Mitt Romney’s speech after the primaries last night contained language that was simple, straightforward, and at times elegant. But there was also an impressive political intelligence behind the address.
Take as examples these three sentences:
* “Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired.”
* “The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”
* “Tonight is the beginning of the end of the disappointment of the Obama years and the start of a new and better chapter that we will write together.”
These sentences tapped into the mood of the public, taking pre-existing sentiments of many Americans, giving voice to them, and channeling them to Romney’s advantage. While most Americans don’t dislike President Obama personally – quite the contrary — they are deeply disappointed in his record. They are tired. They are ready to move on. And they are ready to write new and better chapters in the American story.
Now take this sentence: “I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents – some successful even beyond their wildest dreams – and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it.”
This captured a crucial philosophical difference between Romney and Obama, with the former putting himself on the side of excellence and achievement while reminding the public that the president is a constant critic of those things. (For Obama, a progressive to his core, wealth is usually grounds for criticism, as if it’s a condition for which one ought to apologize.)
But perhaps the most effective part of Romney’s speech was this section:
Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change. But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama? Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump? If the answer were “yes” to those questions, then President Obama would be running for re-election based on his achievements — and rightly so. But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time. But not here and not now. It’s still about the economy — and we’re not stupid.
Here Romney gently mocked the president without being mean (see the reference to the Greek columns) while also reminding his audience of the hope many people once placed in Obama. He then posed a series of devastating questions, playing off of the politically lethal question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Romney then unmasked the Obama strategy, which is to run away from his record while tossing dust in the eyes of the electorate (in the form of the Buffett Rule, contraception, Sandra Fluke, oil speculators, references to “silver spoons,” and so forth). And he ended by echoing the famous line of Democratic strategist James Carville in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
The former Massachusetts governor fleshed out our understanding of him with references to his father becoming governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car. He articulated the different visions that are being offered in this election (a government-centered society vs. one based on freedom, enterprise, and achievement). And in a perfectly executed jujitsu, Romney took one of Obama’s main lines of attack, that Republicans are perpetuating unfairness, and turned it against the president.
We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.
Then there was the matter of tone.
Romney’s speech was dignified, never snide, and measured. It was free of the kind of vituperative comments that characterize Obama’s speeches and the comments of his top aides. Romney signaled he would be tough and take the high road while he ceded to Obama the low road. Romney was saying to the president that he can talk about “social Darwinism,” the “flat-earth society,” the “war on women,” cruel indifference toward autistic and Down syndrome children, the GOP’s “reign of terror” and lack of patriotism (“putting party above country” is the president’s locution) and Seamus the Irish setter to his heart’s delight. Romney will talk about the economy and Obama’s record, even if the president will not.
I told someone the other day that Mitt Romney seemed to me to be liberated and at ease. My sense is that he’ll be a better general election candidate than he was a GOP primary candidate, that a contest against Obama will play to his strengths better than a contest against other Republicans.
We’ll find out in due course. But if I were David Axelrod, I’d be concerned.