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On the Republican National Convention

August 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Chances are, I watched more of the Republican National Convention than you did. In fact, chances are I watched more of the convention than any sane person should. I wanted to watch it the way most Republicans would watch it, so I tuned to Fox News. But when I realized that the networks talked over and had commercials during many speeches, I muted Fox News while watching the convention on CSPAN. That way, not only would I see everything at the convention, but I could also see how it was being covered by Fox News. Suffice it to say, I’m sort of overloaded, but I want to reflect on what was or wasn’t accomplished this past week, as well as some quick-hitting thoughts at the end.

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Going into the convention, there were some pretty clear-cut expectations as to what the goals of the convention should be. The most talked-about goal was to help Mitt Romney connect to the American people by getting to know him better. I wrote in advance that I thought this was a mistake. I think when people said we need to know him better, what they really meant was that we need to know a different Mitt Romney, but I think we already knew Romney. As he himself stated, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” Getting a closer look at Romney might not lead to greater connectivity, but simply reaffirm that his experience is not typical. This connecting with Mitt effort revved up on the final night of the convention, with people from Romney’s past–people who are not professional speakers–brought onto stage to help paint a fuller picture of Mitt Romney, culminating with the man himself.

I must admit, this did not go as poorly as I expected. The parade of people from the past, however, was terribly flat and boring. It is good to have eye witness accounts to the fact that Romney seems to be a good person and has been successful. But to watch that story get told through a series of short speeches was not a made-for-tv moment. Nor did it engage or connect me, despite some of the wonderful things being said.

Romney’s speech, however, exceeded my expectations, and probably because he didn’t seem to focus on connecting with people, but on saying what he wanted to say. After an expectedly blase beginning, he had a couple of very strong lines. I think the speech really turned when he contrasted Obama’s lofty goals and promises with Mitt’s own very simple promise to help you and your family. Romney let the convention do what it could to get to know him better. He, however, focused on the job at hand, and I think that was an excellent decision for him.

I think the most unreported aspect of this convention was the redefinition of the Romney campaign to the “optimism” campaign. It went on subtly all week, but really was driven home when he spoke. When your opponent ran a race on “hope” four years ago, cornering the market on optimism is a very tall task, but I think it’s one that was very well-executed. By the end of the week–and especially Romney’s speech–a viewer may have the subconscious impression that the current administration thinks that this is the best we can do, while Romney, Paul Ryan and the Republicans have faith that America and the American people can do better. It was a well-crafted change in tone and message, and it’s something for which I believe the Romney campaign and the convention organizers deserve credit.

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Another primary goal was to turn women around to Team Romney by expressing that the real women’s issues are simply economic issues, not issues having to do with reproduction and its associated functions. I think that this had mixed results. The pandering to women was a little too over-the-top; a little too blunt. You know when someone gives you a sales pitch, and they’re so enthusiastic that a little alarm goes off in your head saying “wait, I’m being sold, here,” and you begin to trust what they’re saying a little bit less? That happened all week on the issue of women.

It started off with Ann Romney. Her speech was pretty good. It accomplished the goal of getting people to believe a little bit more in Mitt Romney (“he. will. not. fail.”), but then again if your wife doesn’t love you, who will? The earlier segment of the speech, though, seemed awkward. In discussing that women bear a bit of a greater burden when times are tough, Ann Romney went on to name every familial role a woman can occupy, took an awkward pause, and then yelled “I love you, women!” Here’s the transcript of that segment: “We’re the mothers. We’re the wives. We’re the grandmothers. We’re the big sisters. We’re the little sisters, and we are the daughters. You know it’s true, don’t you?  I love you, women!”

Yes, Ann Romney, it is true that if you are a woman, you are at least one of those things. I’m not sure, however, that any of the women who do care about reproduction would be convinced by anything she said here. And isn’t closing a gender gap all about changing minds?

The outreach to women continued all week, and again got hit a little too bluntly in a speech by a Romney, with Mitt Romney devoting a segment of his speech devoted to the issue, discussing the women who worked in his cabinet, the women who start small businesses, the women he mentored, etc. Overall, I doubt that this convention did much to close the gender gap.

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Quick Hits:

-I liked Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett’s remarks on the opening day. He seemed like a reasonable person who went out of his way to note that the policies he put in place did not come at the cost of environmental or socially beneficial factors.

