Rupert Cornwell: The thrill of 2008 is dead and I can see Mitt Romney in the White House

The gauche Nixon was elected. Twice. There’s no prohibitive reason Romney can’t do the same

Share

He really did pretty well. Mitt Romney is never going to set the world alight with a speech. A reserved and private man, he's always going to be uncomfortable talking about himself. He's never been good at "connecting". He rarely does empathy, at least not in public. For Romney, if only 2012 had been 1864 when, in the middle of a civil war, Abraham Lincoln could accept the Republican party's nomination with a 216-word letter ending with "your obedient servant".

But modern conventions and modern elections don't work like that. The candidate has to bare his soul (though not, so far, his tax records). He has to construct a personal "narrative" to show he is a regular human. He must produce some rousing oratory and indelible phrases, something else Romney is not very good at. But in Tampa, he tried. They even rebuilt the podium the night before with steps down on to the floor, bringing him closer to the audience so that he could indeed better connect. In the event, as acceptance speeches go, his was a pretty pedestrian effort. But expectations beforehand were mercifully low.

And politics is about more than packaging, "humanising" the candidate and waiting for the theatre reviews to come in. Mine, for what it's worth, is that on Thursday night, Mitt Romney was Mitt Romney, competent but wooden. For about the first time he uttered the "M-word" – Mormon – on a public stage, and even managed a joke about it. As usual, though, he never looked totally relaxed. But does it matter? Compared with the gauche and awkward Richard Nixon, for instance, Romney is a combination of JFK and Demosthenes. Nixon, though, was elected president. Twice. There's no prohibitive reason Romney can't do the same.

Above all, don't forget the dynamic of this election. Most people have long since basically made up their minds, and Romney was aiming at the 5 or 10 per cent at most of undecideds. For them, this is a contest between an incumbent who has disappointed but whom they still like personally, and a competent, rather uninspiring challenger with some interesting ideas but who's still a bit of a mystery. Everything depends on whether this group is ready to give Obama a second chance: whether they believe he was dealt such a tough hand in January 2009 that no earthly mortal could have put things right in the time available.

Look at it from this perspective, and Romney did pretty well in Tampa. Neither he (nor running mate Paul Ryan who, for me, was the real star of the week) went after Obama with crude frontal attacks. They didn't deliver tirades that might have offended people who like Obama the man, despite the dismal economy. "More in sorrow than anger" was the tone. "I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed," Romney declared. Crocodile tears – but a recognition of America's disillusioned mood of 2012.

When a president is seeking a second term, it is said, an election is essentially a referendum on the incumbent. Less so this time. Republicans must present the 2012 election not as a referendum, but a choice between alternatives. As Ryan put it the night before, without change at the top, "why should the next four years be any different from the last four years?"

So Romney presented himself as a practical man of action vs well-meaning but ineffectual dreamer. Reaganesque, he asked Americans if they were better off than four years ago. Obama had entered office with an "apology tour"; he would begin with a jobs tour. Obama had promised "to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise... is to help you and your family."

And he even came up with a "five-point plan" – actually, not a plan, rather a set of targets: 12 million new jobs, school choice, energy self-sufficiency by 2020, a federal budget on track to balance, and help for small business. Boilerplate Republican stuff to be sure, but it sounded different. Convention acceptance speeches are no place for fine print.

As for "humanising" himself, he made progress on that score as well. Republicans know full well that no new Ronald Reagan is in their midst, many continue to doubt his conservative bona fides. But Romney at least lifted some veils. He spoke about his Mormonism, and also about Bain Capital, the private equity group where he made his fortune, and which is exhibit A in Team Obama's take-down of him. "We weren't always successful at Bain," he admitted, but "no one ever is in the real world of business" of which Obama knew nothing.

The success of the speech will be measured not in decibels of applause, but in what happens to his polling negatives. Hitherto, Americans have had scant idea of who Mitt Romney is; what idea they did have was mainly provided by the Obama campaign, depicting him as a callous tax-dodging vulture capitalist, a child of privilege out of touch with ordinary people. That's why Romney's personal unpopularity ratings have been at 50 per cent or more, a record for a major party candidate at this stage of a campaign. But now Romney has begun to paint a self-portrait. Expect those negatives to start falling, and the traditional post-convention "bounce" to kick in.

With so few voters open to changing their minds, the bounce probably won't be large. But it needn't be. The final weeks of the campaign are likely to be brutish and dispiriting. Both sides will play fast and loose with the facts. Expect no uplifting happy talk. As I said, an incumbent who has disappointed faces a challenger who does not inspire. Right now Obama and Romney are in a dead heat nationally, although the President has a tiny lead in most of the eight or nine swing states that will determine the outcome.

Even with Bill Clinton in prominent attendance, Obama is unlikely to move the needle much at next week's Democratic convention in Charlotte. The thrill of 2008 is gone; the jobless rate is at a level where no incumbent has been re-elected since FDR during the Great Depression. To win, this President must pray that Americans still place most of the blame for the country's current woes on George W Bush. If Romney emerges from the convention phase of the campaign with a net gain of a couple of points, survives the three presidential debates and hangs on to that edge until November, that will suffice. And Mitt Romney, stilted and rather boring, personally still something of an enigma, will find himself the 45th President of the United States.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor