Tampa, Day the Fourth. I suspect that Joe Biden is feeling pretty awful this morning. For that matter, I’d wager Barack Obama has had better nights’ rest. Condi Rice’s speech was bad enough for the Democrats — it was serious, dignified, eloquent — but Paul Ryan hit it out of the park. They both must have watched Ryan’s speech. They both must have come away with an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach. And poor Joe has to debate Ryan in a little more than a month. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
Most convention speeches, most political speeches from any venue, share an uneasy kinship with the tautologous exhortations of Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters: “Nothing stands between us and our victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!” And why not? Many people have the reaction of (as I recall) Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps: “You know, I’d never thought of that!” They like it when A = B and you can make the journey from premise to conclusion without leaving home.
Between us, there has been a fair amount of such thru-text at the 2012 Republican Convention, just as there will be next week at the Democratic jamboree. There were even a few hints of it in Paul Ryan’s speech.
A few, but not many. Ryan’s performance was a masterly specimen of the orator’s art. Start with the integument. Ryan’s delivery was close to flawless. He commands a reassuring serenity on stage. He doesn’t pace or jerk or flail. He stands relaxed, hands folded quietly on the podium, as he speaks with a friendly and intelligent clarity, almost as if he were talking with instead of to his audience. He never saws the air, but merely punctuates important points with a few simple, open-handed gestures.
He read the speech, but he knows how to make it seem ex tempore, almost confidential. His manner is open, confident, but somehow also humble. There is nothing swaggering, nothing of the braggart or narcissist about him. He seems impressed not by the sound of his own voice but by the facts and observations he shares with his listeners. He also exuded the physical grace of youth. His iPod playlist, unlike Mitt Romney’s, started with AC/DC and went to Zeppelin. The audience loved that.
Ryan’s obvious sincerity allows him to deliver devastating one-liners without seeming cruel:
President Obama is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record, and then calls that the record. But we are four years into this presidency. The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it, not the economy as he envisions it, but this economy as we are living it.
Ouch. But then came this:
College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.
That must have stung.
But Ryan’s speech was such an invigorating, wild triumph not only because it was supremely well delivered and contained a number of amusing rhetorical hand grenades. Ultimately, it was a triumph because it clearly retailed some of the key failures of the Obama administration while also outlining what a Romney-Ryan administration would do to remedy those failures. It was masterly in substance as well as performance.
There were three overriding themes: spending, growth, and responsibility. We need a lot less of the first and more of the second two. In 2008, Barack Obama came to office in the midst of a fiscal emergency. He lost no time in blaming George W. Bush for the mess that he inherited, and there is no doubt (as Ryan quietly acknowledged) that Bush’s profligate spending exacerbated the crisis. But when it comes to government spending, Obama makes Bush look like a piker. Remember: he has added $5 trillion to the federal debt in less than four years. That $800 and something billion “stimulus” — where did that go? What do we have to show for that? It was not only spent and wasted, Ryan reminded us, it was borrowed, spent, and wasted.
Blaming other people for one’s own failures is an unattractive habit. It’s one that is deeply ingrained in President Obama. If his poor performance is not George Bush’s fault, it is Congress’s fault, or Europe’s fault — anyone’s but his own. He promised that by this time he would have cut the deficit in half. He hasn’t. He said that, just give him the stimulus, and unemployment would be at 5.6 percent. We gave him the money; unemployment is 8.3 percent (that’s 23 million people out of work). On Obama’s watch, the credit rating of the United States was downgraded for the first time in history.
These and other failures are the result not of bad luck but of bad policies. The Obama administration, Ryan said in one of the evening’s two or three best lines, was like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.
Last time around, Barack Obama campaigned on his own charisma and his opponents’ failures. He’s trying it again but the charisma has worn and the failures are now his own. Obama assumed office nearly four years, Paul Ryan observed. Isn’t it time he assumed responsibility?
It’s a question millions of voters will be asking themselves. Neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden is going to like the answer.