People in the business of politics recognize convention weeks as “a show for the uninitiated”; those voters, most of them outside the fisticuffs of the junky set, who choose presidents based on appearance, likability or the general self-interest of the moment. This key demographic must be dazzled by the parade of like-minded revelers—signs aloft and fists a-pumpin’—but also provide a sniff of the refreshing scent of unrealized prosperity unleashed in a bevy of carefully crafted spin-a-thons posing as speeches. The true goal for any convention post 1980—the last time parties actually negotiated the party platform, its ideological stance for the upcoming election, and the completing of the ticket—is to appear to not be incompetent and, if events are tightly choreographed, not say anything that may haunt come debate time.
This is not politics; it is a show.
Politics is nothing anyone wants to see televised. The raw wiring of a political personality does not translate to optics. In fact, it a disturbing blend of grotesque subversions played out beneath the strain of irrational narrative. The best example would be, say, the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, specifically his seminal film, The Holy Mountain, which I was introduced to in my very first Political Science class at Trenton State College by an ill-humored professor that I was quite sure was recovering from an episode of extreme panic. This is why C-SPAN is…well…I don’t watch C-SPAN and I’m mildly interested in the craft.
The subtext of these things is to play both to the room and the television audience, a difficult Mcluhanian balancing act that can be accomplished by looking away from the camera when spitting out party pabulum framed to rouse auditorium cheers and staring directly into the camera when seducing the hearty few who have not yet switched over to “Shark Week.” The undecided vote is the nut here; the ones fresh from vacationing or normally fascinated with celebrity and sporting events, who, for the first time, are seeing what this whole shebang entails. And, of course, it is to unleash a torrent of barely substantiated rumor and gory innuendo at the party’s opponents; their ideas, personality traits, and general comportment to see what sticks.
Finally, we have the acceptance of the party’s candidate for president appearing presidential; looking proud (distinguished without pomposity), passionate (but not crazy) and determined (full of promises never completely conceived). He must strike a distinction to what he opposes, but never to ratify his own stance on governance. This must be avoided. It is a wait and see proposition; a gamble known as The Vote and the candidate is the ultimate odds maker—the grim card dealer that stands between you and bum-hood.
The most crucial parts of these conventions are presented at 10 and 11 p.m., after the networks have plied their trade and rapt audiences can stick around for coverage of the big speeches from the big players, the ones the party wants the country to see in the best light with the most hoopla. The damaged, overly-ripened, bug-addled fruit, as it were, must be pushed to the back of the cart, given their due to fill out the display but be strategically hidden to avoid revealing any taint. It all must look like there is no slip in production value from So You Think You Can Dance and a presidential candidate making his case.
Oh, it’s a show, and it must be a good one; because there is only one shot with two months of campaigning to go. Ask John McCain, who was so spooked by the Barack Obama mass-hallucination convention he lost his equilibrium and chose a half-bright loose cannon for a running mate in a desperate attempt to appear as if he were not an 18th century gremlin.
This was a big one in Tampa, Florida this week. It had to be. Mitt Romney is still struggling to gain traction in the middle, a place he must grab, as his constituency of white, rich, paranoid, religious, anti-Obama types has been tapped. He’s left to party-crash on Hispanics, women and the disenfranchised youth, who still cling to the current president’s damaged bandwagon, but whose dedication may be enough to re-elect him.
The Republicans did not have an easy backdrop, what with Hurricane (or tropical storm) Isaac bearing down on the Gulf Coast and (gulp!) New Orleans—a place that still conjures images of Republican incompetence and insensitivity. There was little doubt that the precious television audience, especially the key demographic—those less interested in politics than a natural disaster and its resultant video evidence—were going to be distracted.
The party did the right thing in postponing for a day what amounts to a televised whoop-it-up whilst American citizens braced for disaster. But, alas, they could wait no longer, as the storm hit hard amidst the cheering revelers chanting and fist-pumping merrily along.
It also did the right thing by burying the stench of its faded past; the Bush Administration, which was represented by only one speaker (and not in primetime), former Secretary Of State and national security advisor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, an African-American woman. There was also nothing in primetime for the more recent past, like religious zealot, Mike Huckabee, the second most popular Republican four years ago. Recent goofiness by Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin about “legitimate rape,” which Huckabee has strongly defended, and the losing battle of social issues amongst women, shoved him into insignificance. Then there was the present dumping ground like Speaker John Boehner, who fronts the most unpopular congress in the history of this republic, droning on and on about bars in suburban Cincinnati with half the house missing and those who were left chatting about the Florida heat.
One voice that was heard loud and clear was that of runner-up for this year’s nomination, Rick Santorum, whose camp was given a set of provisos he was to hit home, not the least of which is the dubious claim that his primary legislation of Welfare Reform has been side-stepped by the president, which he duly ignored beyond two sentences and then enacted a small measure of revenge on the Romney ticket by instead hammering home his standard culturally-charged message.
Not so clear, since they were silenced and kicked out of the hall, were the Ron Paul singers, whose tune of true conservative reformation was not welcomed. The nominee and his running mate, Paul Ryan, needed to sidestep their sizable liberal histories; the former, a government-run healthcare system that served as Obama Care’s template, and the latter, whose voting record of bloating the national debt with government overreach (unpaid-for tax cuts, two wars, Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, a massive $700 billion Medicare expansion, TARP, the auto bailout, and, stunningly, a request for $20 million of the Democrats’ stimulus package for his state in 2009) set about several hours of wrangling over delegate rules. The catcalls from several Paul delegates left to bellow disapproval was audible when during his acceptance speech Ryan thwacked the president for ignoring the bold Simpson/Bowles Plan, something the Wisconsin congressman vehemently opposed.
As for the GOP candidate, who was barely mentioned by many of the speakers throughout the week, his acceptance speech was as expected. He’s a bore. He did nothing to dispel my critique that he is merely the candidate that stands in opposition to Barack Obama and not a strong alternative with a unique vision. And it was pretty much the same Republican stuff; hawkish, socially and scientifically atavistic, and predictably anti-government when it befits the ideology.
But all of that doesn’t matter, nor does it matter than this is a nation in love with the angry, fired-up “regular guy,” like our corpulent governor, Chris Christie. Nor does it matter that half the stories you hear are overly dramatized or half the promises that are in direct opposition to the beliefs of the people espousing them.
It was a show.
And there’s another one next week in Charlotte.