TAMPA, FL – Former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice’s empassioned and electrifying speech, given in prime-time and covered by all the major networks, may have given Romney just what he needs to become downright dangerous in his acceptance speech Thursday night. Her speech, received with thunderous applause, covered subjects ranging from leadership to the explosive topic of race relations. Rice finished off with grand slam when she shared her personal story of eating a hamburger at then-segregated lunch counter in an Alabama Woolworth’s growing up, never imagining she could become Secretary of State.
“It took leadership,” she said to the Republican National Convention. “It took courage, and it took belief in our values.”
In Romney’s case, there is a saying which applies; “safe is death.” In this case, it means campaign death. The GOP ran a “safe” campaign against the Democrats in 2008, and the result was Barack Obama in the White House. That year, John McCain’s team ran a vanilla campaign, failing to capitalize on gaffes by both Obama and his surrogates, and turn the election in a choice between a war hero and a technocrat. McCain’s team suffered from infighting, fractiousness and a loss of support from the party base. The choice of Sarah Palin as Vice President created a perfect storm, lending to the doubts that party already had about McCain’s ability to win.
Thanks to the choice of tea party darling Paul Ryan as Vice President, Romney will have no such problem, and his campaign knows it cannot afford to make a single mistake. Wednesday night’s acceptance speech by Paul Ryan proved how unified the party is. Ryan’s acceptance speech Wednesday night may have given Romney the ability to be even more dangerous.
“They’ve run out of ideas,” he said. “Their moment came and went. Fear and division is all they’ve got left.”
Not since the 1980 campaign has this party looked so galvanized. Even George W. Bush, battling Clinton apparatchik Al Gore, didn’t fare as well, as the 2000 election debacle so eloquently demonstrated. Only with the 1980 campaign of Reagan vs. Carter has America faced such a stark contrast in philosophies.
“The President is throwing away money,” Ryan said of President Obama’s budget record. “And he’s pretty good at that.”
Rice’s moving story, combined with Ryan’s story of self-reliance, may have disarmed the Democrats in the most profound way possible; by take their own platform and using it against them. The Bain Capital shutdown argument was turned on its head by Ryan, who cited the story of several plants the President wanted to keep open for another hundred years, only to see that plant shut down. Ryan also cited Solyndra, a solar energy company which went belly up after being given millions in stimulus money, as an example of failure for the President’s administration.
“You, the American people of this country, were cut out of this deal,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t just spent and wasted, it was borrowed, spent and wasted.”
Then he attacked the Health Care Reform Act, receiving a standing ovation.
“Obamacare comes to more than two thousand pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees, and fines that have no place in a free country.”
What do these speeches mean for Romney’s moment? In this age of carefully choreographed conventions, the goal of Romney’s speech is to complete the unification of the party after a nasty primary season, and a sales pitch to undecided voters. Even today, extremists on the far right are crying the GOP sold out, with some already saying they will not vote for Romney and instead write-in former candidates such as Ron Paul and Herman Caine. In light of this, the hard work has already been done.
Tomorrow night’s speech is Romney’s “bottom of the ninth at-bat.” It is the one moment in which he needs to let it all go. He can’t explain his Bain Capital days away. He can’t dodge his tax returns or his income bracket. He can’t undo his record as Governor of Massachusettes, and he can’t parse Romneycare. So, with all those political albatrosses seemingly hanging around his neck, what is he to do?
Romney should stick to what he’s good at; explaining solutions to big picture problems in plain English. Instead of boring independents and moderates with nuts-and-bolts jargon-speak, Romney must remind voters that the Supreme Court ruled ObamaCare is constitutional because of government’s power to tax. Chief Justice John Robert’s majority opinion gave Romney a giftwrapped convention topic for his speech. All Romney has to do is use this decision to paint Obama as a double-speaking politician, and rest becomes a matter of creating a perception problem for Obama. If done correctly, Romney could make Obama’s life a living hell.
He has three hot buttons to be careful of. First, religion should be avoided. Raising questions about Obama’s faith will only bring out questions about Romney’s Mormon beliefs. Second, he should avoid attacking First Lady Michelle Obama, no matter how condescending she may appear to voters. Finally, and most important, Romney must avoid the issue of race at all costs. If anything, Romney must paint Obama’s record as a setback for aspiring African American politicians, creating a racial stereotype which may take generations to undo.
If Romney’s speechwriters are shrewd enough, they will use this moment to offer out the hand of acceptance and invitation from the GOP to minority voters who may be seeking refuge from political racial stereotyping. Condi Rice’s speech helped lay the groundwork for that, with references to education being “the civil rights issue of our day.” Rice’s speech took the concept of racial stereotyping and ran with it, speaking of the potential for a culture, under a second Obama term, of “entitlement and grievance.” Rice’s speech, a brilliant melding of politics and personal experience, could be the thing Romney can use to prove that not only is the GOP inclusive, but the party of racial innovation.
Ryan’s speech appealed to the working class, seniors and conservatives. Ryan went so far as to promise to keep and strengthen Medicare, saying “Obamacare is the biggest threat to Medicare.” Ryan did what nobody could have ever expected; he took some core principles of the left, such as preserving programs for seniors, balancing the budget, and equal opportunity for all, and made them appealing to the right.
“We will put government back on the side of men and women who create jobs,” Ryan began, then turned the tables on the Democratic Party’s platform, “And on the side of the men and women who need jobs.”
For Democrats, Ryan’s ability to turn the tables like that could make him and Romney one tough nut to crack.
Whether there is a post-convention “bounce” for Romney hinges entirely on this speech. Moreover, if Romney comes off as engaging and personable, the Democrats will have no choice but to ask President Obama to do something he simply isn’t comfortable doing; going “off teleprompter” for the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte.
To borrow a line from “The Hunger Games,” America, and the world, will be watching Thursday night.