Image vs. Reality at the GOP Convention
Give those Republicans some due credit: they’ve been putting on the kind of show that would have done Ziegfeld proud. Saddled with a vanilla nominee in Mitt Romney, they’ve been firing up their base with a multi-megawatt display of passion and purpose. And not only their base: the Republicans have jettisoned their dowdy image as the party of aging white guys; they’ve produced an array of stirring speakers who represent youth, ethnicity and womanhood… the future of America wrapped up in an attractive and exciting (yet still suitably conservative) package.
Back in my college days, communications scholar Marshall McLuhan gained a measure of fame for proclaiming that “the medium is the message.” In other words, what you say isn’t as important as how you say it… and how it comes across to your audience. So far, the 2012 GOP convention has excelled at skipping over the hard truths in the service of a lofty idealism that should play nicely on Main Street.
Ann Romney proved herself a powerful messenger as she forged an emotional bond with the wives of America. A decent and courageous woman who has suffered her share of hardships, she understandably overlooked the fact that some hardships are suffered a little more easily when your net worth is in the hundreds of millions. I have to wonder if a Romney presidency would grant less-privileged multiple sclerosis sufferers the kind of superior medical care that stabilized her own condition and allowed her to speak so passionately at the convention.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, never one to pull punches, delivered a rousing (if self-centered) sermon that credited his late mother with imparting his guiding philosophy in life: that it’s more important to be respected than liked. Aside from the questionable wisdom of that philosophy (I’d counter that a genuinely successful human being needs to maintain a fine balance between the two), it’s clear that Christie is elevating toughness to a virtue.
Toughness fits Christie’s “Jersey bulldog” image, and today’s Republicans respond to his kind of toughness. Not for them the wimpy bleeding-heart histrionics of Obama liberals. What does it matter if a Romney presidency adds to the burdens of the middle-class and working-class Republicans who will be voting for him? They can all revel in their toughness… and their dogged faith in a system that holds out the dangling carrot of success for everyone who makes the effort.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a magnificent woman and an equally magnificent speaker, qualities she demonstrated almost effortlessly during her dazzling convention speech. Orating without a teleprompter, she spun a vision of America as an “exceptional” nation that must continue to exert its leadership around the globe. Inspiring stuff, though my inner alarm system tends to start beeping whenever I hear the words “America” and “exceptional” in the same sentence. (Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan believed they were “exceptional,” too.)
Again, here was a morally questionable vision (neocon interventionism) couched in soaring rhetoric reminiscent of JFK’s inaugural address. Back in 1961, the young president promised that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Alas, after our decade in Vietnam, a grueling war in Iraq and an interminable engagement in the wilds of Afghanistan, that kind of expansive idealism seems not only dated but fatally unsustainable. During an ongoing economic crisis at home, we simply can’t continue to bankrupt ourselves by policing the world.
I didn’t expect VP nominee Paul Ryan to be such a firebrand onstage. His photos tend to fit his reputation as a dorky policy wonk, but he had all the right stuff when he mounted the stage in Tampa. Animated, youthful and bold, he praised his mother’s work ethic, ripped into Obama as a failed president, set the stage for Romney the turnaround wizard, and essentially anointed himself as the political standard-bearer for his generation.
Ryan also played fast and loose with the facts, as when he accused Obama of breaking his campaign promise to keep a struggling General Motors plant open. (Fact 1: Obama never promised to keep the plant open. Fact 2: It shut down while Bush was still president.) “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” harrumphed Romney operative Neil Newhouse. That’s right… just dole out the Kool-Aid and encourage all those financially strapped conservative believers to drink all they like. No matter that the Romney team would boost military spending during a budget crisis, roll back benefits for the poor and elderly, and shift even more of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class… it takes real patriotism (and toughness) to vote against your own interests.
And of course, all those inspired, idealistic and passionate speeches only made the Republican vision more lethally convincing across Middle America. Let’s see if the GOP nominee can strike a proper balance between image and truth when he steps to the podium for his big moment tonight.