Romney’s Speech Was More Memorable Than Obama’s—And He’s Going To Regret That

by evanmcmurry

By now you know that Obama’s acceptance speech was meh, and especially meh in comparison to Bill Clinton’s speech. (In Obama’s defense, damn near everything is and will forever be meh in comparison to Bill Clinton’s speech.)

But what matters is how it compares to Mitt Romney’s speech,* in that any indolent turd undecided voter just tuning in to the election will be forming impressions based on these two forty-five minute servings of the men. Of the two, Romney hands down delivered the more memorable speech. There are a number of reasons for this. (Note: none of what follows is really meant  as an apologia of Obama’s lackluster performance):

  • Romney had the slighter task: he needed to make himself look human, as opposed to some tumid growth of venture capitalism. Given that Romney, by all appearances, seems to be a good man, this wasn’t that hard; coupla personal anecdotes about dads and roses and he was out the door. Basically, Romney had to prove he wasn’t a capitalist sociopath, and he did that (verdict is still out on his running mate). By contrast, we know Obama’s biography back and forth; simple humanizing wouldn’t do the trick in his case.
  • Obama’s given speeches before. LOTS OF THEM. Romney hasn’t. Romney has fewer anecdotes that have been run into the ground, fewer phrases that sound like retreads. (Not that any of this stopped Obama from retreading.) Romney was stuck with fresh material, inherently more exciting; Obama was left with either trying out new material on the road—never a good move—or sticking with the tried-and-true hits that we’ve heard before. He went with the latter option.
  • So why go the safe route? As pointed out by Matt Yglesias, Obama’s was the speech of a frontrunner. Obama has a decent headwind going into the final stretch: Romney hasn’t received much of a running mate or convention bounce; his selection of Ryan will hurt him in Florida; rumors have it that Romney & Co. are ceding Michigan and Pennsylvania; and if voters haven’t turned on Obama due to the economy yet, it’s unlikely they’ll change their minds in the next two months.** Obama had more to lose by venturing out in a speech last night and potentially making some “You didn’t build that” slip than he did to gain, especially given that Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, and Bill Clinton all delivered strong defenses of his presidency and attacks on the GOP on his behalf. They did the work; Obama needed to do just enough to not screw up, and he did that. There will be a day or two of bad press over his desultory speech, but the fundamental dynamics of the race will still favor him, just as they did on Wednesday. If you’re Obama, that’s good enough.

All those factors combined to give Romney the sharper, newer, more memorable of the two speeches, relatively. Note that I’m not saying better. Aside from Romney’s dad-rose anecdote, the most memorable portion of the speech was the “Obama pledged to stop the rising of the oceans” comment. I found it strange initially, as did many non-conservatives who don’t spend every morning staring at a post-it note on their mirror with Reasons To Hate Obama listed in chronological order. Romney’s line was a reference to a grandiose statement Obama made four years ago—which Republicans have clearly been stewing over while the rest of us passed health care reform—and the derisive invoking of it was meant as an indictment of Obama’s arrogance (alternately seen as cockiness or simply awareness of global warming). It was, for several days, the most effective part of Romney’s speech, the clearest imaging yet of “Obama” versus Obama.

That was until Michelle Obama’s speech. I said earlier that we know Obama’s biography. That’s true, but thanks to endless and often coordinated invective from the right, Obama’s status as a real, flesh-and-blood human, one who exists at the intersection of space and time, is in many ways just as challenged as Romney’s. If you’re a slug an independent voter, you’ve gotten more than enough second-hand socialism/birther/Muslim/Manchurian-candidate nonsense to instill the impression that Obama is less a person than an ideological vortex through which radical ideas are smuggled. Romney’s “ocean” line was in this exact strain: it was an attempt to shine a light on the hollowness of Obama’s idealism and show Obama to be simply a self-aggrandizing vessel on which dangerous ideas hitched rides. It wasn’t even the line that was so memorable; it was Romney’s shit-eating face as he delivered it, held for a solid half-minute as he let the GOP delegates yuck it up. They’d been waiting four years to gather in a room and filet this guy, and Romney finally did it for them.

The problem is however well that played at the time, it’s not going to look very good following Michelle Obama’s speech in which her and Obama’s story were told not as a projection screen for liberal fantasies but as participatory in and an embodiment of the substance of a mainstream liberal and American narrative. Romney’s shit-eating face is high-larious if you think Obama is an empty shell in which the welfare-state hears its own echo; it’s not nearly as funny when his story is read as representative of the arc of million of American lives. Last Thursday, Romney may have sold the former a bit; but except for die-hard conservatives who have that post-it note on their mirror, few are going to be able to watch a replay of Romney’s shit-eating delivery of that line without seeing it in the context of Michelle Obama’s sincere, earnest, personal, and passionate recounting of Obama’s osmosistic*** relationship with the American Dream.

That’s going to make Mitt Romney look like a giant asshole, which is going to undo all the humanizing his speech attempted; nothing makes you seem a tumid growth of capitalism like picking on people who made their own way through debt and mortgage to arrive at the friggin’ White House, and who are using the office to help others do the same. If you’re a fuckhead swing voter and you just watched both conventions, with whom do you side, the guy whose wife gave an impassioned recounting of her husband overcoming adversity like you hope to do, or the rich CEO and his rich delegates laughing at that guy for the amazing station at which he arrived, and at you for hoping to replicate his success?

Too bad for Romney the rest of his forty-five minutes was devoted to the pitch of “Does your life suck a bag of dicks? Vote Romney!” That hasn’t worked too well for him so far; he needed the humanizing element to conceal the fact that his campaign is based on hoping the economy tanks. But instead his most memorable line will be one that will, if anything, turn people against him. As I said, Romney gave the more memorable of the two speeches. And long after Obama’s meh speech is forgotten, Romney will be wishing his was, too.

* Silly goose, none of this matters.

** This post was actually written last night, before this morning’s job numbers. Lord only knows what they had to say.

*** Not a word. If anybody knows what the adjectival version of osmosis is, lemme know.

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