Some say that nominating conventions don’t matter much these days. That they are a relic from a bygone era with little impact on the political process.
In 1988, on the eve of another Gulf Coast convention, Vice President George H.W. Bush — a New Englander by breeding and birth, if not by address — trailed his opponent by about 10 points.
To be sure, the Romney-Obama polls are closer. But, like Bush, Romney faces a convention of delegates decidedly more conservative than he — many of whom are less than enthusiastic about the patrician candidate who doesn’t seem to connect with “regular people.”
Like Bush the elder, Romney symbolizes the establishment. Smart and experienced, both men ran for president before — then waited patiently in the wings until their rightful turn. Both were portrayed in the media as ideologically rudderless.
Not insignificantly, Bush and Romney both sought to close the conservative “enthusiasm gap” by selecting young, ideological legislators as their running mates.
For Bush, the convention speech was a critical tool for solidifying his base, while simultaneously generating broader support among moderates. It was a highly choreographed dance. Peggy Noonan, who helped Bush write his acceptance speech, has commented on the pervasive pre-convention feeling that if Bush did not deliver the speech of a lifetime his campaign would never recover.
Bush understood the image he needed to overcome. And so he delivered a speech that was funny and self-deprecating (“I’ll try to hold my charisma in check”) and that addressed head-on the charges that he was an out-of-touch rich guy without a coherent political philosophy.
He outlined his view that the individual, family and local community — not the federal government — provide the building blocks of a strong society.
On foreign policy, he rejected the multilateralism of those who view the United States as just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call” and reaffirmed his belief in America’s leadership role in the world.
On taxes, he was clear, and he was strong: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” (Although this line later came back to haunt Bush, it was at the time highly effective political theater.)
And to tired claims that Republicans are anti-women, Bush responded that “equality begins with economic empowerment.” And so it does. Then, and now.
The speech was a home run. For many voters, it was the moment when George H.W. Bush became three-dimensional.
For some candidates of the modern era, the acceptance speech is one vehicle, among many, for appealing to voters. Because voters already felt they knew Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama prior to the conventions, their acceptance speeches bore less significance.
But for Romney (like Bush, a private and formal person), tonight’s speech may be the only chance he has to show the nation that he is more than just a resume in a suit.
Romney can learn much from Bush. Like Bush, he should emphasize pride of country; belief in America’s leadership role in the world; entrepreneurship; freedom from government overreach; and individual liberty.
And, like Bush, Romney should confront his weaknesses with self-deprecating humor. But he must also show that he is feisty. That he has the fire in his belly to take on our charismatic snake oil salesman of a president.
Because for Romney, as for that other New Englander nominated on the Gulf Coast almost a quarter century ago, the stakes couldn’t be higher.