Some more of less random thoughts on Wednesday at the Republican National Convention. I didn’t listen carefully to all the speeches, because I took some time to go down on the floor and interview politicians on public policy issues they deal with. I’ve written a couple of blogposts on their responses and plan to write more, notably on Orrin Hatch, who if Republicans win a Senate majority will be Chairman of the Finance Committee with responsibility for, if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win, doing something in response to their tax proposals. He seems to have given more than a little thought to this.
John McCain has a generally unrecognized gift for words. I suspect one reason he did so poorly at the Naval Academy is that Annapolis is or was mainly an engineering school and his verbal aptitude is much higher than his math aptitude. He delivered a moving tribute to Americans in the past and a scorching critique of the Obama administration’s foreign and defense policies. “And always we have led from the front, never from behind.” “Everywhere I go in the world, people tell me they still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether we still have faith in ourselves.” He vouched for Mitt Romney and proclaimed his trust. It is not widely known, but after withdrawing from the presidential race in February 2008 Romney told McCain he would help him in any way possible, and I gather from McCain that Romney did so and that McCain, who like the other candidates in the 2008 cycle detested a competitor who was capable of putting $40 million of his own money into his campaign, actually came to like and trust the guy. Remember that McCain went up to New Hampshire and made a joint appearance with Romney before the 2012 primary there.
Later in the evening, starting just before the magic 10:00 Eastern hour when the three oldline broadcast networks deign to provide an hour of convention coverage, came Condolezza Rice. I found her remarks on foreign policy a bit surprising, given the neoconservative critique of her tenure as secretary of state. “Peace really does come through strength,” she said, echoing McCain’s criticism of Barack Obama’s willingness to hold a further $500 billion of defense cuts to Republicans’ capitulating and agreeing to higher taxes on high earners. The high-minded editorialists who chide Republicans for not yielding on this point might want to consider whether any party will readily agree to commit suicide: Republicans remember that when George H. W. Bush conceded on this point in 1990, and in my analysis did so because his Budget Director the late Richard Darman convinced him this was the only way to preserve firewalls between defense and domestic spending that would prevent a then seemingly eternally Democratic Congress from slashing defense spending, Bush was rewarded not with gratitude but with slashing attacks and, from the voters, 37% of the vote in the next election. While that memory is fresh, no Republican leader will make such a concession again.
Rice seemed to get louder and more sustained applause when she talked of her own example in life and cited the lesson her parents taught her: “You might not be able to control your circumstances, but you could control your response to your circumstances.” And when she noted that a black girl who could not eat at a Woolworths lunch counter was told she could be president of the United States and in fact became secretary of state. Republicans don’t want to hold black Americans down. They are delighted when they rise up.
Of course the main speaker Wednesday was vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. I must confess he was my first choice to run for president, back in those days in 2011 when it seemed possible he might do so. Steve Hayes has a fine piece on the Weekly Standard blog on Ryan’s deliberations in the summer of 2011 and he mentions that Ryan met with pollster Frank Luntz at the time. I saw Luntz late Wednesday afternoon at a Republican Jewish Coalition event—more on that event in a later blogpost, perhaps. I’ve known Frank since he was a wunderkind pollster first for Pat Buchanan and then for Ross Perot in the 1992 cycle. Today Frank said Ryan was “the perfect combination of personality and policy” and “the best one I’ve ever seen.” I’ve felt the same way for some time. Republican congressmen typically have worse political instincts compared to their Democratic counterparts (or none at all). Ryan has some of the best political instincts I’ve encountered, an ability honed in hundreds of town hall meetings in the nation’s-political-media Wisconsin 1st congressional district,* to explain difficult public policy issues to ordinary people in language they can understand and find appealing.
That was on display Wednesday night. Ryan started off praising Mitt Romeny and quickly segued to excoriating Barack Obama’s record. Some of this may have been necessary since there was no Monday night session (and would have been no Monday night session on broadcast networks even if there had been a Monday night session in the hall). He hit Obama hard on Obamacare’s “raid” on Medicare and cited his own family’s experience with Medicare in response. He cited Obama’s assurance that the GM plant in his home town of Janesville, Wisconsin, would be there for another hundred years and how it was shut down less than a year later.
