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Week In Politics: Republican National Convention


And now to E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, our regular Friday political commentators, both just back from Tampa. Welcome home.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you both about what we heard in Mitt Romney's speech last night and also what we didn't hear. We did hear a very explicit appeal to people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Let's take a listen.


BLOCK: And Mitt Romney also said I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. E.J., how did that strike you - genuine, disingenuous, what?

DIONNE: Well, I do think that was the best line in a not-so-great speech. It wasn't a bad speech, but it wasn't a great speech. And I think that signals the way they feel about who the swing voters are. They think there are people who voted for Obama who are reluctant to leave him. I think the problem with their view may be that they almost think of it in psychological terms, that somebody doesn't want to break up with a guy that they were tied with in the first place.

Whereas it may be that those voters think that Obama inherited a mess or they still prefer his policies to Romney's. But clearly, I think it's a better way to get the swing voters they need to change their minds than some really harsh attacks. I think you also saw in that speech the costs of a campaign that had not spent much time introducing Mitt Romney. He spent an awful lot of time talking about his family, an awful lot of time talking about Bain Capital.

Sort of, one, to try to humanize himself and make him likeable, the other answering the attacks. He didn't talk at all about his time as governor of Massachusetts. There are a variety of reason why he didn't and the Obama folks would love an opening to attack that, and he really didn't spend a lot of time on ideas. It was a speech that was very much idea thin. It was also ideologically thin.

And that's why I see it a bit as finally Romney shook the Etch-a-Sketch and moved off the sort of - where he was earlier.

BLOCK: I was struck by that, too. I mean, that Mitt Romney did mention the fact that he was governor of Massachusetts, but only to mention that he had appointed a lot of women. No mention of the Olympics at all. It did seem a pretty glaring omission. What's happened to the notion that you might trumpet your achievements as governor of a state, David Brooks?

BROOKS: I think people have a sense he was a competent governor. I think people have a sense he was a competent Olympic leader. But they don't have a sense that he's a decent guy. If you ask on likeability, and by some polls he has a 23 point deficit against Barack Obama. If he was even in likeability, he'd be winning this election pretty easily. And so that's what they went after.

I was stunned for the past - the first three days of the convention, they really did almost nothing really to give us any anecdotes. And finally on Thursday night they had two Mormon families, both of whom suffered tragic losses of their children, and they talked about Romney's ministering to them. Why those people haven't been in ads for the past months, why they haven't had dozens more - and you hear cases of other - many other examples where he's done similar ministering, heartbreaking cases where he really went out of his way to be a community builder - why that is not out there is the case of grossest campaign malpractice. And they let this image of him as this stiff inhumane corporate cog linger out there month after month and then they finally bring out these families and they do it on the night where it's bound to be overshadowed by his speech. It's mystifying to me.

BLOCK: The main thrust, though, was that he deserves to be president because he was a successful businessman, a successful CEO. Does that pitch sell if you want to be president and commander in chief, E.J.?

DIONNE: I don't think there's been as pro-business a Republican convention since the gilded age. I mean, any mention of the private sector was cheered through the rafters - to the rafters. And I think that this may be the Republican Party talking to itself. What they're trying to argue is Obama is anti-business, which I think the facts suggest otherwise, and that he doesn't believe in opportunity, he only believes in government.

The whole premise of the three days, about you didn't build this, was built on a grammar mistake, as Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post put it. And so I think they're going to overplay the businessman. I mean, that is his main calling card but the Obama campaign showed that you can make that a vulnerability and I don't think people want a businessman as president. They want a president, a leader, as president.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting because there was somewhat - one other thing that was missing from this convention. Not just George W. Bush himself, but virtually no mention of his name, much less his administration. There was, in a speech from Jeb Bush last night, a mention. He did go off script and added this.


BLOCK: Almost as an apology - total elimination from collective memory of the Republican Party, David Brooks.

BROOKS: It would've been great if he would have said I love my brother and he was a great president, but he didn't add that phrase. He really should have. You know, the party's conflicted about President Bush. They like him, but they think he was too much spending. He got away from the notion of fiscal discipline. That's not entirely fair, but that is the perception because of the prescription drug benefit and all the rest.

And I think they do think he - there was too much compassionate conservatism under George W. Bush and not enough business. And if you have a long economic slowdown caused in part because the business community is extremely nervous, they're sitting on these hoards of cash, they don't have the confidence to invest because of volatility, I do think the business experience, a sensitivity to what will make people invest is a reasonably good preparation.

It's not the same as making business decisions, but as you've seen over the past six years, Romney has become much less of a business thinker, much more of a political thinker. He started this campaign with 59 economic proposals, which is just what a corporate guy would do.

Now he's really focused on the key things - tax reform, Medicare, entitlement reform. So I think he's evolved in a much more political direction, in the way that a president has to think, not the way a CEO has to think.


DIONNE: Let's not be excessively polite here. I mean, George W. Bush left office as a very unpopular president. He was one reason why Barack Obama got elected president in 2008. The Republicans know that. A word that I don't think I heard mentioned through the entire convention is the word Iraq, and indeed it was so striking that foreign policy was almost missing.

Even Condoleezza Rice, who gave what I thought was one of the very best speeches at that convention, didn't talk about it. And so - that was one of the most striking things about this convention. The last two Republican conventions were all about national security and foreign policy. Hardly a mention, except for Condoleezza Rice and John McCain in their speeches, which, you know, Condoleezza Rice's was in primetime, McCain's wasn't.

BLOCK: David Brooks, you had a lot of fun earlier this week in a column that you titled "The Real Romney." You called it the definitive biography, a unique look into his bironic soul. And here are a few takeaway points from your biography.

Romney, you said, uttered his first words at 14 months, and they were - I like to fire people. Later, he bought a mood ring, but it remained permanently transparent. And you called him a passionately devoted family man who streamlined his wife's pregnancies down to six months each.

We did get an email from a listener, Barbara Schmidt(ph) of Ann Arbor, who read your column. She wrote us begging us to ask you if your column was satire. I think we can safely tell her that it was. But I do wonder if you came away from the convention with a sense that Mitt Romney has, in fact, defined himself in a new and compelling way.

BROOKS: I came away with a sense I never want to write a humor column again.


BROOKS: Because every Democrat and independent seemed to like it; every Republican hated it. So humor is entirely partisan. And so that was extremely...

BLOCK: It depends on which way (unintelligible), yeah...

BROOKS: Extremely depressing. I guess I do think he eventually did humanize himself. As I say, I didn't think they did a very good job of it. I think it was missing biography for a long time. I think finally - you know, he is - as E.J. said, this is a very commercial party, very small business.

He's not actually like that. He's much more community-oriented, really spent 20 hours a week on community and church stuff. And we finally got a glimpse of that. It doesn't mean he'll be a great president, but he's not just a corporate cog, a corporate automaton, as I was smart-alecky pundit (unintelligible).


And briefly, E.J.?

DIONNE: It was a fun column, David, and I think the question is: Will we know who Mitt Romney is by Election Day? And I'm not sure we will.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne with The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.