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Diplomacy in Action

Preview of Mitt Romney's Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech

Jerry Hagstrom, columnist, The National Journal
Tampa, Florida
August 30, 2012


11:00 A.M. EDT


MR. HAGSTROM: I’m very happy to be here, but to say that I’m going to provide you a preview [of Mitt Romney's acceptance speech] is a little bit -- that’s a little bit wrong, I guess I’d have to say, since I don’t have a copy of the speech. Have any of you gotten it? Have they been leaking it yet, or are they keeping it silent?

First of all, I’m delighted to be here. I love meeting foreign journalists. I’ve been coming to the Foreign Press Center for years and also have done a number of tours for the State Department overseas. I’m always interested in what your questions are and how you view the world.

Secondly, since it’s 5:00 o’clock on the last night of this convention, I feel like I’m in one of those situations where I’m covering Congress, and there’s a hearing. You get to the last Senator and the last Senators says, "Well, all the questions have been asked, but not everybody has asked them." So I’m not sure what there is for me to say today that you haven’t heard from somebody else, but I am going to give you my thoughts on what Romney has to do tonight. A few little quirks about his personality. But then I’m also going to talk about where he has to go to try to win this election. I think that’s actually the more important part.

The first thing about Romney speaking tonight is that he is still in a position where not only do people not know exactly what he would do, they’re still not sure about him. I’m seeing more friends in the audience as they sit down. This is somewhat unusual for a presidential candidate at this point. It’s a good question: Why. Why is this?

I think that a part of this blame, at least, would have to go to Romney himself. Because he doesn’t like to talk about himself as much as most politicians do. That’s because apparently there are some unusual things about his background. First of all, the fact that he’s Mormon, and secondly, that he is very rich and he’s made the money himself.

I will say this. There have been a lot of presidential candidates who are rich, but a lot of the money has been made in previous generations. I think it’s a lot easier to be running for office if you have inherited money, and you don’t have to explain what your grandfather did or what your father did to make the money. Some of those things might not be so exciting or thrilling to people. But when you did it yourself, and it was only a few years ago, there’s a lot of people running around ready to question some of those activities. So I think that is a part of it.

It’s also true that Romney is a bit gaffe-prone. That is, he says things that get him into trouble. When you’re asked whether you like NASCAR, why would you say, "I know some of the NASCAR owners." Why don’t you like the race? That’s really what people were looking for in that quote. Or do you have American cars? "Yes, my wife has a couple of Cadillacs." These are things that you don’t have to say, those are self-inflicted wounds. So Romney is having to deal with that.

First of all, he really still does have to present himself to the American people. He has to give them enough information about himself to make them feel comfortable with him. I think that Ann Romney helped out the other night to the degree that people were watching. And of course, remember, the audience for this is not the delegates. They’re already convinced. The audience is the American people. This convention and the other convention in Charlotte are really giant TV shows in which these delegates are just like extras in a movie or extras in a TV show. The real thing here is that this is a TV program, probably the most important TV program of Mitt Romney’s life.

Another issue that I think Romney has to deal with here is that for all the other things that may be difficult for Barack Obama -- there are people who don’t like him because he’s black, or they don’t like him because they don’t like his performance as President -- no one has ever said he’s not likeable. And while Mitt Romney seems to have the perfect family with the wife and the five sons and I think it’s 18 grandchildren, remember also that Barack Obama has a nice family, too. And Michelle Obama has made herself a national figure with her anti-obesity campaign and her Let’s Move initiative and also her work with military families. The [Obamas] also have two beautiful daughters, and they have a dog named Bo. And their dog is very popular, while what Mitt Romney is known for about his dog is that he put the dog on the roof of his car. So if you’re going to get into a question of competing on the issue of the dogs, I’m afraid that Obama is the winner of that contest.

So a portion of this speech tonight has to be about selling himself. Mitt Romney has to prove that he’s likeable. We have this saying, "Would you want this guy to come into your living room every night?" Most likely he’s going to be there on the news. The last American candidate for whom Americans voted that they didn’t like as well as the other candidate was Richard Nixon. When Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey, they liked Humphrey more, but they thought Nixon would do a better job. But we all know how that turned out. Therefore, likeability is a factor that has some credibility in the voters’ minds and probably also in the minds of the historians. So we have to keep those things in mind.

