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24 September 2012

What British Conservatives can learn from the ‘Romneyshambles’

Mitt Romney’s ‘secret speech’ (the remarks he made at a fundraising event in which he appeared to express a total lack of care for the 47% of Americans too poor to pay federal income tax) has unleashed a storm of criticism – and not just from the left.

From a British Conservative perspective, one of the most relevant reactions comes from Peggy Noonan – best known as Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter and, arguably, the greatest political speechwriter of recent times.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, her opening paragraph shimmers with purpose and elegance:

  • “What should Mitt Romney do now? He should peer deep into the abyss. He should look straight into the heart of darkness where lies a Republican defeat in a year the Republican presidential candidate almost couldn’t lose. He should imagine what it will mean for the country, for a great political philosophy, conservatism, for his party and, last, for himself. He must look down unblinkingly.
  • “And then he needs to snap out of it, and move.”

The problem with what Romney said about the 47% wasn’t just its nastiness, but the sheer pettiness of such a simplistic headline figure, a small-minded talking point that only serves to obscure, not illuminate, the underlying realities:

  • “The big issue—how we view government, what we want from it, what we need, what it rightly asks of us, what it wrongly demands of us—is a good and big and right and serious subject. It has to be dealt with seriously, at some length. And it is in part a cultural conversation. There’s a lot of grievance out there, and a sense of entitlement in many spheres. A lot of people don’t feel confident enough or capable enough to be taking part in the big national drama of Work in America. Why? What’s going on? That’s a conversation worth having.”

Noonan drives the point home:

  • “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment.”

Romney needs to get back on track and fast. But where to start? Noonan has a predictable, but a justifiable, answer:

  • “When big, serious, thoughtful things must be said then big, serious, thoughtful speeches must be given. Mr. Romney is not good at press conferences. Maybe because he doesn’t give enough, and so hasn’t grown used to them, and confident.
  • “He should stick to speeches, and they have to be big—where America is now, what we must do, how we can do it… I say it that way because to write is to think, and Romney needs fresh writing and fresh thinking.”

Of course, talk – even when scripted by as talented a writer as Peggy Noonan – is cheap. But that’s just the point. If a leader won’t even speak with courage – clinging instead to the bland and platitudinous pap that passes for most contemporary speechwriting – then he gives little hope that he might ever act with courage.


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