What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

You know the old song – “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Forget the rest of the words. Although it became a rather famous sixties antiwar song it was actually about the now forgotten riots on Sunset Strip – just down the block here back in November 1966 – and those days are long gone. It’s just that it’s one of the best opening lines of any rock song ever – catchy and useful. You can smile sardonically and sing it to yourself on most any occasion. No one knows what’s going on most of the time, if ever. It might be something reporters are humming to themselves as they type up their dispatches from the Republican convention down in Tampa. NBC’s Chuck Todd was probably humming that Stephen Stills song as he typed up this summary of the two big speeches from the first night of whatever that was:

Ann Romney humanizing her husband and delivering a well-received speech, check. Chris Christie hitting the Democrats and President Obama, as well as making the case that leadership requires tough choices, check. Individually, last night’s two primetime speeches here at the Republican convention accomplished what they set out to do. But taken together, they represented a clash in tone – with Ann Romney telling the audience she wanted to talk about the power of love, and with Christie declaring, “Tonight, we’re going to choose respect over love.” Christie later added, “Our ideas are right for America, and their ideas have failed America.” Either speech could have concluded the night, but the two addresses didn’t mix well; it was like a meal of blueberry pancakes and rib-eye steak, or a dessert of pickles and ice cream. There wasn’t a unifying message, so the parts seemed greater than the whole. Make no mistake: The Romney campaign can take pride in both speeches. And the time constraints and Monday’s cancellation didn’t give them a better alternative. But two polar-opposite addresses created a disjointed message.

All you need is love. No you don’t. Something was happening here. You know the next line. And everyone agreed Christie’s speech was a flop – full of anger and nonsense, and he didn’t even mention Mitt Romney until the he was two-thirds of the way through the thing. It was all about him. Ann Coulter was pissed-off that he didn’t even attack Obama – but the man has ambitions and he did have the national stage. Ann Romney did her Stepford Wife thing – she stood by her man, by rote. It wasn’t political and was rather forgettable – yes, Mitt won’t let you down, and he’s a man who built his success from nothing at all. Mitt built that! That was absurd – but no one cared. She’s a nice woman. And she’s insignificant.

Ramesh Ponnuru hoped the second night of the convention would go better:

Republicans have two main tasks at this convention, it seems to me, and humanizing Romney isn’t one of the main ones. Their defensive message against the Obama campaign should be that they’re sensible people and not dangerous extremists. Their positive message should be that their agenda will make average Americans’ lives better. We didn’t hear anything on that second point from Chris Christie or Ann Romney last night. But if Paul Ryan really is Jack Kemp’s political heir, maybe we’ll hear some conservative grounds for hope tonight.

That wasn’t to be, as it was a parade of second-stringers and fading former stars – Rob Portman then Rand Paul then Mike Huckabee then John McCain then Condoleezza Rice, and finally Paul Ryan. Andrew Sullivan offered a blow-by-blow account of the evening – and he wasn’t impressed. Portman offered the usual boilerplate on how Obama was evil, lying about actual facts. Mike Huckabee said Mormons were probably okay folks, more or less, and the evangelicals should calm down. John McCain called for simultaneous all-out war, right now, with Syria and Iran, and maybe Pakistan and Venezuela and North Korea – it was hard to tell. There was something about going back into Iraq too. But he was just trying to say Obama was a weak girly-man. No one quite knew what to make of Condoleezza Rice. She called for a more human immigration policy – dead silence – and didn’t mention she kind of once worked for George Bush. And there was the other guy – Rand Paul: Forget The Supreme Court, I Still Think Obamacare Is Unconstitutional – and he still thinks the government shouldn’t do much of anything about anything, as that’s freedom after all. But he was there as a sop thrown to the angry crowd, to make up for the Romney team and the party marginalizing his father. But that didn’t work:

Dozens of Paul delegates and supporters staged an organized, angry and very loud walkout from the convention floor, filling the halls with anti-RNC chants. It was the second day in a row in which Paul delegates’ anger at Republican officials over efforts to prevent them from claiming other candidates’ delegates boiled over into open defiance.

That didn’t look good on national television, but at least the all-war-everywhere stuff from McCain was the hit of the evening. In the New Yorker, George Packer explains why:

Ask the Tea Party Patriots what they think of Obama’s foreign policy and you get a full-throated answer. They held a tribute to the military this afternoon under a sweaty tent on a piece of concrete in downtown Tampa outside the convention perimeter that the Tea Party has occupied and christened Liberty Plaza. Every speaker wanted more war, not less – bloodier, simpler war – a message not completely at odds with the views of Mitt Romney and his senior foreign-policy advisers. The theme of the event was dishonor and defeat, and by the end some speakers were openly accusing Obama of working for the enemy.

