TAMPA — What's striking at the end of a Republican National Convention that devoted so much time stressing the GOP's willingness to make tough, bold decisions and to lead instead of pander, is how cautious it all seemed.
We still know little about what President Mitt Romney would do despite three days of speeches and thousands of red, white and blue balloons.
We know that he is a loving family man. That his church provided him great comfort and fulfillment. That he promises to turn the country around.
But nobody offered up the kind of bold
or difficult proposal that Republicans kept touting. And Romney told us nothing Thursday night that we did not already know about his plans: cut the deficit, less taxes and regulation, more school choice, more trade and more energy production.
Many of his top surrogates even seemed guarded in their criticism of Barack Obama, careful not to take it too far.
"I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed," Romney said in his acceptance speech. "But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn't something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we can do something. With your help we will do something. Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, 'I'm an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better.' "
The overriding message: You're disappointed in Obama; Mitt Romney is not Obama.
Conventions are not the place for detailed policy proposals, so no one expected vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to pound his fist on the podium and declare, "We will reinstate Medicare's prescription drug doughnut hole to save money!"
But in adding the House budget chief with a reputation for straight talk on fiscal matters to the ticket, Romney had signaled a move toward a bolder agenda instead of merely an anti-Obama campaign.
"We will not duck the tough issues; we will lead," Ryan declared Wednesday night.
Then he proceeded to criticize Obama for cutting the growth in Medicare spending — cuts Ryan had included in his budget proposal — and made no mention of his own controversial plans to dramatically restructure Medicare.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday night: "We believe in telling hard-working families the truth about our country's fiscal realities. Telling them what they already know — the math of federal spending doesn't add up."
But no one over three days offered specific ideas for how the party led by Romney would make the spending add up.
Condoleezza Rice, who without a TelePrompTer may have delivered the strongest speech of the week, implied that Obama had failed to exert strong-enough American leadership across the world. But she barely mentioned Iraq, made no mention of Afghanistan and gave little hint of how Romney's foreign policy might differ from Obama's except that he won't "lead from behind."
Even Ann Romney talked broadly about her husband's decency, without offering any detailed stories to illustrate it.
The most powerful moments of Thursday night came from the accounts of business associates and friends who recalled working with Romney, or the support he gave to the parents of dying children.
People in the Tampa Bay Times Forum had tears rolling down their cheeks. Unfortunately for Romney, none of the networks aired those testimonies, and most cable networks skipped them as well.
This may turn out to be the last time a political party tries to stage a four-day convention. The networks barely cover them and party leaders and fundraisers increasingly question the value and expense of such extended days. Tropical Storm Isaac forced the party to compress a four-day schedule into three, providing Republicans mixed messages coming out of Tampa.
Viewers did see the human side of Romney, thanks mainly to Ann Romney, and they saw a diverse array of speakers on stage, if not in the audience.
But it's unlikely anyone will remember these speeches for years to come, though that's not unusual.
If the campaign hoped to show Romney's vision for moving forward, however, it missed the mark. All we know is he believes in less spending, smaller government and leading more effectively than Obama.
"We can do better" was the overall theme, with each night having its own: "We did build it," "We can change it," and "We believe in America."
What does that mean?
It sounds as empty as the words that speaker after speaker mocked this week: Obama's promise four years ago of hope and change.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.