Political Asylum — August 29, 2012, 3:25 pm

After Rick Santorum, Ann Romney, and Chris Christie

Jack: At home, on TV, a convention is a giant show—colorful swag, barn-burning speakers, big funny hats. When you are amid the scrum, though, you can see just how much goes into controlling the message and whisk-brooming away anything that might disturb the expensive, highly groomed narrative. (This goes for either party, by the way.) Here in Tampa, that control is intense. The extremely weird moment yesterday—when anti-Paulites yelling “U.S.A.!” at least momentarily appeared to be shouting down the Latina speaker—was overshadowed not long afterward by reports that some Republican attendee threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman and said, “This is how we feed the animals.” That story has since been whisk-broomed, in large part by the news outlet itself: “CNN can confirm there was an incident…”—and, well, let’s get on with the show.

On Monday, I went to see Newt Gingrich introduce a Ronald Reagan documentary. What I expected was standard political hagiography—no big deal. But Gingrich’s bloated introduction of the great man as his political confrere was almost more than anyone with a memory could bear. Who denounced President Reagan’s foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in 1986 and declared that “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan”? That was Newt, making one of his typically preposterous predictions, like his classic claim that Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget would “kill the current recovery and put us back in a recession.” But today, the storyline has been clarified. Gingrich was at Reagan’s side all along—a regular SpongeBob and Patrick, those two, in their mutual climb to greatness.

Last night, the convention was to craft more of the story that culminates heroically on Thursday with Mitt’s ascent to the podium. Rick Santorum, Ann Romney, and Chris Christie were on deck in order to (respectively) declare their solid conservative principles, humanize the nominee as a loving husband and father, and contrast him with the wretched failure of Barack Obama. Christie’s keynote was highly anticipated, since he has a reputation for being tough and the keynote is typically when you vilify the opponent so that the nominee can step into the story line as the reluctant hero, humbly saving the country from ruination.

But in the hall, the storyline heading into the speech was fractured between the ideological purists (represented by Santorum on Tuesday and Paul Ryan on Wednesday) and the pragmatists (represented in many ways by Mitt himself). Both wings were trying to claim control of the narrative and the tempo of the evening.

Kevin: Santorum is an awkward and unpredictable attack dog, a backyard pit bull who has been hit one time too many with a homemade cattle prod. Even when he is talking about love, his eyes will suddenly shut down into hard little enraged glints. He barks out his words, his overbite curling contemptuously over his lower lip.

His account of his life and of his family’s past—the family of a radicalized, immigrant coal miner—was standard Republican revisionism. When his grandfather came to the United States in 1923, he told us, “there were no government benefits for immigrants, except one: freedom!” Exactly, which is why they tended to give their votes to corrupt Democratic political machines in return for pitiful handouts. In response, a Republican-dominated Congress and a Republican president slammed shut the Golden Door in 1924, imposing strict quotas—particularly for immigrants from suspect anarchist hotbeds like Italy.

Santorum tried to pivot back to love, with an extended metaphor about reaching out to take the hands of America’s working people—and even “the little, broken hands of the disabled.” This was a segue to the story of his youngest daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that has left her terribly disabled since birth. Santorum typically makes it sound as if Bella’s doctors were engaged in some perverse plot against him and his wife by repeating to them the standard medical prognosis that their daughter was unlikely to live beyond her first birthday. But Bella, and God, have fooled the specialists in their white coats, and she is now four-and-a-half, still bringing joy to her parents and siblings.

Who would not be moved by such a story? Left unsaid, of course, is how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money have been necessary to keep Bella alive. The Santorum family has received all this aid from the state and possibly the federal government, and I say good on them: yes, by all means, keep Bella alive.

Also left unmentioned last night was the fact that, before this campaign, Rick Santorum was a rich man by any standard. He boasted of how he chose to pour his personal fortune into his quixotic run for the presidency—something that, one suspects, both his coal-mining granddad and your average Tea Party Republican would have considered an act of incredible vanity and self-indulgence, given the future needs of Bella and his other six children. But never mind. The Santorums still have the state to fall back on… and, oh yes, freedom.

