On August 28, 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the most irritating of the big three Romantic poets you had to read in school, eloped with Harriet Westbrook. No one cared. Byron, Keats and Shelley were strange fellows. And on August 28, 2012, the Republican National Convention finally got underway in Tampa, after a one-day weather delay – and it’s hard to tell if anyone cared, except for political junkies. Some events lend themselves to obscurity, even if most of the delayed first day was covered wall-to-wall on national television, or at least on the cable news networks. The broadcast networks and independents ran their usual sitcoms and whatnot, and the rest of cable ran their racier shows and old movies, and the food and travel and fashion and home-improvement channels ran their usual schedule, and on the history channels the Nazis and the Japanese were still losing the war, again – and there was a lot of good baseball too. On the Weather Channel you could watch the big hurricane slamming into New Orleans, not Tampa, as originally feared. The Republican convention faced a lot of competition for the nation’s attention – it’s not like the old days with just three broadcast networks, feeling they had to cover such things, and a few UHF stations showing old John Wayne movies. There’s been an explosion of choices.
That’s the problem. Jonathan Ladd – the fellow from Georgetown University whose new book is Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters – suggests that political conventions now have a naturally narrow audience:
In general, political scientists find that the biggest effect of major campaign events is to activate partisan predispositions. The campaign as a whole has this result, but the effect may be even more dominant for conventions and debates that require one to self-select to be a viewer. This activation effect is driven by that fact that those most interested in politics are also the most likely to have strong existing views… A very large portion of those who tune in are political junkies/activists who made up their minds long ago or those who are at least partisan enough that watching these events reminds them what they like about their party and dislike about the other one.
One has to self-select to be a viewer, and everyone else was watching baseball or House Hunters International or something about vampires. But in a brilliant bit of counterprograming, AMC decided to run the smash-hit movie Pretty Woman each night of the Republican convention, in prime time, in direct competition. After all, if you want to know how private equity firms work, watch that movie, all about a dashing fellow with far too much money and no idea what to do with it, until he meets the right woman, the whore with a heart of gold, who teaches him about kindness and goodness and all that. Up to that point he had been doing exactly what Mitt Romney had been doing at Bain Capital. You get rich people to give you money, scads of it, with which you buy shaky companies, and then you have those companies you now control borrow impossible amounts of money, secured against what assets they may have, burdening them with impossible debt, and then you use that borrowed money to pay back your rich investors, with interest, insuring them a healthy return on their investment. And then you dismantle the newly debt-ridden company, as it cannot survive given its new debt load, and sell off its parts, pocketing all that money from the sale, making you yourself very rich. And you do it again and again and again. That’s about as nasty as it gets – lots of people get hurt – and the folks at AMC are messing with Mitt, who, unlike the guy in the movie, has yet to see the light. Yes, Romney is no Richard Gere – but this was snide, and pretty cool.
The alternative was not cool – watching lots of angry speeches, or inspiring speeches depending on your point of view – and a scuffle with a bit of shouting as the Ron Paul and other grassroots folks realized they had been cut out of everything. This was the usual first-day stuff regarding rules and credentialing gone terribly bad – but for political junkies only. The evening itself was given over to speeches from a succession of Republican rising stars, or those who were owed a spot, ending with Ann Romney trying to “humanize” her husband, and then Chris Christie with his keynote address.
Andrew Sullivan followed it all here – much of it was what you would expect. He wasn’t that impressed, although this was really an event to remind Republicans what they like about their party, and what they hate about the Democrats, and Obama. Sullivan called it “a night of categorical lies” – what they had said before. Elsewhere on television the Pirates finally beat the Cardinals, and Richard Gere finally saw the light, again. At least on the convention floor there were some interesting moments. One overly enthusiastic Republican threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman while shouting “This is how we feed animals!” Yeah, maybe too many people are on food stamps, and they’re all black of course. That overly enthusiastic Republican was escorted from the floor. This race thing is going to be an issue. You’re not supposed to be that obvious about it. And the CNN woman had a camera. Oops.
