Good Enough for Mitt, but What About the Rest of Us?

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By Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru

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

Margaret: Poor Mitt Romney. He had to give the speech of his life at a convention bookended by two disasters: Isaac and Clint -- one natural, the other self-inflicted.

Who in his right mind would turn the stage over to an actor to ad-lib whatever he wanted, stepping on the carefully edited movie intro about Romney’s life? Every speech is fly-specked by Central Control, but apparently not the one by the "mystery guest" hyped all day by the campaign. What a singular lack of judgment to give a quirky performer like Clint Eastwood the freedom to mock the president as an empty chair who crudely told Romney to do something anatomically impossible.

Perhaps it was to lower the bar for Romney to clear so that when he gave an exceptionally good speech, it was, well, exceptional. Let’s give Romney his due. He had to give the speech of his life, and did. It wasn’t the greatest speech ever, or the greatest  convention speech ever, or even the greatest speech of this convention. (That honor goes to  two speeches, one from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the other from New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.) It was, however, the greatest speech Mitt Romney has ever given.

For the people in the hall, Romney had them at "hello." For those independents at home tuning into the campaign for the first time, they needed to have a reason to like him, and if they listened to only the first half of his speech, they will.

In the early passages, he showed the kind of warmth generally hidden by his cramped manner.  He choked up remembering the “true partners” his parents were, how each day his father put a single rose on the bedside table of his wife of 64 years, how she knew something was terribly wrong the morning he died because there was no rose.

He has trouble with women -- about 10 points' worth of trouble -- but they surely loved his statement about how his father wanted his mother to win because women should be appreciated for their intellect as well as the 100 things they do each day to keep their families going. He captured the joy of the kids piling on the bed, the relief that a child leaving home took a job nearby.

But as the speech went on, it got darker. Romney openly scoffed at global warming in a two-fer: He mocked Obama’s grandiosity for saying he would control the rise of the oceans, and he mocked the very idea of controlling the rise of the oceans.

When Romney took a detour into foreign policy, it was as successful as his trip abroad last month. He graciously granted President Barack Obama chops for killing Osama bin Laden, but pivoted to accuse Obama of making us less safe today because of Iran, of throwing Israel under the bus, eager to give Russian President Vladimir Putin too much room. On the bright side, Romney got to the end without ever mentioning Afghanistan. Whoever wins, the troops will come home.

Before the speech ended, the Romney campaign put out a statement to stunt the Clint debacle. We should all get the joke, it more or less said, in the same way we were supposed to find it amusing when Romney detoured into birtherland last week. Clint was to be seen as “a break from all the political speeches."

Romney finished with a bang. It's hard not to love the end of a convention -- the confetti, the family emerging in waves,  all those straight white teeth and tousled hair chasing balloons around the stage. Will we remember that, or Eastwood talking trash to an empty chair?

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

Ramesh: All through the primaries, Romney seemed to be just good enough to win -- which is to say, not quite good enough to put the race away convincingly until the end. Evidently that’s the way he’s going to win the general election too, if he wins it. His convention address isn’t going to go in any anthologies of American oratory. It achieved the mission the campaign set for it, though, as did the convention as a whole.

Or rather, the missions. There were four. First, Romney had to be “humanized,” to invoke the week’s pervasive cliché. Like you, Margaret, I thought this was the most successful part of Romney’s speech, and of the speeches that came before -- too long before! -- his. Second, Romney had to coax those Obama voters open to his candidacy to feel good about a decision to abandon the president, and his critique of Obama’s record was pitched perfectly. (Parts of it do not, however, repay close scrutiny. The more I think about it, the odder it seems that Romney said that Americans “deserved” to have the immediate aftermath of a financial crisis be the best years of their lives.)

Third, Romney had to refrain from scaring anyone -- from saying anything that inadvertently played along with the Obama team’s effort to portray him as the most extreme Republican ever to menace the republic. This imperative accounts for the strikingly non-ideological cast of much of Romney’s speech. Fourth, Romney had to offer better times for the middle class.

My main concern about the speech, as about the convention as a whole, is that it gave too much weight to Mission No. 1 and not enough to Mission No. 4. The Romney campaign seems to think that once Americans see Romney as likable, they will trust him to be president. They may be right. Or it may be the other way around: Not until they trust him to promote their interests will they find him likable. This is what I suspect. I would have preferred for Romney to spend more time making the case for how his agenda would help the country. But maybe what he said about it was just good enough.

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

-0- Aug/31/2012 15:24 GMT