What Romney's Speech Didn't Do

I often find it difficult to give an objective assessment of something like Mitt Romney's speech last night. For those of us who are immersed in politics and have strong opinions, setting aside one's prior judgments and beliefs is all but impossible, particularly when you're faced with a speech like this one that wasn't obviously great or obviously terrible. Having acknowledged my biases, my conclusion is that this speech isn't going to change too many minds.

Like many people, I find Mitt Romney to be the most artificial of politicians. There are many things that go into that, some of which are more serious than others. The fact that he's awkward and stiff is completely forgivable; there have been awkward and stiff Democratic candidates (Kerry, Gore) whom I thought would make perfectly good presidents. As Jon Chait said, "Romney seems to lack a talent for faking sincerity," which is no crime in and of itself. On the other hand, the fact that he seems utterly devoid of principles (other than a belief that the privileges of the wealthy should be reinforced) and has shifted his positions so many times on so many issues to suit whatever group he is trying to appeal to at a given moment is not so forgivable. So when Romney sets out to "humanize" himself, it's hard to forget all that and judge whether his act is getting any better.

Nor is it easy to judge whether people will be persuaded by arguments you find utterly unpersuasive. For example, when Romney said, "Americans always come together after elections" and claimed, "I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division," anyone who has been awake for the last four years had to shout, "Are you kidding me?" I certainly can't remember in my lifetime a party that has despised a president as much as today's Republicans despise Barack Obama, and worked as hard to undermine him and make sure he failed in every last thing he attempted. Does Romney actually think anyone will believe that he and other Republicans were really hoping that Obama would succeed in anything he did?

But maybe some will believe it. In any case, though this wasn't the worst speech anyone has ever given, it's hard to see how it will have much of an impact one way or the other. Mitt Romney is a competent orator but not a stirring one, and though the speech itself had a few good moments, there was nothing there that will stand for the ages. It's only 12 hours later, and without going back to the transcript I can barely remember much of anything Romney said.

So it's unlikely that much will be changed by Romney's speech. He's still an awkward, not-particularly-likeable rich guy who says that because he succeeded in business he can succeed at being president. He still can't seem to decide whether he wants us to think Barack Obama is a nice person who got in over his head or a radical socialist bent on destroying America. If you want a candidate who'll repeat the word "America" more than any other, he's still your guy. In short, it's hard to see how the Republicans can come out of last night, or their convention as a whole, thinking they've really turned a corner on this race and just need to head for home.

Keep in mind also that there may not have been all that many persuadable people watching. We don't yet have the ratings for Romney's speech, but we do know that overall ratings for this convention have been down; Paul Ryan's speech garnered 21.9 million viewers, a fraction of the 37.2 million that tuned in four years ago to see Sarah Palin. And a third of those were watching on Fox, so it's fair to say they didn't need to be convinced.

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