Mitt Romney: More Effective Than Clint Eastwood

And then I told that empty chair...
And then I told that empty chair... Photo: Spencer Platt/2012 Getty Images

Mitt Romney had two basic tasks before him at his nomination acceptance speech tonight. The first was to recreate himself in the public mind as a flesh-and-blood human, rather than as a remorseless money hooverer. That part went off without a hitch. Romney told the crowd that he was born “in the middle of the century and the middle of the country,” using a clever linguistic construction to suggest that the circumstances of his upbringing were average, rather than extraordinarily privileged. He spoke movingly, and at length, about his family life. His best story told how his father left a rose on his mother’s nightstand every evening, and she knew he had died when her morning rose was missing. (I am guessing that, had Ann expressed interest in him carrying on such a ritual, Mitt would have presented her with a convincing econometric analysis demonstrating that the opportunity cost in foregone wages of Romney engaging in daily rose procurement was prohibitive.)

The second task did not go nearly as well. Romney needed to present himself as a credible alternative to Obama on the economy. This meant, at best, presenting a coherent (or coherent-sounding) plan, and at worst, inoculating himself against Obama’s countercharge that he is peddling warmed-over Bushonomics. What he offered on this front was a series of claims that, almost word-for-word, mirrored George Bush’s. Taxes: bad. Regulation: bad. Business: good.

Romney attempted to build a litany of Obama actions that had raised unemployment. He attacked Obama for proposing to raise taxes, cutting defense spending, cutting Medicare, and then — in the very next sentence! — running excessively high deficits. Romney was very cagey not only as to how he would reduce the deficit — he has promised to increase defense spending, Medicare spending on current retirees, and cut taxes — but on when he would reduce the deficit. This is the central stalemate that has paralyzed short-term macroeconomic policy. Obama has not been able to pass additional recovery measures since 2010 because House Republicans have adopted the position that, contrary to what the vast majority of economists believe, reducing budget deficits immediately will increase growth.

Romney, while presenting himself as entirely focused on this issue, gave no indication of where he stands. Now, I am not the sort to fall for the fallacy that voters crave intellectual coherence. I think they like the idea of specifics — which is why State of the Union addresses with long, detailed policy agendas tend to poll well. They provide some sense of a politician who understands how to get under the hood of the car. Romney left little impression other than his broad agreement with generic Republican pro-business bromides.

Romney’s other dogged political obstacle is that most Americans recognize the obstacles Obama has faced — the economic crisis, and rabidly partisan opposition. Romney attempted to disarm this by acknowledging the bad hand, but implying Republicans wished Obama well. The GOP as a whole “wanted Obama to succeed,” he said, adding that he personally shared this wish, making Obama’s failure to eradicate the impact of the crisis entirely his own fault. In reality, Republicans planned from before Obama took office to withhold cooperation and thus regain their majority, and Romney himself was obviously running to defeat Obama the entire period.

I don’t get the sense that Romney came across as sincere. To be perfectly clear about this, looking sincere is not the same thing as being sincere — John Edwards and Paul Ryan are both incredibly good at looking sincere. That’s the crucial part of the con man skill set. In any event, Romney seems to lack a talent for faking sincerity. The best he could do was a furrowed-brow expression that made him look as though he were about to cry at any moment for his entire 45-minute speech. I don’t think he closed the sale here.