Campaign moving along fast enough for you? Try this on for size: here in D.C., workers are already preparing the U.S. Capitol for the goddamn inauguration.
Still, it was a bit staggering to see yet a new election-year chapter begin last week with the three-day migraine headache known as the Republican National Convention. This was it; any remaining campaign preamble is now past. Nearly 2,500 delegates descended on Tampa to kick things off – mostly old, blindingly white, extravagantly layered in American-flag Tea Party chic, like characters from Betsy Ross’ most terrifying acid trip. Just a bunch of rapturous geriatrics coated in rhinestones worried sick about “voter fraud” amid a sea of smiling CEO-types, old-timey straw-hat enthusiasts and round-faced Eagle scouts in blue blazers and khakis.
Individually, they didn’t seem all that bad, really. Decent, polite people taking the time from running their local Chambers of Commerce to act out their genuine civic desires. If anything, many of the delegates seemed, both on TV and in interviews, almost impossibly well-meaning—deep pools of middle-class idealism about a country and a political party that may or may not be artfully bluffing them into electoral loyalty. (As to the sleazy legions who still see the President as an alien fascist socialist: please throw yourselves in the ocean.) And yet, despite whatever good intentions brought everyone’s weird great-aunt to Tampa last week, the event itself remained top-heavy with a weapons-grade mean dimness, blinkered and trollish in its theme of nudge-nudge-wink-wink disingenuous quote-truncation. Only to a certain kind of steakbrain does “We Built This!” make any logical sense as a political rallying cry. Instead, it only underscores just how demented and small the Republican Party has become. Romney and his pals have created a policy persona based on proud avarice, and their dedication to hard-sell it to the narrowing audience still interested in tax cuts for the rich or outlawing birth control or whatever is remarkable. Banking on collective late onset assholishness doesn’t seem like a particularly enjoyable way to run a campaign, but that’s their call, and at this point there’s not a lot of available plays anyway.
Up on stage, the Republican pitch took its ugh-y shape. Amid platform positions to ramp up the war against pornography and support statehood for Puerto Rico (but not D.C.), the speakers offered a warm sprinkle of indifferent malevolence. A litany of rising stars lied their way through head-in-sand “We Built This!” paeans. Paul Ryan proved the vagaries of man’s perishable memory by rewriting history: claiming Obama caused the Standard & Poor downgrade when S&P explicitly said the GOP in Congress did; arguing that Obama undercut the debt commission when Ryan himself voted to quash the report; blaming Obama for a GM plant shut down in 2008 (never mind that in attacking Obama for not saving it, Ryan is saying The Government should’ve helped out); and so maddeningly on.
Only a truly unrelenting putz could attack Obama for “shifting blame” after helping President Bush create a massive deficit, almost single-handedly prevent a solution under President Obama, and then run for vice president by blaming Obama for that deficit. But the week’s villainy peaked with Mitt Romney’s chosen laugh line—standing out as it did amid his usual pious, bathetic “disappointed TV dad” tone—mocking the president for promising “to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” To the crowd, it was nothing short of a giddy adrenaline shot of “Obama LOL” but on TV it smacked of cluelessness, as hurricane water was hitting cities more vulnerable than ever thanks to literally rising sea levels. If ever raucous laughter deserved a little castle-thunder sound effect, that was it. Otherwise, clutching his deceit like a rosary, Romney waded through a long menu of evasions, lies and political gibberish, a prime-time address be-couched in demonstrable untruth. And yet, the crowd hollered for him, fêted him, armed in their imagined comprehension, hateful of notional enemies, lashing out in anachronistic anger about shifting demographics around them.
Speaking of which, what more can be said about the Clint Eastwood Chair Monologue besides a Billy Madison-esque “I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul” sort of shrug? It’s been widely noted that nothing sums up the GOP quite as well as an old, out-of-touch white guy arguing with a fictional Barack Obama, but two key moments seemed later dwarfed in the shock. For one, if a high-profile Democrat made a throat-slashing gesture about the Republican nominee on prime-time TV, the shrieking from the D.C. journalism establishment might have knocked the moon out of its orbit. But the more subtly interesting moment came when Eastwood surveyed the audience in front of him and declared, “We own this country!” As the crowd erupted in deafening applause, it occurred to me: the man’s got a point.
The ovation that line drew came as no great surprise. Even though the Republican Party today is 92 percent white—the highest percentage since Reconstruction—they’ve spent the last few decades dictating the public discourse while self-perceiving as the victims in America. But we know why these Wall Street suits and paranoid misogynists get away with deciding the terms of the debate year in and year out. Look at polls taken before the conventions: those likely to vote in November favored Obama by two points, and all registered voters liked Obama by nine points. But people unlikely to vote chose Obama by 26 points, 43% to 17%. Twenty-six points! Who are these non-voters, who make up about 4 to 7 percent of the electorate? Two-thirds say they’re registered to vote and, according to the National Journal, “tend to be younger, female and clueless about politics.” The absenteeism of these people—our friends, our coworkers, our Facebook nemeses—are why Republicans get to win, the reason why that cavalcade of jackasses “own this country.” These demographic liberals even tell pollsters they do see politics as having an impact on their lives. But many believe their ballot won’t make a difference, with some saying they find the campaign confusing and with many more reporting that they’re too busy to vote. (This last point is why certain people—cough—are sweating out states’ efforts to curtail early voting on the weekends, impairing working people who can’t take time off from their jobs to vote.) It’s exactly these folks who made the difference in 2008, and with voter registration deadlines approaching this month, I’m thinking about them all the more.
Whatever suspicious confusion iffy voters have is understandable. Four years ago, Republicans were arguing Obama wasn’t quite American; today they argue that the economy isn’t better than it was four years ago. Both are provable falsehoods, but the latter is more believable, more dangerously squelchy. With this trickier kind of back-and-forth—and with news operations happy to let mere he-said-he-said win out; even everyone’s boyfriend/radio network NPR shrugged out this mealy-mouthed headline: “Fact Checkers Say Some of Ryan’s Claims Don’t Add Up”—campaigns are free to say what they want. Still, as campaigns get more cynical and disrespectful, it stands to reason that they are just mirroring this critical percentage of the electorate, the fed-up possible voters unsure if they’ll even bother on Nov. 6. By campaigning in the dirt, the two camps are specifically targeting those who don’t trust political promises, are royally pissed off and are looking for someone to blame. Polling data of the 40% of adult citizens who probably won’t vote unearths this wary pessimism. Why shouldn’t they unhook themselves from the political apparatus given that Congress is gridlocked at best and in active sabotage at worst? Here in Washington, surrounded by constant political fervor, it’s easy to forget how hurt and defeated people are out there. And so those of us either stuck toiling in government or otherwise committed on an extracurricular basis sit and wait, hoping those who approach politics skittishly and from afar will feel that pull, for some reason, and will hop on a quick flight over to visit this weird and wearying world before understandably flying back. Those few million people in just a small handful of states stand to make all the difference to those of us, here in D.C. and throughout this country, for whom there is no flight home.