The Republican Convention in Tampa ended after three days of frenzied networking and made-for-television speeches, all against a backdrop of American flags.
This is now Mitt Romney’s Republican Party, even if it is more unified by intense dislike of President Obama than love for their nominee. The cavalcade of speakers was designed to present an inclusive Republican vision while reaffirming the party’s core positions.
Watching the show-flow from inside the arena on the final night offered a look at the strategy Team Romney believes will win back the White House.
Here’s the first thing to note. In this bid to reunite the conservative coalition while winning over swing voters, two key words were never spoken: “Tea Party.”
Team Romney apparently considers the unruly populist force a problem when it comes to winning a general election. It’s no coincidence that Sarah Palin was not seen within 100 feet of a podium this week – Fox News even dropped her commentary during the convention.
Instead, every step was focused on warming up the Republican brand – not changing any of the policies, mind you – but softening the edges with a human touch. And so there were testimonials all emphasising that Mitt Romney is a man of compassion and faith. His photogenic family was captured in a video diary that communicated the genuinely sweet love story of Ann and Mitt. All of this is admirable, but little of it addresses what he would actually do as president.
Dispatched to educate the crowd was Romney’s female Lieutenant Governor in Massachusetts, Kerry Healy, who gushed about their gubernatorial record. A self-described liberal Democrat from Massachusetts and Romney cabinet appointee – an African-American woman, to boot – discussed his commitment to diversity.
It was then American Idol winner Taylor Hicks turn to be herded onto the stage, performing an unlikely Republican Party anthem, the Doobie Brother’s “Taking It To the Streets.” Olympians were subsequently paraded up to the podium to tell stories of Mitt Romney’s love of sport and America alike.
Then, just when the scripted show seemed designed to lull the crowd into somnambulant submission, Clint Eastwood came to take it all off the rails.
On paper, it seemed like a brilliant PR coup – a legendary actor and director who radiates principled independence, offering his endorsement to Mitt Romney. The intersection of politics and pop-culture always drives up ratings, and so Dirty Harry was scheduled to kick off the prime-time slot.
Then things got weird.
After the initial roar of the crowd, it slowly dawned on the assembled that the 82-year old icon was going to ad-lib, riffing off a vaudeville routine with an imaginary President Obama sitting beside him. The straight headline actually expressed the strangeness best – Clint Eastwood Gives Rambling Speech to Empty Chair.
This wasn’t politics as much as it was performance art. A writer for The Nation, Jamelle Bouie, captured the undertow in a tweet – “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.”
After an interminable twelve minutes, during which campaign operatives were cringing, it was time to try and get the Mitt machine back on track. On cue, out came the identical hand-painted “Hispanics 4 Mitt” signs and onto the stage bounded Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star who was often mentioned as a possible VP pick before that honour went to Paul Ryan.
Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees from the Castro regime reaffirmed the core themes of the convention, belief in both American Exceptionalism and God. Rubio’s speech introducing Romney was rapturously received, reminding delegates of the elephant in the room – the 2016 bench looks stronger to many than their current nominee.
Finally, it was Mitt’s turn, a moment five years in the making. He worked his way up to the podium through the crowd, shaking hands, his hair-blow-dried but his eyes moist.
Traditional convention speeches are focused on presenting a vision of a presidency, prosecuting a case for change. Romney’s goal was more personal – he needed to show that he has a heart as well as a head.
And so the speech was primarily biographical, filled with paeans to his parents and their Mormon faith, the experience of growing up in a simpler America with the gift of unconditional love that he sought to extend to his wife and five sons. As an embodiment of that storied past, armed with impeccable personal values and a record of economic success, Romney presented himself as a vehicle for building a new American Century.
But the prescription for this revival was thin – more a repudiation of Obama’s real and imagined sins than a proposal for specific new policies. Foreign affairs received only a few sentences. The middle class was assured of Mitt’s empathy but without actionable plans to alleviate their struggle.
In the place of answers there was only an empty chair.
Beneath all the convention bunting and bumper-stickers, beyond the carefully re-crafted biography of a candidate, there is an obligation to propose as well as oppose. And that was missing from Mitt’s big night.
His sales pitch still needs more substance.