Political Animal


April 25, 2012 10:00 AM Mitt’s Missing Piece

By Ed Kilgore

Even as Mitt Romney cruised to a five-state primary victory last night, the word in RomneyWorld wasn’t about that: it was about the big speech he’d deliver in New Hampshire that would define his general election campaign message (or what Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins called Romney’s 97th pivot to the general election).

So the speech was duly delivered, and while it was fine for purposes of giving primary voters a final tribute of dog whistles while introducing Mitt to non-primary voters, it’s probably not going to make anbody’s top one thousand list of political speeches they’ve heard. It has one clever and memorable line (“It’s still about the economy…and we’re not stupid.”), though it’s hard to get excited about a slogan that’s actually derived from an earlier Demoratic campaign’s slogan.

But as Ezra Klein noted, there’s rather a large piece missing at the heart of the speech:

It was a perfectly serviceable piece of work: competently written and competently delivered. But it didn’t contain an ounce of actual policy. If this speech was all you knew of Mitt Romney — if it was your one guide to his presidential campaign — you’d sum his message up as, “vote for me: I think America is great….”
Don’t believe me? The full speech is here. The first nine paragraphs are biography. The next eight are attack lines on President Obama (“It’s still about the economy …and we’re not stupid”). Then we get into Romney’s vision….
Romney never makes the turn to how he would achieve this America. Believing in it is apparently enough. The end result isn’t so much a preview of how Romney would govern the country as a game of “I Spy: America the Beautiful” edition.
I’m not a pollster. I don’t know if the American people want to hear about policy. Perhaps they prefer gauzy generalities. Perhaps they’re more interested in what candidates think of America than what they want to do for America. But if this is what the general election is going to be like, then it’s not going to be a clash of visions. It’s going to be a clash of adjectives.

Back when I used to do message training, we told elected officials that any political communication had three elements: embracing values, which told listeners who they were; articulating broad policy goals, which told them what they wanted to do; and offering ideas or proposals or programs, which told them how they were going to do it.

It’s the last element that was entirely missing from Romney’s Big Speech. And it’s not suprising when you think about it. The central “how” in Romney’s agenda is the Ryan Budget. It’s not very popular, but it’s also unavoidable, because it embraces so much of the national agenda.

If you were running for office, and you were required to support the Ryan Budget, would you talk about it very often in front of potentially unfriendly audiences? Probably not. No, you’d talk about your all-American values and experiences, and your vision for an America where rising tides lift all boats, evil mullahs fear to strike, and government doesn’t take money from good people to give it to bad people.

That’s where the Romney campaign is at this point, and it wil be interesting what tactics the Obama campaign uses to promote greater knowledge of what Romney actually plans to do.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Uday on April 25, 2012 10:13 AM:

    Interesting comment. I'd argue that Romney might have learned a lot from Obama's campaign in 08 (as have most contemporary politicians, see Hollande right now in France). It was quite notorious for a policy-lite approach, and I think Romney's policy-free speech this week seems to be a logical culmination of this increasingly superficial, personality-based discourse.

    It would be useful to compare this to Obama's speeches in the coming months, because if I know anything about him, they're going to be full of nice-sounding generalities, platitudes, and the hopeful yet ultimately empty rhetoric that we've come to know and love about the man.

  • T2 on April 25, 2012 10:13 AM:

    It should be plain by now that Romney is about nothing. He's a rich kid running for president for the Party run by Rich people for the purpose of making them richer. Aside from that, there's nothing to discuss.
    Romney is like a scallop....no real flavor at all, but a perfect vehicle for a variety of tasty sauces. In this case the chef's are Koch Brothers, Dick Armey and Grover Norquist. Sous Chefs are Paul Ryan and Jim DeMint. All they need is a relatively fresh scallop named Mitt Romney.

