Ben Adler | The Nation

Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Religious Right Roars at RNC

Tampa—The Republican National Convention has presented the Romney campaign with a conundrum: how to placate the religious right without alienating independents. The compromise has been giving social conservatives a handful of speeches that are in prime time for the delegates and Fox News viewers, but safely out of the 10 pm EST hour for the broadcast networks. On Tuesday night, the token social conservative slot was given to Rick Santorum. On Wednesday, it was Mike Huckabee.

But Christianists are experts at outside organizing. They played nicely with the Romney campaign in public, but they were sure to demand their pound of flesh. For weeks leading up to the RNC, the Family Research Council (FRC) blasted emails to their members informing them of the high stakes in the platform negotiations. Back in June they sent an e-mail titled “Protecting Life & Marriage—from the Republicans,” in which they asked for donations to send a larger lobbying team to the Platform Committee meetings last week. They warned that many leading Republicans were going wobbly on gay marriage. More recently, though, FRC President Tony Perkins breathed a sigh of relief over the fact that allies such as Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) were overseeing the process. And, sure enough, the platform has planks opposing marriage equality and abortion rights.

Once the actual festivities started, social conservatives kept the pressure on. On Tuesday, the FRC honored Santorum, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) and Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) for their leadership in opposing abortion rights. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that they chose to recognize three of Romney’s primary opponents, one of whom left the Senate six years ago. One interpretation would be that FRC is thanking them for pushing social issues into the campaign. Another interpretation, not mutually exclusive, is that they are implicitly drawing a contrast with Romney.

Santorum is trying to set himself up as the leader of the middle-class social conservative wing of the GOP, in opposition to Romney’s country club set. He has organized a group, called Patriot Voices, that is focused on mobilizing his supporters and like-minded voters in the Rust Belt swing states where Santorum gave Romney a tight race in the primaries.

On Wednesday afternoon Patriot Voices held a rally for a few hundred supporters. Leaders of the major social conservative organizations all came to speak and show their support. It was apparent that if Romney loses and Santorum runs again in 2016, he would receive organized social conservative support from the get-go.

At Santorum’s event, away from the official RNC podium, the religious right let loose. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, hosted. Bauer referenced the ludicrous, Islamophobic wingnut theory that Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood operative. Bauer’s theme was getting America to “come back” to its principles such as, “when American foreign policy promoted American values and interests, instead of the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.” And, of course, Bauer invoked, “When the President knew the capital of Israel was Jerusalem.” Bauer went beyond merely opposing gay marriage to also inveigh against gay adoption. “It’s not bigotry to believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and it’s not discrimination to know a child needs a mother and a father.”

Even though he is known for his fiscal conservatism, Paul Ryan is clearly more popular than Romney among social conservatives. Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, mentioned Ryan before Romney. “Are you as excited about Paul Ryan being on this ticket as I am?” He asked to big cheers. “Ryan is a full spectrum conservative: pro-marriage, pro-life, pro-family,” Reed assured the crowd, although it seemed unnecessary. “It says a lot about Mitt Romney that he had the guts and intestinal fortitude to pick Paul Ryan,” said Reed, damning Romney—as conservatives often do—with the faint praise of being only as good as his vice-presidential pick.

Reed also addressed head on the reservations his constituency may have about Romney. “Go back and read Romney’s commencement address at Liberty University,” said Reed. “He’s come our way in his campaigns over the years.” Reed also claimed to have been baited to say something anti-Mormon by a reporter, as an excuse to explain why Romney’s faith is not a problem. “I’m not looking for someone who shares my faith, I’m looking for someone who shares my values,” said Reed to tepid applause. Later, he noted that Romney “is a church man.” (Shouldn’t that be irrelevant, according to Reed’s aforementioned concerns?) It’s worth noting that Reed felt the crowd might have enough doubts about whether a Mormon can be president that he had to make the case at all.

On behalf of the Romney campaign, Mitt’s son Matt Romney appeared and said nothing remotely interesting.

In a recurring theme of the RNC, Bauer attempted to disprove the existence of the Republican War on Women with patronizing tokenism. “We’ve got more articulate women who know the issues than the other guys,” asserted Bauer.

Ted Cruz, the Republican Senate candidate in Texas, previewed a religious right effort to drive a wedge among Catholic Democrats. “The Democrats used to be proud of having nominated two Catholics for president,” said Cruz. “What would an Al Smith or Jack Kennedy think of a Democratic president who tells the Catholic Church, ‘change your beliefs of we’ll shut you down?’” Considering that Jack Kennedy’s brother Ted was a major supporter of the Affordable Care Act, to which Cruz is referring, it’s probably safe to say he would not mind.

Perkins, as he always does, argued that government can not be shrunk without a stronger family unit.

The room was filled with Santorum’s former primary supporters, and the event was, to some extent, a swan song for his campaign. When he was introduced the audience stood and cheered, and then had to stand awkwardly for several minutes as a video lionizing Santorum played before he came out.

Santorum referred back to his speech on Tuesday, in which he heavily emphasized abortion and odiously suggested that Democrats do not care for the disabled because they would allow parents to abort a future baby with a disability. After talking about his love for his developmentally disabled daughter, Bella, Santorum had said, “I thank God that America still has one party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God’s children—born and unborn—and says that each of us has dignity and all of us have the right to live the American Dream.” The irony is that disability rights advocates are unified in their support for the Affordable Care Act, which Santorum would repeal. Santorum’s compassion for the disabled does not extend to making sure they can obtain healthcare. (Santorum also opposes funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which protects disabled children from discrimination.)

“When I said ‘born and unborn’ last night, 51 percent of the people didn’t stand up, 95 percent of them stood up,” Santorum boasted. “We are the pro-life party. There is no division. There is no dissension.” Santorum also bragged about having helped lead opposition to ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. More than 120 countries and the entire European Union have ratified it, and it enjoys bipartisan support in the US Senate. The purpose is to assure protection from discrimination for people with disabilities in education, employment and voting. Disability rights advocates support it. But religious extremists such as Santorum worry that it could be bad for parents who home school their children. And so, thanks to Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), it has not been approved by the US Senate.

Santorum devoted less than a sentence to the importance of excluding gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage, but Huckabee gave it more attention. He also, like Reed, took up responsibility on selling Mormon Mitt to the Evangelicals. “Let me clear the air about whether guys like me would only support an evangelical,” said Huckabee. “Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb, and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls healthcare… I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.”

Given Huckabee’s charisma and popularity among conservatives, the reaction on the floor to his speech was surprisingly subdued. That’s in keeping with the official GOP lack of interest in Huckabee’s trademark social issues. The Ron Paul supporters were especially stone-faced.

