The Republicans: Behind the Barricades


All conventions—whether of insurance salesmen or political parties—are sealed worlds, closed communities that, for a few days, develop their own microclimates, language, and customs. That was especially true of the Republican gathering in Tampa, where 4,411 delegates and alternate delegates, watched by some 15,000 journalists, met to nominate Mitt Romney for president.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney; drawing by John Springs

Partly it was a function of security, so intense that downtown Tampa was rapidly branded the Green Zone by those taking part, its streets either shut off by large concrete barricades or bisected by high steel fences manned around the clock by officers of the Secret Service or khaki-clad soldiers of the National Guard. Extreme weather played a part too. The week began in the shadow of what became Hurricane Isaac, which had initially seemed on course to give Tampa a battering and which prompted the Republican National Committee to cancel the opening night’s program altogether.

That decision owed as much to politics as to safety: the planners feared the split-screen contrast of partying Republicans with the storm-lashed poor of the Gulf Coast, fighting to save their homes and perhaps their lives. The GOP has a history with hurricanes, most notoriously Katrina in 2005 but also Gustav in 2008, which lopped the first day off John McCain’s convention in St. Paul. Several liberal wits took to social media to speculate that the biblically named Isaac was merely the latest expression of an ongoing divine fury with the Republican Party. In the end Isaac veered west and skipped Tampa. Still, the initial anxiety and the hot, sticky rain led to a sense of a convention hunkering down against the elements.

Those physical circumstances reinforced the political mood. For this Republican convention suggested a party barricading itself against the world as well as the weather. Both inside and outside the hall, GOP luminaries either ignored or disdained life beyond America. Greece was mentioned occasionally, as a warning of the catastrophe that would be visited on a debt-ridden US, while Europe was both a byword for socialist decadence and the alleged destination of Barack Obama’s real, if clandestine, agenda. Even former Florida governor Jeb Bush, regularly described as moderate because of his reasonable manner and readiness to accommodate immigration, told a Bloomberg-hosted panel on education that Europe offered little more than “good food and slow, casual, well-organized decline.”

The second evening was nominally about national security, but it included scant discussion of that topic save for a speech by John McCain, barely listened to in a hall murmuring with its own conversations, and another, more commanding effort by Condoleezza Rice, whose focus was education rather than international affairs. Romney himself earned a scolding from the editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, for an acceptance speech that failed to mention Iraq, Afghanistan, or the US forces deployed in both countries, but those were not the only gaps. In Romney’s 4,100-word speech,…

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