NEAL CONAN, HOST:
While many criticize the political conventions as scripted pep rallies, a candidate's acceptance speech remains one of the most important set pieces of a presidential campaign, an hour or so of airtime on every network to define yourself and your message. Tomorrow evening, Mitt Romney gets the opportunity to convince voters that he belongs in the White House. So what do you want to hear tomorrow night from Mitt Romney? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
As has become our custom, we've invited former presidential speech writers Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson to join us. Paul Glastris wrote speeches for Bill Clinton. He's currently editor-in-chief of Washington Monthly. He joins us in Studio 3A. And Paul, nice to have you back with us.
PAUL GLASTRIS: Great to be here.
CONAN: And Peter Robinson wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan. He's with us from the campus at Stanford University where he's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Nice to have you back with us.
PETER ROBINSON: Neal, Paul, good to be with you again.
CONAN: And Political Junkie Ken Rudin is also with us here in Studio 3A. Peter Robinson, what's the most important thing for Mitt Romney to get done tomorrow night?
ROBINSON: He needs to make people feel comfortable with him. This is to me - Ken can comment on this. He knows everything about every poll taken in the 20th century. But back in 1980, this strikes me as in some way similar to 1980, where Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, had very low poll ratings. And the Reagan campaign just could not seem to get the polls to break in his favor and the thinking, even all these years later hasn't changed this much. Americans were ready to be done with Jimmy Carter, but they weren't sure they were ready to embrace Ronald Reagan.
I read the polls as similar, that the race is locked up, but the disapproval ratings for President Obama are very high. It just feels as though the country is ready to say thank you, President Obama, but they need to feel comfortable. They need to make sure that Mitt Romney is in some way one of them, that he's not so rich that he doesn't understand their problems. He needs somehow to make people feel comfortable pulling the lever for him. It's as simple as that, in my judgment.
GLASTRIS: I think Peter is exactly right. The difference is today, 46 percent of likely voters already know they're going to vote for Barack Obama; 46 percent already know they're going to vote for Mitt Romney. So there's a very narrow band of folks whose minds still aren't made up. Those folks are definitely persuadable. They definitely think the economy is not what it should be. They think Barack Obama doesn't have a good policy on the economy. They are impressed with a businessman who has started businesses and seems to know something about the economy.
But Mitt Romney's favorability ratings are so low; 33 percent of Republicans don't like Mitt Romney. So the bar here is very, very high for Mitt Romney to come in and not be wooden and not be seen like he's not one of us, not a regular American, not a normal human being. And Barack Obama is very, very - he may be highly educated and slightly elite in some ways, but he speaks a vernacular English. His cultural references are ones most people get. And he's more regular guy in an amazing way than Mitt Romney.
CONAN: I'll bet you $10,000 he is. Anyway, Ken Rudin.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Guys, here's my question. Ultimately I think decisions are usually made, if there are undecided voters, I think the debates have a lot of say in deciding who goes where. But what is Mitt Romney's audience tomorrow night? Is it the American people or is it the Republican Party, as Paul just said, a third of which doesn't really embrace him?
GLASTRIS: Well, I think the Republican Party is itself torn. And you know, you saw that last night in the difficulty some of the speakers had of making the case for Mitt Romney, of putting him - of coming up with stories that humanize him. So I do think there's an issue of making Republicans comfortable with him. But my sense is Republicans will come out and vote.
So I do think there's an issue of making Republicans come to with him. But my senses is Republicans will come out and vote. It is a base election, you know, more and more as the middle narrows. But as you know, Ken, the great thing about the middle is every vote you get is a vote your opponent doesn't get. So that's still where the gold is.
CONAN: Is this just preaching to the choir or are there persuadable tuning in, Peter Robinson?
ROBINSON: Well, the persuadable - very hard to imagine that all persuadables will tune for the entire coverage. Sure, we grant that. On the other hand, some will. And you also have YouTube and the "Good Morning America" the next morning, and the show that you guys will be running on Friday, in which you will discuss this. So the - that, to me, that is for sure the audience.
I agree - once again, you know, we call the base the base because they're with us. And particularly, after the appointment - after the choice of Paul Ryan, even foot-dragging conservatives such as me, who are slow to warm to Mitt Romney say, fine. That is more than good enough. Now, go out and persuade the country.
CONAN: Let me ask you a speechwriter's question. We're told - asked - the campaign staff says the governor writes his own speeches. Is it a good idea?
ROBINSON: Not terribly, given the level of speeches he wrote four years ago. But I'm - I can tell you that he has a very fine speechwriting staff working with him now - several very talented young people. It is...
ROBINSON: Actually, I wonder whether Paul would agree with this. But my having gone through it all those years ago, speechwriting is a young person's game. And he's got some very talented young people.
GLASTRIS: Yeah, I agree with that. And it is good for a candidate to make a speech his own, although it's not necessarily good for candidates to write a speech.