Secondly, Mitt Romney has to prove that he can do the job. That has to do most of all with whether he has an economic plan that will actually improve the economy the way that he says it will, that it will create all these jobs and that Barack Obama has been wrong -- and the Democrats have been wrong -- to have emphasized this stimulus package.

On that issue, he has to deal with the fact that the Democrats are contending that the American people understand that the country is in an unusual situation. That according to previous elections, if the unemployment rate were this high, the President would be thrown out of office. But that this having been the Great Recession, which has been the worst economic situation that we’ve been in since the Great Depression, that the people have factored that into their thinking. And because of that, they’re not making decisions on the basis of the unemployment rate so much. They are thinking, who do we trust to get us out of this? Again, we come back to these issues of likeability and trust.

So Romney has got to prove that his economic program will do the job, although I think once again it’s going to have to be a matter of trust.

I used to cover the political consulting industry a lot, and one of the things that the political consultants taught me was that the voters are very smart. And that the voters understand that no matter what a politician promises, the politician will never be able to deliver exactly that. That the politician will have to compromise. So the question is, who do you trust to compromise? So trust and likeability are the issues in the voters’ mind at the end.

On some specifics here, Romney has to reassure seniors that he will not end Medicare. Obviously, the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket raises more questions about the Medicare issue, although Romney has said he has his plans and Ryan had his, but Ryan’s going to adjust to his. But still, the Democrats are going to be raising this issue.

I actually think that when it comes to Medicare, the more important issue is the late baby boomer voters. I don’t think that anybody really thinks you’re going to take Medicare away from the elderly people who already have it. But the question is what about those people who are 55 or older, who have expected this their entire lives, and they’re getting close to the age in which they would qualify for Medicare? If they’re afraid that it’s going to be taken away from them or diminished in some way, I think they’re more likely to trust the Democrats than the Republicans on this issue. So I think he’ll have to do some reassuring on that.

Mitt Romney has to convince more women to vote for him. There’s no question that there is a gender gap, that the Democrats are doing much better with the women, and so it will be interesting to see what he has to say to women this evening. And of course the recent comments from the Missouri Senate candidate about legitimate rape and a woman’s body shutting itself down and avoiding pregnancy, these comments have not helped Romney, and even more so the fact that that guy [who said them] would not get out of the race.

Romey has to get some more Hispanic voters. He should try at least. This is such a difficult issue within the Republican party because it’s within this party that you have the people who do not like immigration, who really detest the fact that there’s more Spanish spoken in the country. I write a lot about agriculture, and I cover this issue in rural America. There are a lot of farmers and agribusinesses that really are pro-immigration, pro-immigration reform. They need the workers. They have workers who are illegal. They’re worried all the time about not being able to come to work. There are crops in this country that go unpicked now because there are not enough workers, especially in some of the states where they have passed some of these restrictive immigration laws. At the same time, if I go out to rural America and I’m covering this, the people who are not farmers and not their employers are saying we don’t like immigration. We don’t want all these new people who have moved in. They’re causing us all sorts of problems. They’re living too many people in one house or in one apartment, they’re clogging up the emergency rooms of our hospitals. So this is a very very big and unresolved issue in this country.

I think that Romney still has to do some work to reassure conservatives. Adding Ryan to the ticket was good from that perspective. But of course, we have this backtracking in which Ryan is supposed to defer to Romney. So are the conservatives assured? I think I would be looking for that.

But most of all, with all of this said, those are the appeals to the general American people. But it looks like the election is going to come down to the results in about seven states. Probably people have already told you what they are. But I’ll give you my list of the battleground states, which would be New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. I’ll just say a little bit about each of those and why they’re battleground states, and then I will take your questions.

What’s so interesting about all of these states is that they’re all changing. That’s I think the most exciting thing about American politics. Covering the presidential campaign every four years, you get to see how the country has changed. The states that I’m mentioning here all have political traditions, but those traditions are being changed by an influx of population, by the aging of people, by an outward migration of population. So let me just talk a little bit about each of these states.