  • stormskies on April 25, 2012 10:18 AM:

    Of course there is zero about his policies because his actual policies are the policies of Bush, and even worse. Those are of course the very policies that drove our country, and the world, to the point of economic cataclysm. And, beyond those policies leading to economic cataclysm's, there is of course the 'social agenda' that buffoon Romney's polices correlate too which start with two wars. One is the war on women, the other is the war on the poor.

    It is fucking astounding to consider that even one American would want to vote for this again given that the actual history and reality of those policies are not only still in place in various ways, but that that history was a short four years ago.

    Exactly how anyone could vote for this is itself a real testimony the utterly stupid nature of a vast amount of our fellow citizens.

  • gifgrrl on April 25, 2012 10:21 AM:

    And Mitten's "big policy goal" seems to be "Obama bad! Obama bad!"

    And while maybe both Obama and Romney will offer platitudes and generalities, Romneybot doesn't do soaring oratory. If he weren't so irksome, he'd be a great cure for insomnia.

  • Basilisc on April 25, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Mitt's "message" is essentially:
    1. I'm a white guy.
    2. The economy sucks.

    Believe it or not, these two points are likely to get him 47% of the vote. Now he just needs to hope for a downturn that gets him to 51%. Isn't this a great country?

  • T2 on April 25, 2012 10:38 AM:

    "utterly stupid nature of a vast amount of our fellow citizens." Stormskies, I hate to say this, really I do, but there's a lot more racist folks out there than I think we expect in 2012.

  • boatboy_srq on April 25, 2012 10:40 AM:

    [I]t’s hard to get excited about a slogan that’s actually derived from an earlier Demoratic campaign’s slogan.

    Derivitave is probably the kindest thing one can say about Romney's campaign: he's borrowed or stolen material from just about everyone without supplying an iota of substance to back up the sloganeering, or even a sharp twist to the old taglines to make them fresh. If there's an original thought in his head - or in the heads of his whole cadre of advisors, speechwriters and other handlers - we haven't yet seen any proof of it.

    If this speech was all you knew of Mitt Romney — if it was your one guide to his presidential campaign — you’d sum his message up as, “vote for me: I think America is great….”

    This is actually the one consistent thread in Romney's campaign. He LOVES the US, and he REALLY wants to be President. Everything else seems to be window-dressing aimed at the constituency du jour. That's hardly a justification to vote for him.

  • boatboy_srq on April 25, 2012 10:41 AM:

    Grrr... not enough caffeine this morning.


  • Gandalf on April 25, 2012 10:42 AM:

    Uday that's an amazing comment. And when I say amazing it's amazing that your so shallow. Given the incontrovertable fact that in the year 2012 we can access vast amounts of information via the internet a quick perusal of Obama's speeches indicates that many of them contained details of what he intended to do as opposed to chatty Cathy doll like repetitions of Bush bad Bush bad.
    Now I know in the bubble all that matters is repeating the same mindless drivel of Obama bad Obama bad but just what the fuck does Mitt intend to do? He said himself that if he told people what he wanted to do that they wouldn't vote for him.

  • jcricket on April 25, 2012 10:44 AM:

    As long as The Mittster hangs his hat on the Ryan Budget, we can see all the policy we need to see.

    Mitt's policy will be to do his best to make sure that what remains of the middle and working class is turned into a working-poor class who can't afford the luxury of anything but scraping to get by month to month.

    The Ryan Budget is all about the transferring of wealth from the average person to the rich political donors via tax breaks, loopholes, and cutting social programs that help families to get by.

  • Hedda Peraz on April 25, 2012 10:53 AM:

    A polished pol would EMBRACE the Ryan Budget, and say to the sheeple:

    "Like me, you are wise and patriotic American Voters. For too long these spend and borrow politicians have ruined OUR economy, and it is time for THEM to pay the piper. We will make THEM pay for their wasteful ways! With this budget WE will return to full employment, and a future that is bright for OUR children! Thank you for your support, and God Bless America."

    Of course, the sheeple have no idea of what is actually in that budget, so the speech would work- if Mitt Romney were a polished pol.

