Once More, With Meaning

You know what Republicans on the ground think when they look at Mitt Romney?

“Please don’t blow it.” They think President Obama can’t win but Mr. Romney can still lose. So they’re feeling burly but anxious, hopeful yet spooked.

They see Mr. Obama as surrounded by bad indicators—bad polls, bad economic numbers, scandals. They see a grubbiness in the administration now, a vacuity. When the White House sends out spokesmen to make the case for him on the Sunday morning shows, it’s campaign operatives, like David Plouffe and David Axelrod. They more or less spin how he’ll win. Where are the heavyweights, the cabinet secretaries, the great men and women of the Democratic Party? Hiding? Unable to make the case? Not trusted to make the case? Or are the political guys the only heavyweights in the administration?

Mr. Romney is looking good, as are his crowds. Then the camera shows people in the stands behind him as he speaks, they no longer look as if they walked in off the street or put a bet on a horse and are straining to see if it breaks from the pack. Now they look like people watching their horse take the lead, with no one coming up the outside.

The Romney strategy the past eight weeks has been, in a small way, shrewd: have the candidate out there talking in a candidate-like manner, but don’t let him say anything so interesting that it will take the cameras off Mr. Obama. The president is lurching from gaffe to mess, from bad news to worse. Don’t get in his way as he harms himself.

It’s working, but won’t for long. People want meaning, a higher and declared purpose.

An odd fact: Republicans more than others, amazingly, have internalized and hold to the idea that this president has some secret magical powers he’s just waiting to unleash. Those powers normally go by the name “eloquence.” But the eloquence was always exaggerated, and to the extent it existed, there’s no sign it’s about to kick in. Do you remember any phrase or sentence the president has said in a speech or statement the past 3½ years? One? Anything, in all that talking, that entered your head and stayed there? You do not. He is interesting, his words are not. Republicans obsess on his eloquence because it allows them to pretend they lost in 2008 because the American people were gulled by pretty words. The truth is he won because he seemed the furthest thing possible from the Republicans who’d presided over two unwon wars and the great recession.

The president’s rhetorical powers are not a factor in the campaign. Mr. Romney is not more boring than Mr. Obama. That’s not a compliment, precisely, but is true.

Actually, it’s amazing that during an existential crisis—a crisis that is economic, cultural and political, and that bears on our role and purpose in the world—both candidates for our highest office have felt free to be so . . . well, insubstantial. Neither Mr. Romney nor Mr. Obama has caught hold of the overall meaning of his candidacy, Mr. Romney because so far he’s chosen not to, and Mr. Obama because he’s tried and failed.

With just more than 130 days to go, Mr. Romney has to start pulling from his brain and soul a coherent and graspable sense of the meaning of his run. “I will be president for this reason and this. I will move for this and this. The philosophy that impels me consists of these things.” Only when he does this will he show that he actually does have a larger purpose, and only then will people really turn toward him. He has to tell Americans why they can believe him, why a nation saturated with politics, chronically disappointed by its leaders, and tired of promises can, actually, put some faith in him.

They want to know how America can come back. Because they’re pretty sure, down deep, that America has another comeback in her.

Mr. Romney has a tendency to litter his speeches with applause lines. They come one after another. It’s old-fashioned, and it’s based on the idea that that’s all TV wants, five seconds of a line and two seconds of applause. But applause-line speeches aren’t suited to the technological moment, when people can click on a link and listen to a whole speech if they have time. If all it is is applause lines, they’ll turn away. More important, applause-line speeches are not right for a time of crisis, because they do not allow for the development of a thought, a point of view, an insight. Those things take quiet building. Sometimes they take paragraphs, sometimes pages. They take time. But people like to listen if you’re saying something interesting.

Campaign professionals like applause lines in part because they think that’s all a campaign speech is, a vehicle for a picture of people clapping. They see the world in pictures on a screen; they are largely postliterate. They don’t care about meaning, they care about impression. But in the end, the impression is bad: distracted candidate barking lines, robotic audience clapping.

As for the president, his big campaign speech last week in Cleveland not only was roundly panned but was deeply revealing. In it—all 54 minutes of it—he attempted to make the case for his economic stewardship and his re-election.

What he revealed is that he doesn’t know the case for his own re-election.

Politicians give 54-minute speeches when they don’t know what they’re trying to say but are sure the next sentence will tell them. So they keep talking. They keep saying sentences in the hope that meaning will finally emerge from one of them.

A 54-minute speech is not a sign of Fidel-like confidence, or a love for speaking. A 54-minute speech is a sign of desperation.

It was a speech about everything—renewable energy, tax credits, Abraham Lincoln, tax loopholes, deficit imbalances, infrastructure, research and development incentives. But a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. I listened once and read it twice: It wasn’t a case for re-election, it was a wordage dump.

The president has wrestled for the past six months with themes. He’s jumped from one to another.

They are:

It’s not so bad—this indicator is up, and that one.

OK, it’s bad, but it could have been worse—my actions kept us from tanking.

It’s bad, but it’s Bush’s fault.

It’s bad, but it’s the congressional Republicans’ fault.

I have made it less bad, and I need more time to make it even less badder.

Rich people have fancy cars and car elevators, I stand for jalopies and street parking.

None of it has worked.

What does it say of a crisis presidency at a dramatic moment that a president can’t make the case for his own re-election, can’t find his own meaning?

It says the other guy can win—if he has meaning. And isn’t just a handsome stranger who says, “I’m not the last guy, I’m not the guy you don’t like.”

That won’t do this year.