New Hampshire, for example. New Hampshire used to be a rock-ribbed conservative state, but what’s happened there is you had a lot of people move into the state as retirees, particularly from Massachusetts. They’ve changed the demographics of the state so it has become a very competitive state. It has both Republicans and Democrats in office today.

Virginia. Another conservative state, southern state. It used to be. But as all of you who live in Washington know, the Northern Virginia suburbs are home to a great number of Democrats and liberal people, so that state has changed over the years, too, and it is a very competitive state.

North Carolina, where most of us are going next, I guess. That is a fascinating state because it’s part of the old South, used to be a major tobacco producer. Its core economy was agricultural. The population mix was only white and black. Today it’s a much more complicated place. There’s been a large Hispanic migration into the state, but perhaps the most important thing is that it has so many more highly educated younger people than it used to have, and they have changed the dynamic of that state.

Florida would appear to be in Romney’s camp because we have had a trend in recent years of senior citizens voting more and more Republican. But now all the talk about Medicare is going to scare the seniors, and the question is, how will they feel about Romney when Medicare is so much a part of the discussion?

Ohio. Here’s a state that is changing in a different way. Because of the economic problems, so many people have left Ohio. Ohio voted for Obama. Ohio has always gone back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans. But it has been a heavily working class state. A lot of people in Ohio are very upset about having lost their jobs. There have been major political conflicts there in 2010. There Obama faces the other problem that if so many young people have left the state, and this includes this movement of minorities, of blacks and Hispanics from the North to the South following the good economy. If they leave the state, then the state becomes more elderly and white in its electorate, and therefore may be more Republican. Obama is really going to have to work hard if he is going to try to hold that state.

Iowa, just another competitive state. Obama did better in the rural areas of the competitive states than any Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton. He won in 2008, but in 2010 the Republicans did well in Iowa, as they did in the rural areas of a lot of other places. In my coverage of rural America, I will note that 15 members of the House Agriculture Committee lost their seats in 2010 -- all Democrats. The rural people are very upset about ObamaCare. A lot of them don’t like that idea. They’re very upset about Environmental Protection Agency regulations. They’re culturally very distant from Obama.

Colorado. Colorado is another state that used to be very Republican, but it’s socially liberal, has a lot of young people, so that is going to be a very competitive state.

Finally, Nevada. Now Nevada is out there in the West. You think of it as not only a gambling state but a mountain state where sheep raising is important. It should be very conservative like Wyoming, etc., but the key factor is the biggest employer in Nevada are the casinos. Their hotels and the people who work in those places are unionized, and that’s what makes the state politically competitive. But it has terrible economic problems. So the question is, how is Nevada going?

I would urge you in your reporting, really, to concentrate on those seven states.

These days the journalists are having contests about where will Obama and Romney go on the last nights in the last 48 hours before the election. Some of the ideas are Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; maybe Wisconsin because of the Ryan factor now; Virginia; and maybe Colorado. So it gets kind of hard. You wonder, are they going to run into each other in these places or are they just going to be on their own?

But anyway, those are my thoughts about what is important this evening and what’s coming up in the next few months. So if you have any questions, I’ll be glad to try to answer.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s the right strategy for Romney to still mainly focus on the economy, or should he add more subjects?

MR. HAGSTROM: I think the economy is still his strength. It’s Obama’s weakness. It’s more like where is Obama vulnerable? I think in the general economy, the unemployment rate is still the highest point of vulnerability. Except for just the deep cultural cleavage in this country between the way that most people in the coastal states are living compared to the people in the South and in the interior. It really is dramatic how differently we’re living in different parts of the country. I wouldn’t say people actually live that differently, but they think they do, and they feel culturally distinct from the people who live in the "other America," as they might call it.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you, many people think that the country has moved to the right during the Obama years. Do you share that thought? Do you think that people in general have moved to the right?

MR. HAGSTROM: I think the first thing that we have to acknowledge is how many things that have happened that are actually successes for the left or for the liberals.