  • jjm on April 25, 2012 10:58 AM:

    @Uday above is just about 100% dead wrong about Obama's 2008 campaign.

    My guess is that you closed your ears to what he said, either because you couldn't accept them coming out of the mouth of someone like him (not white, not GOP) or because you just didn't listen at all.

    We knew a very great deal about his intended policies and each time he was able to implement one, from ending the Iraq war, to ending DADT, to getting health care passed, he was able to note that he had done what he had proposed.

    During the campaign he also proposed raising taxes on those earning over $250,000 /yr, now a raging issue. So for you to try to put his campaign in the same company as Romney is another troll like vicious attempt to characterize Obama as a lightweight without substance.

  • stormskies on April 25, 2012 11:01 AM:

    jjm......amen ......... shout this from the rooftops if need be .......

  • jjm on April 25, 2012 11:02 AM:

    And yes, boatboy-srq -- Romney is entirely derivative -- of Obama!

    Obama speaks about giving everyone a fair shake, so Romney runs the words through the GOP translation machine to make the word fairness mean 'everything for the 1%'

    I've never heard of a politician so bereft of ANY ideas that he can only copycat what his rival says--but twisted.

  • RT on April 25, 2012 11:10 AM:

    "But as Ezra Klein noted, there's rather a large piece missing at the heart of the speech:"

    That seems to be the case with Romney in general. What isn't there is more important that what is there.

    @T2: Romney is worth a quarter billion dollars, enough to be independently wealthy, yet he's still an employee of billionaires. I'm hoping the Obama campaign will discuss at length just who Romney is working for.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 25, 2012 11:11 AM:

    boatboy: This is actually the one consistent thread in Romney's campaign. He LOVES the US, and he REALLY wants to be President...

    Of course he LOOOOOVES the good ol' US of A! The trees are the right height... aren't they?

    Well, evidently Mittbot is trying to get his poetic blather on (to appeal to the non-bat shit crazy yet woefully uninformed--gullible--electorate); and, yes, we can say that all politicians wax poetic with empty promises a-plenty during campaign seasons, but when Mitt does it, it's extra insincere--"I'm-just-saying-whatever-you-want-me-to-say-now-give-me-the-Scepter-ahem-Presidency-dammit! insincere.

    I wonder if Mitt vomitted in his mouth when he realized he was about to start grovelling to us lowly paupers, though. Must be humiliating for the old money bag...

  • digitusmedius on April 25, 2012 11:13 AM:

    I dunno, does anyone else think "We're Not Stupid" as a Republican campaign slogan is yet another gift for Dems?

  • stormskies on April 25, 2012 11:21 AM:

    Sgt. Gym Bunny

    "I wonder if Mitt vomitted in his mouth when he realized he was about to start grovelling to us lowly paupers, though. Must be humiliating for the old money bag..."


    Exactly. Remember that scene with buffoon Romney at the picnic table with those hand selected Repiglicans ? Fucking a ............. this speaks for itself ...even the lovingly prepared cookies were, to the ultra wealthy buffoon, something from 7/11

  • Peter C on April 25, 2012 11:22 AM:

    Romney's 'zinger' was also a malicious twisting of reality, just like his 'apologizing for Americal' lie/meme. The whole 'it's the economy, stupid!' was Carville's message TO CLINTON. It was a reminder to Bill to keep the 1992 campaign focused (like a laser beam) on the economy and keep him from veering off on to other subjects.

    So, when Romney turns it around saying, “It’s still about the economy …and we’re not stupid” as if some Democrat had called the populace 'stupid', that's a LIE. It was an internal message where Carville called Clinton stupid.

    It's is evil to use a lie to stir up unfounded outrage. So far, this is all that I've seen Romney do.

  • Steve on April 25, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Romney's derivative campaigning and sloganeering brings to mind John McCain's widely derided "that's not change we can believe in" speech.

  • TCinLA on April 25, 2012 11:57 AM:

    As we know, Romney has said several times he is not going to get into specifics, because if he does he knows people will vote against him. So the lack of specificity was to be expected.

