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Tampa and Beyond.
Last week, I was a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
First, two disclaimers: (1) In writing about proceedings in Tampa, I’m speaking for myself, not for my state delegation, state party, or any other group. (2) Any criticism of Mitt Romney should not be interpreted as praise for Barack Obama. I have no use for Obama. I don’t support his reelection.
Last Tuesday night, Mitt Romney was officially nominated as the Republican presidential nominee, and he accepted the nomination two nights later. It was a victory of sorts.
The outcome of the GOP race had been known for months. It was almost settled by the end of the first month of voting, when Romney—flush with cash and endorsements—tied Santorum in Iowa, beat Paul in New Hampshire, and defeated Gingrich in Florida. Santorum and Gingrich soldiered on for a while, but neither had the money or organization to take the nomination away from Romney after January. Santorum won ten more contests but his narrow loss in Michigan on February 28 sealed his fate . . . and the last opportunity to stop Romney.
Santorum’s support was never personal. He was the lucky recipient of Religious Right distrust of Romney the flip flopper, high financier, and cult member. After considering Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann, social conservatives settled on Santorum at just the right time: on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Unlike Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney, Ron Paul was an evangelical Christian (i.e., Bible-believing Protestant), but he was unacceptable to millions of his fellow evangelicals because of his foreign policy views and decentralist approach to social ills like abortion.
For Governor Romney, formally securing the nomination in front of thousands of delegates in Tampa and millions of viewers around America was a victory of sorts. It remains to be seen if it was pyrrhic. Being a poor sport in victory, breaking the rules, and choosing fluff over substance may add up to a missed opportunity large enough to make the difference in a close election.
As per the Romney campaign’s wishes, almost all possible drama and excitement were sucked out of the national convention before it got underway on Tuesday. All the better to woo us with, I guess, but the end result was a boring if slick production. Often times, the highlight of the hours was the great house band led by ex-SNL song leader and Dylan guitarist G.E. Smith. Delegates from some states danced on the convention floor, looking silly given the context but presumably demonstrating a bit of genuine emotion. As the convention week went on, the aisles grew increasingly clogged with Romney whips sporting baseball caps and super-serious faces, as well as chipper young people—reminding one of “Up with People” participants—handing out Romney signs for delegates to wave for the benefit of the cameras.
There were things I liked about the convention week. Much of it was interesting and exciting. I had fun. I found sea shells on the beach. It was nice to feel a sense of kinship, at least on some levels, with a bunch of strangers. Obviously, I felt closer to fellow Paul delegates but I had some things in common with most grassroots Republicans (very little, though, with most Republican bigwigs and operatives). It was nice to hear different regional accents, from Massachusetts to Texas. It all contributed to a sense of community. I only wish the community had been engaged in a more worthwhile, less dishonest activity than the glorification of a man worthy of neither adulation nor power.
Although hardcore libertarian Paulites include a larger proportion of atheists, many Paul delegates were Christians and it was nice to fellowship on that level as well. The convention hall was full of professing Christians and I agree with many of them on social issues, but the Paul Christians had the added attraction of recognizing that Jesus cares not only about unborn babies in America but also about the lives of the post-born in every country of the world. They also recognize Him as the prince of peace who pronounced a blessing on the peace makers not the war makers, as the savior who favors the low and humble not the high and mighty. Another plus is that most lack the smug self-righteousness that is common among many orthodox Christians, especially in dealing with those deemed unworthy of respect because their sins are singled out as particularly grievous. (Ron Paul embraces traditional morality but that did not prevent him from having Kent Snyder, an openly gay man, as his campaign chair in 2008.)
I happened upon Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) while making my way through the convention crowd. Duncan has been a friend and ally of his colleague Ron Paul. He’s best known as a backbencher who belongs to the small anti-empire, anti-war contingent of Republicans in Washington. He looked familiar and my eyes were quick enough to read his name on his convention medallion. He seemed
surprised to be recognized. After all, he wasn’t a Marco Rubio or Orrin Hatch, even a Denny Hastert or George Pataki. Duncan and I talked for a few minutes, during which he played all of the right tones on the political xylophone, including a reference to “Mr. Republican”—Senator Robert Taft. Near the end of the conversation, he said, “You made my night!” It was a highlight of my time in Tampa.
