America Meets Mr. Romney

It is good that Joe Biden is going to the Republican National Convention to hold high the flag of his party. People make fun of his gaffes, of his embarrassing verbal forays, but he’s no fool and he knows how to take it to the other guy. The speech he is working on, to be given in the heart of downtown, just across from the convention site, will be stirring and stentorian: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Tampa, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Tampon.'”

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I wish that were mine. It came in the mail from a Hollywood screenwriter, one of the gifted conservatives who quietly toil there.

This, amazingly enough, is how the campaign feels at the moment: both neck and neck and wide open. A week ago a longtime elected official, who’s been making the rounds in his swing state, told me he thought the national polls were correct and yet wrong. Americans aretelling pollsters they’ve already made up their minds, they know who they’re for. But, he said, he’s seeing a number of people who don’t feel fully satisfied with their decision, who aren’t certain they’ve made the right choice. They may change their minds. “Ten or 15%”, he guessed, “are still persuadable,” still open to argument.

If he is right, that’s big. It would be in line with the singular nature of this election year, and would explain what has been, so far, a fervor deficit.

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So, Tampa. No one can guess the highlights in advance, but some hopes:

That Gov. Chris Christie brings his Garden State brio, that he is bodacious, funny and pointed, and that people say, the next day, “Man, Obama—Christie really opened up a can of Jersey on him.”

That Sen. Rob Portman, whom many thought would, like Mr. Christie, have been a very solid vice presidential nominee, will get the best kind of revenge, which is constructive revenge. He is well placed to do for Mitt Romney what Ronald Reagan did for Barry Goldwater in 1964, which was make the case better than the nominee ever did.

It would be good to see Sen. Marco Rubio and talk about the meaning of things, the meaning of politics. He’s a young man in the big game. Why?

Paul Ryan will be exciting, somehow you know that in advance. But he should perhaps keep in the back of his mind something that hasn’t been mentioned much. People are saying—not as a criticism, not as a compliment, but musingly—two words: “He’s young.”

They’ve just had a bad experience with young, with President Obama. Mr. Ryan stands for big change in terms of programs, and people will be inclined to want some years in such a person. So he and his people should consider that 42 can be a plus or a minus, and think about how to enhance the former and lessen the latter.

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How will voters judge Mr. Romney’s speech? The answer comes in some questions:

Is it fresh? Is it true? Does it substantiate—add substance to—what we think we know of Mitt Romney? Does it deepen and broaden our understanding of him? Does it make us, as we listen, begin to see him as a possible president? Presidents are in our face 24 hours a day now. Is this someone we’d let in our living rooms for four years? Can he inspire?

Free advice is worth the price, and here goes:

If you want to lead America, you have to speak to the fix we’re in, and that means addressing spending. But economic probity has a friend called economic growth, and that is what people care so much about—jobs, opportunity, the competitive advantage conferred by good policies. Are we a vital nation able to grow, to take on our true size again?

Emphasis is everything. Emphasize dynamism.

Mr. Romney shouldn’t just repeat what he thinks but tell people why he thinks it, what life has taught him that formed his views.

He shouldn’t shy away from religion. Why should he? This is America. It was in the practice of his faith that Mr. Romney came, as a bishop of the Mormon church, to become involved in helping those with lives very different from his own. In an interview Thursday night on the Catholic network EWTN, he told anchor Raymond Arroyo that as a “small-p pastor” he learned a great deal about those who feel under siege, lonely, left out. What did he learn? How did his church help him learn it?

He must use humor, for three reasons. One is that wit breaks through and sharpens all points. Another is that it is natural to him. Before the voting in Iowa, he wryly told a friend that the caucuses were like the LaBrea Tar Pits: “No one comes out the way they went in.” On a conference call recently, he asked a question of his staff. No one answered. Mr. Romney waited. “Bueller? Bueller?” he said, in a perfect imitation of Ben Stein.

Third, President Obama can’t stand to be made fun of. His pride won’t allow it, hisamour propre cannot countenance a joke at his own expense. If Mr. Romney lands a few very funny lines about the president’s leadership, Mr. Obama will freak out. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

A small point with practical significance. Convention crowds are revved up. They want to stomp and cheer. During Mr. Romney’s speech, they’ll go crazy applauding and yelling. This is fun in the hall but tedious for the viewer at home. At some point Mr. Romney should signal, by his demeanor and through his text, that everyone should calm down so he can talk to America. Applause line, cheers, applause line—that’s not political discourse, it’s a ticket to nowhere.

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Finally, the big broadcast networks plan to give the Republicans (and the Democrats) only one hour a night of TV coverage.

They used to give all night, long as it took, and treat the proceedings with respect. What they give now, to the people of a great democracy fighting for its economic life in an uncertain world, is . . . an hour a night? For a national political convention?

This is a scandal. Mock them for it. This isn’t Edward R. Murrow in charge of the news, it’s Gordon Gekko in charge of programming.

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Much is uncertain, no one knows what will happen this year, how it will turn out. But when I think of Mr. Romney’s speech I find myself thinking of Alan Shepard.

It’s May 5, 1961, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and everyone’s fussing. This monitor’s blinking and that one’s beeping and Shepard is up there, at the top of a Redstone rocket, in a tiny little capsule called Friendship 7. Mission Control is hemming and hawing: Should we stay or should we go? Finally Shepard says: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

That’s what a good speech and a good convention right now can do. There’s a great race ahead. Make it come alive. Come on and light this candle.