Romney’s empty suit vs Obama’s empty chair
With the hope hoopla of the 2008 campaign a distant memory, now we have a contest between a letdown president and a vacuous challenger.
The campaign to re-elect President Obama has spent the entire summer attacking Republican candidate Mitt Romney in personal terms. According to the Obama camp’s outlook, Romney is a financial bloodsucker who spent his career destroying companies for a profit, and an out-of-touch rich guy who won’t disclose how much he pays in taxes.
These negative attacks are a clear sign that the Obama camp is not eager to run on the president’s record. And the strident and personal tone indicates they are worried – as they should be. President Obama’s approval rating is below 50 per cent, unemployment is above eight per cent, and 7-in-10 people say their situation is the same or worse than it was when Obama came into office in early 2009. Polls show that Obama and Romney have been deadlocked all summer. For those just tuning in: Romney can definitely win this thing.
A Romney victory in November seemed more credible following the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida last week. Given the huge chasm between the high expectations of ‘hope and change’ that Obama encouraged upon his election and the lacklustre reality four years later, the Democrats are very vulnerable. And in Tampa the Republicans showed that they are able to put forward criticisms that tap into many independent voters’ feeling of letdown with Obama.
In his acceptance speech, Romney adopted a tone of ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ while sticking the knife in: ‘Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question – if you felt excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.’ Romney was also effective in making fun of Obama’s grandiose vows from four years ago: ‘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.’
Perhaps the most stinging line highlighting the difference between the heady days of 2008 and today was delivered by Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate as vice president: ‘College graduates should not have to live out their twenties in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.’ The Obama regime does appear to have run out of ideas, and the comparison with the hoopla upon his election is stark.
But, as much as scoring points against Obama and the Democrats is important for Romney and the Republicans, it is far from sufficient. In particular, criticisms lose some of their edge if you do not have a viable alternative – and Romney did not present one in Tampa.
The Republican gathering seemed to have one overriding objective: to make Romney appear human. In the run-up to the convention, pundits from all sides agreed that the wooden candidate needed to ‘emote’ and ‘connect’. It was said that this ‘humanising’ was especially necessary in order to counter the Obama campaign’s personal attacks.
The Romney campaign dutifully complied. Many speakers told of Romney’s charity and acts of compassion, and they did succeed in breaking down the cartoon image of him as the heartless rich guy. And Romney’s speech was less stiff than before, although he’ll never be as articulate as Obama.
But focusing on Romney the Man wasn’t wise. Dwelling so much on that aspect only confirmed the view that Romney has a personality problem, and moreover, it means that the election contest will probably remain mired in a mind-numbing discussion of ‘likeability’ and who can best emote.
The real issue was that Romney had very little to say about what he would do differently in policy terms. His effective criticisms of Obama would lead an undecided voter to think ‘Okay, I’m listening’. But in return, that voter would not have heard much. Romney and other Republicans love the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, but the lack of tangible policies renders them empty phrases. There was endless talk about ‘success’ in Tampa, but that was always from the narrow perspective of small business: it seemed as if we were watching the National Federation of Independent Business rather than the convention of a major political party.
Romney’s acceptance speech was meant to be his big debut, but in the event he was overshadowed by Clint Eastwood, of all people. Shortly before Romney was due to speak, Eastwood appeared on stage and held an imaginary interview with Obama, represented by an empty chair. The campaign’s attempt to leverage celebrity backfired badly, as the next day everyone was talking about Eastwood’s bizarre skit and not about Romney. If Romney had delivered a knockout speech, then Eastwood would have been a footnote, but of course, Romney didn’t.
Many Americans are unhappy with the choice this year: down on Obama, but sceptical about Romney. The unemployment rate will not do Romney’s job for him. Unless he comes up with a compelling case (and it’s looking unlikely he will), there’s a good chance that voters will go with the empty chair they know over the empty suit they don’t.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.