I think one of the worst things that liberal Americans do is they don’t feel the satisfaction that I think they should feel for the successes that they have.

For example, the passage of ObamaCare. The fact that the Supreme Court declared it legal is an enormous accomplishment. The second thing is that the end of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell in the military, for gay people in the military, that’s another enormous accomplishment.

I write a lot about food and agriculture, and I see some of the bills that they passed on food safety, which will regulate the companies more, and the new regulations on what children can eat in school meals. All of these are big accomplishments for liberal Americans.

I think if we talk about the country moving to the right, we have to start with the fact that the Congress and the Obama administration had major successes in the first two years that Obama was in office. Then, if you want to talk about moving to the right, yes, I think there was a reaction against that. I will say that I think I see one way in which I think the country has moved to the right in an institution it distrusts, and that is I think there is more and more criticism of teacher labor unions. And that is a very big factor in this election campaign, because the teacher unions are so important in Democratic elections. They are educated people, and they are campaign workers. They worked hard for Obama, and they are disappointed. They don’t think that Obama has done a lot for them. Of course, I think they would fear a Romney administration more, so they may get out there. But the question is how hard they work. On that point, I do think that the country has moved to the right.

In terms of a broader sense, have we moved to the right? I don’t think Americans live more conservatively than they did four years ago. In fact, they probably are more liberal. They are probably more tolerant of other people and other ways of living. But one thing about this is, we have more ways of living in this country than we have ever had. We really don’t have a kind of straight and narrow in which most people are expected to live. If I were to compare the high schools today with when I was in high school, when I was in high school the sports stars and the cheerleaders were definitely number one. You didn’t have such a thing as nerds. I mean nerds as kind of glamorous people who are someday going to grow up and be rich and be the guys that the girls want. There was no concept of that. But today there is.

But the problem is that we have so many different ways of living that it gets harder, and people don’t want to -- people feel very strongly about how they live. So it’s harder to compromise. I think that when people talk about the Congress being split, the Congress being split is a reflection of the splits in the country. Now we have everything, we have a much stronger movement of atheism and agnosticism in this country than we used to have; and at the same time we have the strong evangelical movement.

QUESTION: Newt Gingrich used to call Mitt Romney the moderate from Massachusetts. How do you see him personally? Because obviously now Mitt Romney has gone along the more hardline, actually, of the conservative movement. If he wins the election in November, how do you see his dealing with the conservative movement, and how will he govern with the two very different trends you have in the party? We know now there is unity because they are all against Obama, but on the 7th of November it might look different.

MR. HAGSTROM: I think you’re asking me the question that the voters are still asking. When somebody has changed his mind so many times, what would you expect? But I notice, by the way, I want to plug the National Journal Convention Daily today. We have a fantastic story by the editor-in-chief Ron Fornier, which is about racial issues in Detroit, and he’s saying that Romney is playing the race card in some of these places. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s the case, but a description of how people think in Detroit is very good in there.

But at the same time, in that same edition we have an interview with Jane Romney, Romney’s sister, who is saying, "Oh, he’s not going to ban abortion." So I guess now you can see this movement to the middle. But on that basis then, what does it say to the conservatives? Does it give them the enthusiasm to get out the vote? Because the anti-abortion movement is a very strong part of the Republican party, and they keep hoping for a constitutional amendment and more and more restrictions on abortion. So I think all past logic would be that he would focus on economic issues rather than social issues.

If he wins, I would say the biggest issue facing the administration will be what are they going to do about ObamaCare? Because no matter whether Romney wins, even if the Republicans take the Senate, the prospects for a repeal of ObamaCare are very, very limited. Because you’d have to have 60 votes in the Senate. They say they’d try to do it on a budget issue, but I think it would be very hard to do.

Even if you had a repeal, then what are you going to do about all the things that people like? The fact that kids can stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26 years old, that the insurance companies can’t deny them coverage? Those would be really tough issues. Then of course you have the fact that the Massachusetts case system was a model for ObamaCare.

So I don’t know. I don’t know how he’d govern, although it seems very unlikely that he would be a hardline conservative.