I asked some delegates from Texas, one of whom volunteered that he wanted Huckabee to be Romney’s running mate and another who offered that she supported him for president four years ago, whether this bothered them. It does not because they agreed that economic issues are more important in this cycle. But, as Butch Davis, the Texas state GOP parliamentarian said, “social issues will always be there. No one is backing off of that.”

Chris Christie's Big Lie

TampaEver since Mitt Romney selected radical right-wing extremist Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate, Republicans have been patting themselves on the back for telling hard truths to the American people.

Ryan has cultivated a false image of being politically brave and intellectually honest, because he has presented a budget that would (eventually) be balanced. But how would it do so? Not by demanding sacrifices from the Republican Party’s current base of older middle-class white people. Rather, it would snatch the safety net out from under young and middle-aged people when they reach retirement age, while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Ryan even indulges the fantasy that we can be fiscally responsible while militarily outspending all our potential adversaries combined by orders of magnitude. This is not political bravery, it is cowardice. Republicans are telling their voters that they can solve the country’s fiscal problems without sacrificing anything. All the suffering will be borne by the young and the poor.

But Republicans insist that their generational and class warfare is actually a bold effort to level with the American people and to tackle hard problems that President Obama avoids confronting.

Choosing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the Republican National Convention keynote speaker was perfectly in keeping with that campaign theme. Christie is a belligerent man. He delights in bullying citizens who have the temerity to argue with him in public. This is what passes on the right for forthrightness.

Christie’s speech on Tuesday night was meant to demonstrate the stakes in the election, but in a more positive statesman-like frame than the churlish hatred of Obama and liberals that one typically sees from movement conservative figures. Christie was there to tell us what the GOP is all about. So he started by touting his own record of attacking public employees in New Jersey, and segued into how this willingness to slaughter sacred cows defines his party. In the most crucial section of the speech, Christie implied that the Romney/Ryan plan to gut entitlement spending is a manifestation of that admirable quality:

Here’s what we believe as Republicans and what they believe as Democrats.

We believe in telling hard-working families the truth about our country’s fiscal realities. Telling them what they already know—the math of federal spending doesn’t add up.

With $5 trillion in debt added over the last four years, we have no other option but to make the hard choices, cut federal spending and fundamentally reduce the size of government.

They believe that the American people don’t want to hear the truth about the extent of our fiscal difficulties and need to be coddled by big government.

They believe the American people are content to live the lie with them.

We believe in telling seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements.

We know seniors not only want these programs to survive, but they just as badly want them secured for their grandchildren.

Seniors are not selfish.

They believe seniors will always put themselves ahead of their grandchildren. So they prey on their vulnerabilities and scare them with misinformation for the cynical purpose of winning the next election.

Their plan: whistle a happy tune while driving us off the fiscal cliff, as long as they are behind the wheel of power.

This is not a fair depiction of President Obama’s tenure, but it actually would be an accurate description of how Republicans governed during the George W. Bush years. Bush never empowered a bipartisan presidential debt reduction commission, as Obama did. (Ryan was on the commission and voted against its recommendations.) Bush never asked anyone to pay a little bit more in taxes, as Obama has. Bush never placed a freeze on domestic discretionary spending, as Obama has. Bush never agreed to severe cuts in spending as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, as Obama did.

In addition to those smaller lies embedded in Christie’s speech is the big one: that Republicans are even running on their budget proposals at all. Go to a Romney or Ryan stump speech, look at their press releases, look at Christie’s RNC speech itself, and all the speeches that preceded his on Tuesday. They don’t talk about the details of Romney’s or Ryan’s budgets. Of course, that’s partly because some necessary details—such as which tax expenditures will be eliminated, or which spending priorities within a given cabinet agency will be reduced by how much—are missing. But the details that could be discussed, such as turning Medicare into a voucher system, are not. Instead Republicans repeat ad nauseam the misleading factoid that the Affordable Care Act took money out of Medicare to pay for expanding Medicaid.

And, by the way, Christie is also lying when he says that seniors who whine about modest cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates are not selfish. They are. They receive high quality, comprehensive, guaranteed health coverage, as they should. But the vast majority of Medicare recipients will get more in benefits than they paid in over the years. They are being subsidized by younger workers, who often do not have any health insurance. Yes, the ACA redirected some healthcare spending from relatively comfortable seniors to younger, poorer people. And yes, it is selfish of old people to oppose doing so.

It’s unfortunate that Christie’s central claim is not, in fact, true. The American people undoubtedly do deserve an honest assessment from both parties of how to resolve our long-term fiscal imbalance. But so far they are not getting that the Romney/Ryan campaign, nor from the Republican National Convention.

RNC Ladies' Night: Will It Work?

Tampa—As I previously reported, the Republican National Convention—in the hopes of softening the party’s well-deserved reputation for being hostile to women—scheduled many women speakers on Tuesday night. So when I ventured onto the floor this evening, I tried to ask influential Republican women about the challenge their party faces among women voters. Their answers varied widely, and demonstrated that, other than constantly changing the subject to the economy, they do not have an answer.

The most useless attitude for Republican women to adopt is one of pure self-delusion. Despite years of women mostly favoring abortion rights, some Republican activists simply assert that women are opposed to them. Republicans don’t have to worry that their platform’s call to ban all abortions will turn off women, Jean Turner, the president of the Ohio Federation of Republican Women, told me. Why is that? “Women know what life means,” she explained. “Women have babies.”

Some Republican women are not so certain. Charlotte Rasmussen, the former president of the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women, embodies the conflicted discomfort that many Republican women feel on reproductive issues. On the one hand, she thinks it should be ignored because the economy is more important and the law is in the hands of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, she is against abortion, but she does not know if exceptions should be made. “I don’t want to talk about abortion,” she said. The reasons she offered are that “it’s a controversial issue,” and women are more concerned about the economy. Rasmussen thinks “abortion is not an issue,” because “it’s not going to change.” What she means is that Roe v. Wade is unlikely to overturned, although, “I’d be fine with it being overturned.” Rasmussen also believes that “every abortion is bad.” But does that mean she agrees with the GOP’s stance that a girl who is raped by her father should not be allowed to have an abortion? “I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s not an issue I’ve had to deal with so I don’t want to comment on it.” That’s not a winning message for women who are concerned that Republicans are insensitive to issues women’s health.

