The Breakfast Table

Mitt Romney gave a fine speech, but his campaign failed to make any breakthroughs in the race.

Mitt Romney gave a fine, workmanlike speech. Even with Clint Eastwood.

Romney on Screen

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.

For those who didn’t think that Mitt Romney has had to overcome obstacles: Clint Eastwood. The actor’s 12-minute turn onstage at the Republican Convention was rambling and distracting. He spoke to an empty chair in which he pretended the president sat. A few times he pretended the president had suggested he and Romney have intercourse with themselves. Obama spokesperson Ben Labolt suggested that, as counter-programming, the Democrats next week would have Salvador Dali. President Obama got in on the fun by tweeting a picture of himself sitting in the Roosevelt Room chair. (This seat’s taken.) The convention that had seemed snakebit at the start, with Hurricane Isaac and tropical storm Todd Akin, appeared to be ending on the same cursed note.

But after the unplanned interlude, Romney made his case as a fix-it man who would return America to its first principles after its fling with the exciting, promising, but ultimately disappointing incumbent. It was a time for more realistic goals. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” said Romney. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

Romney made a promise, but the test of the speech is whether people believe it. Ann Romney talked about trust. Did he garner the trust people need to have to hand him the presidency? Mitt Romney’s election has always relied on a two-part formula. Voters needed to feel disappointment in the president and feel like Romney has a plan. Part 1 was a gift waiting for any Republican nominee who could make it to Tampa. Romney gave a perfectly fine speech, but there were no breakthroughs on that second task. The race feels like it is going to return to the hard-fought bitter contest it was before Romney entered the Tampa Bay Times Forum and without much momentum for the slog ahead.

Romney entered the hall and walked the red carpet through the crowd as if he were a president about to deliver the State of the Union. He shook hands, pointed at friends, and stopped to hug Sen. Orrin Hatch, who earlier in the evening had told me about Romney “crawling in bed to cuddle his wife” when she had breast cancer. Romney didn’t get to the cuddling, but part of his speech was intended to give voters an inroad to who he is. He talked about his father, the Michigan governor whom they called “brick” because he was so immovable. He told stories about unconditional love, his own parenting, and his love for his wife. The best line was: “If you ask Ann and I what we’d give to break up just one more fight between the boys, or wake up in the morning and discover a pile of kids asleep in our room. Well, every mom and dad knows the answer to that.”

It was all done with a relatively light touch. The more powerful pitches were given from friends, fellow Mormons, and colleagues. A well-produced film should just run on a permanent website somewhere. Romney made a direct appeal to women voters by talking about the number of women he had put in top posts while he was governor of Massachusetts. He also tried to help disaffected Obama voters feel good about leaving the man who once had so much promise. For stretches of the speech, Romney acted almost as a psychologist identifying a shared national disappointment with Obama. “Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president,” he said before outlining all the ways in which the promises had not panned out. It was a way to use detail to show that he understood the travails of the common man. “What could you do? Except work harder, do with less, try to stay optimistic. Hug your kids a little longer; maybe spend a little more time praying that tomorrow would be a better day.”

Mitt Mask 568

© Richard Kalvar / Magnum Photos for Slate.

Then he turned his psychologist’s talents on the president. “The president hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The president has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction.” Not a bad guy, just not up to the job.

The most devastating attack on Obama was his claim that there’s “something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.” That line, plus the image Paul Ryan’s speech conjured the night before of a young Obama voter staring up at the ceiling, will live past the convention.

There was a curious inconsistency that undermined the Obama critique though. Romney said, “He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business.” If this lack of business experience is the grand failure at the heart of the Obama presidency, then why did Romney pick Paul Ryan, who has no such experience himself?

The 2012 race for the presidency has felt stuck for months. Obama is weighed down by the economy, and Romney cannot close the deal. That was the dynamic before the Republican Convention and it’s the same afterward.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.