The Republicans may be burying an old political trope -- or else just confusing the kids.
TAMPA -- Political players and journalists have long described the Democrats as the Mommy party and the Republicans as the Daddy party. The Democrats were the party of the hearth -- the warm and fuzzy ones who cared about kids and schools and health care -- and the Republicans were the party of the workplace -- the stern and sinewy ones who brought home the bacon and kept everyone safe.
The parties have a history of cross-dressing when it suits their purposes (Maureen Dowd indelibly described the 1996 Republican convention, in San Diego, as an "estrogen festival"). But I can't remember a party simultaneously presenting itself so starkly as serially playing both roles as the Republicans are doing here. Maybe it's the inevitable effect of trying to simultaneously humanize Mitt Romney and present him as a strong leader -- and, more broadly, soften the harder edges of the ticket's policy agenda while retaining the tough-guy image that revs up the Tea Party. Or maybe it's a new era, and the Republicans are in the act of tearing down a frame that is based in notions of family roles that are hopelessly out of date.
The clearest presentation of the two-track convention came Tuesday night, when Ann Romney sweetly declared, "I want to talk to you about love" right before Chris Christie thundered that love was overrated: "I believe we have become paralyzed, paralyzed by our desire to be loved." Then the governor shouted a bunch of stuff about how we need to grow up and make tough choices.
The effect was a little disorienting, like being hugged by mom and told everything was going to be OK, right before you get spanked by dad and told to pull yourself together. It might have gone down a little easer if it had come in reverse order. For my own part, I felt, by the time Christie was done, a little like this.
But apparently the Republicans really ARE both my mommy and my daddy. "She did the mommy part about the dad, and he did the daddy part about the mom," Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, explained to me. While Ann Romney talked about her husband, Christie talked about his mother. "The irony was so rich -- just dripping," Luntz said. "One used a man to illustrate traits to appeal to women, the other used a woman to illustrate traits that appeal to men."
I still feel a little dazed and confused, but Luntz says that the problem is that voters don't want to hear anything more about "compassionate conservatism" -- and not because they don't want to be reminded of George W. Bush: "They don't want 'conservatism' because it's too ideological," he said. "They don't want 'compassion' because it's too soft. They just want to get it done." Ryan, he said, "is the bridge between the two. Ryan has got a gentle demeanor, almost Boy Scout-like, but he delivers a tough message. That's what makes it palatable."
We shall see. As for Romney, I continue to think that the convention speech of the modern era that most successfully performed the high-wire act that lies ahead for him -- presenting strength and humanity, daddy and mommy, all in a credible new package for a familiar political figure -- was this one:
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James Bennet is the former editor in chief and co-president of The Atlantic.