The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination
The first half of Day Three of the Republican National Convention (or at least the part that was actually broadcast on network TV) was a bizarre train-wreck. Surprise guest Clint Eastwood may prove to be the most vivid memory that many viewers will take away from Mitt Romney’s big day, with his incoherent speech that included a strange (and off-color) dialogue with an invisible, imaginary Barack Obama. Florida’s Marco Rubio offered a speech that focused mostly on himself, made memorable by a flub that seemed to endorse bigger government, and with very little focus on the candidate he was meant to support. Mitt Romney himself did an adequate job with his acceptance speech, but we suspect that viewers will not remember it as vividly as they will the bizarre presentations that preceded him that night.
The strengths of Romney’s speech were certain moments of writing, and a delivery that was quite good — for Romney. The weakness: The lack of a concrete plan. You can watch the speech here:
A verbal presentation is stronger if it contains vivid imagery. If you can describe a scene so that your audience can imagine it, they will be more likely to remember what you’ve said. Romney’s speech contained several scenes like this, such as this description of his life when his children were young:
Those weren’t the easiest of days – too many long hours and weekends working, five young sons who seemed to have a need to reenact a different world war every night. But if you ask Ann and I, what we’d give to break up just one more fight between the boys, or wake up in the morning and discover a pile of kids asleep in a room – well, every mom and dad knows the answer to that.
One purpose of this acceptance speech was to humanize Romney for the American people, and a detailed picture like this one, evoking the minutiae of family life, accomplishes this task. You are more likely to believe the unspoken claim — that he loves his family, and that he is just like you — because of the vividness of this scene.
Another good piece of writing in Romney’s speech came in the middle of his remarks:
This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years will get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office.
This section uses the “rule of three,” which says that your point will be more memorable if you use a three-part construction. Romney’s repetition of the three points catches your attention, and once he has it, he drives his point home with a contrast — what the president cannot say.
The speech is also carefully structured so that it attacks only Obama, not Obama’s supporters. As the speechwriters clearly recognize, many people loved the president in 2008, and some who may not vote for him this time still feel strongly about the transformational moments of the previous election. Notice how this section is carefully crafted so that potential Romney voters are given permission not to hate Obama:
How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you thought the way on election day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I would ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he is President Obama? You know there is something wrong with the kind of job he has done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him. The president has not disappointed you because he wanted to. The president has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction.
Finally, the writing was witty in some places, such as at this moment, when Romney contrasted his modest claims with the transformation that people hoped for from Obama. (Note, though, that this quip will misfire for those in the audience concerned about climate change.)
President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.
Romney’s delivery in previous appearances has sometimes been wooden and awkward. While he still lacks the naturalness of his running mate, his opponent or even his wife, Romney seemed much more at ease during this speech than he has been in other performances. During the moments where he spoke about his family, he was particularly believable. He should get away from his reliance on the teleprompter if he can, and also slow down the pace a little.
Lack of a Plan
The chief flaw of the speech was its lack of a plan — there was no “there” there. He laid out five goals (energy independence, more trade deals, cutting the deficit to be “on track to a balanced budget,” provide job-ready skills through education, and help small businesses), but with no prescription for achieving these goals. His most specific promise was to repeal and replace Obamacare, but without any hint of what the replacement would look like. The main thrust of the speech was that Obama has led us wrong, but the speech did not clarify exactly where Romney would take us instead (except for away from Obama).
Romney also made another questionable point: That business experience is the necessary condition for presidential leadership. This is not an election-winning theme. For one thing, it utterly disqualifies Ryan, Romney’s running mate. It demeans other kinds of leaders, like doctors, teachers and the clergy. And it assumes that we have a high estimation of businesspeople, in a time when many think of questionable business ethics as being the cause of our economic troubles.
Overall, while there were memorable bits of writing and the delivery was fine, Romney’s speech did not move his case forward effectively enough. He needs something more than the idea that pro-wealth policies help us all because of trickle-down economics. He needs to explain how he plans to solve the problem.