By David Gushee
What follows is an interpretation of Mitt Romney’s Republican National Convention speech on Thursday night, penned just after the event, without benefit (or harm) from listening to any pundit or reading any news stories. I will do the same next week about Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. My commentary is intended to be nonpartisan and to speak to the ethos and values presented.
Tone and body language: Romney came across as a kindly older man who was not angry at anyone and did not want to evoke the worst in his audience. He smiled politely and projected an air of serene self-confidence. While walking in and shaking hands along the line he seemed stiff, actually appearing more relaxed at the podium than when meeting and greeting.
On Obama: Romney avoided nasty attacks on President Obama, instead suggesting that he and many in his audience had been moved when Obama was elected president four years ago. Adopting a tone more of regret than of anger, Romney suggested mildly that Obama has not really proven up to the job of managing the government, and especially the economy, and that it is time for Americans to accept that fact and move on.
I think the subtext of the Obama remarks was any guilt white Americans might feel for turning away from America’s first African-American president. The idea seemed to be: “You made history four years ago along with him, and you can feel good about that. Maybe he and we all got a bit carried away by the Obama eschatology. Now let me take over. You are not doing anything wrong if you take the keys away from him at this point.”
On family: I was struck by the intense emphasis on family at every level, both in words and camera shots. Romney was never more affecting than when talking about his wife and sons. Marco Rubio spun a compelling tale about his own family. And the post-speech shot of all those happy spouses, children and grandchildren was great TV. Romney emphasized that family is the most important institution in society.
I wish he had gone on to say: “Americans, we need to stop producing so many broken families, because of the suffering of children and because it is one of the best ways to become poor and make your children poor.”
On Horatio Alger myths: It seemed very important for Rubio, Romney and everyone else in the Republican camp to proclaim loudly that they believe in America, which seemed largely to mean a place where rags-to-riches stories still happen. The “American Dream” is that anyone can come or grow up here and one day become very successful despite very modest backgrounds.
I wish Romney had noted that this dream of social mobility is actually today harder to achieve in America than in many other countries — and that government policies are among those factors which contribute to our declining social mobility. And Christians, of course, do have a few theological resources for raising questions about whether getting rich is the highest goal in life.
On American exceptionalism: Romney and Rubio both made it very clear that we are the greatest nation and that if you want a problem solved, you call an American. These make for good applause lines in a Republican convention but one wonders about the impression abroad. And it does remind me that those who are most confident, really, feel little need to tell everyone how confident they are.
On foreign policy: Romney came across mainly as the guy who wants to fix the economy and government finances. His emphasis on foreign policy was limited. The overall tone was a kind of mild toughness, along the lines of: “There will be no more dreaming over there in the White House. We will toughen things up.” Romney’s mention of Vladimir Putin was odd, and continuous with a neo-Cold War tone he has previously struck.
On social issues: The cues for the Christian right were scarce but clear. Once again the great old Christian ethic of “sanctity of life” was used as a slogan reduced to mean opposition to abortion. (My new book coming out in January explores how much more that principle really means.) He at last invoked his commitment to his own church and sought to bring his Mormonism into contact with every other religious community in America. “Religious liberty” was invoked, rallying conservative religious voters of all types against unspoken Obama administration and leftish threats. But that was about it.
On women: This is not Phyllis Schlafly’s Republican Party. It was good to be reminded that Mitt Romney’s mother actually ran for Senate herself. Clearly Romney was trying to communicate to women that he is concerned about them, too, but in a different way than the Democrats are: not in terms of reproductive choice, but in terms of political and economic opportunity. We will see how that flies in November.