There you have it. Neither Romney nor Ryan has any foreign policy experience whatsoever and not much interest in that sort of thing at all, so you hit the reset button. It’s now late 2001 again, like magic. And that left Paul Ryan. Time’s Michael Crowley wasn’t sure that Ryan could “afford to speak in detail about his plan to transform the cherished entitlement of Medicare into a voucher-style system” in his big speech:

Ryan has loads in common with the silver-haired elder atop his ticket. Ryan and Romney are number crunchers, men driven more by the power of data and market-centric theories of government than by the theater and raw emotion of politics. But politics is ineffable, often irrational, and the (disputed) rationality of the Path to Prosperity is a hard thing to convey in a nationally televised speech before a roaring crowd. So tonight we will meet Paul Ryan, the observant Catholic, the loyal son, the witness to tragedy. We will see whether he can speak the emotional language that national politics demands.

MSNBC’s First Read also didn’t expect much:

Ryan has the potential to rock the crowd here in Tampa. After all, he can do it with biography (his family, the loss of his father, his love of hunting) as well as policy (the Ryan budget). And it will be the biggest speech of his political career so far. But let’s also not get too carried away about the VP nominee speech; Palin’s was the exception. (Beyond her, name another impactful VP nominee speech. The memorable convo speeches are almost all keynotes, spouses and top of tickets, not the VP.)

Yes, Paul Ryan might be insignificant, but he gave it a go:

The crowd came to hear an indictment of Mr. Obama, and as he gave the highest-profile speech of his career, Mr. Ryan delivered one, fully adopting the vice-presidential nominee’s traditional role of leading the charge against the other party. Welcomed to sustained applause of a full minute, he delivered his address with a mix of searing takedowns of Mr. Obama (“a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind”), a gentle joke about the songs Mr. Romney favors (“which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators”), and appeals to undecided voters to leave behind whatever lingering hopes they had that Mr. Obama could bring the economy back to full strength.

“Ladies and gentlemen, these past four years we have suffered no shortage of words in the White House,” Mr. Ryan said, drawing a roar of approval. “What’s missing is leadership in the White House.”

The rest was the usual stuff – his grand plan to get the rest of us to pay for massive tax cuts for corporations and billionaires, by accepting less in the services and support we pay taxes for – but well-disguised in economic theory. Everyone should stand alone on his or her own merits – all conservatives believe that and all economists know that.

Maybe so, but Leon Wieseltier has had about enough of that crap:

“I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

That is how John Galt concludes his testament, which Paul Ryan demands that his staffers in Congress read. What a frail sense of self it is that feels so imperiled by the existence of others! This monadic ideal is not heroic, it is cowardly. It is also dangerous, because it honors only itself. In his Roadmap, the intellectual on the Republican ticket lectures that “the Founders saw [Adam] Smith not only as an economic thinker, but as a moral philosopher whose other great work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Never mind that everybody else also saw Smith that way, because he really was a moral philosopher and he really did write The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Has Ryan ever opened The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Has he ever read its very first sentence on its very first page?

“How selfish soever man may be supposed,” Smith begins, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” That is the least Galt-like, least Rand-like, least Ryan-like sentence ever written. And from there the conservatives’ deity launches into a profound analysis of “mutual sympathy.”

So much for Ryan’s fiction of the isolato with a platinum card! If there is anything that Adam Smith stands for, it is the reconcilability of capitalism with fellow feeling, of market economics with social decency. But Ryan is a dismal student of Smith, because he likes his capitalism cruel.

Andrew Sullivan adds this:

I have to say that Ryan’s embrace of Rand and Catholicism reveals he is either extremely ignorant or fathomlessly dumb. They are not somewhat different variants on “movement conservatism” – they are polar opposites. Jesus and Ayn Rand simply could not be further apart. A man who reveres both is a gigantic fool or a massive fraud.

It may be possible to be both. But something is happening here:

Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign toasted its top donors Wednesday aboard a 150-foot yacht flying the flag of the Cayman Islands. The exclusive event, hosted by a Florida developer on his yacht “Cracker Bay,” was one of a dozen exclusive events meant to nurture those who have raised more than $1 million for Romney’s bid. “I think it’s ironic they do this aboard a yacht that doesn’t even pay its taxes,” said a woman who lives aboard a much smaller boat moored at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.

Salon’s Andrew Leonard runs with that:

Could there be a better example of super-rich arrogance than the image of millionaire Romney donors partying on a mega-yacht registered – for tax avoidance reasons – in the Cayman Islands … during the Republican convention? Come on – simply as metaphor, the very notion reeks so egregiously of entitlement and elitism that one can’t imagine Romney’s campaign managers allowing such a thing to happen.

