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The Republicans: Behind the Barricades

1.

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; 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, 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.

2.

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?

freedland_2-101112.jpg
Martin H. Simon/Corbis
Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair at the Republican Convention, Tampa, August 30, 2012

There were other contradictions no less egregious. A curious feature of a Republican Party that once mocked the Democrats’ identity politics is its current fondness for claiming a kind of victimhood, usually predicated on heartrending reminiscences of past suffering. A motif of countless speeches was the immigrant success story. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, offered a template of the form:

I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants…. My parents started a business out of the living room of our home and, thirty-plus years later, it was a multimillion dollar company…. So, President Obama, with all due respect, don’t tell me that my parents didn’t build their business.

Stories of Hispanic triumph were especially favored, since that group remains stubbornly unsusceptible to the GOP’s charms. There was a particularly good turn by the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez. But everyone tried to get in on the act—Ann’s Welsh coal miner grandpa and Mitt’s Mexican dad among those pressed into service. Even the most juiceless of white males, the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, declared, “This election is about restoring the American Dream. The dream that led my grandfather, a poor farm boy, to leave Ireland one hundred years ago and come to Ellis Island to begin his journey of freedom.” There was a comedy to all this, akin to that of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, as very affluent, powerful people competed to claim the grittiest origins.

But there was also a whiff of hypocrisy. For the same party that revels in these tales of immigrant success is also bent on pulling up the ladder its leaders are so proud to have climbed. The party is hostile to immigration in the present, whatever sentimental warmth it exhibits toward immigration in the past. Its primary candidates in the 2012 presidential race jostled over who could be toughest. Romney himself, anxious that there be no space to his right, advocated making life so tough for the undocumented that they would in the end “self-deport.”

The overall effect of hearing these messages replayed, with only modest variations, back-to-back for three consecutive days was to confront a brand of raw Social Darwinism, a cult of the winner that believes the success of the few renders the system legitimate, even sacred, regardless of the fate of the many who are less fortunate. “I”—or more accurately—“my parents have made millions,” the argument seemed to run, “so that proves the system works and is just.” Scarcely a word was said about the plight of the many millions of Americans who have seen their wages stagnate or decline over several decades. Instead Romney and Ryan propose more tax cuts for the very wealthiest. Tampa felt a lot like Ayn Rand’s convention—without the atheism of course—addressed by a senator named after the author (Rand Paul) and a congressman (Paul Ryan) who once boasted that Rand is required reading for his office staff and interns. The Republicans seek a world in which the fittest will be free to run fastest, and as for the rest, well, the success of the strong will somehow help them too.

3.

Tampa laid bare, or confirmed, some crucial weaknesses in both the Romney campaign and the Republican Party itself. Just at the level of political tradecraft, the convention was not that impressive. Particularly striking was the distinct failure to drive a message during the long hours between sessions: seasoned reporters noted that speakers and surrogates would turn up at briefings with no story to tell, merely ready to play defense. Lack of coherence was obvious on the first night, when Ann Romney announced she was to deliver a speech about love, only to be followed by Christie declaring that “tonight, we choose respect over love.”

The absence of a strong, managerial grip became obvious to the wider public in the final hour of the last night when Clint Eastwood was allowed to deliver a long, baffling monologue to an empty chair, a stunt that garnered more attention than, and therefore overshadowed, Romney’s acceptance speech. It probably will be remembered for the words it contemptuously ascribed to the president:

What do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him to do that. I can’t tell him to do that to himself. [Applause]

The controlling types around Obama would never have entertained the idea of surrendering a slice of prime time to improv, nor, it was said, would Karl Rove. Such mess-ups might not matter too much, but they do somewhat undermine Romney’s chief claim to office: that he is a master CEO with an eye for detail and zero tolerance of failure.

Which brings us to the matter of the candidate himself. The Eastwood error was compounded by the fact that it edged out of the TV golden hour a meticulously produced biopic on Romney as well as a couple of testimonials from church members who had been helped by the nominee. Even the most flint-hearted Democrat could not fail to be moved by these stories of Romney’s hands-on aid to friends with sick or dying children. To those in his own Mormon community, he is clearly a generous, caring man. And yet even that could not make the Tampa crowd love Romney.