-I found it really interesting during the parade of House and Senate candidates that were given air time to see what people chose to focus on with their very limited speaking time. One guy gave a speech almost entirely about coal. It’s good that he did, though, because too many of the others sounded like mimeographs of each other.

-The decision to move the roll call into Tuesday pre-prime time in order to avoid having too much of a national audience watch Minnesota and Nevada indignantly nominate Ron Paul, while also only calling out vote totals for Romney and no other candidates was probably smart. But it does add to my distaste of parties and increase their “creepy factor,” trying to silence division and dissidence within their walls. Ron Paul supporters, take note: Republicans want your votes but not your voices.

-If you are a black Republican, a Hispanic Republican, or even speak a little Spanish and are Republican, the Republicans wanted to hear from you this week. Except Fox News, who decided not to air Ted Cruz’s speech in favor of commercials and an interview with Scott Walker.

-On that note, Artur Davis is an excellent speaker. No wonder he’s been chosen to speak at conventions two straight election cycles, albeit for opposing sides. Davis had a line in which he said, “let’s put the poetry aside,” which was ironic only because his speech had such a great rhythm and rhetoric to it, as well. It was more rhetoric than substance, but honestly, conventions aren’t a really good place for substance.

-I liked Governor Chris Christie’s speech a lot. The “us” and “them” part wasn’t my favorite, but he depersonalized it, never mentioning President Obama by name (only once by “Mr. President”), and he lectured both sides of the aisle on actually getting things done. It reminded me a little of my own post on representative democracy.

-I know I’m not a Republican because I hated Paul Ryan’s speech, wasn’t a fan of Condoleezza Rice’s speech, but loved Christie’s. These opinions seem to run counter to the Republican convention reactions.

-Speaking of Rice, America’s reputation abroad neared an all-time low during the administration for which she was Secretary of State. I’m not saying that it was her fault, but it made her lecturing about being strong and posturing seem less impactful to me.

-Speaking of Republican reactions (two bullets up), I have a lot of politically active Republican friends on facebook, but didn’t see much from any of them this week. All polling says Republican enthusiasm is up, but I just found that contradictory anecdotal evidence to be strange.

-Jeb Bush said some things I didn’t like and agree with, but I also think that it is an important first step to hear Republicans admit that the current system (particularly in education) is not providing equal opportunity. This may be cause for further exploration and reflection after convention season is done.

-Marco Rubio was awfully religious in his introduction of Mitt Romney. That seemed like a strange choice. That said, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and possibly Condoleezza Rice are gearing up for an epic primary in 2016 or 2020.

On Humanizing Mitt

August 28, 2012 1 comment

In the run up to the Republican Convention I’ve been hearing a lot of talk from political operatives on both sides about the convention being the last and best opportunity for Mitt Romney to humanize himself and connect with voters. Everyone that hits the screen on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN all agree that this should be priority number one for the Republicans and the Romney campaign. It’s a sharp turn from the previous tone of the Romney campaign, which has been to talk about the economy, the economy, and nothing but the economy, belittling any other topic as President Obama’s effort to pivot away from his record and focus on unimportant issues. But with poll after poll showing that Romney doesn’t connect, the campaign has decided to shore up that “connectivity/likability” weakness. Far be it from me to disagree with seemingly every political operative out there, but it sounds like a big mistake to me.

The effort to humanize Romney and to build a connection to people got an early start with an assist from the weekly news magazine show Fox News Sunday when they invited Chris Wallace into their home. The piece, titled “At Home with the Romneys,” was introduced this way: “One of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems is the perception pushed by the Obama campaign he is out of touch and doesn’t understand what many American families are going through. Earlier this week, the Romneys invited us to their New Hampshire vacation spot, opening their home to cameras for the first time in this campaign.”

To me, that lends the distinct impression that this video is meant to help correct this problem, putting the people more “in touch” with the Romneys. You can watch the video for yourself, but if the effort to show that the real Mitt Romney can connect with and understand the typical American starts with a trip to their vacation home that is described to look much like a summer camp, you might imagine that effort could fall severely short. Wallace makes sure to notice that the Romneys don’t have maids or a chef at their vacation home–quite a connectable trait, right?