But they did, because they weren’t thinking:

There’s only one reason why millionaires register their mega-yachts in the Cayman Islands – and it’s the very same reason why Mitt Romney has offshore accounts registered there. Taxes – or, more accurately, the lack thereof. It makes a perfect kind of sense. Millionaires want to help Romney get elected because not only will that prevent Obama from raising their taxes, but it could well result in their current tax burden falling even further. So there’s a beautiful honesty in gathering together on a yacht that pays no U.S. taxes – see, America, this is what we’re all about.

Leonard is a bit flabbergasted:

You just have to wonder what the original Tea Party patriots would have thought of such behavior. Wouldn’t the proper response be to dump the millionaire donors into Tampa Bay — on the charge that these moguls are seeking representation, without taxation!? But the partisan divide in the U.S. is so deep and strong right now that it’s hard to imagine anything changing minds. We already knew that Romney is a very rich man whose administration will be devoted to protecting the interests of very rich men. Now we know that he’s not even trying to hide it.

In the American Conservative, Mike Lofgren sees what’s going on – conservatism somehow morphed into pure materialism, and now materialism has become highly unequal and the successful have managed to leverage their advantage into a revolt of sorts, this time against the masses oddly enough:

Since the first ziggurats rose in ancient Babylonia, the so-called forces of order, stability, and tradition have feared a revolt from below. Beginning with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre after the French Revolution, a whole genre of political writings – some classical liberal, some conservative, some reactionary – has propounded this theme. The title of Ortega y Gasset’s most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses, tells us something about the mental atmosphere of this literature.

But in globalized postmodern America, what if this whole vision about where order, stability, and a tolerable framework for governance come from, and who threatens those values, is inverted? What if Christopher Lasch came closer to the truth in The Revolt of the Elites, wherein he wrote, “In our time, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses?”

Lasch held that the elites – by which he meant not just the super-wealthy but also their managerial coat holders and professional apologists – were undermining the country’s promise as a constitutional republic with their prehensile greed, their asocial cultural values, and their absence of civic responsibility. Lasch wrote that in 1995. Now, almost two decades later, the super-rich have achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the very society they rule over. They have seceded from America.

Not only that, they’re having a convention in Tampa, which Andrew Sullivan finds appalling:

Conservatives, it seems to me, should care about all of America, rather than seceding from it. Social and economic inequality are dangerous threats to social stability and democratic legitimacy. That is a conservative belief – and one utterly alien to the fanatics who now run one of our two major parties. If conservatism is to recover, this version of the GOP must be defeated. It’s the only language they understand: the language of power.

That’s not going to happen, and Ta-Nehisi Coates looks at Mitt Romney’s life:

No one wonders what advantages accrued to Mitt Romney, a man who spent his early life ensconced in the preserve of malignant and absolutist affirmative action that was metropolitan Detroit. Romney’s Detroit (like most of the country) prohibited black people from the best jobs, the best schools, the best neighborhoods, and the best of everything else. The exclusive Detroit Golf Club, a short walk from one of Romney’s childhood homes, didn’t integrate until 1986. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney because of the broader systemic advantages he enjoyed, advantages erected largely to ensure that this country would ever be run by men who looked like him.

They should be skeptical, and Coates notes Karl Rove’s claim that white voters who had given Obama a chance in 2008 would turn against him as a “failed experiment” now:

It’s a familiar echo which goes all the way back to calls for Obama’s college transcripts. What Republicans have yet to come to terms with is that Obama – race aside – is a formidable politician. You hear echoes of the early days of the integration of black athletes into the sports world, when white racists would contort themselves trying to understand how, exactly, someone like Jack Johnson had prevailed. It’s very hard for Rove and his allies to get their heads around the fact that they got thumped in 2008 by an Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. Some scheme must be afoot.

That is what they’re talking about at the convention. Ta-Nehisi Coates should know. He’s a black man. But even a white guy like Ed Kilgore can see what’s happening here:

I’d say it goes even deeper than that, and is only partly about race. Conservatives are deeply invested in the idea that there is a “natural” majority supporting their policies. So 2008 – the first time a Democratic candidate had won a majority of the popular vote since 1976 – came as a big shock. Part of their reaction involved the revisionist argument that Obama’s victory was not a defeat for conservatism, because Bush had “abandoned his conservative principles” and/or John McCain never really had them. Others indulged themselves in the fabulist theory of an ACORN-driven “stolen election.”

But an even more common theory has been that Obama won because he was black and thus benefited from (a) a historically large and overwhelmingly Democratic minority vote, (b) a higher-than-deserved white vote based on the idea that a Black President could bury racial animosities, and (c) kid-glove media treatment. The very nature of this line of “reasoning” suggested Obama was getting the kind of big thumb on the scales that conservatives often think minority folk get in all kinds of otherwise competitive contexts.