The result was a convention that ran on conspicuously low wattage, the meter occasionally peaked by Ryan or Christie, but otherwise short on energy. This disconnect seemed to flow both ways. When Romney’s speech was done, and the balloons and confetti fell, the crowd was oddly listless. The nominee stood rigid on the stage, his arms wooden by his sides, while his fine-looking family, grandchildren and all, surrounded him on stage. They joshed and hugged each other, but remained curiously aloof from the man himself. After he had sung the national anthem, he seemed to say barely a word, even to his wife who was next to him. The transmission of warmth, even love, to and from a candidate is part of presidential politics. It came easily to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, but does not work that way for Mitt Romney. Politics is not his first language.

None of that, however, should obscure the GOP’s underlying strengths. Much has been made of the Republicans as a coalition of multiple and disputatious strands—an awkward amalgam of evangelicals, libertarians, Tea Partiers, fiscal hawks, and assorted others—but there was little of that fractiousness on display in Tampa, with the exception of the disciples of Ron Paul. The Paulites constitute a distinct grouping that stands well apart from the rest of the GOP. One key player in the Republican congressional caucus told me the difference is cultural as much as political: “They’re a little too passionate, a little crazy, they’re not dressed as well, maybe they haven’t showered recently. You find yourself asking, ‘Are they even Republicans?’”

The Paulites were visible and noisy in Tampa, disrupting proceedings on the first day, angrily shouting from the floor that they were not being granted their rightful place. They do indeed look different, T-shirts, tattoos, and piercings as common among them as blazers and frosted-blond hair are among the men and women of the rest of the GOP. Their principles overlap—both they and the regular Republicans are bent on taming an overmighty federal government—but the Paul followers have an abundance of other obsessions, whether the gold standard, the IMF, the Federal Reserve, or staying out of wars. They will presumably stick around if Rand Paul runs for president in 2016, but otherwise they exist as a tribe apart.

The remainder of the Republican Party did, however, present a united front. They were disciplined enough to realize that, coming straight after Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks about abortion and “legitimate rape,” the emphasis in Tampa needed to be on the economy, not social conservatism. “We mustn’t be sidetracked,” was how one delegate explained it. Accordingly, apart from a brief lapse by Rick Santorum and a coded reference by Ryan to Jesus as “the Lord of Life”—along with thirty-five references to God from the podium—there was almost nothing on the issues that stir the Republican base and antagonize female independent voters in equal measure.

This sotto voce social conservatism is not evidence of its diminishing importance but rather of the extent to which quite radical positions have now become utterly mainstream within the Republican Party. At Houston in 1992 Pat Buchanan had to demand a “cultural war” over abortion, gay rights, and feminism because those were still points of contention within the party, which then contained an admittedly shrinking band of moderates. Now liberal Republicanism is extinct and there is less need to shout. The argument is over.

Unity is all the more possible because today’s Republicans are not only ideologically but demographically homogenous. The party is struggling to attract African-American, Hispanic, young, and female voters and the composition of the conventioneers in Tampa reflected that struggle. There were so few black delegates that the handful present became recognizable over the week, standing out like landmarks. The podium was visited by a good smattering of women and, especially, Latinos, but on the floor the faces were middle-aged and overwhelmingly white. This is a long-term and serious electoral problem for the GOP, but the homogeneity and unity of the party has also been an operational asset: contrast the disciplined effectiveness of the Republicans in Congress with their more fractious, diverse Democratic counterparts.

Tampa offered another cause of optimism to Republicans. The party has what the sports coaches call a deep bench, a substantial squad of talent. Besides Rice, Jeb Bush, Christie, and Martinez, Utah congressional candidate Mia Love and former Democrat Artur Davis both impressed, while the clear and combat-ready diction of Florida’s senator Marco Rubio mesmerized the hall when he introduced Romney (the second time the nominee was upstaged in a single hour).

Above all, the GOP has serious money. Around town, staying in the best hotels, was the delegation that mattered most of all, the one that wears no buttons and no signs: the donors. On the last morning of the convention Karl Rove briefed around seventy high-value givers, a group that included a clutch of billionaires—including John Paulson and Wilbur Ross—on electoral strategy as he shook the cup for his Super PAC American Crossroads, a group with a budget of $300 million, from which $200 million is set aside for the presidential race alone. Meanwhile casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson has promised to spend $100 million to eject Barack Obama. For perhaps the first time, an incumbent president seems likely to be outspent.

Democrats watching the week in Tampa may have felt encouraged: they have a nominee who is strong in every area where Romney is weak. And yet they would be wise not to be complacent. Insulated from, even frightened of, the changing world around them they might be, but the Republicans are still a mighty force. Not many political parties on such good terms with Mammon believe they have God on their side too.

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