Jack: Santorum delivered a fairly straight-up speech, one I’ve heard many, many times before. It opened with his immigrant ancestors, shifted into a heartfelt story about his own family, and then checked off the list of free-market and small-government talking points that dominate any conservative stem-winder. Santorum has never been a galvanizing speaker. Spouting the same riffs, Gingrich or even Cain would have generated more excitement on the floor.

But Ann Romney scored. The standard for a nonpolitical person speaking before a convention is different. It’s impossible not to want her to succeed, like watching a teenager get up at a wedding and give a toast. But as likeable as she came across, she didn’t quite do what I thought she would. Despite her humanizing efforts, the nominee remains as opaque and stately as ever.

Kevin: The evening was full of the usual Republican grotesques and tinhorn braggadocio: Speaker John Boehner slurred his conviction that the president of the United States should be “thrown out of the barroom,” while smirking turncoat Artur Davis insisted that the Heritage Foundation plan for health reform that President Obama turned directly into the Affordable Care Act contained “not a single Republican idea.”

Without a doubt, the star of the evening was New Jersey governor Chris Christie. It was Christie, and Christie alone, who jolted the remarkably tepid and distracted crowd into its few moments of real passion. As Jack predicted, Christie read the moment beautifully—at least for his own purposes—and ignored his assigned role as keynote attack dog.
Instead, like a right-handed boxer starting a fight in a left-handed stance, he abandoned the ruling narrative of the convention’s opening night. On an evening when one speaker after another tried, however awkwardly, to talk of love, Christie openly celebrated his rather scary-sounding mother’s placement of “respect” above love—a daring trope on several levels.

Like the good gray poet of Camden, Christie celebrated mostly himself. (Whitman, of course, would have gotten a chilly reception down in Tampa.) He became the stern but loving father. He was the governor who, like all Republicans, “believe[s] in teachers,” whereas the Democrats “believe in teachers’ unions.” It was a specious distinction but a winning one, as was his repeated plea for “common ground” on behalf of a party that has spent the last three years engaged in an unprecedented campaign of obstructionism and character assassination.

Christie himself has famously torched any common ground between the once-cozy major parties of New Jersey. Perhaps this was a defensible move, an assertion that politics-as-usual would no longer be acceptable. But as his recent involvement in a privatized halfway-house scandal demonstrates, he appears to be no stranger to the legendary corruption that prevails in his native state. On the other hand, speaking to a party that now lives almost solely within its own nostalgic fantasies of the American past, he was able to inject some urgency, some reality into the proceedings. “This moment is real,” he insisted. And: “Every generation will be judged.”

Thus are the party battle lines for 2016 drawn, between the social-issue Sanhedrin of the Republican heartland, represented by the likes of Santorum and its new champion, Paul Ryan, and the pragmatic, Eastern, urban right-wingers such as Christie. (This paves over many quirks and nuances, of course, such as Ryan’s passion for the crazy cult-leading atheist Ayn Rand.) Of course no Republican nominee for the foreseeable future will be allowed to stray more than a millimeter outside the party’s rigid dogma on issues from tax-cutting to abortion.

This battle may also be postponed indefinitely if Mitt Romney is able to win this year, which he may well do. But increasingly, Romney and his brand of whatever-it-is he stands for seem like a will-o’-the-wisp—a weak reed caught between the party’s various in-house cults. Such a scenario can serve a presidential candidate well, as it did for Richard Nixon maneuvering expertly between the (original) Romney-Rockefeller wing and the (already activated) Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP in 1968. But Romney II has displayed considerably less adroitness, having come this far mostly by means of an enormous monetary advantage and the most risible collection of opponents ever witnessed in a major-party primary campaign.

