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.
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, fewer than two hundred were devoted to anything that could be called foreign policy. There was a promise to show Vladimir Putin “more backbone” and criticism of Obama for being too soft on Cuba and Iran. Poland got a mention, along with the counterfactual claim that Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.” But the rest of America’s friends were unnamed and dealt with in a single half-phrase.
Romney got his biggest laugh of the night when he said, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” Officially, this was a dig at the grandiosity of the Obama of 2008. But it seemed to contain a tacit mockery of the notion of climate change itself, as if this were not an idea to be taken seriously. If so, it would count as yet another reversal by Romney, another betrayal of the earlier self who once served as governor of Massachusetts. In his first eighteen months in that role, Romney labored hard on a plan to reduce his state’s carbon emissions, emerging as the “radical in the room” on the issue, according to a former colleague. Crafting policy in deference to the facts may indeed be the natural modus operandi of Romney, the former management consultant. But empiricism is not the approach favored by the Republican Party that gathered in Tampa. What prevailed instead was a kind of obliviousness to the external realities—some might even say to the truth—beyond the hot, humid convention bubble.
The exemplar was the poster boy of the week, Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. The selection of the Wisconsin congressman, hailed as both a policy heavyweight and keeper of the ideological flame, was an instant hit with the party faithful. Indeed, the foot soldiers’ enthusiasm for the young captain threatened to embarrass the general, who inspired no such zeal. A mention of Ryan’s name was an instant applause line; not so Romney himself. Telling was the moment at a rolling seminar hosted by Newt Gingrich (“Newt University”) when the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker—also something of a hero in Tampa, for his having survived a recall election effort led by public employee unions—declared that “we all knew Mitt Romney had the résumé to be president, but with the announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate he showed he has the courage and passion to be an exceptional president.” It’s an odd form of praise: the best thing about x is that he picked y. But for the Republican troops the feeling is becoming familiar. The only thing they loved about McCain was that he picked Sarah Palin.
Ryan’s speech won great plaudits for its punchy confidence, its supposedly youthful reference to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and its eye-dabbing description of the politician’s mother as his “role model.” But it later came under much less flattering scrutiny, as journalists and others began to test several of its key claims. The deceptions—some preferred “misstatements”—in the Ryan speech ranged from castigating the president for failing to keep open a GM plant whose death warrant had in fact been signed before Obama took office to lambasting him for failing to implement the report of the debt-cutting Simpson-Bowles commission on which Ryan had himself sat and whose recommendations Ryan had opposed. The GOP affected to wave off such nagging criticisms as no more than the predictable yammering of the liberal media. The Romney campaign’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, had telegraphed just such an approach the day before Ryan’s speech, telling a breakfast meeting of reporters, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
The remark stuck in the mind, not least because it echoed one of the most memorable utterances of the Bush era, spoken by the unnamed aide who told The New York Times Magazine in 2004 that the president’s critics were stuck in “the reality-based community,” whereas the great men of history did not allow themselves to be confined by anything so narrowing as facts. Incidentally, if Newhouse was making an unconscious nod to Bush he was departing from the script. George W. Bush had only the ghostliest presence in Tampa, his appearance limited to a short video presentation that was, in fact, a tribute to his father. Like Jimmy Carter for the Democrats, the question of what to do with the younger Bush at convention time has become the object of ever more creative thinking by his party. (In 2008 Democrats dealt with Carter by screening a video tr ibute to his humanitarian work and demanding merely that he smile and wave, but not speak, when he came on stage immediately afterward.)
Nothing so inconvenient as the truth or history was allowed to spoil the party in Tampa. Ryan’s speech provided the proof, when the supposed scourge of federal entitlements, whose 2008 “Roadmap for America’s Future” had called for ending Medicare, proclaimed instead that “Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it…for my Mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours.” Romney was similarly slippery, failing to mention what had been his most prominent achievement as governor of Massachusetts, the passing of health care legislation that formed the model for what Republicans now revile as Obamacare.