The best explanation for the Republican platform plank on abortion actually came from a woman who disagrees with it, Karen Dove, a delegate from Florida. “If you look at party platforms, Democrats say partial birth abortion is good,” she said. Democrats, of course, don’t actually say any abortion is good, but it’s true that the party has not come out for banning so-called “partial birth” abortions. “Would most Democrats say partial birth abortion is OK?” asked Dove rhetorically. “I don’t think so.” Her point, which is fair insofar as it goes, is that both parties have to cater to their interest groups, even if the resulting platform statements are not supported by most party members. “We have a big contingent that thinks abortion is wrong in every case,” noted Dove. “Every party has to cater to people who come out and vote. On both sides you have extremes.” Analytically, this is accurate. But, if the next time Dove goes out canvassing in her neighborhood and a woman who answers the door says she is thinking of voting for Mitt Romney but just can’t get behind that abortion plank, Dove’s answer is unlikely to fully reassure her.

And, as I predicted, the appeal to women was about tokenism, not substance. It worked on some of the delegates. Mia Love, the black mayor of Sarasota Springs, Utah, and a Congressional candidate spoke, early Tuesday evening. Shortly thereafter I spotted Deidre Harper, a Colorado delegate, sporting a Love campaign button because she was so impressed by Love’s speech. “It’s great to see a black woman in Utah [running for Congress as a Republican],” said Harper. “I think that’s a question you hear about Republicans: there aren’t blacks or Latinos [in the party.] But from what I’m hearing, in high offices there are more blacks and Latinos than among Democrats.” A cursory glance at the Democratic and Republican Congressional delegations will show that to be wildly false. But Republicans seem to have at least convinced themselves that minorities are well represented in their ranks.

Rebecca Kleefisch, the politically adept Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, was by far the best at shifting the abortion question to safer territory. Kleefisch deploys an ostentatiously modest demeanor to present herself as a down-to-earth soccer mom. “The president does not dictate the priority list of American women,” Kleefisch told me. “It’s insulting and irritating that [Obama] thinks he can tell women that birth control and abortion are their top priorities. Women value their personal relationships, their families and making ends meet and having enough left over to fill up their tank to take their kids to soccer practice.” After that hokey, broad brush shtick that presumed all women are middle class suburbanites with children, Kleefisch asserted, “Women are done with the president throwing a blanket of generalizations over my gender.”

Ultimately, Kleefisch argues, “The Barack Obama presidency is expensive, and we can’t afford him any more.” This might work with some female swing voters when unemployment and gas prices are high. It’s not a long-term answer as to how the anti–women’s rights party can appeal to women.

The speeches from the dais were condescending to women, if they mentioned them at all. Here, for example, was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s sole reference to gender equality in his keynote address: “My Mom, who I lost eight years ago, was the enforcer. She made sure we all knew who set the rules. In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver.”

The night featured several women who are notable solely for being married to a male politician. Ann Romney was introduced by Lucé Fortuño, the First Lady of Puerto Rico. Fortuño was clearly chosen just because she could deliver her first line: “I am the proud mother of 20-year-old triplets, a practicing attorney, a proud Latina and a die-hard Republican!”

Ann Romney’s address was filled with such treacly pabulum, that it is worth quoting at length:

Sometimes I think that late at night, if we were all silent for just a few moments and listened carefully, we could hear a great collective sigh from the moms and dads across America who made it through another day, and know that they’ll make it through another one tomorrow. But in that end of the day moment, they just aren’t sure how.

And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it?

It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.

It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together. We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.

You know it’s true, don’t you?

You’re the ones who always have to do a little more.

You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done.

You know what those late night phone calls with an elderly parent are like and the long weekend drives just to see how they’re doing.

You know the fastest route to the local emergency room and which doctors actually answer the phone when you call at night.

You know what it’s like to sit in that graduation ceremony and wonder how it was that so many long days turned into years that went by so quickly.

You are the best of America.

You are the hope of America.

There would not be an America without you.

Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises.

The notion that such meaningless gibberish would convince women to toss their interests aside in the voting booth is offensive. Many of the other women speakers, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Representative Cathy McMorris-Rogers (R-WA), simply did not mention women at all. Rather they stuck to the evening’s message of “We built it,” a rejoinder to the apocryphal quote by President Obama that business owners didn’t build their companies. If undecided women were watching the RNC on Tuesday to see if they would be given any meaningful support on issues of gender equality, they were surely disappointed.

RNC Schedule: Tokenism Extraordinaire

Tampa—Most Republicans oppose affirmative action, but their national convention is the apotheosis of the practice at its most tokenistic and least substantive. Whereas Democrats and liberals support policies that are meant to actually assist disadvantaged groups as a whole and to protect them from discrimination, Republicans have no interest in women or minorities except as window dressing for their discriminatory policies. It would be insulting for them to think it will actually work. In fairness, Republicans probably know they will not actually move many African-American or Latino votes by putting a handful of non-white speakers on the dais in Tampa. Rather, it is part of Mitt Romney’s general election strategy of the ricochet pander. Like his speech at the NAACP, the purpose is not to appeal to minorities but to socially moderate white suburban swing voters who want to be reassured that pulling the lever for the GOP does not make them bigots.

Republicans’ poll numbers among Latinos, African-Americans and women are daunting. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Mitt Romney actually got 0 percent of the black vote. In a recent poll of Latino voters, Romney trailed President Obama 65 to 26. And according to several recent polls, Romney performs about eight points worse among women than among men.

Romney and his supporters recognize that these are problems. That’s why Herman Cain went on at length in Sunday night’s Tea Party Unity Rally about how the NBC/WSJ poll was wrong and there are many black Republicans. It’s also why Republicans want Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) to drop out of the Missouri Senate race, even though they agree with any actual votes he would take on reproductive rights.

As Dick Peerson, a Missouri RNC delegate and state Republican committeeman, told me yesterday, “Akin can’t win.” And it might even have a small, negative trickle-up effect on Romney in Missouri if Akin stays on the ballot. Peerson actually agrees with Akin’s policy on abortion—that women who are violently raped, even, say, by their own father—should be forced to bear the child if they become pregnant. “It’s not that [Missouri Republicans] disagree with his [Akin’s] position,” says Peerson. “It’s the way that he said it.”

In a similar effort to distance himself from Akin’s abortion extremism, Romney absurdly claimed in an interview with CBS that federal abortion regulation is not an executive branch issue. “This is a matter in the courts, it’s been settled for some time in the courts,” said Romney, apparently forgetting his own campaign pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, or his party’s longstanding commitment to the Global Gag Rule. He also told CBS that he supports exceptions for the “health and life of the mother,” when his actual platform makes only life of the mother exceptions, which is a significant difference.

