The thing is, the night was shaping up pretty well for Mitt Romney. The testimonials from members of his church, business partners and political colleagues were heartfelt and often touching. Jane Edmonds, a Democratic member of his cabinet in Massachusetts, made a strong case for his dedication and work ethic. The well-done personal video actually provided some warmth to an often distant man. None of these things were particularly enlightening as to what Romney would pursue as President, but they set him up as a human being with blood coursing through his veins, an adult with a commitment to family and even someone with a capacity for kindness and compassion.
And then, after Taylor Hicks gave a performance worthy of a rich person’s bar mitzvah, out comes Hurricane Clint. And a chair.
The problem is that to the bulk of the country, this was the beginning of the night. To the millions of people who watched the video and read the transcript, this was the only thing that happened all night. Between the @InvisibleObama Twitter feed and #Eastwooding, I completely lost track of what was a pretty good, as I understand it, introductory speech by Marco Rubio. The focus of the night – to embody Mitt Romney with a soul, to make him a credible opponent for a Presidential campaign – was gone.
Winning back the Presidency isn’t all that hard a feat for Republicans. They’re going to have a large money advantage in the final two months. The economy has stunk for basically the whole of Obama’s term. His core argument, that he prevented things from getting worse, is simply a hard sell to the public. So this is all set up for generic Republican X to not talk too loudly, explain the failures of the past four years, offer something better through optimism and good cheer, and notch the victory.
That’s basically what Romney tried to do last night. But nobody cares, because an old film star had an argument with a chair on national television. In terms of pulling focus, this was like the streaker behind David Niven at the Oscars in 1974. Nobody in the world can tell you who David Niven gave the Oscar to. But they can quote Niven’s quip, “isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
That’s what a trainwreck this was for the Romney campaign. Within a few hours I stopped remembering his speech. It was decent enough. It pulled many of its punches relative to Obama, forgoing the tough language and even dropping criticisms like “you didn’t build that” and the work requirement for welfare. It tried to appeal more strictly on economic grounds, and included a great line about how the happiest day of the Presidency shouldn’t be the first day you voted for him. It devoted almost nothing to policy, and put together a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs (the expected job output if we do absolutely nothing, per Moody’s) that had no short-term punch and is actually the same platform we’ve seen out of the Republican Party for the last decade, whether we sat in economic crisis or not.
But all I remember is Clint. And I suspect that’s all the country will remember. If you’re going to add star power to your convention on the final night, the good thing to do is to give them a script, and tell them to keep it short. Otherwise they might have the whole nation talking about everything but what you want them to talk about – the Republican nominee.
And when that star asks for a prop? Don’t give it to him.