Published for The Washington Post, August 30, 2012
Debate performances by a presidential candidate are sometimes judged harshly. A single mistake or misstatement — played in an endless cable loop — can overwhelm the rest of a performance. Convention speeches, in contrast, are often judged charitably even when they don’t deserve it. The candidate manages to say the intended words. The audience is enthusiastic. The balloons drop on cue. While the press can easily spot a debate gaffe, it has a harder time assessing rhetorical quality or mediocrity.
Recall President Obama’s 2008 convention speech, which is not an easy task. The speech was aggressively unmemorable. Its policy was uncreative, its tone was snide, its applause lines were flat. But this did nothing to dent Obama’s electoral prospects or even his rhetorical reputation. Convention speeches are important, but often graded on a curve.
Heading into his big speech, Mitt Romney has an additional advantage. As I argue in my Tuesday column, the political bar he needs to clear is not particularly high. If on November 6 he is broadly viewed as competent, mainstream and well intentioned, he has a good shot at winning the presidency. He does not need to present the vision of a promised land, just a land where unemployment is below 8 percent.