This week's Republican National Convention has so far served to define November's presidential election for both sides. While the GOP primaries seemed to revolve around social issues and an internal battle over whether things like abortion or gay marriage would be a central focus of the party platform, the convention has seen the party pivot away from divisive cultural matters and toward a laser-like focus on fiscal matters that seems much more likely to resonate with independent voters.
Tuesday night's "We Built It" theme gave the party a platform to connect with voters who were not enthusiastic about the cultural issues which defined the entire primary season and the party did a good job, at least in presenting that theme. The cast was carefully selected, heavy on Republican governors, light on members of Congress who are suffering a 13 percent approval rating. The platform gave the GOP a chance to say, here are our Republican governors. Here's what they are doing. This is what we want to adopt federally.
Democrats can argue that "you didn't build that" is taken out of context and it is, just like many of their attacks are taken out of context. But that doesn't matter. The phrase, like Obama's "spread it around a little" gaffe while answering a question about tax policy in 2008, gives conservatives a bullet point phrase to associate Democratic policies with. They've turned "you didn't build that" into President Obama believes that government makes America great. We believe that small business entrepreneurs do. That's a message that resonates and it's one that opens the tent for a much bigger group.
So far, the convention dialog sounds a lot like the GOP of Bob Dole, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, not the party of Rick Santorum -- even when Santorum is on the stage. I've said for the last two election cycles that the GOP was wandering into dangerous territory and possibly entering a scenario where candidates have to spout so much far-right wing rhetoric to survive primaries, that they'll never be able to walk it back to a point that attracts moderates in the general election. The strategy in 2012 is clearly to use surrogates in the form of state-level speakers defining the November agenda, and that's a good strategy.
For the most part, the speeches have not been about Mitt Romney. They've been about fiscal ideology, while arguing that Romney is the only candidate that will enact the ideology that they describe. Keynote speaker Chris Christie didn't even mention the party's nominee for the first 20 minutes of his speech on Tuesday. Tonight, Mitt Romney will get the chance to speak for himself. If he can successfully associate himself with the well-disciplined message that has been given all week long, he will have come a long way in defining himself as a candidate for the majority of the American public, while also setting the tone for the race.
Republicans will be arguing that America needs less regulation of industry (especially energy), more personal responsibility for success and failure by deconstructing the social safety net and that lower taxes are the best path to restoring economic growth. Democrats will counter that less regulation is what got us in this mess via the banking collapse, that investing in an "all of the above" energy policy (including broad use of clean alternatives) is the best plan, that the economic realities created by the collapse require strong government involvement to get the economy back on track, and that we must increase taxes on the richest Americans to more typical historic levels, while cutting spending more responsibly. In the end, it will likely be the individual experience of American voters that has the greatest impact on which message appeals to them.
more RNC coverage by Dennis this week:
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