Anticipation is a wonderful thing, at least in sports – when it’s the bottom of the ninth and the score is tied and the grizzled old slugger, well past his prime, is called in from some dark corner of the dugout and sent hobbling to the plate, with two outs posted already, to face some young fastball wizard. Can he hit just one more homer? Every pitch is more intense than the last. It’s that silly poem Casey at the Bat made real. The reverse also holds true too – as in that movie Major League where the troubled young pitcher saves the day by striking out the thug-superstar who can hit anyone – and strikes him out on three straight fastballs, each one more amazing than the last. The tension is unbearable, or is supposed to be – it is just a movie. The anticipation is everything, and of course that applies to sexual situations too. The woman purrs that she’ll be right back, as she’s going to go slip into something more comfortable – and the man bounces off the walls, in anticipation. The tease is everything – it’s a running gag in Young Frankenstein, because it’s standard fare in a thousand other Hollywood movies. Anticipation is good – in fact, in the late seventies, the Heinz folks in Pittsburgh used the Carly Simon hit song Anticipation to sell ketchup – but of course what they were just selling was still the same old thick tomato-based goop cooked up in big vats in the old plant on the banks of the Monongahela. Still, the ad campaign was quite successful. If you have to wait for it then it must be good.
It’s too bad the same isn’t true in politics. The Republican National Convention was to open on the last Monday in August, in Tampa, and it did, sort of – it was gaveled into session, officially, then all activities and events were immediately suspended for a day. The problem was Almost-Hurricane Isaac – still just a massive tropical storm – barreling in over the Keys and into the Gulf, and close enough to the west coast of Florida to make a mess of everything, but not a disaster of any kind. It just stalled things for a day, and of course Rush Limbaugh told his national radio audience that this was an Obama administration plot to shorten the Republican convention by one day – the National Hurricane Center knew all along the storm was going to veer off and head for New Orleans, not messing with Tampa much at all. But they lied to the American people to screw the Republicans. It’s a theory – and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network claimed that God moved the hurricane further west to protect his chosen people, the Republicans – it will be a full-blown Category Two hurricane when it hits New Orleans, on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to the day, and the folks who live there deserve what they get. You know how black folks are. God knows what He’s doing after all. Of course they weren’t that crude about it – it was just a bit of wink-wink nudge-nudge. God works in mysterious ways.
In short, there was nothing much to talk about, and not much anticipation. There was chatter that when the convention actually got underway it might look bad to be partying and cheering when New Orleans goes under again, in split-screen on the nation’s television sets, hour after hour, for the remaining three days of the thing. That might seem a bit insensitive. But there’s no backing out now. The anticipation has the nation on edge – the keynote speaker, the volcanic and abrasive Chris Christie who now says he may stray a bit and let it rip. Maybe he’ll bite the head off a live chicken and say that’s what he’ll do to any public school teacher who won’t agree to work for minimum wage. He’s an odd fellow. But Donald Trump has been scratched from the schedule – there will be no fiery speech on how Obama’s birth certificates are all forgeries and the man was never president in the first place, as he’s really a Kenyan. Many were eagerly awaiting that, especially on the left. But that won’t happen now.
Actually, nothing much will happen and in fact, a Republican strategist, Mike Murphy, offers this at Time’s Swampland:
Remind me: Why are we doing this?
That was the question bouncing around in my head after I spent my first 24 hours in Tampa on increasingly soggy ground. The twin horrors of Tropical Storm Isaac and the Nielsen ratings have already combined to wipe out Monday night’s planned activities, and you know what? Nobody cares.
Political conventions are over. Once, they meant something. I’d leap into the most terrifying of time machines to attend an old-school political convention with armies of local pols battling it out under a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke in a stuffy convention hall, while the string-pulling bosses cut pragmatic deals over whiskey and judicial appointments in lavish hotel suites. Those conventions had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high. Today delegates are bound through the application of TV-ad-ratings points, not machine deals. Delegates sit in the hall like background actors on a TV show, milling about to the director’s orders, wearing costumes and being denied a single line. It seems like a shabby ending to a great tradition. It’s time for a mercy killing.
Ed Kilgore agrees:
Murphy doesn’t mention the role of conventions as major fundraising (as well as fund-spending!) venues, or the atavistic willingness of news organizations to send people to “cover” the non-events. But still, he’s asking the obvious question, and the slightly less obvious answer is this: we still have national political conventions for the same reason we still empower a handful of states to exert enormous power over presidential nominations – inertia. Someone, presumably a sitting president, would have to expend the political capital necessary to put these traditions to sleep. And when the brief window of opportunity comes to do so, there’s always something more valuable on which to spend that political capital.
