We've all heard the objection that political conventions have become empty kabuki theater. The high drama of multiple ballots is dead and gone. Uncertainty about the outcome is no more. "Today," laments political guru Mike Murphy, "delegates are bound through the application of TV ad ratings points, not machine deals. They sit in the convention hall like the background actors in a TV show, milling about to the director's orders, wearing costumes and denied a single line. It seems a shabby ending to a great tradition. It's time for a mercy killing."
Mike Murphy is an astute observer of all things political, but I think he's wrong about this. Sure, conventions have lost their drama (though, even in the old days, very few actually featured any suspense about the eventual nominee). And yes, like so much else in American life, they have become shows. But at least they are shows about public policy and about democracy -- each party getting an extended opportunity to make its best case. Political conventions are one of the only shows Americans watch collectively that are about important matters, like the direction of the country rather than about Snooki or "Monday Night Football." (Not that there's anything wrong with football...)
The Republican convention is particularly important this year, because if the polls are to be trusted (an open question), the voters are quite dissatisfied with the leadership of Barack Obama yet unconvinced that Romney is an acceptable alternative.
As Jack Kemp was fond of saying, people want to know that you care before they care what you know. Voters are uncertain about Romney because they don't yet perceive him to care about their problems. Funny how that can happen when your opponent spends hundreds of millions of dollars presenting you as a villain -- a corporate raider, felon, tax cheat and murderer.
But there's another reason as well. Romney himself -- unlike the sort of candidates we've seen in the past several cycles, particularly Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- has a kind of old-fashioned reticence. He doesn't have a story about paternal abandonment as Obama (quite the opposite) or posthumous birth as Clinton. He comes from the kind of loving and supportive family that he now heads with Ann Romney. But even if he did have a hard luck story, one senses that he wouldn't be comfortable retailing it. Yes, he can tout his accomplishments as a businessman or governor or savior of the Olympics, but he cannot tell stories about his personal kindness and decency -- about how often he has dropped everything to help others.
There is no shortage of such accounts -- and the convention is the place (the only place) where they can be told to a large audience. Romney surrogates can highlight the striking number of instances of kindness and generosity in Romney's life. The Daily offered these examples:
"One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas.
Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man's surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition -- loans he forgave when she graduated.
And in 1997, when a fellow church member's teenage son fell seriously ill, Romney sprinted to the hospital in the dead of night, where he kept vigil with his terrified parents.
Stories like these -- tales of long hours spent with grieving families, financial assistance to those in need and timely help given to strangers whether asked for or not -- abound in the adult life of the Republican presidential candidate."
As a skeptical Andy Ferguson wrote in The Weekly Standard, his coolness toward the candidate evaporated after reading "The Real Romney" by two Boston Globe reporters. "My slowly softening opinion," Ferguson wrote, "went instantly to goo when 'The Real Romney' unfolded an account of his endless kindnesses -- unbidden, unsung, and utterly gratuitous."
A campaign is more than a personality contest of course. Romney's acceptance speech will be an important moment to present a roadmap for the nation's recovery. But that much could also be done through advertising and in the debates. The introduction of Romney the man, on the other hand -- lifting the curtain on the truth about his character and virtues -- can only be done by others and thus, requires the backdrop of the convention -- silly hats, programmed applause, staged tableaux and all.
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