No Place Like Home
Ever since Democrats and Republicans eliminated the central purpose of their national conventions—picking the presidential candidate—these gatherings have had only two functions: unite the party, and project the candidate in the most appealing way to the nation. So it was mystifying that Team Romney should use this occasion to alienate one of the most energetic segments of the Republican base, unseating ten Ron Paul delegates from Maine, others from Louisiana and Oregon, and pushing through rules that were seen as moves by moneyed interests to favor future front-runners, thwart grassroots candidacies and wrap up the nominating process more quickly. Paul’s strategy this year had been to participate in Republican caucuses and primaries and then leave it to delegates at the state level to organize through their convention process, spreading their message, expanding their number, hence his chances. Rule 12 allowed the Republican National Committee to change the terms of the game at any time between conventions. Rule 16 neutered the state conventions as sites of scrappy politics, remaking them in the image of the national convention, exercises in symbolism.
When the latter came to the convention floor, John Boehner, as chair, called for a voice vote, and, though it sounded too close to call, he declared, “The ayes have it.” For days afterward, activist delegates were replaying video on their iPhones showing a teleprompter signaling the result that Boehner would announce. The fix, they said, was in.
To anyone familiar with national party conventions of either stripe, it’s hard to fathom people being shocked by the heavy hand of hierarchy—just as it seems quaint that they hadn’t been prepared for the script, or the corporatism, or the signs of vapid wealth, or the charade of representative governance, or their own marginalization.
Cynics waved a hand and said, “They’ll get over it. They have nowhere else to go”—words of party regulars down the ages, of Democrats saying the same about blacks, labor, the poor, the peace faction, the left. But the Paul people are a frisky lot, and their naïveté was a tonic breeze.
I was on the street the day after Chris Christie said every American was afraid. “So what scares you most?” I asked a young delegate from Wyoming named Tyler. He was a tall drink of water with a wide-brimmed Western hat, and he looked down at me and said, “Ma’am, the government.”
“Can you be more specific?”
He stared at me curiously and then straight ahead, as if the answer were so obvious. “Uh, the drug laws, the police state. Look at that,” gesturing to the armored police cordon ahead, the chopper above. “What are they afraid of?”
It was not the most offensive show of US police power I’d ever seen; that was at the RNC in New York in 2004. These police were friendly, and I tried to remember what it was like not to think their massed presence was normal. I was glad the young man from Wyoming didn’t want to get used to them. I was glad his fellow free-thinkers didn’t consider rebellion futile.
A couple of doors up the street a group had been meeting at Precinct Pizza to clarify their grievances and settle on talking points, using Robert’s Rules of Order, which their ad hoc parliamentarian, Troy Christensen of Texas, had decided to learn when he got involved in politics not so long ago. “If they can do this to us, they can do this to anyone,” Lexy Nuzum, a delegate from Iowa, offered. Two days later, just before the start of Mitt’s big night, I ran into a procession of Paulites and others, walking solemnly to the forum, flying an American flag with a peace sign where the stars usually are. They gathered on the balcony outside the hall until they numbered 200 to 300, holding yellow papers saying Grassroots. Here and there a T-shirt proclaimed . A tall boy with golden locks, Josiah Tillett of Virginia, walked purposefully through the group with duct tape across his mouth bearing the words Rule 12. They called themselves the future.
In their press conference, some were all business on the narrow point of rules while others said the party had betrayed the essential spirit of liberty, and one called the RNC a “criminal enterprise.” Most of those I talked with said this was their first taste of politics. Maybe they were for no taxes, voluntarism and the gold standard, but their passion burned hottest talking against oligarchy, war, overseas bases, the drones, the people slaughtered in the false name of freedom, the soldier suicides, the threats to Iran, habeas corpus, executive power, surveillance, government intrusion into one’s body, one’s bedroom. They believe in the Constitution. I can’t imagine they have anywhere to go inside either dominant party, but I don’t think they’re going away either.
A middle-aged woman from California walking into the hall asked me what the fuss was about. “It’s a protest by the grassroots,” I said.
“I thought that’s what we are!” she said, identifying with the Tea Party. “Oh, are those the Ron Paul people? I just cannot agree with them on foreign affairs. We are a global leader. We just are. It’s too late. They’re young. I think that’s a youthful hope, but it’s not realistic.”
As the rebels filed into the forum, they were asked to surrender their Grassroots signs.
* * *
The balloons fell, Romney’s speech had evaporated and the crowd drifted away. Ann Coulter was sashaying out, surrounded by large men. “How do you feel, Ann?” somebody shouted. “Happy!” she said. She was entering what some called the Walkway of Inspiration, a white tent-tunnel connecting the forum with the convention center. The nighttime lighting in blue and red made it dreamlike. Commercials still rolled in an endless loop on video monitors mounted along the sides. In a dry field the woman in a wheelchair, so Christina’s World, was still taking her first step within the protective circle of Optum. A child still had water to swim in because Mosaic’s phosphate and potash mines recycle up to 95 percent of it. Florida was still “open for business.” White tufted benches looked bereft but beautiful against the white fabric walls. Red roses in their hanging baskets suffused the air-conditioning with their fragrance. It smelled like a funeral.