The GOP is unwilling to compromise substantively on these issues. Its platform calls for banning abortion with no exceptions, its rhetoric on illegal immigration is as harsh as ever and it justifies its desire to dismantle the welfare state with coded racial appeals. Those are political necessities for Republicans, because stoking the anger of older white voters is how they retain their advantage among them.

But for Romney to win, he must lose by less among Latinos, or at least among white women.

And so the Republican National Convention schedule, just released Monday night, since it had to be updated to reflect their premature cancellation of Monday’s events, will cram as many women and minorities as they can find into the primetime lineup. Look at who will be speaking on Tuesday in the network TV hour (from 10 to 11 pm): Texas Senatorial nominee Ted Cruz; former Representative Artur Davis; South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; Mrs. Lucé Fortuño, first lady of Puerto Rico; Ann Romney; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; and a benediction from Reverend Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Of the seven speakers, only one is a non-Latino white man. That, of course, is Christie, the convention’s keynote speaker. It is emblematic of how the GOP itself works: the real power is held by white men, but women and minorities are trotted out to speak in public. How else can you explain the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico getting a primetime speaking slot at the convention? She may be a dynamic individual and charismatic speaker, but can anyone claim with a straight face that if she were a white Protestant she would be given this platform?

Her husband, Governor Luis Fortuño, will speak on Wednesday night, as will former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez, along with several other women. (On Tuesday the RNC will also hear from Mia Love, the mayor of Sarasota Springs, Utah, who happens to be the daughter of Haitian-American immigrants.) On Thursday night, Governor Romney will be nominated by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

It is impossible to know whether Republicans actually believe this will help them among non-white voters. On the one hand, the condescending assumption that women and minorities care only about seeing one of their own on stage, not actual policies that affect them, fits with the out-of-touch elitism of the GOP and the Romney campaign. It was Romney, after all, who tried to argue that he will be a good president for women merely because he is married to one. That ended up devolving into a food fight over one Democratic strategist’s correct, but irrelevant, observation that Ann Romney has never held a job outside the home. The correct rejoinder, on the merits as well as the politics, is not that Ann Romney is a rich housewife. It is that even a woman candidate—Sarah Palin, for instance—could be a terrible president for women. Just as Palin and Rick Santorum have grossly claimed to be advocates for the disabled because they have children with disabilities, while opposing the actual policies that the disability community needs, the RNC is pretending that women, Latinos and African-Americans are interested only in identity politics.

But maybe Republicans know this won’t actually work on Latinos and African-Americans and that is not the point anyway. Back in 2000 George W. Bush made his convention about “inclusivity,” and filled the RNC stage with African-Americans. It did not work that November. But that was never the point. The point was to reassure just enough white swing voters that Bush was not a bigot. And he did convince enough of them to make the election close enough to steal. The RNC’s location is a reflection of the party’s knowledge that Florida remains pivotal. And they are trying to disenfranchise minorities to steal Florida again. The question is whether they can convince enough independent voters that they have evolved on race and gender, even if they haven’t.

Cain, Bachmann Focus on Obama, Not Romney, in Tampa Tea Party Rally

Tampa—National political conventions are supposedly about building up a party’s nominee, to introduce him or her to the American public. Sure enough, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Republican National Convention will try to enhance Romney’s likeability. “The Romney camp will turn to an unusually large circle of others who know him, including people he has helped through his church and business career, in an attempt to make the prospective nominee more approachable to voters who seem to respect him more than like him,” write Patrick O’Connor and Colleen McCain Nelson.

The official Republican National Convention might stick to that template, but the Tea Party Unity Rally on Sunday night made no such pretense. The event, headlined by former Republican presidential front-runners Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Herman Cain, was not about building up Mitt Romney. It was all about tearing down Barack Obama and demonizing his supporters.

Held at a church in the suburban town of Brandon, about fifteen miles from downtown Tampa, attendance was hardly overwhelming. There were a few hundred folks, and the church’s huge parking lot was mostly, but not entirely, filled.

What they lacked in numbers they made up for in passion. But what incites their passion is not joy for what Romney proposes to do. Rather, it is hatred of liberals, anger over being out of power and fear of what will happen if Obama wins another term.

Neal Boortz, the popular conservative talk radio host who will retire and be replaced by Cain next year, offered the most unvarnished expression of this attitude. “It is not the Democratic Party, it’s the Democrat Party, if for no other reason than it makes them crazy,” said Boortz, 67, demonstrating his maturity to delighted laughter from the audience. “They are not public schools, they are government schools,” he continued. “It’s 100 years of government education that led us to the point where a man like Barack Obama could be sworn in as president.”

Boortz contends that there are two kinds of Americans—net taxpayers and net tax recipients. He treated it as a given that everyone in his largely elderly audience is in the former category, even though many of them have been receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits for at least twenty years. Therefore, expounding on the speakers’ theme for the evening, everyone in the audience must mobilize their friends to vote down the expropriators. “Barack Obama takes your money and gives it to someone more likely to vote for him,” said Boortz, who used to write speeches for Georgia’s segregationist Governor Lester Maddox. “The Democrats—the looters, the moochers, the parasites—know how they will vote, for access to your pocket.” Boortz did not specify who exactly these looters are, but his overwhelmingly Southern white audience could fill in the blank.

Between speakers the audience was treated to a trailer for 2016, the film based on Dinesh D’Souza’s book that spreads paranoid fantasies of Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonial agenda.

Like Boortz, the other main speakers barely acknowledged that there is a Republican ticket, and their praise for it, especially Romney, was very parsimonious. Bachmann had a negative frame for the election, defending America from radical government intervention. It was less divisive, but arguably more hysterical, than Boortz’s. “There’s only one option left for America to remain free, at the ballot box in November,” Bachmann declared. The only time Bachmann mentioned Romney was to note that he has promised to repeal healthcare reform. Bachmann ended on a slogan, joined by the entire audience, to “Take our country back!”

Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a rising Tea Party star, addressed the crowd and hit the same anti-Obama themes. Sandra Stuart, an elderly woman who came down from Lakeland, Florida, interrupted him to shout, “Chicago! Send him back to Chicago! Send him back to the mob with all the mobsters! Send him back to Bill Ayers!”

The notion that Obama threatens to eviscerate the Constitution even finds its way into Tea Party art. Jon McNaughton from Utah was selling prints of his paintings at a table near the bathrooms. In The Forgotten Man he depicts a white man—because, he explains, the majority of Americans are white and the majority of workers are men—who is downtrodden on a bench due to the serial infringements on the Constitution of US presidents. Obama is grinding the Constitution under his shoe, although George Washington is there too. (When asked how Washington violated the Constitution, McNaughton mentioned the Whiskey Rebellion.) In One Nation Under Socialism, a painting that Sean Hannity has purchased, Obama holds a burning Constitution.

