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It’s a tired-and-true maxim of presidential politics: the optimistic candidate always wins.
Sunny optimism is best associated with Ronald Reagan, whose famous wit, bright outlook, and punchy phrases (“Morning In America”) helped endear him to Americans — even ones who were predisposed to disagree with him. He was rewarded for his brilliant communications — and, of course, his pro-growth policies — with two landslide victories over dour, mechanical opponents.
President Obama has been able to retain a small lead in several polls in large part because Romney has been perceived as a bit mechanical himself. Questions about his core convictions and his seeming inability to connect to average Americans have left him with a central message of steady competence.
That could be enough: it’s a low but steady foundation upon which a candidate can mount a campaign. But history teaches that it’s almost certainly not enough to produce solid victories. When is the last time that a presidential candidate won on competence? John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole all promised a steady hand. They all lost to bolder candidates. Candidates win blowout victories when they connect with people and convince them that they understand their hopes and fears. It’s how Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all won.
Until now, Romney and his team haven’t really seemed to understand this. After reading his victory speech last night, I think they might be catching on:
Americans have always been eternal optimists. But over the last three and a half years, we have seen hopes and dreams diminished by false promises and weak leadership. Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less.
For every single mom who feels heartbroken when she has to explain to her kids that she needs to take a second job … for grandparents who can’t afford the gas to visit their grandchildren … for the mom and dad who never thought they’d be on food stamps … for the small business owner desperately cutting back just to keep the doors open one more month – to all of the thousands of good and decent Americans I’ve met who want nothing more than a better chance, a fighting chance, to all of you, I have a simple message: Hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight.
Tonight is the start of a new campaign to unite every American who knows in their heart that we can do better! The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do!
Tonight is the beginning of the end of the disappointments of the Obama years and the start of a new and better chapter that we will write together.
The rhetoric was spot-on. Americans are tired of being promised that politicians will magically fix things — and they’re sick of being let down when things continue to spiral out of control. That’s why Romney’s speech last night was such a winner. It reads like this: I don’t think you’re stupid. I know what you’re going through, and I know you’ve heard it all before. I ask for your vote with all of this in mind.
He needs more of this, and less of the constant attempts to match Obama blow-for-blow in fake controversies. If average Americans hear him make speeches like this, then they may yet be convinced that Romney “gets it.” And if he keeps with this theme, he will win.