You want delicious anticipation and you get inertia:
Conventions stopped being deliberative decades ago. Gavel-to-gavel coverage by major networks is a distant, fading memory. The decision to bag today’s Republican Convention schedule may have been necessitated by the possibility of a weather disaster, but it was lubricated by the earlier decision of broadcast networks to forego live coverage entirely for Day One. Tampa is awash with journalists trying to find something interesting to write or talk about, in a pitched battle with party operatives trying to keep the whole show as boring as possible until the Big Chiefs get their unfiltered opportunity to address a Super-Prime-Time audience. I am very happy not to be there.
Kilgore sees where this is heading:
Eventually, we’ll have “conventions” that are nothing of the sort, but are simply large-venue speeches by the presidential ticket, ethnically and ideologically appropriate validators, and a few “real people.” For Republicans, they’ll offer far less revealing glimpses of the reigning conservative id than the annual CPAC confab in Washington (Democrats do not have an equivalent single defining event, but might well develop one if there is a Romney-Ryan administration). It’s possible we could lurch on for a long time calling these truncated hoedowns “national political conventions” before the tradition finally gives up the ghost. But as Murphy suggests, you’d really have to climb into a time machine to experience why these quadrennial gatherings originally existed and what they used to accomplish.
Kilgore recommends Robert K. Murray’s book on the 1924 Democratic Convention, The 103d Ballot – the good old days, full of anticipation. There’s none of that now. Mitt is not going to excuse himself and go slip into something more comfortable. He is who he is, and it seems that now he’s made some choices, as reported by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times:
The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.
Ads that accuse President Obama of gutting the work requirements enacted in the 1996 welfare reform legislation present the first theme. Ads alleging that Obama has taken $716 billion from Medicare – a program serving an overwhelmingly white constituency – in order to provide health coverage to the heavily black and Hispanic poor deliver the second. The ads are meant to work together, to mutually reinforce each other’s claims.
It’s a plan, and Kilgore offers this:
So that’s the most important sense in which the Romney campaign has finally surrendered unconditionally to the Right: not simply accepting its political positions or promising to make its priorities his own, or placing on his ticket their favorite politician—but also adopting its meta-message about the kind of people Obama represents (those people) and the kind of people who are suffering from his redistributionist ways.
It’s clear by now that the Romney campaign is going to shrug off the almost universal denunciation of his welfare ads (and to only a lesser extent, his Medicare ads that show a white senior frowning as the narrator says ObamaCare is “not for you”) as a pack of despicable, race-baiting lies… If nothing else, his wizards probably figured out some time ago that the “welfare” crap offered a rare opportunity to hit notes equally effective with “the base” and the non-college educated white voters who make up a high percentage of this election’s “swing.” Add in the thick armor conservatives have built for themselves against any accusations of racism – now, almost by definition, they believe only liberals are racists, and only white people are targets of racism – and it was probably an easy call for Team Mitt, particularly since truthfulness is not a factor at all.
And there’s history:
The Romney campaign’s attitude seems to be that of the famous nineteenth century rogue William (Boss) Tweed, who when confronted by journalists with his misdeeds, said: “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Romney’s not going to be shamed out of his unsavory tactics.
But on the other hand, if his gambit fails, not only will his presidential ambitions perish once and for all, but just maybe the kind of politics he has come to exemplify – rich people encouraging the middle class to “kick down” at “those people” – will take a hit as well.
That seems unlikely. Edsall had explained that:
Sharp criticism has done nothing to hold back the Romney campaign from continuing its offensive – in speeches and on the air – because the accuracy of the ads is irrelevant as far as the Republican presidential ticket is concerned. The goal is not to make a legitimate critique, but to portray Obama as willing to give the “undeserving” poor government handouts at the expense of hardworking taxpayers. Insofar as Romney can revive anti-welfare sentiments – which have been relatively quiescent since the enactment of the 1996 reforms – he may be able to increase voter motivation among whites whose enthusiasm for Romney has been dimmed by the barrage of Obama ads criticizing Bain Capital for firing workers and outsourcing jobs during Romney’s tenure as C.E.O. of the company.
It’s the attack of choice, and Ezra Klein works out the fine points:
Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.
Many hoped that Obama’s election in 2008 meant we were now a post-racial polity. At the least, they hoped we were a polity that could deal with race more maturely. In this case, hope obscured the absence of change.
Klein reviews recent studies on attitudes toward race – there has been little if any shift. And Obama doesn’t talk about race:
It’s hard to blame him. Race is hard to talk about. For one thing, by being honest about its continuing role in American life, people often think you’re calling them racists, or, at the least, “playing the race card.” Even in 2008, Obama only addressed the issue when the Jeremiah Wright scandal forced him to. And yet, race is being talked about, at least to those who are listening for it.