Where I found him really sincere was in attacking Obama for “forever shifting blame.” You will hear the same complaint if you talk to Ryan or Speaker John Boehner off the record or over dinner. Or if you listen to John McCain in a similar setting on Obama’s willingness to risk defense cuts his own defense secretary says would be devastating in order to make a political talking point. These guys, whatever you think of them, take seriously their responsibilities to provide for ongoing conduct of government. They believe Obama does not take those responsibilities seriously. He plays golf and appears at political fundraisers a record number of times, but governing—not so much. Or so Ryan and Boehner believe. Boehner in particular deserves a medal for promoting Ryan to be ranking Republican on the Budget Committee and has not shown a whit of jealously for a colleague who has in some ways outshined him. On the contrary, on the giant videoscreen Tuesday I think I discerned a tear forming in the lachrymose Boehner’s eye as he described how a Miami of Ohio undergraduate from Wisconsin named Paul Ryan volunteered in the 1990 primary campaign of an Ohio legislator with the unfortunate (because often mispronounced) name of Boehner was running against two men who had already been elected to Congress—and how now that candidate was Speaker of the House and the young volunteer was nominated to be Vice President of the United States. “Is this a great country or what?” Boehner asked (or words pretty close to that).
Later in the speech, along similar lines, Ryan savaged Obama not only for adding record amounts of national debt (after all, the first year or so was the result of the September/October 2008 bailout Ryan and John McCain voted for and Mitt Romney supported), for ignoring the Simpson-Bowles Commission report (which Ryan voted against, because it didn’t repeal or address Obamacare). Obama, as Ryan didn’t say, has the very high quality career government officials at the Treasury and OMB at his service to develop policy, but instead let his (in at least one case) Harry Reid-trained political operatives make policy instead.
Then more on Obama administration policies. The stimulus package produced “political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst.” The response from the audience was a little uncertain, a sign that this message needs to be developed more and hammered home. A denunciation of Obamacare, together with engagement on Medicare, “$716 billion funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.” I read accounts of ordinary voters, obviously partisan Republicans, citing that number (or transposing it to $761 billion): the message is getting through.
Ryan is adroit at making concessions to the opposition’s serious arguments. He concedes, as Romney has done, that Obama inherited a severely ailing economy. He concedes that there was “a housing crisis they alone didn’t cause,” leaving him the option of laying out later the case, made by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Peter Wallison, that in their favored treatment for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac almost all Democrats (and, unfortunately for partisans, some Republicans) played the most serious part in causing the housing crisis.
Ryan, standing alone at the unshielded podium at this convention, not as thrusting into the audience as George W. Bush’s in New York in 2004, ridiculed Obama’s “stirring speeches, Greek [not as Bush 43 would have said, Grecian] columns, the thrill of something new.” He was—big applause here; a gifted and ageless metaphor—“a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.” Obama, he’s saying, and especially to young voters, is yesterday’s news.
Ryan also delivered, as so many at this convention have done, an appealing autobiographical story. His father died when he was 16, he lives on the same street in Janesville he grew up on and attends the same church where he was baptized. The speech itself showed signs of being stitched together. A paragraph or two on foreign/defense policy appeared and the was shoved aside. Personal references came in here and there, usually to very good effect. He contrasted his and Romney’s “different churches”: this is the first major party ticket in history which has not included a Protestant, at least one of a traditional denomination: another sign that Republicans are perfectly ready to accept, indeed are pretty enthusiastic about accepting, something that earlier generations of Americans would have regarded as unacceptable diversity.
I think Ryan’s speech was a little too much of a pastiche—a sometimes awkward knitting together of different themes, some needing to be inserted because of the lack of a Monday night session—to be one of the all-time great convention speeches. Not quite the artistic success I expected and hoped to enjoy. But his performance—and let’s not forget that this is a new venue for him—was first rate. If it failed to remind me of his (gracefully acknowledged) mentor Jack Kemp’s thrilling speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention, that’s because as VP nominee Ryan had more baggage to carry than Kemp, as a House member and idea originator, had. Ryan validated Frank Luntz’s estimate of his abilities. Other vice presidential candidates take on the character and faithfully enunciate them themes of the presidential nominees who chose them. Some (Sarah Palin?) set themselves out as distinctive individuals, capable of impressively outperforming their credentials but also of underperforming the needs of their running mates.
Over the last 18 months Paul Ryan has, more than anyone else, set a course on policy for the Republican party. He has persuaded Mitt Romney, even as Romney won hairsbreadth victories in key primaries, to move in the almost exactly the same direction. This has not been an entirely neat and tidy process, but here we are, with the Romney-Ryan in good position to win—and to lay the predicate for serious and substantive changes in (what are now unsustainable) public policies.
*National Journal analyst Charlie Cook rates it number 218, exactly at the midpoint, of congressional districts in his Partisan Voting Index.