the circus

Frank Rich on the National Circus: Chris Christie, New Jersey Sun King

The prime-time star of last night’s GOP convention was Ann Romney, who set out to “humanize” her sometimes Audio-Animatronic husband and smooth over her party’s often uneasy relationship with women voters. Did she succeed?
No. But because the oratorical bar was set so low by her husband, Ann Romney’s speech is being overpraised, both by (relieved) Republicans and by a mainstream media desperate to find something nice they can say about Romney. (The only notable dissenter was at Fox News, surprisingly enough: Juan Williams, to the howls of the right-wing blogosphere, said Ann Romney looked “like a corporate wife” and that her tales of struggle were hard to believe.) It was without question a solid speech, well-delivered. But what was she saying exactly beyond her Hallmark tributes to “love” (invoked thirteen times), “mom” or “moms” (five times) and the high-school dance where she first swooned for Mitt (five times)? Mainly, that women can “trust” her husband. This is the same patrician stance that both Romneys always take: That we, the little folk, should just “trust” them — and not worry ourselves about the fine details, whether those details pertain to their unreleased tax returns or the specifics of his policy initiatives should he be elected president. No reason to believe that this noblesse oblige tactic will fly any better today than it has so far. And as for this notion that Ann Romney can fix Mitt’s “likability” gap by giving him a transfusion of humanity, that’s a fool’s errand. Indeed, the Romney gurus seemed to have embraced a Wizard of Oz strategy for filling in the blanks of Mitt’s public persona — Ann Romney was to give her brainy hubby a heart and Chris Christie was to imbue Mr. Etch A Sketch with courage. Don’t they realize that this makes Mitt the Tin Man?

No sooner did Ann pound in the theme of love than Christie told the crowd that love was overrated. Was that poor planning on the campaign’s part?
Christie in his entirety was poor planning on the campaign’s part. After a promisingly charming reminiscence about his parents, his speech descended into a hodgepodge of ideological boilerplate and windy, self-congratulatory replays of his greatest hits in battling New Jersey teachers’ unions. Not to mention platitudes about leadership that sounded like outtakes from Rudy Giuliani’s now remaindered book on the subject. One typical slab of the deadening Christie oratory: “Leadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters.” I mean, how many different ways can you restate the same cliché? When at his speech’s long-awaited end he implored the crowd to “stand up” because “there’s no time left to waste,” all you could think of was all the time he had wasted on his party’s big night. My guess is that by then all but political geeks and the party faithful had tuned out. 

Coming into the convention, the scuttlebutt was that Christie had turned down Mitt Romney’s VP overtures because Christie thought Romney was likely to lose. He did nothing to dispel those rumors by mentioning the word “I” 37 times and “Romney” a mere seven. Was this a keynote address supporting Mitt, or Christie’s first stump speech of the 2016 campaign?
It’s clear that Christie regards Mitt as merely a passing sideshow in his own glorious narrative. Not only did he relegate the presidential nominee to also-ran status in his speech (Mitt’s name wasn’t even mentioned until more than sixteen minutes in), but since arriving in Tampa, Christie has also dinged Romney for last weekend’s birther “joke.” Then again, Christie barely mentioned Obama in his speech either. Having had smoke blown up his considerable backside by party potentates for the past year, Christie now believes he is some sort of New Jersey sun king. I’d say that last night’s speech doomed his future prospects except for the facts that (1) his party’s base seems to think the speech was genius and (2) Bill Clinton wasn’t permanently damaged by the even longer and arguably more tedious convention speech he delivered in 1988.

One of Christie’s big messages last night was that the time had come for the American people to do the hard thing (i.e. give up much of their social safety net). Ever since Romney selected Paul Ryan, he’s been harping on this “take your fiscal medicine” theme as well. Can a message about sacrifice and responsibility, whatever its merits, really get them elected?
I don’t think “take your castor oil” is a winning message, particularly at a time of economic suffering and particularly when the details remain so vague to most voters. (The longer the specifics remain vague, the more the Democrats can fill in the blanks with Draconian nightmares much as they’ve filled in the holes in Romney’s biography with attack ads this summer.) Reagan’s brilliance was to use a spoonful of sugar (or two or three) to make the medicine go down, but, for all the deification of Reagan by current Republicans, the note they sound isn’t “Morning in America” but Apocalypse Now

Meanwhile, President Obama, who went largely unmentioned last night, has violated the time-honored tradition of a “convention truce” by continuing to campaign this week. A faux pas worth caring about?
No. I suspect the Republicans will do the same next week. Given that the conventions are acknowledged by all to be infomercials that don’t even rise to the spontaneity level of Real Housewives “reality” television, the convention truce on campaigning by the other party might as well be swept into the dustbin of history with all the other discarded convention traditions, from smoke-filled rooms to gavel-to-gavel network television coverage. By the way, the fact that Obama went largely unmentioned last night shouldn’t be glossed over: It was a real surprise coming from the party that has vilified Obama for four straight years. Someone is looking at polls showing not just that Romney is unlikable but that the president’s own likability is strong enough to make shrill attacks on him backfire.

Hurricane Isaac has already caused the GOP to shorten its convention by a day, and last night it made landfall on the Gulf Coast. This storm turned out to be no Katrina, but it still presents an awkward moment for the GOP. How big a problem is this storm for Mitt Romney?
It’s a problem only if scenes of human suffering compete with the proceedings in Tampa, and if such scenes compel other anchors to join Anderson Cooper and Shepard Smith in New Orleans to get in on human drama that is far more beneficial to anchors’ brands than sitting in a sky booth at a convention hall. 

 Louisiana Governor (and steadfast conservative) Bobby Jindal criticized President Obama’s response to the storm on Tuesday. If you were the Romney campaign, would you plan on attacking President Obama’s response to the storm, whatever it may be?
The last thing the Romney campaign needs to do is to even inadvertently invite the American public (and media) to flash back for so much as a nanosecond to the Bush administration’s response to Katrina. 

At the 2008 GOP convention, Sarah Palin’s Wednesday night address was the most anticipated, most effective, and most memorable speech of the week. The stakes feel slightly lower with Paul Ryan tonight, but nonetheless this is his big introduction to America. What would make that a success? And how could he screw it up?
Ryan’s speech is highly anticipated by the GOP base, but it’s hard to imagine that it will move the needle for anyone else in any direction no matter what he does. Palin was an outlier in the veep sweepstakes. Does anyone remember anything about the convention addresses of the VP nominees Gore, Cheney, or Biden? The in-the-GOP-tank New York Post previewed Ryan’s speech as “must-see TV” that would lay out “his family’s history and their journey from Ireland to America, showing the GOP’s sensitivity to immigration issues and appealing to that base of voters.” If that is really the case, at least we may get some comic relief. The notion that Ryan’s Irish immigrant forebears — like the immigrant ancestors trotted out by Ann Romney (Welsh) and Christie (Irish, Sicilian) on opening night — will appeal “to that base of voters” (that would be Hispanics) is laughably tone-deaf coming from a party whose standard bearer has endorsed the concept of “self-deportation” for today’s unwashed masses yearning to be free.  

Frank Rich: Chris Christie, New Jersey Sun King