Herman Cain seems to still be widely beloved by the audience. They saved his speech for last and he received at least four standing ovations. Many of the audience members exhorted him throughout his speech, with phrases like, “Go Herman!” “Amen brother!” “We love you, Herman!” and “Preach it!”

“I’m still on a mission to defeat Barack Obama,” said Cain. Cain mentioned a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing Romney’s attracting only zero percent of the black vote as some sort of liberal media conspiracy. “They put out these polls to divide us,” said Cain. “But we are not going to be divided, because we are not stupid.”

Cain did an awfully poor job of demonstrating his or the audience’s intelligence, though. His evidence that the poll was inaccurate? “I’m not a zero!” He bellowed to gales of laughter and cheers. Pointing out the few African-American crowd members, he said, “Look at all these zeros.” To state what should obvious to anyone with a high school education, one individual is not one percent of an electorate of about 120 million people. That would be 1.2 million people. And, of course, the results could be 0.4 percent rounded down to zero, and there is a margin of error for every poll. Cain’s little demonstration, which made the crowd go wild, did nothing to disprove either the poll results nor the notion that Tea Party activists have some problems understanding basic facts of math, science and American politics.

In a similar display of ignorance, Stuart’s friend Linda Gadd told me that they call themselves TEAvangelicals and the TEA stands for “Taxed Enough Already.” I asked what taxes has Obama raised (because he has not raised income taxes and in fact passed temporary tax cuts as part of the stimulus package). “Obamacare,” she offered. I asked what taxes Obamacare raises. “The whole thing is one big tax hike,” said Gadd. I asked her to name one tax raised by the law. She couldn’t.

Like the other speakers, Cain praised Romney only as a vehicle for Tea Party influence. He talked up Paul Ryan, who was clearly an object of more affection in the audience than Romney. Picking Ryan, said Cain, “said a lot about the leadership of Governor Romney.” Cain also employed similarly dire rhetoric to Bachmann, averring that “the American people are not going to go down without a fight to save the United States of America.”

After the event wrapped up, Cain stayed to take some questions from reporters. He expanded on his discussion of the black vote, offering the explanation that African-Americans “will vote their hearts” in the anonymity of a polling booth, but will not tell a pollster on the telephone that they are voting against the first black president. “I don’t believe the polls, because blacks feel intimidation. [Intimidation] is a tactic of the Democratic Party,” said Cain. Cain also asserted that “raising taxes does not raise revenue.” He’s right about one thing: the election certainly presents two very different visions of how to govern the country and balance the budget. It’s clear that Romney is not deeply loved by the Tea Party, nor is he willing to make their vision the centerpiece of his convention. But Tea Partiers hate Obama so much that they are willing to set that aside.

Will Huckabee Defend Akin in His RNC Speech?

Update: Due to Tropical Storm Isaac, the RNC has cancelled Monday's events. According to the updated schedule, Huckabee will speak on Wednesday in primetime. 

It was inevitable that the backlash to Representative Todd Akin’s (R-MO) shocking assertion that in instances of “legitimate rape” a woman cannot get pregnant would generate its own counter-reaction on the right. Akin has a long been a vocal proponent of Christianist conservatism, and it has earned him some loyalty on the religious right.

As the Washington Post reports:

Akin has tried mightily to increase the role of religion in government. He proposed creating a National Year of the Bible in 2008 and an official day of fasting and prayer in 2003 to gird the nation for war in Iraq. Four times, the Missouri Republican wrote bills to keep judges from striking “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

None of them became law….

But if Akin has carved out only a small legacy on the Hill, he has made loyal allies among conservative legislators and Christian groups.

So while the entire Republican establishment begs Akin to drop out of the Missouri Senate race, a small but growing number of social conservatives are complaining about how the GOP is treating him.

It began on Wednesday with the obscure religious-right group American Vision. Their director of research, Joel McDurmon, wrote a caustic blog post titled “Legitimate Political Gang Rape,” complaining that Akin was the victim of a double standard:

We expect leftists, liberals, and other miscreants to pounce opportunistically, to lie, cheat, and twist (all the while drooling) over a phrase like “legitimate rape” when uttered by a strong conservative Christian politician. But should we expect the same from alleged conservatives?

Yet this is exactly what we’ve seen from several prominent conservatives in the wake of a media gaffe from U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin (R-MO) in regard to alleged “legitimate rape” and abortion.

And in this case, the volley of verbal bullets came with disproportionate verve. It’s almost like the GOP establishment is more than eager to get rid of the most conservative tea-party types among them.

Bryan Fischer, who works for the American Family Association and hosts a radio show on its network, also compared Akin’s treatment to that of a rape victim. “You talk about a forcible situation,” he said, “you talk about somebody being a victim of kind of forcible assault, that would be Todd Akin.”

Although Fischer has some genuine influence on the right—he takes credit for getting Romney’s foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell fired for being pro–gay marriage—he is known for being unusually strident. But now a more mainstream Christian conservative has stepped up to defend Akin, and he happens to be giving a major speech at the Republican National Convention.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who hosts a syndicated radio show and a Fox News program, issued a blistering statement attacking the GOP leadership Thursday. (Huckabee had Akin on his radio show both Monday and Tuesday, giving Akin the opportunity to explain and apologize.) In an email to supporters, Huckabee wrote:

The Party’s leaders have for reasons that aren't rational, left [Akin] behind on the political battlefield, wounded and bleeding…. From the spotlights of political offices and media perches, it may appear that the demand for Akin’s head is universal in the party. I assure you it is not…. He made his mistake, but was man enough to admit it and apologize. I'm waiting for the apology from whoever the genius was on the high pedestals of our party who thought it wise to not only shoot our wounded, but run over him with tanks and trucks and then feed his body to the liberal wolves. It wasn't just Todd Akin that was treated with contempt by the thinly veiled attack on Todd Akin. It was all the people who have faithfully knocked doors, made calls, and made sacrificial contributions to elect Republicans because we thought we were welcome in the party….

I’ve always believed and still do, that if you don’t honor your friendships, you don’t honor yourself. And I consider Todd a friend. So I will join Todd as often as I can, in his fight for our Party’s pro-life policies, traditional marriage and our efforts to rein in the massive expansion of government under President Obama…. The party has decided it won't help. In fact, it has decided that it will try to cut off the supply lines to Akin to pressure him to exit and let the party bosses overturn the voters of Missouri and pick their own candidate. If this can happen to Todd Akin, who is next?