Whether it be a look inside the Romneys’ marriage and family or a stale sense of humor leading to failed joke deliveries, Romney’s life and experience are unlikely to relate to common Americans, no matter how it’s dressed up. The old adage that people want “a guy you’d like to share a beer with” doesn’t work when the candidate religiously abstains from alcohol. (Not saying that a sober president can’t be relatable; just that this one, clearly, is not.) In going out of their way to emphasize Mitt Romney the human being, the campaign risks getting off of message and playing to their opponents’ strengths. Barack Obama is just more relatable and more likable (according to polls) than Mitt Romney. If these two weeks of conventions are dedicated to highlighting their personalities, Mitt Romney may run the risk of a post-convention dip in the polls, instead of the traditional/expected convention bump.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Straw Men Turning Pinocchio

August 3, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the most annoying things about the polarized back-and-forth banter that dominates our civil discourse is the incredibly common use of “straw man” arguments. Analysts from both sides build up a fabricated opposition position and rip it down while few, if any, of their opponents actually prescribe to the extreme version of the debate that has just been defeated. This is fairly commonplace on both sides of most issues, but the right wing news (such as Fox News and the talk radio networks) is exceptionally good at this, which is one of the reasons that I often find myself getting so frustrated while watching or listening to those stations.

However, what I find far more annoying is when those straw men make like Pinocchio and turn real because people in leadership or prominent positions stand up and fit themselves into those seemingly ridiculous straw man arguments. More and more lately, I have found that happening, giving phony straw positions the shred of credibility that they need to survive. Usually in these cases, the straw man argument still holds little water. Usually, those who stand up to fill the voice of the straw man arguments represent the fringes, not the norm. But even a little bit of substantiating information, even from the vast minority, can make a ridiculous or misleading argument seem more real.

When being trained in Psychological Operations with the Army, we were told repeatedly that credibility is your most valuable asset in information dissemination. If you get caught lying to a population, then your credibility is shot for the future. Similarly, the converse can ring true: if you can demonstrate a lack of credibility in the opposing point of view or its source, then the entire argument or sometimes even its associated ideology will begin to ring hollow.

I first decided to write this blog because I was reading a somewhat scathing report about Mitt Romney’s tax plan by the Brookings Institution and the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Reading the methods of the report, I found that the numbers would probably stand up to close scrutiny, yet an assumption or two (particularly the assumed goal of revenue neutrality) might be debatable by the Romney campaign, if forced to address them.

However, the response from the Romney team did not address the substance of the report at all. It simply counted it among a number of “liberal studies calling for more tax hikes and more government spending” by Obama. It sounds like dismissing an independent report without addressing the merits as simply being a “liberal study” would be part of common straw man arguments about liberal intellectuals or tax and spend Democrats. But then you read that one of the three authors of the report used to work for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. And suddenly, dismissing the entire report out of hand might make sense, no matter how credible the numbers within may be. The credibility of the report itself has been compromised, predictably.

Another example of this is in the Chick-fil-A debate. I’ve already given extensive attention to the issue, but the way that it has been presented through the media deserves its own mention. Many outlets viewed this as a freedom of speech issue in that the CEO should be able to think and say whatever he so wishes. However, as many pointed out, freedom of speech is about governmental action. People have every right to protest, boycott, or otherwise raise hell (legally) based on what someone says. This should never be about freedom of speech. To mask this as an issue of persecution or a lack of freedom of speech seemed like a straw man argument, right? How easy is it to simply defend a CEO’s right to their opinion rather than defend the objectives of the organizations to which the corporation made donations or the importance of exercising choice in capitalism through boycotts?

Well, then mayors in a number of major cities (Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh among them*) have made statements either vaguely or directly alluding to the idea that they would try to block Chick-fil-A from operating within their cities. Suddenly, the government was in fact attempting to restrict someone’s rights based on their beliefs. Suddenly, this actually was a First Amendment issue. That should have remained a straw man, but alas it received enough credibility to transform the issue in many circles.

* (I did not include Washington D.C. here because the mayor’s remarks in full clearly stated that despite his disagreement, there is nothing he can do to restrict/bar the business)

And finally, as I am writing this, reports are breaking that the Justice Department is giving just a sliver of credibility to the old straw man argument that Democrats do not support or appreciate our troops by suing the state of Ohio over military voting laws. Granted, the lawsuit does not aim to restrict voting rights for the military in any way. Granted the Fox News coverage is misleading and unfair. However, the lawsuit targets a law that grants special voting allowances specifically to military members by stating that those allowances should be made for everyone. The lawsuit claims that the distinction between military voters and civilian voters is “arbitrary.” And so the statement that Democrats are unsympathetic to the military is now backed by a lawsuit filed to by the administration arguing (in different terms) that our troops aren’t special. And Pinocchio turns real.