I enjoyed getting to know the other Iowans. A significant number of the Paul delegates were military veterans and it was interesting to hear their perspectives on war. Our U.S. senator was a fellow delegate and he was consistently personable and considerate to the rest of us. Still down to earth after nearly 40 years in Congress, he doesn’t have any trace of the prima donna-ism so common among the powerful. Chuck Grassley doesn’t always vote the way I want, but he’s more of a maverick than most Republican senators. Sitting next to him during breakfast, on the day Ron Paul spoke to our delegation, I told him I appreciated the fact that he was one of only two Republicans in the Senate to vote against the pro-war resolution that endorsed the Persian Gulf War in 1991. (Mark Hatfield was the other.) I wrote a letter thanking him at the time, but positive reinforcement has no expiration date.
I also reminded Grassley of his anti-establishment roots in the 1970s, partly as the congressional district heir of H.R. Gross—the Ron Paul of the 1960s and before, or, to put it another way, the conservative Republican equivalent of Wright Patman. Later in the week, in a breakfast speech, Senator Grassley brought up the topic of his 1980 Senate primary race against a plutocratic member of the state party establishment in trying to build a bridge to the Ron Paul movement.
On the first day, we did vote on a controversial rule change that shifted power away from future national convention delegates, putting it into the hands of the Republican National Committee. It was opposed by all of the anti-establishment forces in the party. Speaker John Boehner was chairing the convention. He asked for adoption of the Rules Committee report, including the new power grab. About equal numbers of delegates shouted Aye and Nay but Boehner immediately said the Aye’s had it. Those of us on the losing side protested, calling for a division of the house (standing vote) to get a more accurate count. But national conventions do not use Robert’s Rules of Order. No debate is allowed. The floor microphones are turned off. There is no way to appeal the ruling of the chair. This leads to frustration. The undemocratic, rigged nature of the convention became even more obvious the next day when cell phone video of the teleprompter surfaced. After Boehner asked for the Nay’s, the teleprompter text declared, “The Aye’s have it.” In other words, the outcome was scripted and predetermined. The process was fake but at least it was exciting.
Ron Paul delegates were upset early in the week when the Romney campaign excluded a bunch of duly-elected delegates from states like Louisiana and Maine, and replaced them with Romney supporters picked by national party officials rather than state convention delegates. Again, power seemed to trump principle. The presidential roll call of the states was moved from its traditional place later in the week to the very beginning, and scheduled out of primetime, so the Romney campaign would be spared the embarrassment of having TV watchers see Congressman Paul receive a couple hundred votes in tribute to his campaign and his principles. The outcome was never in doubt. Governor Romney had the vast majority of delegates locked up and was the obvious presumptive nominee. When states announced votes for Paul—usually just a few per state—not a single one was verbally acknowledged by the convention officials at the podium. Such actions made the Romney campaign look petty and insecure and were not conducive to party unity.
Another example of possible overreaching by the Romney campaign was the fact that every podium speech had to be submitted in advance for approval. Senator Rand Paul was forbidden to say the name of his own father (Ron Paul) in his own speech! With the exception of Senator Paul, recognized leaders of the grassroots Tea Party movement were absent from the list of speakers (e.g., Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, Mike Lee). Combined with the virtual absence of any talk about protecting the unborn and defending traditional marriage, non-establishment Republicans had little to be enthused about despite their preexisting doubts about Mitt Romney. Most will vote for Romney in November because they detest Obama, but the enthusiasm deficit that has plagued his campaign during the past year will continue and may hinder crucial on-the-ground support. The lack of enthusiasm could cost him the election if the contest remains tight.
During the presidential nomination roll call, Ron Paul received a majority of votes from three states: Minnesota, Iowa, and Nevada. I was happy that my state delivered 22 out of 28 for Paul. He received 190 votes total, compared to Romney’s 2,061. After the roll call finished, Speaker Boehner said, “The chair is pleased to appoint the following distinguished Americans to serve as the escort committee for their father, the Hon. Mitt Romney: Ben Romney, Craig Romney, Josh Romney, Matt Romney, and Tag Romney.” Tepid applause followed. The five Romney boys may be many things but they aren’t distinguished Americans. One more little lie from the podium of the national convention. When Romney the super-hawk was asked, in September 2007, why none of his sons were in uniform fighting the wars he so enthusiastically favored, he replied, “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected because they think I’d be a great president.” You can’t fault his sons for family loyalty but you can fault the entire family for hypocrisy.
One weakness with the Republican Party that is obvious when it assembles in national convention is, to put it bluntly, Too many white people. Being one myself, I know there’s nothing wrong with white people, but the GOP is way too monochromatic in ethnicity and culture. It’s not healthy and it’s needlessly self-limiting. More accurately, the problem could be stated as Too few non-white people. (To be fair, the Democrats have the opposite problem: Too few white people. That is also a weakness and says something about its elite, narrow appeal.)
