In the Arena

The Romney Speech

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2012.

I think Mitt Romney just gave a very smart speech. It wasn’t a particularly stirring one, and it was certainly as insubstantial as any I’ve ever heard. It was rhetorical comfort food, a Father Knows Best speech. And perhaps the perfect antidote to the rhetorical excesses of all sorts we’ve experienced over the past four years–not just the President’s, but those of Romney’s own party. The key sentence, I believe, was this one:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.

We’ll spend the next 68 days arguing about whether the solutions that Romney proposes will actually fulfill his promise. I don’t think he’s offered very much of merit so far. But for the moment, he has staked his claim to decency in a country tired of phoniness and rancor. That was the most important thing about the speech tonight.

(MORE: Romney Makes His Convention Case Against Obama)

Of course, it was disingenuous. The pandering to women–a vote he needs–was relentless and, at times, excruciating. He retailed some of the infamous Republican canards, such as the myth of an Obama “apology tour,” but he won’t bring the wrath of the fact-checkers down upon him the way his running mate, Paul Ryan, did last night. His rhetoric never jumped the rails. There was a lot of soapsuds in the speech–lots and lots about his five boys tumbling about and a genuine moment of emotion when he said he and Ann would give anything to break up another fight. The subliminal picture was of a row of suburban houses, the dads going to work in the morning, the moms wearing aprons, blowing their hair out of their eyes, frustrated as the kids rampaged innocently–the 1950’s and 60’s. He managed, for one night, to shift the focus from the real world the Romneys inhabit–a world of Caddies, speedboats, dressage horses and garage elevators–to an imaginary, nostalgic middle class world that existed before everything got so complicated.

He made his strongest argument in the simplest way: things aren’t going so well in this country. Many alternatives can be argued–that it could’ve been much worse but for the courageous and decisive actions of Barack Obama, that the President has laid the groundwork for things to start getting better soon, that the Republicans have stood in the path of progress since the moment Obama took office–but Romney connected with an essential reality: people are frustrated by the present and worried about the future. He raised the essential question about an incumbent President: what has he done to deserve another term? He cut to the chase–and that is not an insignificant achievement in the mudslide of blather we have endured this year. And overall, his team managed to produce a convention where the often-obnoxious animal spirits of the Republican base were held in check.

(PHOTOS: The RNC in Pictures: Meet the GOP Delegates)

I am not sure the speech was “a game-changer.” I am not sure it “moved the needle.” I’m not sure it will be remembered beyond tomorrow, or that it was watched by sufficient numbers of people tonight to make a difference. But it did lay down a subtle challenge for the President: Explain why your contract should be extended. Explain it in a way we can understand. And it laid down a stylistic challenge as well: in these difficult times, is it really necessary for you to accept your nomination in a football field in front of 74,000 people (as Obama will next week)? Do we really need those bread and circuses?

(PHOTOS: Republican National Convention 2012)

Romney’s speech added zilch to the substance of the campaign, but it may change the tone. If this is the candidate Romney really wants to be, it will be more difficult for his sleazy array of casino and fossil-fuel plutocrats to flood the air with negative ads–the contrast with the candidate he purports to be will be too stark–but it will also be harder for the President to continue his demolition job on his opponent. We will see how long the quiet glow lasts. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an unexceptional speech set such a powerful mood. It was certainly Romney’s best night as a candidate.

MORE: Mitt’s Moment: Can Romney Finally Open Up?