He does have a learning curve, but his natural political instincts are poor, and he and his organization repeatedly fumble even those easy tosses all professional politicians at this level should be able to routinely spike in the end zone. Case in point came last night, when Ann Romney’s standard-issue tribute to hubby sank like a stone. It’s impossible to know exactly what advice Ms. Romney was given, but her entire speech seemed rushed and off-key, especially for someone who has been on the stump for so long.

This whole genre of political speaking, which demands a spiel of personal revelations, is one I find odious. We probably owe it in large part to Bill Clinton, who brought it to a teeth-aching nadir with his convention talk about dealing with his abusive stepfather. Yet this is what is demanded nowadays, and in Romney’s case it was more important than ever, considering how opaque and elusive the Republican nominee continues to seem to many Americans.

Ann Romney announced that she was going to show us the true and loving Mitt, but she never did. Instead, she laughed weirdly and a little inappropriately, spoke in dreadful vagaries (“I have been all across this country and I know a lot of you guys!”), and insisted that “like every other” young wife and mother, she “had absolutely no idea what [she] was getting into” when she married the trust-fund scion of a major car company’s CEO. Her repeated assertions that she had struggled through an average, cash-strapped youth came off as particularly noxious in the face of all that we have already heard of her family finances: the multiple houses, the Cadillacs, the Olympic show horses.

Even back in the days of spaghetti and Sunkist, Ann explained the next day to a Boston Globe reporter, neither husband nor wife had to get a job because dad George Romney had invested “Mitt’s birthday money” in his American Motors company. “Five years later, a stock that had been $6 a share was $96 and Mitt cashed it in so we could live and pay for education,” she elucidated, before repeating a point she had made last night at the convention: “Mitt and I walked to class together, shared housekeeping, had a lot of pasta and tuna fish and learned hard lessons.”

But much worse than any of this silly poor-mouthing was Ann’s outright failure to humanize her husband—her one real reason for being on the podium. She never mentioned Bain Capital by name, while asserting mysteriously that her husband had started a business that “help[ed] others launch new dreams.”

So did Bernie Madoff and Pablo Escobar. Just what business did Mitt start? Ann won’t say. She did at least let the word “Massachusetts” escape her lips—almost a first for the Romney campaign—but told us little enough about his stint as governor there. And inevitably, we heard about the Olympics, which Mitt salvaged “when many wanted to give up.”

What we needed to hear from Ann was her husband’s reactions to the true hardships of her adult life, her bouts with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. We needed to hear about what he was like raising those five, seemingly successful and well-adjusted sons. We needed to hear about his hidden warmth, his sense of humor, the little things he does that make any marriage—even one between a trust-fund millionaire and a show-horse collector—last for forty-three years. Because as disingenuous and changeable as he has been throughout his public career, I suspect that Mitt Romney at home is a decent man. If his wife doesn’t want to lift the veil any further, I certainly sympathize—but then she should have stayed in the skybox.

Jack: One can argue that there are two models for the keynote. One is Rudy Giuliani in 2008, the cry-havoc speech that attacks the opponent. The other is Barack Obama in 2004, the forward-thinking oration that sets up the speaker himself for his own party’s inevitable loss. Christie’s speech was something else. It was so very much about himself and ignored almost everybody else—including the guy who sat awkwardly beside his wife in the audience with a grim smile set beneath his very concerned eyebrows. (When Mitt is uncomfortable, as Kevin said to me, he looks like he’s about to cry.)

Christie was talking past Mitt Romney all night long. More importantly, the man who has been derided as a street bully repositioned himself brilliantly as a tough legislator, who will not only take the fight to his opponents but will speak the hard truths to his own team. There was a good bit of what Republicans believe Reagan is all about in Christie’s talk. At the end, he invited the crowd to stand up in acclamation of what he was saying and pledged, “I will stand up with you.” He then managed to shoehorn the party’s nominee into a small, tossed-off prepositional phrase: “If you’re willing to fight with me—for Mitt Romney.” The race to the White House in 2016 has begun.

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