    If you bear in mind that probably 15% of Americans (or less) actually pay attention to what is going on and have enough information and political literacy to make sense of the information, the truth is that a gauzy "belief in America" probably is good enough for at least a significant minority.

    As someone who has written speeches for politicians, when I listened to that speech last night, what I heard was something nice and soothing that will work on the average low-information voter, particularly if it is backed up with relentless negative advertising by the Rove PACs. As Goebbels said, you make the lie big enough that people are afraid to point out it's a lie, and you repeat it often enough that they finally come to believe it. In Romney's case, the lie is that he's the guy he presented himself as last night in his speech, that he's not the guy who has made all the promises he has to the Far Right that are the exact opposite of everything he said he believed in in that speech. As we have noted, getting someone to call him a liar is hard - that's the Big Lie that can't be spoken of.

    What needs to be done is for Democrats to take that speech and cut it up, "belief" by belief, and run it as an ad: the first 10 seconds are Romney and his blather, the next 20 seconds are him on video making a promise that's the opposite. And then the question: "Who's the real Romney?" Just keep hammering those home truths throughout the campaign. Remember, you are drilling through granite to get information into the skull of the average voter, who is the kids who fell asleep in the back rows of "government class" back in high school.

    I wish I could think better of my fellow Americans, but 50 years of watching them, and 10 years spent full-time trying to get through to them in elections, tells me that my analysis above deals with the problem realistically.

    If we can't call him a liar to his face, we can at least present the evidence of his lies and hope that 2+2 still equals 4 in the mind of the average bozo.

  • bobbo on April 25, 2012 11:59 AM:

    Reminds me a lot of McCain's convention speech. I am a war hero, I love America, vote for me. Perhaps Repubs avoid substance because they don't have any? After all, their dream is to dismantle government.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 25, 2012 12:38 PM:

    Why is anybody surprised that the speech was content-free of objective proposals. The entire right of America speaks only in evidence-free assertions of their faith-based ideological worldview. That's all you're going to get this whole campaign. It's all the wingnuts want -- real thinking is just too hard; easier on the intellect to just listen to junk you already believe even if it is unsupported -- and all the GOP intends to deliver.

    And it'll work. Get used to the phrase "President Romney."

  • chris darrouzet on April 25, 2012 1:02 PM:

    The danger here is for Progressives and Dems—any and all Obama backers—to underestimate (1) how many voters are taking all of this non-talk of policy as a dog-whistle for just elect me, the successful great white hope; (2) Romney's determination to prove his point that by advancing actual policies, he weakens his case. He is running as the policy-stealth candidate deliberately. He knows Obama is entangled in real policy issues, as any incumbent must be. Romney is using his experience running against Ted Kennedy to his hoped for advantage. Just don't say anything. Just run on identity and ideological politics.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 25, 2012 1:10 PM:

    @chris 1:02 pm

    You are correct. There will be no substance from Romney other than the insults-to-reality that he already delivers on policy and events. And that'll be enough if Democrats aren't prepared to fight back just as viciously as the Republicans are willing to viciously lie and institute their upcoming banana republic. There are enough ignoramuses and congenital idiots in this country to buy what Republicans are selling. Hell, they want to buy it. No selling required.

  • Just Guessing on April 25, 2012 3:02 PM:

    I believe the Dems should push the similarity of Mitt to GWB. Both ex-goevenor's with limited policy ideas of their own (well Mitt had one but now he's against it) that once they become President, they are manipulated to follow the policies of their behind the scenes overlords. And look where that got us after 8 years of Shrub. Mitt is actually struggling to get his message across to a pretty uninformed electorate, I can imagine how he proposes to successfully manage Congress with all the political savvy they have.

  • Cybrguy on April 25, 2012 3:16 PM:

    President Andrew Shepherd: For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character, and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I've been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character. For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren't you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party's most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? If you can answer that question, folks, then you're smarter than I am, because I didn't understand it until a few hours ago. America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free". I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.