ROBINSON: Exactly, exactly.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. What do you want to hear in that speech tomorrow night? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And we'll go to Panzo(ph) . Panzo with us from Raleigh, North Carolina.
PANZO: Yes, sir. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
PANZO: Yeah. I'm glad that you got my call. This is my first time to call.
CONAN: Thank you very much.
PANZO: Yes. My question was, I've been hearing this where Mitt Romney is talking about changing the economy, that policy - so far, he hasn't put out any policy that will show us, really, that he's going to change the economy. He is a businessman for sure, but leading a country and doing a business, is not just amount(ph) of making profit(ph), by the amount of taking also care of the people. And so far, he hasn't say anything that will show the people that, yes, he will do that.
CONAN: I hear two issues there, Peter Robinson, one of which is, let's be more specific about the economy.
CONAN: And is this kind of a speech, especially for a first-time candidate, a challenger, is it about a list of issues, a list of policies? Or is this about characters, about introducing your narrative, your story?
ROBINSON: You know, it's primarily about character. I'm little hesitant, because I've been going back and forth in my mind about this. I'd like to hear what Ken and Paul have to say. Just exchanged emails the other day, with my buddy, Andy Ferguson, who wrote for George H. W. Bush, the administration that succeeded President Reagan. And you know, we've both been going back, looking at some of the speeches given in those days - the '80s and the very early '90s. And we both have the feeling that there was more argumentation, that Reagan and George H. W. Bush were somewhat more specific.
I would argue, if I were advising the Romney campaign, that Panzo has exactly the right question. Wait a minute. You were a businessman, how does what you would do in the economy help me? How does this help ordinary Americans? And, of course, that is an opening for the Republican argument in the power of free markets to create jobs.
In my judgment, Mitt Romney would do - you don't want to over-laden - you don't - for goodness sake, please, don't go up there and do a PowerPoint presentation as if you're in a boardroom looking for investments. But you reveal character, to my mind, by being - by engaging in argument, by demonstrating that you take the American people seriously enough to lay out at least the overall narrative arc of what you intend to do and why it would help people.
CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, I heard something else in Panzo's comment, and that is a sense of empathy. I understand what you're going through.
GLASTRIS: Well, Mitt Romney definitely has this problem. I mean, this is, you know, Mr. Car Elevator. My wife has several Cadillacs, and this his problem. This is what you saw last night, with Ann Romney trying, I thought, fairly successfully, to change that narrative and make their marriage and Mitt Romney's life seem more relatable, like we were just poor kids who - whose dining table was an ironing board, and we succeeded. And now, we have, you know, funds with which we can do good things. And so he - that's a big struggle.
But I do want to say - what Peter said about policy being revealing character, I could not agree more. When a politician is asking to be put in charge of the country, it is a mark of his character or her character to be able to explain what they're going to do with that power.
CONAN: Does he need to address his religion?
GLASTRIS: You know, I don't think so. I think it's - we're past that. I think...
ROBINSON: Yeah, I agree.
GLASTRIS: I think we're going to be able to do that. It would have - had to roll that out over a period of months. I think it'd kind of be shocking now.
CONAN: And, Ken?
RUDIN: I do - Peter, mentioned something about Reagan. And 1980 was my first convention, and I wasn't convinced Ronald Reagan was going to beat Jimmy Carter until I got to that convention. And I don't remember specifics, but I do remember the tone he set and the way he addressed it. Of course, he was an amazing performer, but I think it was Reagan at that convention that convinced me that he was going to win that election. And, of course, he did. And I'm just wondering if Romney could just accomplish that same thing tomorrow night.
ROBINSON: You know, that's a darn good ques - by the way, let the record know that Ken attended his first convention at the age of seven.
RUDIN: Thank you very much.
ROBINSON: But, you know, I missed the '80 convention. And although I was writing speeches, I stayed behind in Washington. I didn't go to the '84 convention. I did go to the last couple of conventions. I went to Philadelphia and then I was in St. Paul - Minneapolis' St. Paul - sorry, everybody, Minnesota. I know there's a difference between the two. And...
RUDIN: They're all twins.
ROBINSON: Yeah, right. They are - at this stage of the game, they're - to tell that - I'm sorry to say this everybody in Tampa, but they're ghastly events. There's just the kind of deadly space in the hall, and there - everything is staged for television. And I get to feel - I really envy you, Ken, for having been to a convention that was a real convention.
We've said earlier - I think Paul and I agree that the principal audience has to be the nation, and in particular, the undecided. But if that - if Mitt Romney can electrify that hall, he will have said something about himself. At some visceral level, a candidate still needs to communicate energy. It's got me - it goes all the way back to the Federalist Papers and the energy in the executive. I can't remember whether it was Hamilton or Madison, but that sheer sense of - that there's something important here and that we're joined together in a cause. And, yes, we may as well admit it, there's something exciting about it as well.