Such strong language is uncharacteristic for Huckabee. Clearly, Huckabee—who endorsed Akin in the primary—sees this as more than just a strategic calculation on the part of the Romney/Ryan campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and others who have urged Akin to drop out. Rather, he sees it as a proxy for the fight between the establishment-money wing of the party and the grassroots, Christian wing of the party.

When I interviewed Huckabee for my recent feature profile of him, he talked about the feeling among social conservatives that Republicans use them to win elections but do not actually care about their issues. “Conservatives have been burned way too many times,” said Huckabee. “Social conservatives get used every four years, trotted out at the rallies to stand there for five hours, scream and yell for that candidate, knock on doors, make the phone calls, carry signs. When the election is over, they’re promptly forgotten, put up in the attic and asked not to come out in public again for another four years. I think a lot of people have grown tired of that, so hopefully that’s not going to be the case this year.”

If social conservatives see dumping Akin as another instance of being taken for granted, the GOP establishment may decide to back off. They need to keep their base happy. That’s why they tapped Huckabee to speak Monday night at 7 pm: he is friendly enough to present to the mainstream audience at home but will enthuse the delegates in the convention hall.

But if they do not get rid of Akin they risk alienating moderates and women. Democrats are banking on just such a possibility, and they are making sure their convention has plenty of women speakers. And so the truly frightening possibility for Republicans is if Huckabee actually addresses the Akin controversy in his remarks Monday. Huckabee comes across as easy-going and unlikely to make such a move, but clearly the issue has touched a nerve for him. So we’ll just have to wait and watch to find out.

Mitt Romney's Hypocrisy on Disability

The latest Romney campaign commercial, titled “Nothing’s Free,” returns to his favorite whipping post, “Obamacare.” It seems to have finally occurred to Romney that quite a few voters might think extending health insurance to more than 40 million Americans is a good thing. But Romney does not want to focus on the ugly side of his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—that he would leave these citizens uninsured and potentially allow them die for lack of medical treatment. So instead he argues that the cost of insuring them is too high.

“Some think Obamacare is the same as free healthcare,” says the voiceover. “But nothing is free. Obama is raiding $716 billion from Medicare, changing the program forever. Taxing wheelchairs and pacemakers.” On the other hand, “The Romney/Ryan plan will restore Medicare funding, and protect and strengthen the program for the next generation.”

Each of these complaints is false. As the New York Times explains, the ACA did not actually take $716 billion out of what goes into Medicare, it took the money out of what Medicare pays to insurers and hospitals. Therefore, it actually improves Medicare’s fiscal health, which Romney would undermine by repealing the ACA. “The 2010 health care law cut Medicare reimbursements to hospitals and insurers, not benefits for older Americans, by that amount over the coming decade,” writes the Times’s Jackie Calmes. “But repealing the savings, policy analysts say, would hasten the insolvency of Medicare by eight years—to 2016, the final year of the next presidential term, from 2024.”

The ad also gives you the incorrect impression that the ACA is detrimental for people with disabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disability rights advocates have vociferously supported its passage and implementation.

As for taxing wheelchairs and pacemakers, that claim is misleading. The ACA will impose a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices. But remember, thanks to the ACA, everyone will have health insurance, so necessary devices such as wheelchairs and pacemakers will be covered. That means the tax will not directly be paid by consumers, but rather—to the extent the manufacturers can pass the cost on rather than accepting lower profit margins—by the insurance companies. Some of that in turn finds its way into higher premiums, but very little. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found, “The effect of the excise tax on consumers’ costs for health care and health insurance will be minimal and will be swamped by other factors. Spending on taxable medical devices represents less than 1 percent of total personal health expenditures, so a small increase in their price would have an almost imperceptible effect on health insurance premiums. Device manufacturers generally do not hold enough market power to pass on the entire excise tax to consumers through higher prices.”

If you are worried about making sure that people with disabilities get adequate and affordable care, then you should cheer a bill that expands health insurance coverage of the currently or potentially disabled. It is especially important that the ACA bans insurers from excluding people with prior conditions, which is basically another way of saying no to people with disabilities. It also outlaws lifetime caps on insurance usage, which are a way that insurers avoid adequately covering the long-term needs of the disabled. Mark Periello, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), says, “AAPD unequivocally supports the Affordable Care Act. The law will result in better health outcomes, increased access to healthcare for millions of Americans, and at a lower cost to taxpayers.”

Repealing the ACA is not the only way that Romney proposes to harm the disabled. He and his running mate, Paul Ryan, want to turn Medicare into vouchers for buying private insurance and make Medicaid block grants to states instead of a federal entitlement. These are the two main programs that people with disabilities depend upon to provide them with health insurance, since most people with disabilities are old enough or poor enough to qualify for one or both of the programs.

Both of these changes would have dire consequences. Under the Romney/Ryan plan, the elderly would get vouchers that they use to buy insurance. But if the cost of insurance exceeds the increase in the cost of vouchers, they are on their own. So some may not be able to afford insurance. Meanwhile, the insurance plans they purchase may not meet their needs. Romney and Ryan would “strengthen” Medicare for the next generation only if by “strengthen” they mean “eliminate.”

If Medicaid is a block grant, then states will get the same amount of money, without regard to economic circumstances. During recessions they will therefore have to cut what is covered or bump people off the rolls. (For a full explanation of the impact of Romney/Ryan’s Medicaid plan on people with disabilities, read this piece by Harold Pollack in the Daily Beast.)

The crowning irony is that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney actually did want to impose taxes on the disabled. He proposed a $10 fee for a state certificate of blindness and a $15 for a photo ID card, a $100 fee for an intake session for the developmentally disabled and a $400 fee for anyone with tuberculosis. Clearly, Romney lacks the standing to criticize President Obama’s record on disability issues.

Paul Ryan's False Premise

There are plenty of valid criticisms being leveled at Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s draconian budget proposals: they cruelly cut aid to the needy to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, they steal from the young to shore up Republican support among the elderly. But one of the most essential points has largely gone unnoticed: that his whole agenda is based on a false premise.

Ryan, like many Tea Party heroes, such as Representative Ron Paul of Texas, is obsessed with the idea, repeatedly discredited by recent history, that our short-term deficits will cause inflation and interest rate spikes. This idea is widely shared among Republicans. Fear of inflation and higher interest rates are the reason offered by Republicans for opposing economic and monetary stimulus. That theory’s prevalence, at a time of such high unemployment and low borrowing costs, is sabotaging our economy.

