Mitt Romney's speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference today was a step in the right direction for the candidate on many levels. He tacitly acknowledged that he wasn't steeped in conservative ideology at the same time he paid homage to it, noting that growing up he would have mistaken Burke and Hayek for members of the Detroit Tigers lineup. He all but micturated on the grave of compassionate conservatism by proclaiming that he was a "severely conservative" governor of Massachussetts. (The crowd liked it a lot, though the jury's still out on whether the record matches the rhetoric.) He spoke convincingly about family values, drawing on his experience being married 42(!) years and raising five boys. He told at least one surprisingly good joke—"I served in government, but I didn't inhale." And he got a standing ovation when he proclaimed he was he was not ashamed of his business success.
Perhaps most importantly, he spoke reassuringly to the crowd about the policy positions where he's evolved over the years. He spoke about the need to protect religious liberty at length, and detailed the specific policies he would pursue to serve as a pro-life president, promising to reinstate the Mexico City policy and cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood. He didn't mince words on heathcare reform, promising to unequivocally to "eliminate Obamacare."
Rhetorically, the speech was big step forward for a candidate that needs to win over conservatives. But there's one crucial ingredient missing. John Podhortez picked up on this in his recent column for the New York Post contemplating the tone of Romney's primary campaign so far: "While negativity is politically useful, it is also demoralizing unless it is accompanied — and to some extent overshadowed — by elevated and inspiring ideas about the American future."
After watching Romney deliver a fairly crucial speech, I think the problem's even more basic than that. It's not like others haven't pointed this out, but Romney really needs to convince people that he cares about this stuff at a gut level. Romney needs a rousing stump speech, and the switch on the back of the Mittbot-3000 is perpetually stuck on "fireside chat."
Even when delivering reddest of meat, if you close your eyes Romney sounds like he should be sitting in a high-backed chair, swirling a brandy snifter and introducing the next episode of Downton Abbey to the loyal viewers of public television. At this moment—and especially among the CPAC crowd—conservatives want someone can channel their indignation into inspiration.
In fairness, Romney finally did get wound up a bit near the end of the speech but there should have been a lot more passion sprinkled throughout the speech. Somebody needs to get Romney some game film of Marco Rubio, stat. Maybe spend his nights in hotel rooms watching Kenneth Branagh's St. Crispin's Day speech on an endless loop. Something, anything.
Romney's getting to where he needs to be rhetorically. If he can start showing that he's passionate about the future of America with much more regularity, the GOP might have a very formidable candidate.