Ann Romney's Speech: Not Enough Anecdotes!

By Mike Dorf

Ann Romney's speech last night at the Republican National Convention was widely expected to be an effort to "humanize" her husband.  Although it was a well-crafted speech in some ways, I do not think it succeeded in that task.

The speech was pretty good as a statement of the case for the Republican ticket.  The argument in the speech went like this: 1) These are tough times; 2) Mitt Romney's success in the private sector and as governor of Massachusetts show that he can successfully lead the country; and 3) The way to do so is by unleashing the power of the private sector.  That's it.  I don't agree with propositions 2) and 3), but the argument for the Republican ticket isn't meant to appeal to the likes of me.  It's meant to appeal to swing voters.

Okay, but what about the humanizing part?  To begin, you know that you are playing catch-up when your candidate needs humanizing.  And despite the recent efforts of the Romney campaign to argue that the reason Romney has the negatives he does is that he has been the object of negative ads, the problem is obviously deeper.  As numerous commentators have pointed out, the case for Romney relies chiefly on things he can't talk about.  He can invoke his experience at Bain only in the vaguest terms because close examination of that experience shows him, at best to be making a ton of money by making companies leaner and at worst, to be making a ton of money by bleeding those companies and their workers dry.  Likewise, he can only invoke his tenure as Mass governor vaguely because his actual record as a moderate would alienate his party's base.  And the most logical way to show him not to be a pitiless capitalist would be to emphasize the charitable good works he has undertaken on behalf of his church, but because his campaign fears anti-Mormon prejudice, that too must be glossed over.

So what could Ann Romney say?  Here's what she did say: 1) Mitt has been a compassionate husband and good father, whom she still loves; 2) Mitt worked really really hard at his job; 3) Although Mitt and Ann are fabulously wealthy now, they have had struggles in the past and so they empathize with people facing tough circumstances; and 4) Ann Romney understands that tough times hit women especially hard and so Mitt, who is regarded as a good guy by Ann, must understand that too, and thus he is pro-women.

That's not a bad humanizing narrative, except for one gigantic omission: There were virtually no concrete stories in it.  We learned that Mitt was nervous when he first met Ann and that he was nice to her parents.  Great.  That probably shows that he's not a sociopath.  But Ann needed to do more.

Here is the closest she came to providing details of how Mitt is a really decent person.  She said:
He has tried to live his life with a set of values centered on family, faith, and love of one's fellow man. From the time we were first married, I've seen him spend countless hours helping others. I've seen him drop everything to help a friend in trouble, and been there when late-night calls of panic came from a member of our church whose child had been taken to the hospital.
I believe Ann Romney was telling the truth.  But "a friend in trouble"?  A "child" who "had been taken to the hospital"?  Let's assume that Ann didn't want to betray any confidences.  Still, she could have given some more details.  Tell us the kind of trouble the friend was in.  Had he fallen behind in his mortgage payment.  Did Mitt lend him money, or help him draw up a new budget?  Was the child in a car accident?  Did Mitt drive one of the older Romney boys over to the house of the child's parents to babysit for a sibling so the parents could stay over at the hospital?  Again, I am not in any way doubting that Ann Romney was alluding to real events.  But in order for them to have emotional content, there needs to be something about the events that makes them feel real.  A story needs details.  They teach my daughters that much in elementary school!

In the end, the parts of Ann Romney's speech that seemed aimed at humanizing Mitt relied to a great extent on a personal appeal.  "I know and love Mitt," she effectively said, "so you should just trust me."  The difficulty with this appeal is that most Americans don't know much of anything about Ann Romney, so why should they trust her?  Listening to the speech, they will have gleaned that she has MS and had breast cancer, which certainly makes them/us sympathetic to her.  But prior to the speech, I'll bet that the best known facts about Ann Romney relate to her possessions, which include two Cadillacs and an Olympic dressage horse.

So, with Ann Romney having failed to humanize Mitt, will he lose the election?  Not necessarily.  Al Gore was never really humanized for the electorate in 2000 (except through his embrace of Tipper, which mostly creeped viewers out), and yet he won the popular vote.  But it is something of a mystery to me that Ann Romney's speech did not include a whole lot more charming anecdotes aimed at showing that Mitt is--to use the cliche--the kind of guy that voters might want to have a beer with (albeit a non-alcoholic beer for Mitt).