Like Caesar’s Gaul, the first night of the Republicans’ Convention was divided into three parts: the Diversity Hour, the Caring Wife, and the Chris Christie Anti-Climax.
Much of the art of the convention these days is devoted to convincing viewers that we—the elected officials and their spouses at the podium—are just like you. At Republican conventions, this means assuring racial minorities that, although they may not see people who look like them when the cameras pan the hall, there are actually black and Latino Republicans—especially Latino, since the Republicans don’t really expect to pick up more than a handful of black votes anyway. But it also means assuring working- and middle-class voters that, notwithstanding party tax policies that hugely favor the very rich, there are actually very rich Republicans who can remember times in their lives when they or their parents or, if needs be, their grandparents, lived almost like ordinary people. Rick Santorum and Ann Romney told us that their grandfathers were miners. Chris Christie assured us that his mom was one mean working-class Sicilian.
Democrats do this, too, of course. At the 2008 convention, Michelle Obama’s brother went on about how his sister had damn near memorized every episode of The Brady Bunch—just like a white girl might have. Whatever it takes to build a point of contact, a common bond.
During the Diversity Hour, Latinos were represented by Nevada governor Brian Sandoval, Texas U.S. Senate nominee Ted Cruz and Puerto Rico First Lady Luce Vela Santino, while African-Americans were represented by former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis, and Ken Dolls by a freshly scrubbed and waxed Rick Santorum. Latino outreach is a particular challenge for a party that has enacted draconian anti-immigrant laws in several states and that opposes granting legal status to undocumented children who were brought here while young. The GOP’s approach seems to be to continue to emphasize that President Obama is an enemy of Latino small business, which Republicans are eager to help when they’re not deporting its proprietors and their kids. Tea Party favorite Cruz endeavored to put the onus for Latino rejectionism on Obama when he said that the president was “separating America, telling Latinos that we’re not welcome here.” He had the decency or good sense to say the line so quickly, however, that no one seemed to notice it.
A notable feature of several of the Diversity Hour speeches was their harping on the theme that is featured in the Romney campaign’s recent TV spots: that Obama was letting welfare recipients collect checks without having to work in clear violation of the welfare reform law signed by that more forward-looking Democratic president, Bill Clinton, whom Republicans once impeached. (They left that last part out.) The allegation is preposterous, as numerous media fact-checkers have documented, but it is calculated to reignite the anti-black resentment that Republicans routinely stirred up when welfare was still a major program, as it is decidedly not today. It also provided still more reason for the speakers to harp on how hard their immigrant forebears had labored, with no thought of a government hand-out.
Ann Romney’s speech—much like Michelle Obama’s in 2008—was the most effective of the evening, yet for a speech that was supposed to humanize her husband, it failed to go all the way. It was filled with remembrances of their normal life together—their dates and how the very young Mitt seemed a little nervous and was happier when her parents weren’t around; their impulsive rush to the alter (Mitt had a sex drive!); sharing a basement apartment as a young married couple; and—this she said three times—how he made her laugh. What she never said was what he did to make her laugh. There were no strictly Mitt stories in her story, nothing along the lines of the time he did this or that to make her laugh or warm her heart’s cockles. There were assurances that he really cared about people and more assurances that whatever he undertook, he succeeded—an assessment that left out his defeats in the 1994 senatorial and 2008 presidential elections and the bankruptcies of companies that Bain took over. (The biggest misrepresentation of Romney’s record came earlier, however, when several speakers referred to Romney as an entrepreneurial risk taker, whereas in actuality, he received a guarantee from Bill Bain that if Bain Capital failed, he could return to the parent firm, Bain Consulting, at full pay and with a guarantee of a high position.)
The most effective parts of Ann Romney’s speech didn’t concern Mitt at all. They were her attempt to create a kinder, gentler GOP. She recounted the anxieties that millions of Americans feel in their daily lives in a deeply dysfunctional economy, and she did it quietly and thoughtfully. She segued into a more politically pointed testimonial to the role of women—a group with which her husband has to improve his standing if he’s to win the White House—that was over-the-top but, hey, the Republicans have a lot of lost ground to make up there. She ended by abruptly shouting, “I love you women!” as if decibel level could overcome the GOP’s misogyny. The caring cooing with which she’d begun worked much better.
Then came Chris Christie and the night’s anti-climax. Christie’s speech began with a very long warm-up: My mom was tough cookie and she taught me to be a tough cookie and I’m going to say tough things tonight. And then—he didn’t.
To be sure, he said the GOP was the party of tough truths while the Democrats pandered to teachers’ unions. He said Americans would have to sacrifice and maybe cut back on their pensions, though he didn’t explain how cutting taxes on the very rich constitutes a sacrifice on their part. But mainly, he just didn’t sound tough. The unscripted Christie talks like a thug; he’s rude and blunt. The scripted Christie, in the unaccustomed position of the party’s keynoter, in prime time on every network, didn’t do that. He couldn’t keynote and be Christie, so he simply keynoted after preparing everyone for a colorful attack speech that never materialized. He’s a great guy for press conferences where he can blurt his discontents. Not so great for speeches when he knows the whole political world is watching.
Did the Republicans connect on their first night? For a while, Ann Romney did, but I can’t imagine the other presentations swayed any voters.