Here I am with all the foreign journalists, and I haven’t even brought up foreign policy because we’re not talking about it in the elections. I figure you guys know more about foreign policy certainly than I do and probably have better sources on it and other people to talk about it. But we’re just not talking about foreign policy in this election.

QUESTION: In seven days, Obama will be in the same position as Romney is today. I was wondering how can he sell his presidency, avoiding being or sounding boring, repetitive? And in terms of the Republicans, how can he sell their [failure], if that is correct? How can he do that? How do you imagine that speech?

MR. HAGSTROM: Well, I think the best example that we have had about how Barack Obama is going to campaign this year was his trip to Iowa. I would say that the first thing is charm. He’s going to sell on his own personality and his charm. We’re talking now about winning an election here. We’re talking about getting out the voters. We’re not talking about everything being perfect. What he’s got to do is get that 51 percent or 50.1 percent.

I could see in that, when I read the transcripts of the Iowa campaign events, you could really see how he was calling the people together and saying we did it four years ago, we’ve got to do it again. And on some level here, I think there is an appeal to people not directly from Obama, but in that world of having elected the first black president and what an accomplishment that was, and an appeal to continue that. I’m not saying that Obama is making that case, but I think there are a lot of people in the Democratic party and even independents who would make that case.

But the other part of it is, the way that the Democrats win is in the things that they have done for individual groups. The Republican appeal is much broader. The Democratic appeal is more the use of government and how they have used it to help various types of people. How they have helped the farmers. For example, this "know your farmer, know your food" movement that they have done in the Agriculture Department helps the smaller farmers, the organic farmers. With the gays, it’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. I’m sure with other groups, it’s other things. In the Midwest, it’s the recovery of the auto industry. I think it will be on all those individual things, as opposed to the general themes that the Republicans have been raising.

QUESTION: I have a question, probably you mentioned but I missed it. One is the immigration issue. What will happen if Romney is going to be President elected in November? Do you think big changes will happen on immigration law and system?

The second thing is, there are huge Asian population in California, and I wonder what is Romney’s vision on Asian-Americans, putting on their [inaudible] or hiring or working together, whatever, on the minority issue?

MR. HAGSTROM: I’m just going to have to admit to you that I haven’t focused on the Asian issue in California, so I really can’t answer that question. You’re going to have to go to somebody else for that.

On the general immigration issue, I wish that I could tell you that there’s going to be a solution, but I follow this, and there are just so many splits. One of the problems you have is that the politicians, particularly the Republicans, are so afraid of the issue coming up in a primary and that they’ll lose their seats. They’re just so afraid to bring it up.

I do see them -- I think this has happened, and this is particularly important with Asians -- is that there have been individual bills that allow people to come in when they have a high level of education. I think that’s a lot easier to deal with than the issue of Hispanic immigration, which is much more people who are doing lower-level jobs or who are living in the country illegally and need legal status.

I would see more things, small individual things, like the Obama administration decision that they won’t deport the young people who have been going to school. And by the way, I do think that is important electorally. My own housekeeper in Washington was just telling me the other day about this young kid that she knows whose father brought him across the border illegally when he was like five years old. He grew up in the United States. His father went back to Mexico and left him. Here’s the kid. He has an American high school education. But he has managed to stay, he’s gone to college, and now he will be eligible under this law, but he’s been illegal. We have all kinds of people in this country who help people that they think deserve it, and he was lucky enough to find a college administrator who would keep him going in college, get him some scholarships, etc., but he’s never been able to solve the legal problem. Now he will.

[To journalist:] I have to tell you, I just came across your email in my Rolodex, and I hadn’t seen you for so long I wondered if you were still in Washington.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you about something different. There has been a lot of talk in this whole campaign, in this whole season, about the polarization of American politics.

MR. HAGSTROM: The organization?

QUESTION: The polarization. Let me use the expression that’s a very nasty undercurrent, a very nasty environment underlining this whole campaign. The resurgence of accusations, of lies, half-truths, etc., etc., going around. Do you agree that there is rigidity, that there is the risk of non-cooperation between both parties? Do you agree that there is this lack of civility, as some people say, the lack of dialogue and debate, real debate?