Of course, the Clint Eastwood speech was bizarre. I wasn’t interested in being on the convention floor for Romney’s speech, so I was in the gallery. It was hard to hear Eastwood. I wasn’t sure if it was the mumbling or the microphone. It took a minute or two to figure out that he was talking to an empty chair. I thought the supposed crudity uttered by “Obama” was in poor taste. It was also strange, since President Obama doesn’t have a reputation for being insultingly vulgar . . . unlike Vice President Dick Cheney, who told a U.S. senator to f**k himself while conversing on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Near the end of his speech, Eastwood referenced the wars. He mentioned that Obama had opposed the war in Iraq, saying that that was “okay,” but that he supported the war in Afghanistan. Referring to Obama’s promise to eventually withdraw the troops, he asked why the troops weren’t being brought home tomorrow instead. That line received great applause from the GOP delegates—way beyond the Paul minority. Was Eastwood showing his libertarian side by going off-script and criticizing the wars? Or was he quoting Romney’s criticism of Obama’s withdrawal plan? I clapped but I wasn’t sure that I even understood Eastwood’s point. The speech was refreshing because it was weird and wasn’t the usual helping of canned fluff. Whether Eastwood’s speech was fueled by subversive free-thinking, or alcohol, drugs, or senility, it was not something with which the Romney campaign could have been pleased.
Mitt Romney enters the fall campaign with certain disadvantages. He is a poor candidate in many ways. He lacks the common touch. He can’t help himself in making verbal blunders that call attention to his wealth. He has a tin ear when it comes to understanding what average voters might want to hear from a possible president. He has a campaign staff that is seemingly led by amateurish control freaks.
Mitt Romney reminds us of previous presidential candidates. In his failure to excite his party’s base, which resigned itself to his nomination because it was “his turn,” he reminds us of Bob Dole. Applause and energy in the convention hall when Romney went over the top and clinched the nomination during the roll call was so weak that I kept waiting for it to happen. I thought delegates were having a mild celebration when the words “Over the top” appeared on the big screen because they were anticipating the next state putting him over the top. The next state announced its vote. I was waiting for something big. Nothing happened. The brief, lifeless demonstration on Romney’s behalf was all there was, even with campaign operatives trying to rouse the delegates.
In his robotic persona, he reminds us of Al Gore. Several speeches and videos at the convention were designed to humanize Romney. It’s sad that special efforts had to be made to reassure us that Romney is, in fact, a human being. Romney’s acceptance speech was successful to the casual observer and partisan Republican because he did not make any big gaffes. Yet, he is a highly mannered speaker with a plastic smile who came off as an actor who was not quite good enough to hide the acting.
In his flip flops, he reminds us of John Kerry. As a political front man, Romney is a plutocratic imperialist unlikely to diminish unconstitutional big government at home or abroad. (In other words, the opposite of Ron Paul.) As an individual, Romney does not seem to stand for anything beyond a desire for personal power. He does not stand for anything in particular. Or he stands for everything. With looks out of central casting and a carefully-crafted career trajectory, his thirst for power is palpable but contentless. This does not inspire many Americans. Who is genuinely enthused by the prospect of Romney as our next president? Two groups: his immediate family and many devout Mormons. Millions are enthused by the prospect of Romney replacing Obama in the White House, but that’s anti-Obama not pro-Romney.
In his elitist persona, he also reminds us of John Forbes Kerry. During economic hard times, it would be hard to imagine a less likely candidate to appeal to those struggling and anxious. I understand that GOP leaders are trying to cast Romney in the role of the nation’s economic savior because of his business background, but he is a Wall Street candidate who has specialized in money manipulation and speculation, not the actual production of goods or services.
Romney was raised in a wealthy and powerful family, received two degrees from Harvard, led a private equity investment firm, developed an estimated net worth of over $200 million, and backed the TARP bailout. His top seven 2012 campaign contribution sources were major banks (Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, and Barclays). On the last night of the convention, I was planning to wear my tie of Scrooge McDuck grasping bags of money, in honor of Romney, but I was running late so I had to forgo my quiet protest. Romney’s ability to jump start the economy seems doubtful since he doesn’t offer anything different from the bipartisan status quo we’ve seen for decades. It’s more of the same—the same toxic greed and gambling, federal deficits and Fed deception that drove the economy into the ditch by 2008.
I experienced the Republican National Convention on several different levels, including political activist and political scientist. From a Christian perspective, some of the most prominent elements of the convention were the most disturbing.
