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.
* * *
Trapped in every direction by the pitfalls of whatever resembles principle, the party had only treacle and excess to promote itself. I didn’t make it to the Welcome Party in St. Petersburg before the convention, but a young delegate from Oklahoma named Jorge told me how it had impressed him.
“It reminded me of The Hunger Games, like we were going to the Capitol.” It was invitation-only, and the bus he was on from Tampa with other delegates passed the armaments paid for by the $50 million that Congress gave each host city for security. About 3,000 out-of-town officers from some sixty different agencies were deployed. ICE was there, TSA, Homeland Security, the National Guard, the Secret Service. They made a kind of bivouac under a highway overpass, where troops coming off duty reclined with energy bars while others began their shifts. Most wore the same beige uniforms. The aim was to create “a perception of overwhelming force,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, told ABC. Outside the expansive downtown security zone, a waterfront park, the county center, the police department and a monument to fallen officers were also barricaded. Overhead, helicopters buzzed.
This was Jorge’s first national convention. His bus passed through gates to Tropicana Field, where the party was held. “There was so much food. They had a whole pig, with the head and all, laying there on the table. I thought, Really, you’re doing this in a recession?” People were dressed up, some in the kind of partisan costume familiar to conventiongoers, others in the uniform that would be apparent every day in the halls of the forum: short, tight dresses for the women, teetering on platform shoes; khaki and rolled shirt sleeves for their squishy men; maybe a pair of Stars-and-Stripes trousers on a hipster. A country star commanded the stage with cheerleaders for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their scanty pirate togs.
For every conventioneer there was a swag bag advertising Busch Gardens, and for every journalist, too. Like provisions for intrepid hunters in the Safari of Fun, it included sunglasses, sunscreen and a battery-operated personal fan that generated no breeze. Here were breath mints, courtesy of railroad giant CSX; a beer can holder, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Storm; No Apology, courtesy of Mitt Romney; a luxury coffee-table magazine called Bay Pop.
“The [Tampa Bay] community is not the flashiest, but the wealth is outrageous,” Rob Elder, president of Elder Automotive, told Bay Pop in a mini-profile wedged between features on rare colored diamonds, equestrian-themed fashion and an auto spread that wondered, “Been dreaming of a crossover [SUV] that goes 200 mph and costs 200K? An all-electric, speedster SUV? A custom-built version that can run you over $300,000? All are on the way.”
It was only a promo giveaway, but symbolically it told a story that in other ways the convention sought to keep under wraps. I had picked up mine a few days later at the Convention Center, where the press was mustered, where fawning reporters listened to whatever Jon Voight wanted to say and looked on as Michael Steele did his cutting-up routine. Google had its own cafe. The energy company CNGnow was offering free water and specialty coffee. It was pleasant there in the glass box, with a waterside view and little areas carpeted in AstroTurf with bright blue picnic tables by cheery tableaux of flowers, trees and butterflies. In other circumstances I might have appreciated it as an hommage to Florida kitsch, but in real life the kitsch has been bulldozed. Tampa’s towers could be in any city, and there were too many ads, too many lies, too many party leaders onstage justifying all because their parents had come to this country with only $10 or had dug in the mines or had started a business with no one’s help, too many delegates mouthing talking points like robots on Obamacare and the need to bite the bullet on entitlements and the shame of throwing Israel “under the bus.”
I was regarding Bay Pop with a couple of working-class delegates in T-shirts, Ron Paul supporters who now call themselves free-thinkers and who were not prepared for their encounter with the Republican Party. They’d thought they were coming to Tampa to hammer out positions, to gather together, as another first-time delegate told me, “to make plans to save the United States.” They were shocked that the convention was scripted. Shocked by the overwhelming presence of corporate money. They looked at the magazine’s cover boy, a smug, square-jawed model under the title “The Young Delegates,” and compared him to people walking the halls. “Plastic people with plastic brains,” they said, and then told me a story about an 8-year-old who’d come to Tampa with his parents to be part of history. The boy was precocious, wearing a Paul button and delighting grown-ups on the convention floor before the proceedings. “And what do you think of Mitt Romney?” somebody asked him, hopefully. “Screw Mitt Romney,” said the child.