Sullivan himself was not impressed with Rick Santorum:
Santorum is saying that Obama has “waived the work requirement for welfare”. This is a lie – spoken by the runner-up for the nomination. It is a lie. The waivers have been routine for state experimentation. Many were sought by Republican governors. They were designed to ensure more efficient ways to get work as part of the welfare requirement.
Santorum is a devout Catholic. So why is he lying out loud on national television? And why is he stirring up racial division by lying? If you ever thought the guy had some integrity, you now know he doesn’t.
Yes, but there’s just something about the image of lazy black folks, who never worked a day in their lives and never wanted to, just getting checks and sneering at the stupid white folks who work for a living and pay the taxes that makes those welfare checks possible. Santorum couldn’t resist the image. None of them can. And the facts hardly matter – Buzzfeed reported here that top Romney advisers say their most effective ads are the ones attacking Obama over welfare, and that they will not allow any facts to get in their way:
“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O’Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABC News and Yahoo! News. “It’s new information.”…
The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” awarded Romney’s ad “four Pinocchios,” a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed.
“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said.
And here’s Mitt Romney on what he sees as shaky “facts” in ads from SuperPACs supporting Obama:
“You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad,” Romney said on the radio. “They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”
Those guys should stick to the facts, and we don’t have to, and Greg Sargent adds this:
In this sense, the Romney campaign continues to pose a test to the news media and our political system. What happens when one campaign has decided there is literally no set of boundaries that it needs to follow when it comes to the veracity of its assertions? The Romney campaign is betting that the press simply won’t be able to keep voters informed about the disputes that are central to the campaign, in the face of the sheer scope and volume of dishonesty it uncorks daily.
Sargent cites Paul Krugman’s obvious question – “Has there ever been a candidacy this cynical?”
Well, yes – probably. There was Richard Nixon, and Michael Tomasky sees the parallels:
Apparently, there will be no sweeping effort undertaken to humanize Mitt Romney at this week’s convention. He told USA Today that during the daytime sessions, there will be “a series of vignettes, so people who attend the convention will get to know me a little better,” but during primetime, when millions are watching, “we won’t be talking about my life.” It’s the right decision in the sense that there’s almost nothing about his life that’s the least bit emotionally compelling. But it’s also a telling one, because it means the campaign is basically going to be: Vote for me, I’m white, and I’m not a socialist.
That’s about it, and there’s little choice:
Gallup found last week that Barack Obama outscored Romney by 23 points on the likability scale, as 54 percent said they found Obama likable compared to only 31 percent for Romney. Normally a campaign would be quite worried about this, and rightly so. I’d rate it as Romney’s biggest problem, more than his positions and his incessant right-wing pandering (I guess those two are the same thing). People don’t normally vote for somebody they don’t like, especially for president. A state legislator, a congressman, a senator, even a governor – you can forget who that is, if you have a mind to; go days or even weeks without hearing his name.
It’s different with the president, and you need at least some sort of touchy-feely stuff:
Al Gore and his sister, George W. Bush and the bottle (and Jesus), Bill Clinton and the abusive stepfather, Bob Dole and the war injury. And almost every winner has been likable enough. Bush was definitely not my cut of steak, but I could imagine that if he were a normal guy and I ended up next to him on an airplane, I could carry off a reasonably happy chat with him about golf or something, assuming a mercifully short flight.
But the idea here is that in the modern era we’ve had only one truly unlikable presidential candidate, Nixon, until now:
It turns out that there are points of similarity between Romney’s and Nixon’s campaigns that aren’t instantly apparent but are worth fleshing out. The campaigns resemble each other in that both are built far more around negative than positive selling points. With Nixon, the argument went that you needed to elect him to preserve law and order, which he said was at risk of very survival if Humphrey won; to keep the blacks and the hippies and the pinkos at bay; and because he had a secret plan for quick victory with honor in Vietnam, which turned out to be so secret that he continued the war, even expanding it into Cambodia, for another seven years before we finally lost it.
