With the exception of paid ads, national conventions provide the most controlled environment for messaging any party or campaign can possibly enjoy. Not a word goes into the party platform or onto the podium teleprompters without approval from the nominee’s staff. There are always obligatory speakers, but their order, the time they are allowed, and the topics they are permitted to discuss are entirely at the whim of the managers, just like the music, the staging, and the little message cards distributed to surrogates and delegates instructing them on how to speak with the press.
As a veteran script-and-speech staffer at six Democratic conventions, I figured this GOP gathering would exceed even the usual “daddy party” discipline, given the general ruthlessness of the Romney campaign, and the ardor with which everyone involved (including the conservative activists who were definitively propitiated by the selection of their leader, Paul Ryan, for the vice presidential nomination) wanted victory. And the mission ought to have been clear: communicating a likeable new image for the party and its presidential nominee. Yet looking back at the three nights of the 2012 Republican National Convention, it’s not easy to deduce what exactly the GOP’s plan was.
Night One presented a party hell-bent on giving the people leaders with the balance, perspective and guts to make the “tough choices” the Obama administration has allegedly avoided or flubbed.
Night Two shifted gears decisively, as Ryan, Mr. Tough Choices himself, depicted the ticket as a safe haven for Americans—especially older, middle-class Americans—afraid of Barack Obama’s radicalism and unwholesome intentions towards the government benefits they rely upon.
And Night Three was a hash, with the first image broadcast television viewers saw and heard being an octogenarian actor blowing off his script, implying obscenities, and debating an invisible Barack Obama, even as he suggested all politicians were essentially worthless in a hall stuffed with politicians. Memories of that confusing distraction were hardly dispelled by a Romney acceptance speech that mostly alternated between soothing “humanizing” bromides and suddenly-shouted stock campaign lines—but never quite settled on a coherent theme or rationale for his candidacy beyond the tired assertion that Obama didn’t deserve a second term.
And thus a party that seemed to have made a clear if risky decision to accept the challenge of a “choice election” once the Romney-Ryan ticket was formed, taking its chances that it could sell a positive agenda alongside a strong ideological attack on the incumbent, concluded its convention by posing as a safe, sane alternative to an administration that had lost its “referendum.”
The only clear common theme across the three nights of major speeches was a remarkable absence of policy proposals, other than Romney’s hackneyed five-point “jobs plan” that is actually a collection of goals along with an education voucher initiative that’s drawn zero attention. The budget legislation drafted by the vice presidential nominee, a specific if often dubiously credible “plan” to which the entire Republican Party has lashed itself like Odysseus in the Land of the Sirens, was barely mentioned by its author, much less by anyone else. Aside from its stated devotion to Medicare and antipathy to ObamaCare, it was not easy to deduce for the unsophisticated swing voter what these people actually wanted to do. Yes, they made it clear they didn’t like unions or foreigners or welfare, and really, really liked small business owners, but beyond that, what did they offer other than a ballot line for people already convinced Obama had failed? That’s hard to say, and again, it’s not the sort of hazy impression national political conventions are supposed to leave.
It wasn’t all a waste of time, of course. The fact that Ryan delivered the convention’s best speech will give further pause to Democrats who might have been under the impression that his very name was a political albatross, and also served as a reminder that all the love and hate he has inspired among insiders and activists is completely unknown to the kind of voters who will decide this election. The constant repetition of various poll-tested attack lines on Obama—particularly the sensationally mendacious but demonstrably effective claims that he’s brought back unconditional welfare and cut Medicare benefits to shower additional benefits on the undeserving poor—had tangible value. The various efforts to “humanize” Mitt Romney probably turned some heads. And after the Todd Akin fiasco, it was a real accomplishment to get through a convention where probably half the delegates care far more about social issues than about the economy with words like “abortion” and “gay marriage” (not to mention, astonishingly, “Tea Party”) being all but left unsaid from the podium.
It’s less clear that other convention preoccupations did much good. The relentless attention paid to speaker diversity (an old GOP habit by now) would have been more influential had viewers been offered any encouragement to minorities other than the theoretical opportunity to own businesses and exult in their freedom from receiving any help from their own government. The byzantine struggle with Ron Paul’s legions was waged ruthlessly enough to give them fresh grievances for future mischief, but not successfully enough to keep them off-camera or out of the platform. And as a convention veteran, I have to say that the production values of this event were not impressive (at least until the final balloon-drop!), and a lot of the speechwriting was mediocre (at least for non-Super-Prime-Time speakers).
But these were trifles compared to the central problems with deciding on and delivering a crisp and compelling message. I’m hardly unbiased, and perhaps we’ll soon see a post-convention “bounce” that will prove there was highly nuanced magic going on, even if the True Believers in the hall often seemed bored and restive and more interested in “USA!” chants than the call-and-response from the podium. For now, the GOP seems to be a party that is attempting in too many conflicting ways to disguise what it actually wants to do with political power. Democrats, if they are smart, will find ways to exploit that next week.