Romney has an opening. He can suggest that no one deserves government help who isn’t… oh, you know, good folks like us. Edsall noted this:
The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of “blowing the dog whistle of racism” – resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.
You gotta do what you gotta do, as Kevin Drum explains:
Why is Romney doing this? I think the answer is largely that he learned a lesson from 2008. John McCain, to his credit, really did insist that his campaign avoid anything that smacked of racial dog whistling. And he lost big. Romney, I think, has decided that McCain was intimidated by the Obama campaign, and he’s not going to let the same thing happen to him. So he’s going to skate as close to the race line as he can while still retaining at least a smidgen of deniability about what he’s doing.
That makes sense to Drum:
This, by the way, is the background behind Romney’s birther “joke” a few days ago. Under other circumstances, it might have been shrugged off. But Romney’s appeals to racial animus have been so obvious in other contexts that it’s pretty hard to watch the video and decide that this was truly an off-the-cuff remark that went awry. …
Drum just worries that this is the new normal:
Obviously racially-coded attacks are especially effective when you’re running against a black incumbent, but the truth is that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming ever more split along racial lines regardless of who’s running. As this split becomes more pronounced, Democratic appeals to minorities will inevitably become more important to their fortunes, while Republican appeals to white resentment will become more important to theirs. In policy terms, this will mean things like voter ID laws and increasing resistance to immigration reform of all kinds. In campaign terms, it will mean ads about gutting welfare reform and giving your Medicare dollars to people who “aren’t you.” Welcome to 2016.
If you have to wait for it then it must be good? Not in this case. But really, you don’t have to wait:
Political observers have noted for a while that Mitt Romney’s claim that President Obama gutted the work requirement in the 1996 welfare reform law is false. But few in the mainstream media have gone so far as to accuse Republicans of playing the “race card.”
But Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” didn’t hold back in a tirade launched against RNC Chairman Reince Priebus Monday morning, accusing the Romney campaign of using race to defeat Obama. Matthews lit into Priebus, citing both the welfare attacks and Romney’s recent birth certificate joke as evidence that the GOP is “playing that little ethnic card there.”
“I have to call you on this, Mr. Chairman,” Matthews said in an appearance with Priebus on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” as he responded to Republicans’ criticism that Obama is running a very negative campaign. “But they’ve both negative. That cheap shot about ‘I don’t have a problem with my birth certificate’ was awful. It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card.”
And Matthews wasn’t finished:
You can play your games and giggle about it but the fact is your side playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, you know what game you’re playing and everybody knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card and yeah, if your name’s Romney, yeah you were well born, you went to prep school, yeah, brag about it. This guy has an African name and he’s got to live with it. Look who’s gone further in their life. Who was born on third base? Making fun of the guy’s birth certificate issue when it was never a real issue except for the right wing…
It was a cat-fight:
Priebus pushed back against Matthews remarks. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re loaded up, you got it out.” Priebus argued that Romney’s birth certificate comment was just “a moment of levity” and “everybody gets it.”
“It just seems funny the first joke he’s ever told in his life is about Obama’s birth certificate,” Matthews responded.
It went on and on. No one needed a boring prepackaged convention. This was the good stuff, but Newsweek’s Kathleen Parker covers the really good stuff, what’s in the party platform this year, which she argues smells of real fear, of women, gays, immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Muslims, Medicaid recipients and on and on. Many see a party of aging white men, lashing out, and her summary is this:
There is something wrong with the Republican Party, the survival of which demands more than a few moments of self-examination and reflection. I wouldn’t use the word “stupid,” though it is tempting. Suicidal seems more apt. The GOP, through its platform, its purity tests, pledges, and its emphasis on social issues that divide rather than unite, has shot itself in the foot, eaten said foot, and still managed to stampede to the edge of the precipice. Is extinction in its DNA?
Andrew Sullivan riffs on that:
This is indeed a party more extreme than any other right-of-center party in the West, a party whose social policy is dictated by the Bible, whose foreign policy is directed by the furthest-right faction in a foreign country (Israel), and whose economic policy is based on the notion that if you cut taxes massively and boost defense spending and only cut entitlements in twenty years, we can best tackle the debt.
But its candidate – who has ensured there is no daylight between him and the more rabid parts of his party – is neck and neck with a president still in the world of reality. The GOP’s degeneration is its own fault; but that such a degenerate, irresponsible, ideologically extreme party is now, I believe, the favorite to win this election is a reflection not on them, but on us.
Their convention may be absurd, but that’s something to anticipate – these folks will probably win. And really, if you have to wait for it then it must be good – except when it’s awful.