Two Thumbs Down for the Ann Romney/Chris Christie Show

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By Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru

Another in a series of reports from Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Margaret: I’m the skunk at the garden party. I found Ann Romney hard and Chris Christie soft. He didn’t refer to his inferiors as stupid or tell anyone to get the hell off the beach. She said she loved Mitt -- a given -- but not how or why. She told us to love him, but not what makes him loveable.

Each disappointed in his and her own way: Christie that he wasn’t his blowhard self, Romney that she didn’t deliver on the “Let Me Tell You About the Mitt I Know” pitch. She offered only a single detail from the book of wife cliches about husbands who leave wet towels on the bathroom floor or don't put the cap back on the toothpaste: Mitt and Ann Romney, we learned, ate a lot of pasta and tuna in the early years of their marriage.

Not that women should be relegated to squishy platitudes. But Romney’s mission was to make her stiff husband huggable. Why would staff and speechwriters squander her moment on a political speech? She spent the first third, with no subtlety, insisting how much all Romneys appreciate women (subtext: and don’t like Todd Akin). That part had some authentic observations, like how she would stay up late to help with a book report and knew which doctors answered the phone after hours. But like the rest of her remarks, it was more a declaration -- “I love you women!” -- than telling detail. I didn’t hear a comma between you and women.

At least she made it about Mitt after she finished her work closing the gender gap. Christie said the “I” word 37 times and spoke for about 15 minutes before he acknowledged that he was there to talk about the nominee.  His riff on polls seemed designed to highlight the candidate’s weakness: “Real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” Romney’s positions have shifted with the politics of the group he’s trying to woo: liberal in Massachusetts, conservative as he ran for president the first time, right-wing as he ran the second time.

Ann Romney in person is sweet, solicitous, quick and in charge of the space around her. She leads, Mitt follows. Has any grandmother of 18 ever looked better? But what a waste of an authentic human being, to hand her lines which lend themselves to finger-waving and chin-jutting like “This man will not fail.”  It was a lecture, not a lovesong. Not until "My Girl" played at the end and Mitt walked on stage for a Little Kiss was there any romance in the room.

(Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

Ramesh: I didn’t think last night was effective, either, Margaret. Ann’s speech seemed like clumsy pandering to women. When she said “I love you women” it reminded me of nothing so much as George H. W. Bush’s “Message: I care” -- as if she were reading her stage directions. And are people really going to believe that she feels the pain of high gas prices?

Christie is getting panned for a self-absorbed speech. I don’t think it was a problem that he took a while to build up to his case for Romney. The problem is that his case for Romney was actually a case for Christie. In New Jersey Christie has been a teller of hard truths. That’s not the story of Mitt Romney’s political career.

And while there are always hard truths that need to be told, what the country needs now from Republicans -- and what the party needs for its own political health -- is a little different. This has been a grim season in American life, people are sour, and all the discussion of the Republican agenda has revolved around cuts and pain. Maybe Republicans should talk a little about their hopes for a brighter future? That is, after all, the purpose of making those hard decisions.

To be simple-minded about it: Republicans have two main tasks at this convention, it seems to me, and humanizing Romney isn’t one of the main ones. Their defensive message against the Obama campaign should be that they’re sensible people and not dangerous extremists. Their positive message should be that their agenda will make average Americans’ lives better. We didn’t hear anything on that second point from Chris Christie or Ann Romney last night. But if Paul Ryan really is Jack Kemp’s political heir, maybe we’ll hear some conservative grounds for hope tonight.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Aug/29/2012 18:00 GMT