Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Speech Lessons for Mitt Romney

The Republican presidential candidate must convey the urgency of electing a new leader of our country.


Mark W. Davis, co-author of Digital Assassination, is a former White House speechwriter, now a senior director with the Washington, D.C.-based White House Writers

Think of the Republican National Convention as an opera: There will be a baritone accuser (Chris Christie), a comic castrati (several primary challengers come to mind), a winsome soprano (Janine Turner), and a charismatic tenor (Marco Rubio). At the end comes the finale, the aria called the nomination acceptance speech.

This moment represents a candidate's best chance to tell his story, and to sell his rationale for why he should govern. What does Mitt Romney's speech have to do to set the predicate to win in the fall? A good model of an insurgent looking to replace an incumbent is Ronald Reagan's nomination acceptance speech in 1980. Using that speech as inspiration, here are a few fleshed out ideas on what Romney's speech must accomplish.

Romney needs to challenge the Obama narrative about how we got here. The president's alibi is that business is inherently corrupt. His unchallenged narrative is that runaway capitalism and a lack of regulation let the forces of greed wreck the economy. The odd sell of the Obama campaign is that only heavier regulation and more government control in his second term can bring us back toward full employment.

[See a Slideshow of the 11 Most Memorable Political Convention Speeches.]

Romney's narrative must counter this toxic claim. His narrative is that things got bad when this country veered away from the low-tax, sensible regulations, and stable money policies of the 1980s and 1990s. When government gets too big, it sucks up capital needed for jobs. It creates perverse incentives. And when businesses then stumble, big government blames the victim—"you didn't build that!"

Republicans are not blameless in this shift back toward big government. Many were complicit in the move toward overspending, and many on Wall Street were only too happy to profit off the bubble. But the country started to veer into that ditch when Rep. Barney Frank lectured worried Bush administration regulators: "I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing . . ."

The Democrats gambled—and we lost. The misuse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with errors in monetary policy and government investments to preempt market decisions, got us where we are today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

And now the Democrats are doubling down on the same crony capitalism that got us in this mess—call it Solyndra economics.

This part of the speech should highlight Obama's promises of low unemployment, strong growth and "change" against the dismal reality. There will be ample room for a damning indictment, much like Reagan's in 1980.

Reagan asked: "Can anyone look at the record of [the Carter] administration and say, well done?" In this way, Reagan set up his powerful indictment in the debate against Carter, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

In his own words, Romney must do the same. Then he should move to establish his narrative for the future. This is the high note of the aria. This is the sell.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Ronald Reagan again provides a model. In fact, he could have been speaking of our own times when the Gipper spoke of "trust me government" that "asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man, that we trust him to do what's best for us. Well, my view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. That trust is where it belongs—in the people."

In war and in peace, it has always been the American people who fix our country, not some messianic figure.

All we need is just the freedom to do it. Here Romney could weave his own story into the theme of American initiative. Romney's father came from pioneer stock, and built himself up from having a poor ranch in Mexico to becoming the leader of American manufacturing in Detroit. George Romney did build that. But he didn't do it alone, and neither did his son at Bain Capital or the 2002 Winter Olympics. In every business there are partners to work with, customers to please and employees to lead. It takes finesse to make such an ungainly thing as a business or big organization or even a nation to work. It takes courage to submit your best efforts to the tough measure of the market place. And it takes leadership.