Romney’s arguments just need a fresh coat of paint to keep up with the changed times, but they’re roughly the same. Our free-enterprise system, our very way of life, is at risk if Obama is reelected; he and Paul Ryan are needed to keep society’s freeloaders and moochers at bay. There is no precise analog for Vietnam, I suppose, but it is certainly fair to say that Romney’s foreign-policy offerings, delusional though they are, are once again more about Obamian perfidy (apologizing for America, etc.) than any vision of his own.
Nixon led, and Romney is now leading, a vengeance campaign against an Other America, an America their supporters despise.
Tomasky then cites differences:
Romney is (as far as we know) not the steel-cold sociopath that Nixon was. I’m not comparing the two men personally. In that way they’re quite different. Nixon, who grew up poor and fought his way into higher society while developing sharp distrust and raging hatred for Jews and elites, embodied white middle-class revenge far more naturally than Romney does. He’s too dorky and entitled to really seethe with that hatred, go to sleep with it and wake up with it, the way Nixon did.
They’re also eschewing biography for different reasons. By 1968 Nixon was so well known that he didn’t have to introduce himself to America; America got to know the Nixon family in the Checkers speech 16 years before. Romney’s life simply doesn’t provide the material (except for his wife’s multiple sclerosis, which evidently will be given the soft-focus treatment).
Tomasky then abandons those differences:
Nixon led, and Romney is now leading, a vengeance campaign against an Other America, an America their supporters despise. Romney’s is a campaign that seeks to win, that can only win, by dividing the country into an “us” and a “them.” I confess that I’ve been genuinely shocked by the baldness of Romney’s lies about welfare and Medicare and about the way he’s radicalized this campaign. I guess that’s precisely because, whatever he seemed, he did not seem sinister like Nixon.
And he may not be. But he is clearly a man who will do and say anything to be president. And when he accepts his party’s nomination this week, and all those general-election dollars are unlocked and converted into negative ads in swing states, we’re going to find ourselves in uncharted waters – a candidate and his affiliate groups with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, virtually all of it attacking the other guy. Obama may emerge from that onslaught heavily damaged and less well liked, but Republicans should ready themselves for the divinely just possibility that Romney might end up even less well liked too.
No wonder no normal person watched the convention’s first night. And the racial stuff was disturbing, but maybe it was necessary. Jonathan Chait explains that here:
A Republican strategist said something interesting and revealing on Friday, though it largely escaped attention in the howling gusts of punditry over Mitt Romney’s birth certificate crack and a potential convention-altering hurricane. The subject was a Ron Brownstein story outlining the demographic hit rates each party requires to win in November. To squeak out a majority, Mitt Romney probably needs to win at least 61 percent of the white vote – a figure exceeding what George H.W. Bush commanded over Michael Dukakis in 1988. The Republican strategist told Brownstein, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this” – “this” being a near total reliance on white votes to win a presidential election.
Chait calls it “the inescapable gravity of the long-term relative decline of the white population, and the short-term window of opportunity opened for the party by the economic crisis.” And there’s no fix for it:
I think we’re continuing to see the GOP operate under an integrated political and policy strategy constructed on this premise. This is their last, best chance to win an election in the party’s current demographic and ideological form. Future generations of GOP politicians will have to appeal to nonwhite voters who hold far more liberal views about the role of government than does the party’s current base.
So what is happening in Tampa had to happen:
In their heart of hearts, Romney and Ryan would probably prefer a more sweeping, across-the-board assault on the welfare state. But the immense popularity of the largest, middle-class social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security force them into the divide-and-conquer gambit. They can promise to hold their disproportionately old, white base harmless and impose the entire brunt of their ambitious downsizing of government on young, poor, and disproportionately nonwhite Democratic constituencies.
