American political conventions aren’t what they used to be – raucous conclaves of the faithful, where parties battle over important policy platform planks, delegates wearing fanciful hats choose nominees, presidential candidates give rousing speeches that make the rafters shake, and signature phrases like “New Deal” (1932) and “New Frontier” (1960) are unveiled.
They’re not the big occasions they once were – but they remain big opportunities.
Next week Mitt Romney and his Republicans sweep into Tampa, Fla., on hurricane winds for their quadrennial assembly – an occasion that, if they are to prevail in November, must achieve several important goals amid the hoopla being orchestrated by dramaturgs from Broadway, sound engineers from television, and spin artists from Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor.
Earlier this week, the USAToday/Gallup nationwide survey unearthed a vital poll finding that Republicans must exploit next week if they are to succeed: Registered voters in a dozen battleground states believe, by an astonishing 56-40 rate, that they are worse off than they were when Barack Obama became President. In an election year when both parties believe the economy is the most critical issue – and when, according to the same poll, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are in a statistical dead heat in the battleground states – household finance issues almost certainly will be the background music, perhaps even the actual soundtrack, of the GOP show.
But the Republican formula for Tampa cannot be mathematics alone. It has to include chemistry, as well. Here are the three elements the Republicans must assemble for a triumphal turn on the Tampa stage:
The comfort factor
This may be the second time the former Massachusetts governor has run for president, but next week’s convention nonetheless offers him a fresh chance to introduce himself to the voters, many of whom, if they know him at all, find him a cold, aloof, stiff and humourless figure – and perhaps a bit of a slick opportunist.
A vote for president is the most intimate civic act Americans perform. They want to feel comfortable with their choice. Mr. Romney, everybody’s idea of a competent businessman, has about 50 minutes next Thursday night, when he delivers his acceptance speech, to appear as everybody’s idea of an empathetic and visionary leader.
The extremism factor
Ordinarily a political party wants, and needs, to smooth its rougher ideological edges during its convention. What is different this summer is that Team Romney, having concluded there are very few undecided voters in the American electorate, must reassure Tea Party true believers that it is not going to trim its governing garments as it arches toward the White House. That is why Mr. Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the truest of the believers, as his running mate.
So the Republicans have a difficult challenge next week, one that requires a soft touch and a careful attention to nuance. To keep their base engaged, they must show they are serious about promulgating real change in Washington rather doing the usual thing, which is merely continuing on the same path with a more modest price tag and a lot of pieties about fiscal responsibility. But they cannot appear so radical as to scare away voters – or offer Democrats fodder for damaging negative political ads, particularly those suggesting the Republicans will endanger the elderly.
The coherence factor
The most crippling criticism the Republicans have launched against Mr. Obama is that he has no plan to revive the economy, no plan to contain the growth of old-age entitlements, no plan to assure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, no plan to meet the Chinese economic and military threat. Against that backdrop, the Republicans must show Americans that they have a plan, that it is reasonable and practical, and that it possesses intellectual integrity and more than a dollop of compassion for the poor and striving.
American elections ordinarily are won with more than 50 per cent of the vote, and a party that is seen to please only the top 1 per cent of the economy – the inevitable Democratic critique of the Tampa Republicans – is endangered unless it can argue persuasively that its policies will heal the economy rather than help the wealthy.
By week’s end Mr. Romney will be the official Republican presidential nominee. Whether he becomes the next president will depend in large measure on whether he meets these three challenges.
If he does so, he could very well seize the “hope and change” mantle from the President who rode it to the White House four years ago.
Next week: The Democrats
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.