama by some 20-odd points. It’s that they think he cares about them more than Romney, and by a similar margin. The personal color Romney showed them tonight may have helped on the first question. But I have a hard time seeing how it helped much on the second.
Maybe we in the press corps owe Romney an apology. The line on him has always been that he’s deeply uncomfortable spilling personal details—that if he could just open up, he’d be most of the way toward the presidency. What we learned tonight is that the personal story was insufficient. In retrospect, the reason Romney always seemed opaque wasn’t the absence of personal color, though it was definitely lacking. It was the lack of policy innovation that might distinguish him from the most generic Republican. Policy details without personal narrative can be dry but still revealing. Personal narrative without policy detail is just a bunch of words.
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