The president’s “you didn’t build that” statement has not only framed the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney exactly as Romney needed, it has transformed Romney’s campaign. He gave a very good speech last week at the NAACP convention, but even the strength of that performance was as nothing next to what he’s done over the past two days. I’ve now watched Romney’s speeches yesterday and today centering on the remark and its meaning, and what I’m seeing is a Mitt Romney come alive—or at least, a Romney new to me. He has always been articulate and with a command of facts and figures, but the distanced awkwardness that accompanied them has suddenly vanished. In their place is a loose, fluid, confident, and passionate spokesman defending the free enterprise system against Obama’s government-centered approach. Romney has done something you hear people talk about theoretically but which doesn’t often happen—he has found his voice as a presidential candidate. And it’s all due to Barack Obama. I hope a fruit basket is on the way to the White House. It would only be polite.
I agree that Romney has improved as a stump speaker. But I still worry about his instincts.
For example, his initial reaction to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gift was mostly to express indignation over the insult to small business owners. To be sure, Obama did insult that cohort. But this was perhaps the least politically and intellectually problematic aspect of Obama’s comment.
Obama played straight into the hands of Romney, who has claimed from the beginning that the president doesn’t understand how jobs are created and how the economy functions. That’s the line of attack that can win this election, not outrage over insults to small businessmen.
Romney showed similarly poor instincts when he demanded an apology after Team Obama suggested he might have committed a felony. The suggestion was outrageous, but Romney’s reaction made him seem weak. A strong presidential candidate does not call for statements from an opponent that he knows the opponent won’t deliver.
So yes, Romney is learning to be a better speaker. But instincts can’t be learned, and Romney’s could be better.
JOHN adds: I don’t disagree with anything Paul says, and I especially agree that it was foolish to ask for an apology when Obama called him a felon. That was an opportunity missed. But my take is slightly different from that of John Podhoretz, and many other conservative commentators, in that I have always thought Romney is underestimated as a candidate. I think that for a variety of reasons, conservatives have been overly critical of Romney’s skills, which are admittedly imperfect, but still pretty darn good. What we have seen over the last few days is, yes, an improvement; but the improvement is mainly due to Obama committing a horrible blunder that gave Romney an opening he could drive a truck through. I think a lot of conservative commentators are taking the opportunity to give Romney his due, in my view somewhat belatedly.