GOP Speeches Show Need to Rally Base — and Appeal to WomenAugust 30, 2012
AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz is reporting from the Republican National Convention this week and from the Democratic National Convention next week. Follow her updates at AAUW Dialog, on Facebook, and @LisaMaatz on Twitter.
Political conventions are carefully scripted events. Decades ago, they were actually used to choose a party’s nominee, but no more. These gatherings are now huge campaign productions with narratives designed to inspire and engage the parties’ bases. Convention speakers focus on some key themes that are repeated over and over with the hopes that these sound bites might make it through the din of everyday life and permeate the minds of the broader electorate.
Thus far, the Republicans’ message can be summed up with one line: “We built it!”
They are capitalizing on a gaffe President Barack Obama made recently, and it has become a rallying cry. It’s a guaranteed applause line, so get used to hearing it a lot over the next two months. This catchphrase refers to building small businesses, building a family and a community, or even building the nation. The Republicans have been stressing that people — not the government — built the country, and that government is not just an unnecessary intrusion but also an albatross around our necks that’s holding us back from achieving even greater heights.
I find this individual liberty, anti-government sentiment both fascinating and contradictory. I know the American way favors the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. But while that’s long been the value, it hasn’t always been the practice. Given how many taxpayer dollars are spent on public assistance programs like corporate tax breaks, auto industry and bank bailouts, public education, farm subsidies, small business loans, and student aid, it seems to me that the government has clearly played an indispensable role in paving the path to success. Perhaps that is the fundamental question facing the American electorate this November: How can we — or should we — balance individual liberty and responsibility with the public good? How you answer that question will likely define how you cast your ballot in November.
This philosophical tension has been reflected in some of the key Republican National Convention speeches. On Tuesday, Ann Romney’s speech was homespun and affectionate and aimed squarely at women. It was all about love, she said, not party or politics. It was about the love her husband has for her, their family, and for the community that is our country. It was about how that love would ensure Gov. Mitt Romney would be the compassionate caretaker the nation needs in these tough times. While Ann Romney’s speech struck a unifying note, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hammered home the need for a strong leader who is unafraid to stand alone and make the tough decisions. Christie made a strong case for doing what he said his mother taught him — to stop worrying about being loved and concentrate on being respected, even feared.
This tension continued into Wednesday night, when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became a one-name superstar. Just call her Condi! She talked about the country’s tradition of and responsibility to foster the American dream. She was also passionate about America’s responsibility — despite expense or fatigue — to bring that moral leadership and those values to the world. It was a largely inclusive message, one that underscored her concern for where we are but also hope for where we’re going.
But vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech was the one that electrified the crowd. It was like the delegate body had been holding its collective breath waiting for Ryan to take the stage, though I would say the response to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at the 2008 convention was even more remarkable. Regardless, in following the time-honored role of veep nominees in recent years — that of attack dog against the opposition — Ryan’s message was less inclusive, more dogmatic, less forgiving, and more reactionary.
So what do I take from all this? On the surface, it’s simple. The women struck a more collaborative and hopeful note — one that characterized the nation as a community. The men emphasized the need for one leader — the right leader — to make change and to improve our lot. But we must dig deeper than that. The real question is this: Which approach is more attractive to voters, and which approach will voters attribute to the Republican Party? In addition, which approach is more compelling to women? Based on the convention thus far, it could go either way. The GOP messaging feels a bit like a he said/she said situation, probably because the party has been of two minds all week. On the one hand, they must use the convention to rally their base. On the other hand, they desperately need to reach out to women. There is currently a double-digit gender gap favoring Obama. The GOP knows that the Romney-Ryan campaign must have a narrative that captures the imaginations of women, because at the end of the day, it is women who will decide this election.