Ryan and company keep trying to unnerve Americans with claims that deficit spending will cause us to lose our ability to borrow cheaply and send us into a downward spiral like the one engulfing Greece. The idea that deficit reduction, rather than boosting employment, should be our current top priority, is based on this assertion. “When you take a look at the problems our country is facing, debt is number one,” said Ryan on May 26, 2011. “The math is downright scary and the credit markets aren’t going to keep on giving us cheap rates,” he predicted. How has that prediction fared? On May 26, 2011, the ten-year Treasury rate was 3.05 percent. On August 10, 2012, it was 1.65 percent.

You might expect that after seeing he was wrong, Ryan has adjusted his priorities accordingly. After all, he is a “wonk,” right? But no. Ryan is an ideologue, and he is therefore impervious to evidence.

It’s the same story with inflation. On May 1, 2008, Ryan introduced a bill into Congress that would direct the Federal Reserve to focus only on restraining inflation, and cease worrying at all about unemployment. He noted at the time that the Fed was slashing interest rates to spur economic activity, despite “rising prices.”

Have we, in fact, been beset by runaway inflation since 2008? No. In 2009 the rate was actually negative, and in 2010 it was 1.64 percent. Had the Fed listened to Ryan’s idiotic advice, it would have simply undermined the economic recovery.

Ryan’s obsession with inflation and preventing the Federal Reserve from rescuing our economy puts him in the kooky fringe of right-wing politics. It is, in essence, a softer version of Ron Paul’s bizarre fixation with returning to the gold standard and ending the Fed entirely. Ryan doesn’t go that far, but he has called for “sound money,” which would fix the dollar to a basket of commodities.

Unwarranted fears of inflation and interest rate increases, and using those as excuses to demand drastic deficit reduction, are widespread among supposedly intellectual conservatives. Niall Ferguson, who penned an intellectually sloppy cover story in Newsweek arguing that President Obama does not deserve a second term, subscribes to the same theories. Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider has assembled a list of Ferguson’s wrong predictions:

Ferguson was declaring victory in 2009 in his prediction of a bond market rebellion, but everyone should know what’s happened since then.

US borrowing costs have collapsed despite a debt downgrade, a brutal debt ceiling fight, and no evidence that Washington is going to do anything about long-term spending.

In May of 2011, he wrote a piece on The Great Inflation Of The 2010s, saying the Fed might deny it, but that everybody knows prices are surging. He declared that the era of double-digit inflation is back.

This is not the case. Inflation remains tame and is back on a downtrend these days.

Another off-base (at least so far) call was his February 2010 FT op-ed where he declared that the Greek crisis was coming to America.

In August 2009, in another Daily Beast piece, he said that the days of China supporting US debt was coming to an end, in part thanks to Obama’s spending. That hasn’t been an issue. (For what it’s worth, he made a very similar warning about Chinese ownership of US debt back in a 2004 piece for TNR).

In June 2009, Ferguson in the New York Review of Books predicted that in the coming “weeks and months,” US monetary and fiscal policy would come into painful conflict. That did not occur.

As Ezra Klein explains in the Washington Post, having the wrong underlying analysis of what ails our economy undermines the Ryan/Ferguson/Republican prescriptions for how to fix it:

These predictions were wrong. But Ferguson hasn’t updated the theory to account for their failure. Instead, he has simply applied that same theory to argue that Paul Ryan, who he first met at “a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion,” should be vice president, because his deficit-reduction plan could “end four years of economic underperformance [and] stop the terrifying accumulation of debt.”

If Ferguson’s theory had passed its previous tests and we had evidence that the debt is what’s holding back our economy, perhaps that would be a reasonable prediction. But Ferguson’s theory failed its previous tests, and there’s no evidence that debt is what’s holding back our economy right now….

It is no surprise that most of the folks who bought into this theory were early and enthusiastic backers of Paul Ryan. After all, he bought into this theory, too, and his initial budgets included deep, quick cuts. More so than any other politician, he translated this theory into legislation. But the theory’s primary predictions proved wrong. That has not, however, had any reputational impact on the people who believed those predictions, and their champion is now on the GOP’s presidential ticket, but neither he nor his backers appear to have rethought any element of their critique or of their program.

On economics conservatives have become as willfully ignorant as they are on matters of science. Ryan, who is being celebrated as an intellectually serious policy maker, is the economic equivalent of a climate change denier.

On the Stump, Romney and Ryan Avoid Real Medicare Debate

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) and vice-presidential candidate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), answer questions from audience members during a town hall meeting campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire August 20, 2012. Reuters/Brian Snyder

Last week, in the wake of Representative Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, there was a rare moment of agreement across the political spectrum. Both liberals and conservatives concluded that Ryan’s addition to the ticket would make the campaign a choice between his radical right-wing vision of privatizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid and President Obama’s desire to preserve guaranteed health coverage for vulnerable Americans. Both sides relished the fight, believing it would be to their benefit.

Now conservative pundits and activists are celebrating this supposed development. On Fox News Sunday, Karl Rove said, “There was going to be a battle about Medicare, no matter what. The question was: Was it going to be left to what the Democrats traditionally do—which is late-night phone calls in the final week of the campaigns, to seniors, and scary mail pieces? Or were we going to have a full-out, honest debate? And we’re having, for what passes in politics, a full-out, honest debate about it.” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, also on the program, added, “It feels more like a movement and less like a couple hundred people in Boston, working very hard to kind of push the boulder up the hill—and more like a genuine, exciting cause.”

Alas, no such thing has occurred. Ryan has a reputation for political bravery and commitment to principle, and on the campaign trail Republicans such as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli have tried to claim that merely by picking Ryan, Romney has demonstrated he also possesses those virtues. But when it comes to healthcare policy, the Romney/Ryan ticket is being cowardly and dishonest. When they give stump speeches they do not emphasize, or even mention, their radical, unpopular plans to leave seniors without adequate health coverage. Instead, the deliberately obscure the issue by attacking Obama for “raiding” Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act. It is nothing but a transparent pander to the GOP’s base of older voters. Unless Kristol’s “genuine cause” is to confuse and mislead the American people—always a distinct possibility—then his comment makes no sense.

All Romney/Ryan are doing is trying to hide from the American public just how badly they would shred the social safety net in order to pay for giving themselves giant tax cuts.

Ryan actually included the savings from cuts to wasteful private subsidies in the Medicare Advantage program that the ACA enacted—the same ones he now inveighs against in every speech—in his own budget. The reason he kept them in his budget, even while he votes to repeal the ACA and therefore would lose them, is because it gives him more breathing room. Take away those savings, and Ryan would have to come up with even more cuts to other popular programs.