There’s no moral or policy rationale for Romney’s proposal to increase social safety net spending on current retirees while cutting Pell Grants, Medicaid, children’s health insurance, and food stamps to shreds. The nonwhite share of the electorate is increasing fast enough that the political math of this sort of gambit will grow completely impossible – there will simply be, from the right-wing perspective, too many of them and not enough us. But there may be just enough us to pull out one more win, and thus the Republican determination to make such a win as consequential as possible.
Jonathan Cohn adds this:
My colleague Tim Noah calls this the ugliest campaign he’s seen since 1988, when George H.W. Bush famously turned Willie Horton, an African-American murder who committed rape while on prison furlough, into a symbol of liberal permissiveness. I think Tim is right. But an equally interesting comparison is to another Bush presidential campaign, one that largely eschewed those tactics. I’m speaking of the son – George W. Bush.
It’s easy to forget now, but Bush ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative.” Some of us found the posture preposterous. As governor of Texas, he had turned down federal funds to make health insurance available to poor children. (Where do you think Rick Perry learned the trick?) More important, Bush’s campaign agenda called for giving massive tax cuts for the rich, in ways that would (and did) inevitably starve the government of resources for programs helping low-income people. But Bush famously vowed that “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” When it came to rhetoric and symbolism, at least, he was mostly good to his word.
Bush didn’t tap into racial resentment, except for some truly ugly attacks surrogates made on John McCain in South Carolina during the primaries. But he did appoint the first (and then the second) African-American to serve as Secretary of State, arguably the most important cabinet position in the country. Bush also bent over backwards to court the Latino community, something he’d done throughout his career in state politics, and issued persistent, if futile, calls for humane immigration reform. Bush’s tolerance extended to religion, too. After 9/11, it would have been easy to demonize Muslims and quite a few conservatives did. Bush did the opposite, going out of his way to preach tolerance and praise Islam as a peaceful religion. On a few occasions, Bush even said some nice things about atheists, which is sadly rare in American politics.
There was a dark side, but not all that dark:
Gestures are not a substitute for policy. The botched reaction to Hurricane Katrina led to enormous suffering among African-Americans who lived in the Gulf region. But I’ve always assumed that was more incompetence than bias – and that his assault on low-income programs reflected a genuine, if naive and convenient, belief that private charity could fully take its place. Besides, any fair accounting of the Bush legacy must include his campaign to fight HIV abroad, a politically useless endeavor that saved millions of African lives and very much reflected Bush’s personal commitment to the cause.
This was a mixed bag, and now we have Mitt:
The Romney campaign has obviously decided on a different strategy and perhaps that reflects nothing more than a different political calculation. Bush was running against a white guy at a time when jobs were plentiful. Romney is running against a black guy at a time when jobs are scarce. You don’t need to be a seasoned strategist to realize the latter environment is more hospitable to attacks that play upon racial resentment.
Romney will go there, and he doesn’t compare favorably to Bush:
Maybe I’m just a sap, but I always thought Bush took the “compassion” talk seriously. I don’t know why. My uninformed, not-worth-a-nickel psychological theory was that it came from his experience with alcohol and sincere acceptance of evangelicalism’s teachings. Whatever the explanation, Bush seemed to have a strong sense of right and wrong that superseded political expediency. And exploiting difference – racial, ethnic, religious – very clearly fell into the category of wrong.
If Romney feels the same way, he hasn’t shown it. He seems like a perfectly decent guy, without a bone of racial or ethnic animus in his body. But he also seems willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means tapping into ugly sentiments. Say what you will about George W. Bush, and I’ve said plenty, but that’s one choice he usually declined to make.
Romney wants to win, and the only way to win is to imply he’s the Great White Hope – but the movie was better. There’s no need to watch the convention. You really don’t need to see this man and his party talk for hours about how women, gays, immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Muslims, Medicaid recipients, those on food stamps or welfare or unemployment and all the rest want to take YOUR stuff. It’s nasty and mean and above all else tiresome. Old movies are always better – even Pretty Woman.