As if shadow-boxing before a title bout, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appeared before the same audience on Tuesday when they spoke within hours of each other at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. The Republican challenger showed up in the morning to address former President Bill Clinton’s annual conference on world problems, while the Democratic president arrived later that afternoon.
A sharper contrast in style and substance is difficult to imagine.
In fairness, Romney deserved considerable credit for the effort, his presence paying tribute to Clinton’s role as a bipartisan convener, despite the former president’s own strong partisan preferences. Surely Republicans from the corporate world are involved with CGI, and Clinton keeps politics separate from philanthropy — but the overflow audience in the midtown hotel ballroom was emphatically not a right-wing crowd. They politely applauded the GOP nominee, but he offered them little occasion for enthusiasm.
After Clinton thanked Romney graciously for coming to CGI, he replied with a clever quip: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good. After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.” Although better written and more crisply delivered than his awful convention speech, it went downhill from there.
Combining the traditional paean to free enterprise with a familiar critique of foreign aid, Romney’s speech might have struck a fresh note at a Rotary Club luncheon circa 1981; to the sophisticated entrepreneurs, executives, activists, and diplomats at CGI, it had to sound canned and even a bit condescending:
“Economic freedom is the only force in history that has consistently lifted people out of poverty…Free enterprise cannot only make us better off financially, it can make us better people…Ours is a compassionate nation… As the most prosperous nation in history, it is our duty to keep the engine of prosperity running—to open markets across the globe and to spread prosperity to all corners of the earth.”
If you haven’t heard that before – a thousand times before – you just haven’t been listening.