There was an abundance of condemnation of the Democratic Party’s sins (real and imagined). This wasn’t all bad because there is a time and place to publicly call people to account for wrongdoing. But even here, the Romney-dominated convention pulled its punches when it came to subjects like legalized abortion, politicized homosexuality, and aggressive secularism. Wanting to appeal to centrist voters and not wanting to appear theocratic, almost nothing was said from the podium by the speakers on any of those important subjects. Another reason for the silence is that Governor Romney apparently has little interest in such matters beyond their utility as political tactics. (His flip flops on social issues are well known.) As a result, there was no clear, strong voice on behalf of protecting unborn babies even though this is the single biggest issue that keeps many Christians voting Republican. As someone who is deeply pro-life, I found that very disappointing.
Although the “sins” of the opposing party were loudly and repeatedly condemned, there was almost no confession of, or contrition for, our own “sins.” The failures of the Bush administration were never acknowledged. By 2008, millions of Republicans associated with the Religious Right, Tea Party, and Ron Paul movements were disillusioned with the national GOP leadership. Listening to the convention speakers, one would think that all was forgotten by the time Republicans convened in Tampa. Every ill of society was blamed on Barack Obama, with the implication that conservative Republicans experienced a golden age during the eight years of George W. Bush. Yet Bush-Cheney set the stage for Obama-Biden when it came to deficit spending, corporate bailouts, big government regulation, executive overreach, disregard of the Constitution, same sex “marriage,” and belligerent foreign policy.
Not only was there no contrition for GOP errors in evidence on the podium of the convention, but the promotion of what could be viewed as anti-Christian values was unsettling to me. The poor appeared only as a plot device in rags-to-riches stories. Crony capitalism was glorified under the euphemism “job creators.” Faux rugged individualism was touted under the boast “We built it.” While these emphases contained a kernel of truth in their rejection of overweening statism, they were also laden with an unhealthy dose of pride and greed.
Finally, there was the civil religion and patriotism-as-faith summed up by Governor Romney’s slogan “Believe in America.” During his acceptance speech, he listed one of the missions of America as “uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.” We know that save and darkness are messianic terms. I am a patriot and a nationalist of sorts myself but there are limits that ought to be recognized. If such limits are not recognized, one falls into idolatry even with the best of intentions. It was Jesus Christ—not America—who gave “light to those who sit in darkness,” who is “the light that shines in the darkness,” and who has called us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (Acts 1:79; John 1:5; I Peter 2:9). God sent the Son—not America—into the world “that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
At another point during his speech, Romney said, “Now is the moment where we can stand up and say, ‘I am an American. I make my destiny. We deserve better.’” He referred to America as “the greatest country in the history of the world.” In some ways, this is true, but what indices are being used to measure greatness? Ancient Israel might have a more valid claim to the title by some measures.
In a form letter written by Governor Romney, on the eve of the convention, he asserted, “When you believe in America, you don’t apologize for America.” Does he believe the nation— which really means the federal government— is beyond error? Free of wrongdoing? Or just that errors and wrongdoing should never be mitigated by apology because America should never apologize for any mistake or any evil? It is an interesting idea but it is far from Christian. If “American exceptionalism” means that our government is exempt from the moral code bestowed on the world by God himself, then it is a false and dangerous doctrine.
Forty years ago, Francis Schaeffer warned, “In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American Establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. . . . Equating of any other loyalty with our loyalty to God is sin.” These words remain true even though they contradict the pandering clichés of ambitious politicians and the cherished beliefs of well-meaning citizens.
By and large, the Republican delegates in Tampa were not stupid or bad. They were concerned, good people doing the best they could with what little they had. That they had so little is the fault of national party leaders, the Romney campaign, and those who purchase politicians. The goings-on in Charlotte this week will be no better. In comparison to the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention embodies slightly different varieties of phoniness, corruption, and moral rot, but it is phoniness, corruption, and moral rot nonetheless.
I’m committed to the Republican Party of Iowa but I’m not so deluded as to think that the national GOP has a monopoly on virtue. There are many millions of good people in the Democratic Party, as well as third parties and no party. In an ideal world, we would see a political realignment in which the 90% would comprise the popular party while Obama, the Clintons, Romney, and the Bushes would join the rest of the 10% in the elite party. It would make little difference whether the popular party was called Republican or Democratic. Obviously, there would be many disagreements on specific issues among its members, but it would be united in its sincere commitment to grassroots democracy, social fairness, and honest governance, and in its rejection of empire.
I don’t regret being a national convention delegate. It was worth the time and the money. I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity. But having seen things up close, I hope for something better. For Republicans. For all of us.
Jeff Taylor is a political scientist and a delegate to the national convention from Iowa. He is the author of Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy (University of Missouri Press).