The Obama campaign is understandably aggravated by their opponents’ cowardly refusal to stand and fight. On Saturday, after a typically evasive appearance by Ryan in Florida, Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner issued the following statement. “Congressman Ryan didn’t tell seniors in Florida today that if he had his way, seniors would face higher Medicare premiums and prescription drug costs, and would be forced to pay out of pocket for preventive care.… He didn’t say that they’d turn Medicare into a voucher system, ending the Medicare guarantee and raising costs by $6,400 a year for seniors. And he certainly didn’t say that they’d do it all to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. But those are the facts, and the ‘substantive’ debate he claims they want requires Romney and Ryan to be honest about them.”

Having a substantive debate about how to balance the budget is something liberals and conservatives should both want. Unfortunately, the Republicans are afraid to do so.

Do the Kids Love Paul Ryan?

Springfield, Virginia—When I first stumbled across Kirsten Powers’s column on the Daily Beast arguing that Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeals to young people, it struck me as an obviously ridiculous notion. But she had numbers from a poll—which admittedly could just be an outlier—to back it up. “A Zogby/JZ Analytics poll Tuesday showed increased support among voters 18–29 for the Romney ticket, which pollster John Zogby attributed to the Ryan pick,” writes Powers. “President Obama received just 49 percent of the youth vote, versus Romney’s 41 percent. (Obama took home 66 percent of the youth vote against McCain in 2008.)”

So, is it possible that Ryan will actually eat into President Obama’s margins among his strongest age demographic?

Going to a Paul Ryan rally hardly bears out the notion. Ryan spoke Friday afternoon at a high school auditorium in this suburb of Washington, DC, to a crowd that was every bit as old, if a bit more boisterous, as at the typical Romney campaign stop. Notwithstanding all the young volunteers selling T-shirts and signing up voters in the oppressive heat outside, the crowd indoors was mostly gray-haired or bald. The typical young person was a small child, brought here by her grandparents, trying to amuse herself.

Some of the few young adults in attendance said they are not even Romney-Ryan supporters, merely interested spectators. And in terms of diversity—the trademark of the Millennial generation—well, there was almost none. The crowd appeared more than 99 percent white, even though surrounding Fairfax County is 32 percent non-white. (In the rafters behind the speakers, set up for the benefit of the TV cameras and featuring a carefully selected crowd, I counted more African-Americans, three, than in the much larger audience standing in front.)

Republicans certainly seem to think Ryan may help them combat their well-deserved image as a geriatric movement. Former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, who has recently switched parties and will speak at the Republican National Convention, introduced Ryan and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli. “A week ago our Democratic friends had the illusion that we were an older party, the party of the last generation,” said Davis, 44. “Now, I’m the oldest man on this stage.” (Kuccinnelli just turned 44, but he is nine months younger than Davis, and Ryan is 42.) Of course, being young and being in touch with youth culture are not the same things. Davis ribbed Ryan about Led Zeppelin’s being his favorite rock band, noting that he himself is “a Genesis man.”

But one thing is true: the young people, whomever they will vote for, say they like Ryan more than Mitt Romney. And one can see why. As Obama’s and Mike Huckabee’s success in 2008 demonstrates, young voters tend to respond more to politicians who come across as authentic and affable. Romney is blatantly phony and has shown flashes of anger.

And while Ryan is staunchly socially conservative, he benefits from being identified with economic issues. That’s an appealing quality to financially pressed young people who are not invested in the Baby Boomers’ culture wars.

“Our economy is fucked up,” says Barry, 27, who refuses to give his last name. Barry, an African-American graduate of Georgetown, voted for Obama in 2008, but now he is selling Romney T-shirts. “The economy isn’t really Obama’s fault,” Barry acknowledges. “But he doesn’t have a plan to fix it. The Ryan plan will lower our debt.” Barry, who got laid off in 2008, is a one-issue voter. He admires Ryan’s gumption for having, “taken a hard stand with the budget.” His over-arching concern is the economy and how it affects him personally. “With Ryan, he’s more focused on what I’m focused on: the economy,” says Barry, who was laid off from Goldman Sachs in 2008. “Republicans’ supply side principles will fix the economy in a way that will work for me. The best would be a Ryan-Romney ticket.”

Historical concerns that have aligned African-American voters with Democrats, such as civil rights, are of no interest to Barry. “Worrying about the issues of other African-Americans doesn’t appeal to me,” says Barry. “If a company doesn’t want to hire black people, I’ll say that’s not right, but I won’t vote for a president to make it right. That’s not really his job.” Similarly, he supports gay marriage but does not consider it a voting issue.

Other young voters shared Barry’s preference for Ryan over Romney, also citing his commitment to economic policy and the supposed constancy of his values. “I like Paul Ryan a lot more than Romney,” says Rick Ewell, 21, a student at George Mason University. “Ryan really knows what he’s talking about on the economy. Romney is always flip-flopping.” Trouble may lie ahead for Romney with voters such as Ewell, though, if he keeps refusing to specify how he will pay for his tax cuts and defense spending increases. Like Ryan, Romney says he will eliminate tax deductions and reduce social spending, but he refuses to say which tax expenditures and social programs he will cut and by how much exactly. Ewell says that information is essential, because he does not want to see government layoffs that will worsen unemployment. Rather he thinks cuts should come from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In point of fact, the Romney-Ryan budget will mean massive cuts and layoffs to government employees, from FBI agents to food inspectors. Even though Ryan was sure to hit the hypocritically Keynsian talking point that Northern Virginia stands to lose defense related jobs if the automatic spending cuts from the sequestration bill he voted for go through, it will probably lose far more from other government agencies under his plan.

Even young Obama supporters may find Ryan less distasteful than Romney. “I kind of like Paul Ryan,” admits Aiden McHugh, 23. McHugh is likely to vote for Obama, but he is unemployed so he had nothing better to do and a friend brought him along to the event. His friend, a former Republican Congressional staffer, is not particularly excited by Romney, but is very enthusiastic about Ryan. McHugh supports fiscal responsibility, but thinks that Romney and Ryan’s proposals to cut taxes for the wealthy are counterproductive to that goal. Although he is pro–gay rights McHugh believes social issues are less important than the economy. Like many other young people, he is turned off by Romney’s soulless pandering. “I hate Romney,” says McHugh. “He’s a very negative person. He will do anything to get ahead. It’s almost like he doesn’t have a conscience. I don’t necessarily like Ryan, but I really dislike Romney. Ryan is more personable and genuine. But anyone seems more genuine than Romney.”

Republicans seem to hope that Ryan’s authenticity can be transfused into Romney. “The first two things you get with any candidate,” said Cuccinelli, introducing Ryan, “are character and integrity. Romney has reflected well [on himself] by picking someone with both.” Can picking a running mate with character be a substitute for having your own? If so, it might help Romney with young voters.

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