Are you more excited now than you were four years ago?
It is an odd question coming from Mitt Romney, who is about as exciting as the management consultant he once was. Yet it was one of the more interesting arguments in his speech last night accepting the Republican presidential nomination. “Tonight I’d ask a simple question,” Romney said, addressing Barack Obama’s 2008 supporters. “If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?”
Romney also had his variation on the usual challenger’s challenge -- “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” -- but this was not a speech that got into many specifics about how he would do things differently. There was a five-step plan to create 12 million new jobs, but it would barely fill out a PowerPoint slide. Perhaps by the time of the presidential debates, Romney will have enough details for one of his trademark multimedia presentations.
Instead, Romney used his speech to talk about his family, charmingly so, and to set the stakes for November. With his selection three weeks ago of U.S. Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, the conventional wisdom was that Romney had transformed the election from a referendum (on Obama) into a choice (between Romney and Obama). If so, one of the goals of the speech seemed to be to turn the election back into a referendum.
Which leads us to the issue of excitement, though we will refrain from using an exclamation point. Whichever candidate can best excite his “base,” so the thinking goes, gains an advantage; and the vanishingly small cadre of truly undecided voters must also be motivated to vote.
Except that there are different ways to be excited, and not all of them are good. “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” said one Republican candidate in last winter’s presidential primaries. “I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support.”
That candidate was Mitt Romney, of course, who knew then -- and surely does now -- that political passions, once unleashed, have a way of becoming uncontrollable. There is a plausible argument that what U.S. politics need right now is less excitement, not more. Romney surely also knows that there is a difference between campaigning (exciting, often) and governing (not, mostly).
Still, Romney was on to something. A stagnant economy, some 20 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, and a broken political system will tend to have a depressing effect, economically and psychologically. The U.S. is far less hopeful than it was just after Obama took office, even as its economy is far less fragile. Can Romney or Obama do anything about it?
Whether Obama can recapture the excitement of his campaign’s youth is doubtful. And the task for both candidates is less glamorous than workmanlike.
“What America needs is jobs,” Romney said last night. “Lots of jobs.” This is akin to saying America needs lots of sunshine and lollipops. The dispute isn’t over whether the U.S. needs jobs. It’s about how best to create them.
What America also needs is a respectful, honest debate between the candidates about the U.S.’s economic future. The two main goals -- increasing spending now to stimulate the economy, and reducing spending later to control the deficit -- aren’t really at odds, but they don’t lend themselves to easy campaigning.
Mitt Romney didn’t add much to this debate yesterday, and Barack Obama probably won’t at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s OK: Every four years, for the two weeks of the party conventions, U.S. political dialogue becomes more partisan than usual. Too much excitement, probably. Here’s hoping the homestretch of the campaign will be exciting enough to keep voters interested, but substantive enough to keep them thinking.
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