Some conservative gabbers, of course, have gone right over the brink and argued that Obama has always been an “affirmative action baby” who would be some dope-sucking street punk if he hadn’t always gotten favorable treatment.

There is an undercurrent of that in Tampa:

It is part and parcel of the Right’s general inability to make a case against Obama based on what he actually says and does, which is pretty remarkable. He can’t be what he appears to be to most liberals: a center-left politician who is very much in the Clinton tradition – who really would prefer to attract some Republican support, and often compromises his own positions before he offers them. No, he’s a secret Alinskyite who dreams of turning America into Sweden, hates Christianity, and despises the private sector (which is why, no doubt, he chose to make private insurance companies the vehicle for his “socialist” health care plan, rejected calls for nationalization of big banks at the height of the financial crisis, and preferred a market-based cap-and-trade system for dealing with carbon emissions instead of command-and-control regulation).

And this determination to turn Obama into some sort of minstrel-show caricature is why the “affirmative action” meme implicitly endorsed by the likes of Karl Rove has such a nasty undertone: You, white Americans, tried to give those people a chance, but you know what? They turned out to be exactly what you always suspected, even in that half-black, cleaned-up, over-educated version named Barack Obama! So screw ’em!

Ah, but they have Mitt Romney, who rose from abject poverty to become one if the richest men in America, if you are to believe his wife. But the New York Times’ Ross Douthat suggests even she doesn’t believe that:

The purpose of her primetime address was ostensibly to humanize her husband, to make him seem more like the lovable Everyman that presidential candidates always pretend to be. But her speech was actually most effective when it was confirming the impression that Romney is less a relatable 21st century kind of guy than an unusual sort of throwback – the last of the WASP aristocrats, the latter-day heir of the Cabots and Saltonstalls and pre-Texas Bushes, offering himself up to serve a country where his species long ago ceased to rule.

But he is an Everyman, really he is. Paul Ryan mentions the songs Romney favors – “which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators” – although probably not the Stephen Stills song about the Sunset Strip riots. Salon’s Erin Keane looks into that:

Barack Obama has pretty good taste in music. Bill Clinton swaps playlists with Bono. But when Mitt Romney gets asked about his favorite bands, he appears to grasp at straws, trying to sound appropriately Republican and presidential and yet somehow in the know. Alabama! Toby Keith! …

Romney is an undeniable square, even without comparisons to the president. And yet a very subtle campaign is being waged to signal that Mitt, despite all pleated, Costco evidence to the contrary, has soul.

Except he doesn’t:

He has a particular kind of safe, white-guy boomer soul, like a deleted scene from “The Big Chill.” His sons confide to Diane Sawyer that dad loves Roy Orbison and that he sings along to “Crying” at home. And when Parade asked the Romneys which bands they’d host in the White House, Mitt’s first response was so breathless you could smell the stamp glue on the fan letters of his youth: “I would certainly want to hear from the Beach Boys.”

Keane finds that interesting:

If the secret playlist of Mitt Romney’s heart indicates anything, it’s that he knows pain. Well, not your pain. Romney’s not about to fire up “What’s Going On” any time soon. And reverend or not, Al Green’s likely a bit much too. What the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison signify is a quiet, chaste heartache, the kind you stoke on rainy mornings before the rest of the house is awake, before you put on your bossman pants and go privatize Social Security.

Being a Roy Orbison fan means you’re always in mourning. Orbison might have come up with Jerry Lee and Elvis, but even at his most jaunty, going on an Orbison tear is more likely to incite staring down the neck of your sixth (root) beer and sighing than making out on top of the pool table or setting anything on fire. Even “Pretty Woman,” a courtly cat-call with a killer riff, brims with longing for what might have been. It’s an anthem for the unfulfilled. Mitt might have been suckered into “Crying” for its proto-slow jam smooth strings, but Orbison’s soaring wail in the chorus is sheer glorious pain. It’s opera for the guy who wants to defund the NEA.

And then there are the Beach Boys:

Mitt might know less about surfing than even Brian Wilson – he’s a Winter Olympics man, after all. And real beach bums skip straight to Jimmy Buffett, anyway. But if Mitt loves the Beach Boys that much what he longs for isn’t a surf shack full of tanned California girls and innocent harmonies, it’s the comfort of a dark bedroom, a stack of lonesome 45s and the surf sound setting on his white noise machine. The implied melancholy of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “In My Room” is obvious, but it’s also not hard to see how a guy who could have a dozen little deuce coupes cooling in the garage might find himself kind of empty at the end of a long day.

Why so sad, Mitt? He might not even know himself.

That’s why he should hum the Stephen Stills song. There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. It’s the Republican National Convention.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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