The convention speech by the candidate’s wife is a strange – and not altogether savoury – American political tradition. I come from Britain, where all that is expected of a leader’s wife at the party conference is to not look too bored and to clap in the right places. But here in the US, the candidate’s wife has to take to the rostrum at the party convention.
She has two jobs. First, she is auditioning for the role of first lady. Second, she has to persuade voters that her husband is not just a suitable president – but a marvellous human-being.
Ann Romney’s task last night was particularly onerous. She is not in perfect health: she has multiple sclerosis and has had breast cancer. And Mitt Romney is a tough sell: remote, robotic, chilly.
All things considered, Mrs Romney did a great job. Initially, however, I feared disaster. She was palpably nervous when she took to the stage, and laughed unnervingly at a couple of points.
The first part of her speech was stilted and ill-judged – and full of rather unconvincing empathy for the hard-pressed workers of America. The stuff about people working several jobs, just to pay the bills, doubtless reflected reality. But it reminded me of how remote the Romneys are from this sort of concern. Mitt Romney is a multi-millionaire, who once carelessly remarked that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs”. His wife’s favourite sport is dressage – which puts her quite a long way from the bowling alleys of middle America.
The low point came when Mrs Romney spoke about the role of women in holding America together. This part of the speech seemed too nakedly political. One of the Republicans’ biggest concerns is that Mitt Romney scores very badly with single women. Obama is 2-1 ahead with that particular segment of the population. So here was Mrs Romney singing the praises of the “moms of this nation” and then screeching unnervingly – “I love you women.” At this point, I buried my head in my hands, worried that I was watching one of the great political train-wrecks of our time.
But, all of a sudden, the speech picked up. The trouble with the first part of Mrs Romney’s speech was that it didn’t really ring true. But when she spoke of her husband’s personal qualities, her speech became more convincing. She didn’t try to claim that he is the world’s warmest or most empathetic person. But she did say that he is dogged, determined, methodical and has made a success of almost everything that he has done.
Importantly, that chimed with what the world already knows of Mitt Romney. And it also made one think that, these could be rather useful qualities in a president. That, in turn, chimes with an important emerging theme of the Republican campaign: Obama is nice but ineffectual; while Romney is a man who can get things done.
Ann Romney ended by saying, with great emphasis and some dramatic flair: “No one will work harder. No one will care more…This man will not fail.” The convention crowd – whose lack of enthusiasm for Romney is almost palpable – erupted. The candidate’s wife had given them a reason to believe that, perhaps, they had picked the right man after all.