MR. HAGSTROM: I think that it’s true that we see more of this now, and I think we are seeing more -- But I think we’re seeing more than we saw in the period from about 1965 until, I guess would I say until Obama’s election. I’ve often said that in terms of Obama, the conservatives were quiet because they didn’t like McCain, so Obama was elected. The day after his inauguration -- and the inauguration was a peaceful event and all of that -- the day after the inauguration, they woke up and said, "What are we going to do now?" And within a few months, the Tea Party was born.

But Jose, what I would do is, I have been reading the Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson. And if you go back and you read that book, and you see the incredibly nasty battles that went on over the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and all of that, it makes what’s going on today -- it doesn’t make it seem milder. Some of the statements are nasty today. But in American history, we have had some terrible periods of conflict and some terrible nastiness in politics, going back to colonial times. We did, of course, have a revolution. But if you go back, it isn’t like this is something totally new.

Also I would say is in general, despite the nastiness of the politics, the average America lives better than in those previous periods. In the ‘60s, for example, when they were passing the Civil Rights Act, blacks couldn’t use public accommodations. They couldn’t stay in hotels. They couldn’t use water fountains. All of those things. For all of the talk that we are having today, it is more talk than it is action. So I’m not I guess as horrified by it as some people would be. But maybe it’s because my hair has turned white.

QUESTION: Sir, how do you explain the fact that Barack Obama is trailing behind Romney in terms of fundraising? And how decisive will the money factor be in deciding the outcome of this election?

MR. HAGSTROM: I think first of all, you have to remember that he did offend Wall Street with some of the things he supported in the Dodd/Frank Financial Reform Bill. And on that issue, by the way, I find this a really difficult thing to deal with because I have also found that there are liberals, just average people, who are still angry that the government didn’t send people to jail. The only person who went to jail, really, was Bernie Madoff and now there may have been another few people. But there are the people who think there should have been people punished, and the Obama administration took the position that the problem was not the way that individuals acted, but that the law was too weak. I covered the Commodity Exchange Act, so I would say they’re right, that the laws were very weak. So it’s a really hard issue to deal with. But they have put in regulations that Wall Street is upset about, so it’s been harder for him to raise money on Wall Street than it was in 2008.

One thing about the business community is, they may take their positions with the candidates, and of course more business people are Republican. But if you get close to the election, they really want to be with the winner, because when the election is held, they’ve got to deal with the winners. And they want to be able to say, "I supported you."

So who knows? There’s still time for more fundraising. We’ll see what’s going on with these candidates in the next two months. But I think that’s the main reason.

You’re talking about the official campaigns. You also have these Super Pacs and things and that’s a whole new phenomenon in which individual wealthy people can be important in ways they never were before.

By the way, on the issue of the money and the campaigning, I think two factors here are going to be really interesting tests. One is that it looks like people are watching less television. Where does this money go? Mostly for television ads. But if people aren’t paying attention to it, is it going to matter that much? The other phenomenon that’s going on is that apparently -- I wouldn’t say the audience for talk radio is declining, but the audience is becoming so much older. And I have not yet figured out, and maybe if you’ve done any reporting on this please tell me, but I haven’t figured out how they’re trying to reach young people through social media, and whether that’s working, all of that. But you’re having also this change of norms on how people are campaigning and how they’re trying to reach the voters. When we get to the end of the election it will be really interesting to see the analyses of what mattered.

QUESTION: Forgive me if I missed it, but has this convention been a success? If so, how has it altered the race?

MR. HAGSTROM: I think whether it’s a success will be dependent on Mitt Romney’s speech tonight. The rest of it, there isn’t that much of it carried on television. I think we’re all seeing a bit of decline in the enthusiasm about the election. I don’t know how it is with foreign media, but I must say with the American media, with the financial problems in the industries, most media companies have fewer people here than they did four years ago.

Now at the same time, you have this proliferation of sort of individual bloggers, etc., but that’s somewhat different from the organized media. So there are questions about the future of these conventions, and especially how many days they will be held in the future.

Thank you. It’s so good to see you.

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