No Place Like Home
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney looks up to the balloons as his wife Ann and family take stage after his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, August 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Ann Romney told the television audience that they could trust Mitt Romney to bring them home safe from a date. That is what he had done for her, she said, forty-seven years ago when their love was new; and love had carried her along all these years, love and trust in the man she was pitching to carry them home from the bad economy, the great uncertainty, the world of peril just beyond wherever it was they were watching. She was talking to Republicans, too, gathered around a national convention stage set that was as loud as her red satin dress, as hard as her lacquered fingernails and the crimson slash of her mouth. She shook her golden head like a schoolgirl, then set her jaw and pointed her fingers like gun barrels. “After a speech like that, who says the Republican Party doesn’t like women?” a male delegate enthused.
When Governor Chris Christie followed her by saying it is better to be respected than loved, he may have been auditioning for enforcer, but he underlined the objective of Mrs. Mitt, of Mitt himself and of the Republican campaign. “There is doubt and fear for our future in every corner of our country,” he said. “Skeptics wonder if America’s greatness is over.” Did we stay too late at the dance and now find ourselves wandering, hopelessly lost? No, said the overstuffed Jersey boy whose youth was spent jerking to Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. No, said every scripted moment of the convention. No, said the party’s standard-bearer in his big speech on the final night, promising to “restore every father and mother’s confidence.”
Mitt will bring us home.
But where is home? Outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the streets were an ugly tangle of fence and armed men, almost none of whom could give you directions. Inside, the crowd had hailed Condoleezza Rice’s endorsement of intervention on behalf of “free peoples and free markets,” but an Iowa delegate wearing an OIF/OEF badge indicating his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan said, “There’s no freedom in it, believe me.” The week’s speeches had been pitched to project the party as a national Rotary of small shopkeepers, but conventiongoers were stingy toward Tampa’s small businesses. Everything about the convention—its design, its parties, its swag bag, its parade of guests, lobbyists and consultants done up like Barbie and Ken—was such a celebration of Mammon that some Republicans felt uneasy. “Who are these people?” a group of dismayed Christian activists asked one another over a steady supply of alcohol one night.
On the final day, two Ron Paul delegates from Las Vegas lingered by a trash can in a hallway while Newt, Callista and the other warm-up speakers for Romney took the stage. “You feel like you’re in a cesspool after being here,” said one. Party regulars pooh-poohed the only political surprise of the convention, a quickly organized protest by grassroots Republicans angry at the leadership’s slippery rule changes. The only stagey surprise, an evocation of frontier toughness in the projected image of Josey Wales and the person of Clint Eastwood, turned out to be a meandering bit of clowning. That was far from the worst worry for Romney, whose own house was a mess. The convention closed, and his side remained uneasy, scanning the horizon for a bump.
This is a desperation election; nostalgia was the Republicans’ only consistent message. That is partly their fault, partly their condition, and it is not theirs alone. Romney’s nostalgia for a sunnier, more robust America, that place where we all gathered round our TV sets to watch a man walk on the moon and “went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world,” doesn’t speak for everyone’s experience of 1969, and doesn’t admit into the magic circle of memory the millions of Americans who weren’t even born then. It does, however, gesture to the sense, aloft throughout the land, that what some may call American greatness and others American hegemony is in crackup. The circumstances that allowed for the moonwalk, that made the US military so formidable around the world and made the working class (especially the white segment) so materially satisfied, that insulated the rich by rewarding the aspirations of the rest just enough to make “the dream” believable—these no longer apply. The wars are lost, the soldiers are killing themselves, the children are stupid, labor is idle or underpriced, the masses are indebted or poor, the rich are vulgar and grabbing all they can while they can.
The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of decline—how to manage the transition from a present that is untenable to a future as yet unperceived except within the fright frame of science fiction. This problem predates the Great Collapse of 2008. No one knows what to do about it, and neither party can speak of it, even if it wanted to. To do so would be as disastrous as Jimmy Carter talking about malaise.
But the Republicans also have a tactical headache—five of them actually, conflicts that their convention revealed but could not resolve, and that made nostalgia the only rhetorical option.
§ Since 2008 the party and its sound machine (the grotesque crew of radio and television broadcasters, pundits, surrogates and nonprofit outfits) have done a spectacular job of demonstrating that W.E.B. Du Bois was perhaps optimistic: the problem of the color line is not the problem of the twentieth century alone. A black president and the imminence of nonwhites outnumbering the white population have been met with an almost automatic racism, masked in code or tricked out in humor. It has succeeded in mobilizing some of the ranks, but now Romney is trolling for votes beyond them, from people who may be made queasy, or at least embarrassed, by the strong whiff of bigotry.
§ They have been masters of fear, targeting old white people, particularly aging working-class Reagan Democrats, playing on their prejudices but also on their real insecurities. On any given day, a duffer who has answered Republican surveys or sent $5 to a candidate or ordered Rush Limbaugh’s iced tea might find himself with a pile of alarming mail from party offshoots or nonprofit allies: Yes, Obama literally wants taxation without representation… He’s undermining our national security and endangering American citizens… Stop the invasion of our country… Prayer in public is under assault like never before in America… With this radical agenda [same-sex marriage] comes the silencing and punishment of you… Your tax dollars are paying for a ragtag collection of dictators and socialists… The only thing that serves Obama’s purpose better than $5 gasoline is gas that costs $10 or $15 per gallon… Young children are forced into sexual orientation training… Did you know that most Grocery Stores only keep a 3 day supply of food on hand? (All quotes genuine.) But Paul Ryan forcefully insists that it’s not enough to scare people to win an election; ideas are what matter.
§ They have Paul Ryan, a man of big ideas, the liberal media insist. But his ideas scare people. Romney’s choice of Ryan for VP defused the Tea Party, but Ryan’s vision for Social Security and Medicare had to be stifled, because no presidential aspirant can risk welding himself to images of Granny betting her retirement voucher in the stock market, Granny running up against the limits of her medical voucher, Granny dying in the snow.
§ Since the 1970s they have identified with the anti- abortion and anti-gay crusades, gaining in the bargain money and votes and a formidable ground game rooted in the churches. Being cynical, they underestimate the power of true belief, and in a political year dominated by debate on transvaginal ultrasounds, personhood amendments, restrictions on contraception, redefinitions of rape and defunding Planned Parenthood, they cannot embrace their Christian base without alienating independent voters—and cannot appeal to those voters without putting distance between themselves and their own base.
§ They invoked liberty opportunistically, so as to brand Obama its opposite. They didn’t bank on attracting people to their party who actually believe in it.
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