Perhaps it was the sense of relief after Mitt Romney snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Michigan. Perhaps it was the Romney campaign realizing that, front-runner or not, their candidate's palpable discomfort on the campaign trail was going to be a liability going forward. But whatever the reason, Mitt Romney did something important in his victory speech last night: he exhaled.
The questions about Romney's substance have been compounded by his style, which has heretofore resembled the guy who's a little too quick to offer you his business card at a cocktail party. His cadence is rushed; the flatness of his jokes is underlined by his deathless tendency to end them with a short, leaden chuckle (pity laughs are bad; giving them to yourself is worse); His relentless insistence on quoting from "America the Beautiful" makes him sound like someone who skimmed the first two chapters of "Conservatism for Dummies"; When he tries to insert some local color, he ends up ruminating on the proper height of timber.
There are two factors at work here. The first is that Romney is an unironic man in a deeply ironic era. He has a pre-1960s sensibility (one that is virtually dead outside of patrician circles today) that prizes decorum, restraint, and understatement. That trait is likely so deeply ingrained in his personality that it will not change. And, frankly, it shouldn't. Let the critics take their shots at Ward Cleaver's America. That they draw offense at the best kind of bourgeois values says more about them than Romney.
The other trend -- one that the candidate can remedy -- is that Romney has simply been trying too hard. He need not attempt the Sisyphean task of convincing conservatives that he is one of them; that, if his life had taken a different turn somewhere down the line, he'd be opening a Tea Party rally somewhere in the Detroit suburbs with a reading from Von Mises. Rather than projecting the desperate -- and transparent -- need to be loved, he needs to exude the confidence that ability breeds affection. And he also needs to endlessly drive home the point that Barack Obama doesn't have that ability.
While the transition is not yet complete, Romney did a good job of moving toward that tone last night in Michigan. For the first time in recent memory, he seemed relaxed, not rushing his words as if someone had given him five minutes to deliver a quarter hour's worth of remarks. The cutesy material and the self-conscious laughter were mostly jettisoned. And in their place were some new lines that effectively cut at the president. Some of Romney's better moments:
This President likes to remind us that he inherited an economic crisis. But he never mentions that he also inherited a Democratic Congress. With majorities in the House and Senate, President Obama was free to pursue any policy he pleased.
Did he fix the economy? Did he tackle the housing crisis? Did he get Americans back to work? No. He put us on a path toward debt, deficits, and decline.
... He thinks he deserves a second term. He keeps saying, We cant wait. To which I say, Yes, we can.
... We've seen enough of this President over the last three years to know that we don't need another four. President Obama believes he is unchecked by our Constitution. He is unresponsive to the will of our people. In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election. If there is one thing we cannot afford, it is four years of Barack Obama with nothing to answer to.
All sharp lines of attack. All ably delivered. It's not time to despair just yet.