Yet the greatest dishonesties emanated from what turned out to be the convention’s defining slogan: “We Built It.” This might be the first-ever campaign theme to rest entirely on a gaffe, and a willful misinterpretation of a gaffe at that. In Roanoke, Virginia, on July 13, Barack Obama said:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own…. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
At Tampa an excerpt of that speech was played as if on a loop, the audio repeated in video presentation after presentation. But never the whole paragraph. Instead it was cut, just as it had been on Fox News, so that it sounded like this:
If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
On that shaky foundation, the Republicans built an entire case against the president, one that was sustained through the week. Not only did Obama not understand business—he had never “seen the inside of a lemonade stand,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to much laughter—he actively despised it, resenting its independence from all-controlling government.
It was no good pointing out that the “that” in the key sentence of Obama’s referred to roads and bridges, to teachers and the Internet, to the infrastructure that made business possible. Obama’s wording—politically if not grammatically sloppy—had left a gap through which the Republican juggernaut could drive. Successive speakers insisted that they or their family had started a small business and done it on their own. Even the musicians were on message. Country singer Lane Turner gave a twangy performance of a new song:
I built it.
A business I could call my own.
I worked it.
No boss except the one at home.
I built it.
With my own two working hands.
I built it.
With no help from Uncle Sam.
Delegates waved what appeared to be spontaneously produced, hand-painted signs bearing the same slogan: “We Built It.” (In fact the signs were prepared in bulk and handed out by party officials at the key moment.)
But this idea rested on a deception too, one more serious than the deliberate ripping of Obama’s words from their context. For the Republicans at the podium boasting of their self-reliance and government-free success were only telling part of the story. Sher Valenzuela, candidate for lieutenant governor in Delaware, bragged that she and her husband had started their upholstery business sitting around their kitchen table, slamming an administration apparently bent on weighing them down with paperwork and regulation. “I call it an all-out assault on free enterprise,” she said. Mysteriously this paragon of freewheeling capitalism forgot to mention that as recently as April she was giving PowerPoint presentations that unveiled the “secret weapon” that had made her business such a smash: “millions of dollars in secure government contracts.” It turned out that Valenzuela’s company had grown fat thanks in part to more than $2 million in federal loans and upward of $15 million in federal contracts.
In that same spirit, the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, sang a hymn of praise to the courageous folk who settled her state in the closing years of the nineteenth century, “pioneers [who] risked their own money—not the federal government’s money—to drill Oklahoma’s first oil well, the Nellie Johnstone.” It was an effective evocation of America’s founding individualism, until you reminded yourself of the federal troops who had cleared the land of its native people and then handed it to the settlers.
One speech after another fell into the same hole. New Jersey governor Chris Christie delivered a pugnacious address, one of several that sought to promote the speaker more than the nominee, prompting Obama senior adviser David Axelrod to say that Tampa resembled an “open mic night for 2016 candidates.” Not only had RNC vetters failed to notice that the Christie speech took 1,800 words before it got around to mentioning Mitt Romney, they also allowed him to slip in a grateful reference to the GI Bill that had set his father on his way. The GI Bill was not a product sold by an ingenious private company but one of the largest investments ever made by the federal government in higher education.
Ann Romney recalled her grandfather, a Welsh coal miner who had moved to Michigan. “There, he started a business—one he built himself, by the way.” She then spoke of her husband. “I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it.” Her family and his, she argued, embodied the best of the American spirit, people who forged their fortunes, as the song would have it, with their own two working hands, no help from Uncle Sam. Put aside any unworthy thoughts that if her husband did pull himself up by his bootstraps, they were bootstraps of the Gucci variety: the couple’s early days were spent living off stocks worth some $377,000 in today’s money. More pertinent is that even the source of that solid inheritance, Mitt’s father George, did not find success all on his own. As his wife Lenore once told a TV interviewer, he came to America from Mexico as a refugee and in his first years in the US had to rely on “welfare relief.”
The “We Built It” slogan reverberated around an arena that had itself been built with public money—$80 million in city and county bonds—and became the central trope of a convention subsidized by an $18.4 million grant from the federal Presidential Election Campaign Fund, topped up by another $50 million in federal money for security. Somehow these facts were never allowed to intrude, still less burst the antigovernment bubble. Ann Romney began her speech with a prayer for the people of the Gulf Coast battling Hurricane Isaac. But the first line of defense against Isaac was the levees of New Orleans—and who built those? Like several others, Mitt Romney paid tribute to Neil Armstrong. But who exactly did Romney think sent Armstrong to the moon? Federal Express?