* * *
By the normal standards of politics, this should be a runaway year for a challenger party. Almost 70 percent of Americans are very or mostly dissatisfied with the political system’s performance, if one believes a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. By the same survey, 90 percent of people of any political persuasion are split evenly as to whether the Democrats’ policies hurt or help their economic interests. Since February, the economy has added just 97,000 jobs a month, not enough to absorb new entrants to the workforce, let alone make a dent in the unemployment rate.
Republicans could win on that message alone, but it is not evident that they will. The normal standards of politics are not operative. Strictly by the distress numbers, Florida, for instance, should not be a swing state. Around 9 percent of the state’s (and Tampa’s) people are officially out of work. Only 96,000 jobs have been recovered since the Great Collapse wiped out 715,200 of them, according to a report from Florida International University. Although the unemployment rate fell by about 2 percent between June 2011 and June 2012, the State Legislature attributes 70 percent of that change to a shrinking workforce—people moving out or dropping out.
Yet Florida is a swing state. Its Republican governor, Rick Scott, who takes credit for the improvement in the jobless rate, is unpopular. The Tampa Bay Times recently suggested that an uptick in the unemployment numbers would actually be welcome, “because it may signal that discouraged workers are coming back to the labor force.” Scott, who bought the governorship with $78 million from his personal fortune and narrowly escaped being implicated in a corruption scandal at the for-profit hospital where he was CEO, belongs to the government-is-useless crowd—a mendacious stance in a state that floats on federal dollars for sugar subsidies, the space program, the military and Social Security.
Paul Ryan could never campaign honestly here, as he did not in his televised address. Like most of the speakers, he substituted biography for politics. They made Obama a punching bag, but with relative restraint. Shtick aside, Eastwood was useful, reassuring voters that they were simply good and reasonable to want to fire Obama and give someone else a chance. The red meat, which Charles Krauthammer worried that Republicans might miss because Hurricane Isaac clipped the schedule, had been served instead at a Cineplex just outside the forum. There, 2016: Obama’s America played on a daily bill with Runaway Slave, about the Democrats’ plot to hook blacks on dependency, and Dreams From My Real Father, about Obama’s mission to realize the black militant, Communist agenda of Frank Marshall Davis. The local Tea Party did its part to get people out, particularly for 2016, Dinesh D’Souza’s narcissistic hallucination about Obama as the echt neo-anticolonialist, bent on driving America into debt so as to redistribute wealth globally, and on fostering the “United States of Islam,” I guess to honor his “founding father” and “buddy” Edward Said. The evidence: Obama took a class at Columbia from Said, who is described as rabidly anti-Western. As an intellectual pretender, D’Souza certainly knows that Said was a professor of literature, taught the Western canon, wrote on classical music for The Nation and others, grew up in the Church of England and was adamantly secular. If he taught Obama, the experience was unmemorable; otherwise, Said met him exactly once. D’Souza might as well have dramatized the scare alerts from Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance, but then he would have had a harder time weaving himself into the story.
Remarkably, some Republicans said the film made them think better of Obama; at least now they had a rationale for his actions. Back at the forum, two conventioneers must have forgotten where they were and had to be ejected for tossing peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman while saying, “This is how we feed animals.” The others overcompensated by giving thunderous ovations to every black or brown speaker who trooped across the stage. “This is the dawn before we remember who we are!” Artur Davis, former Democrat, newly minted Republican and certified opportunist, exhorted his listeners. It was nonsense, but the overwhelmingly white crowd was on its feet, stamping and whooping, all the way to the forum’s top tier. A more ecstatic reception greeted Condi Rice.
“The Republicans are fools,” a crusty Floridian on the street, Donald Barnes, growled the next day. “They should have made Condoleezza Rice their vice president to split the black vote and get the whites who feel guilty. Instead, they’re going to re-elect the hula boy.” No, he doesn’t like Condi, though she’s probably competent. He doesn’t like any of them. Florida’s lieutenant governor is a black woman, and she’s competent, though “the governor is an idiot.” I asked if he thought white people, some anyway, were scared that they were going to be overrun once the demographics shifted and they were no longer the majority. “Positively,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
* * *
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.