Ann Romney was good, really good. Articulate, attractive, and fiery, she hit her lines at the Republican convention on Tuesday like a polished stump speaker even though she claimed to have never done anything like that before. Certainly she came off better than Chris Christie, who through all his hazy bombast seemed to be touting himself for president in 2016. Or perhaps Christie was just making a pitch for Mitt Romney as president of New Jersey in 2012. Either way, that wasn’t supposed to be the point—and it wasn’t what needed to be said.
Indeed, the larger problem with the big kickoff speeches in Tampa is that they just haven’t achieved critical mass. While the economy is bad, it’s not terrible; while President Obama is disappointing, he’s not hated (at least not as much as the GOP base would like); and while Romney is impressive, he’s not inspirational. As much as Republicans desperately want it to be, this is simply not 1980, an era when not only unemployment was high but inflation was at 13.5 percent, when “Jimmy Cardigan” Carter had lost the faith of the country by whining about “malaise” and stumbling over the Iran hostage crisis, and when an always eloquent Ronald Reagan captured the mood decisively by asking, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
By contrast, at such an ambiguous historical moment as today, it doesn’t seem likely that Romney—or any candidate so tepid—could merely float into the White House on the pleasant cloud of policy generalities we’ve heard so far. What’s being said at the convention podium may be enough for the base—they all speak in code to each other—but it hardly seems enough to persuade the dwindling but critical undecideds to switch presidential horses in mid-recovery. And though Romney's campaign has clearly placed its emphasis on galvanizing Republicans over collecting sparse independents (thus his failure to move more clearly to the center), make no mistake: Romney will need votes outside the GOP to squeak by Obama.
It’s misleading to suggest, as Newt Gingrich did on one of the talk shows on Tuesday, that Reagan and Carter were neck-and-neck at this point, just as Obama and Romney are today. As Nate Silver has pointed out, the 1980 election featured “incredibly volatile” polling that is quite unlike the prolonged deadlock we have between a somewhat disappointing president and a relentlessly charmless challenger. “By the summer, Mr. Reagan had a clear lead, peaking around 25 points in polls conducted immediately after the Republican convention in Detroit. Then, Mr. Carter rebounded, with polls conducted in late October showing him behind Mr. Reagan by only a point or two on average,” Silver wrote.
“Tonight, we are going to choose respect over love,” Christie told the crowd on Tuesday night, echoing what seems to have become the Romney line that he doesn’t need people to love him, only respect him. “We are taking our country back…. You see, we are the United States of America.”
Huh? We kind of know that already. It was difficult to grasp any message through all the verbal gauze, but boiled down, Christie seemed to be telling senior Americans they need to be ready to starve to save their grandchildrens’ bank accounts, teachers that they need to be ready to be unemployed (“They believe in teachers unions. We believe in teachers.” Uh, don’t teachers belong to teachers unions?), and the very rich that they should get ready to invest those tax-cut windfalls.
It just wasn’t enough. Nor was Ann Romney’s gentle encomium to the man “who makes me laugh,” and with whom she has “a real marriage” rather than a storybook one. Because neither she nor anyone else in Tampa has yet done a good job of persuading undecided American voters that it’s time to divorce Obama and marry themselves to Mitt.