The Republican National Convention — part pep rally, part coronation, part reality television show — faces competing challenges as the storm-delayed compact version revs up today in Tampa Bay.
The easiest one is inspiring the party faithful to turn out in big numbers in November to defeat President Barack Obama. The tougher task is persuading undecided voters that they would be better off with Mitt Romney as president. Between the opening applause lines today and the balloon drop Thursday night, the trick to achieving those goals depends on better defining what the Republican Party stands for and where it would lead the nation if it controlled Congress and the White House.
This is not your father's Main Street Republican Party. It isn't even John McCain's GOP of four years ago with the emergence of the tea party, the election of governors such as Rick Scott in Florida and Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the takeover of the U.S. House by younger Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's running mate. Today's Republican Party has become significantly more strident in its conservative ideology and less willing to compromise.
Romney recognized that shift and the need to energize that base by picking Ryan as his running mate; selecting a range of conservative convention speakers; and adding a Ron Paul tribute video to the convention schedule to appease the supporters of the libertarian Texas congressman. But that also raises the stakes for Republicans to use the convention to both build on that enthusiasm and still appeal to moderate voters in swing states such as Florida who will help decide the election. In tone and substance, it's time to bring some clarity to what the future would hold with Romney as president.
To this point, the message has been muddled. On reducing the federal deficit, Romney has been complimentary about the Ryan budget plan, passed by the House, that seeks to cut taxes and make deep reductions in spending without touching defense. But he has made it clear the Ryan plan is not necessarily his plan, and Romney's plan does not specify which tax breaks or programs he would end to pay for it.
On Medicare, Romney has similarly praised Ryan's plan for giving anyone now under 55 years old vouchers to buy a traditional Medicare plan or a private plan when they reach retirement. Both have criticized Obama's plan to reduce the increase in Medicare spending by $716 billion over the next decade, but those reductions are also in the Ryan budget. Yet Romney says those cuts will not be in his plan.
On immigration, the rhetoric about building border fences and sending 11 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries has been tamped down. But there is no talk of a path to citizenship once advocated by President George W. Bush, no interest in embracing the Dream Act that would help younger immigrants who have completed some college or served in the military — and plenty of criticism of Obama's executive decision to let thousands of those young people stay in the country legally. Yet Republicans will spotlight Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who will introduce Romney on Thursday night and who has been working on an immigration proposal similar to Obama's new policy.
Those are just three examples where it's difficult for voters to determine where Romney stands. Has he fully embraced the positions of the most conservative Republicans who long have been skeptical of his commitment to their cause? Or is this an election strategy to drive up Republican voter turnout, and Romney as president would be more flexible and pragmatic?
It's clear what Romney and his fellow Republicans are against. They are comparing this election to 1980, although portraying Obama as Jimmy Carter is a stretch and Romney lacks Ronald Reagan's personal warmth. They are attacking Obama as a failure on dealing with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and renewing their pledge to repeal his signature legislative achievement, health care reform. That's the easy part. It's much fuzzier what the Republican candidate for president would actually do if he won. By the end of this week, those clouds should start to lift.