GLASTRIS: And we sure didn't see energy in Mitt Romney in his comportment last night at the convention. He seemed kind of...
ROBINSON: No. Oh, no. He should have stayed in the hotel. That's - I couldn't agree more.
CONAN: Former presidential...
GLASTRIS: Keep them out of the hall.
CONAN: Former presidential speechwriters...
GLASTRIS: If that's...
CONAN: ...Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Steve is on the line, calling with us from Granite Falls in Minnesota.
STEVE: Hi there. A great show. And I have a - I would like to hear from - something from Mitt Romney that's pretty important, and maybe it could be a trivia question for Ken - to ask, what is - well, we've got the odd situation and neither major candidate having any military experience. I'm not sure how long it's been since that happened before, if ever.
STEVE: And when it was a major...
RUDIN: 1944, Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey. Sorry. That was the last time.
STEVE: OK. Well, I (unintelligible)
ROBINSON: Well, Ken plants these questions.
RUDIN: I should get a T-shirt.
CONAN: Well, that raises an issue, though, of one thing that the American people want to feel comfortable with - yes, the economy is the issue, but they want to feel comfortable turning over the keys to the football, the nuclear codes, that this person is going to be capable of serving as commander-in-chief. Paul Glastris, does he has to address that in some sense?
GLASTRIS: Oh, I think there's no question that Mitt Romney has to suggest some grasp of national security. It's a Republican-brand strength. He attempted to do it in his trip to Europe over the summer, and it didn't work out all that well. But again, I mean, this is very cliche, but this is not as much as 2004. It was a national security election. This is a - not a national security election, so he'll spice up the speech with that, but I don't think he has a huge hurdle there.
RUDIN: Yeah, I agree, and also the fact that President Obama does have a foreign policy record that Democrats can be very proud of, and it'll be tough for Romney to attack him on that issue.
CONAN: What are the possible pitfalls? He's - yes, he knows he's being criticized as being too robotic. Do you try to go too far the other way?
ROBINSON: Yeah, that would be a mistake, in my judgment. Look, the staff - you got - this is - Paul will know this. That in any campaign organization, the speechwriters, in some way, almost - in a good organization - they almost inhabit the candidate's mind. Paul did it with Bill Clinton. I did it, I believe we - I certainly know we tried to do it in the Reagan administration with President Reagan. You just have to develop a sense of what your candidate is comfortable with, who he is.
And I mean, at this stage, Mitt Romney - in some way, there's a low - he should not attempt to be Ronald Reagan. He should not reach for high rhetorical - for rhetorical heights. He should be himself. And at some basic level, if he conveys authenticity, that he's comfortable with himself, and then, of course, that makes the policy argument, I actually think the hurdle for him is pretty low. But one way or the other, it was just fatal when you've got a candidate who is intent on going out and being something other than what he really is.
GLASTRIS: I very much agree and I - but I guess I'd say this, when - with Bill Clinton, his natural predisposition was to talk folksy...
GLASTRIS: ...to talk to the folks. And as speechwriters, we saw our jobs to try to elevate and make presidential, the language, a little bit more than he might normally do. And we met somewhere in the middle. And I think the speechwriters ought to strain at the leash a little bit, pull at the leash a little bit.
GLASTRIS: And I think it may be serving him well if he did.
RUDIN: And you remember the torturous suggestions directed at Al Gore, trying to humanize him, because he was also being - accused of being robotic, whether to wear jeans, whether to have a PalmPilot...
RUDIN: ...all those things. I mean, I think the only thing I remember from the conventions...
CONAN: Who remembers the PalmPilot.
RUDIN: Well, God is my PalmPilot. But I also remember the kiss with Tipper Gore was 48 seconds. And I think that was the - remember - the only thing I remember from the 2000 convention.
RUDIN: That humanized him, I guess.
CONAN: I guess, yeah.
RUDIN: And look at him now.
Well, you know, one thing about being authentic, is to be authentic about your record - to be able to talk about your record with pride and assurance. And one thing Mitt Romney has not been doing and Al Gore didn't do in 2000, and I believe that caused him the election - Al Gore did not run on the Clinton/Gore record. He was all afraid of the references to Lewinsky and all of that, and I think he had been president had he done so. Mitt Romney, I think, should be talking about his record.
CONAN: Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson will join us again next week to look ahead to what Barack Obama needs to accomplish in his speech to his convention. That's next week on Political Junkie from TALK OF THE NATION and NPR News. Ken, thanks very much for your time.
RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Peter, good to talk with you.
GLASTRIS: Neal, a pleasure. Next week.
CONAN: See you next week, Paul.
GLASTRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, Mitt Romney for his Mormon faith in the spotlight. We'll talk with Mormons about what this moment means for them. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.