Spending a week at the RNC provided a critical preview of the upcoming presidential election. In going first, the Republicans have defined a revolutionary battle aimed at the heart of America's political divide, or better said, the historic political divide of the Western World – capitalistic, market-driven states vs. those with strong central governments and a liberal social safety net. The facts don't bare out any such battle, but there nonetheless seems to be an eager audience on both sides to cheer the rhetoric. 2012's election has all the intellectual honesty of a professional wrestling storyline and is drawing just as much passion from the blood-thirsty fans.
The scene was ugly and intense from the start. Ron Paul delegates who'd stormed off the floor in protest when the RNC refused to hear an objection to not seating all of them, had taken to the streets. By the time I arrived, they were starting to draw angry responses from the other delegates who were making their way down the long, narrow corridor, between the concrete barriers and chain linked fences patrolled by everything from local LEO's to the Secret Service and National Guard.
I knew I was in trouble when I caught a dirty look from some guy in an “End the War on Coal” helmet for throwing my empty Diet Coke can in a recycling container. Another journalist grabbed me by the arm and set me straight. “Good God are you crazy? They only put those things here to sniff out the liberal media and RINO's.” He seemed anxious and paranoid, but I suppose he was not without his reasons. Hours before, a few of the less tolerant convention-goers had thrown peanuts at an African American camera woman. “This is how we feed the animals,” they scoffed, while pelting her head with roasted legumes.
“Sorry sir, I'm not thinking straight,” I said to the delegate from West Virginia. “This heat's getting to me. We've got no buses and the closest you can park is a 40-minute walk through 92-degree jungle humidity in a jacket and tie. The northerners are dropping like flies, but my Florida blood is thin, so I made it, but I'm still a bit off balance.” He looked me up and down – navy blue blazer, red power tie, lapel pin – then gave a nod and grunted as he sauntered off, mumbling something about keeping an eye on me.
Outside of the assault on democracy suffered by the Ron Paul delegates, the convention had opened with a number of promising signs. As I noted earlier this week, there were several indications that the party was taking great effort to divorce itself from the right-wing crazies, getting some distance from the Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin types in favor of largely unknown, fiscally prudent governors with stories of balanced budgets, low taxes and growing employment in their states. It seemed to be saying that this is no longer a culture war. It's about the thing which concerns the rest of America – our economy.
On Tuesday morning, I listened to a speech New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave at the Reagan Library last year for a glimpse of what his message might offer that evening. It was a speech that harped on the same line over and over, "leadership and compromise." Christie described cutting a huge deficit with bipartisan teamwork and said the approach was the biggest difference between Washington and the governments of states who were getting the job done.
It gave me hope that the choice to give Christie the keynote was an effort to bring in a respected Republican governor who was known by everyone in the hall, in order to deliver just such a message; to set the tone and say the primaries are over. It's no longer about throwing red meat to our base. I could just see the remaining speakers hustling to rewrite their speeches once they saw Christie unite the party behind a message that could reach so many Americans. It might even lay the ground work for Romney to reintroduce the world to the moderate Republican governor he once was – the one who supported indexing the minimum wage to inflation, was pro-choice and pro public education.
The message governor Christie did deliver, though not nearly as partisan as some, instead said it's time to tell Americans "the truth." Fair enough, I thought. After all, Mother used to say something about sunlight being the best disinfectant. However, the self-styled straight talker focused only on one half of the equation – benefits to old and poor people. Christie didn't have the stones to bring his Jersey-style brashness to the RNC unless it was telling the truth to his opponents, not so much Democrats, as... well... old and poor people.
The governor could have said, "Hey, there's no way we can afford to keep doing what we're doing with taxes. Tax rates, especially for the top bracket have to go up at least to historical levels, because the treasury intake is at historic lows, just as the number of retirees is about to double. Yes, we've got to restructure benefits, rein in the growth of Medicare, as both the President and Congressman Ryan have proposed, but if you wanna hear the truth, this is going to require shared sacrifice and you won't be able to just hide your money in Bermuda and expect this problem to go away no matter how many poor kids we take programs from."
That would have been something the Chris Christie who he claims to be would have said – but he didn't. So either it's a message that doesn't cross the Garden State line, or he should have declined the keynote invite, telling party bosses, Listen, I'm the guy that has too much respect for my fellow Americans to tell them anything but the truth, so I don't think mine is a message that will be well received in that venue – but again, he didn't.
It turns out Christie did in fact set the tone, however, because it would be a similar approach all week. Paul Ryan stood on stage and actually repeated a lie that had long since been refuted and debunked all over the mainstream press – the story about the Janeville auto plant that closed before the President ever took office. There seems to be no way the Congressman could have not known when a closing so devastating to his own district – and in his hometown – occurred in the first place. But to put it in a speech when he, every member of his staff, as well as Romney's (who vetted the speech), clearly knew that it was false, smacked of an audacity so brazen as to suggest – as Republicans from Rudy Giuliani to fellow Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy did after the speech – that it didn't really matter, because Ryan is so brilliant that the overall thrust of his plans transcend factual data.
About a full half of Ryan's arguments during his attack speech contained fibs ranging from misleading to outright fabrications, with quite a bit of hypocrisy piled on top. But as Romney's staff asserted last week, they are not going to let fact-checkers dictate their campaign. As the week concluded, the dung pile began to reach so high that I finally realized why so many delegates were wearing cowboy boots. They all accept that this isn't about the truth or ideas, or even a platform. It's about a truth-be-damned narrative that says this: President Obama has raised taxes, hasn't created a single job and has wasted all of your money, while piling up an enormous debt and waging a class war that seeks to demonize financial success, and only we can save you from him.
In reality, the only ones who had a real beef were the poor people lining that blazing-hot, secured bottleneck approach, protesting for a living wage amid shouts of get-a-job from the delegates who didn't quite seem to understand that they had jobs, but were protesting the fact that they had to choose between gasoline and meat from their meager wages. What the delegation seemed to be saying outside the convention was get rich or shut up. Inside, it was don't hate me for being successful Mr. President, while peppering dead air with videos of the Romney boys showing misshapen light bulbs that their overly-thrift father was too cheap to replace with anything other than what was on hand – neglecting to show that his thriftiness didn't extend behind the wall where the light bulb hung and into the garage where his cars enjoy the luxury of a half-million dollar elevator, though it's rumored that the cars at some of his other five homes have to use the stairs.
What exactly are the wealthiest Americans creased about? I'm not sure. The facts say that the stock market has doubled since 2009. The facts say that corporate profits have continued to break their own records, even in the banking sector. The facts say that there are more operational oil wells in the United States than ever before in history. The facts say that the share of our collective wealth going to the richest Americans has never been so great, while the share of income going to labor has never been so low. The facts say that the rich have never had it so good, while the skinny guy holding the $10 minimum wage sign has a good point, and that if there are socialists in this country, they are are no fan of the President. But like I said, there's too much at stake to let a little thing like facts get in the way.
On Wednesday night, I ended up at a small get together in a train yard. This wasn't your average hobo affair with a bunch of broke journalists sharing a bottle of Ripple. It was a weird scene hosted by John Paul DeJoria, who founded Paul Mitchell Systems and owns the Patron Spirits line. DeJoria pulled into the Amtrak yard with a gorgeous blond wife in an elegantly restored 1930's train that had Patron Tequila Express painted on its side. Set up like an oasis in the desert were tables of fine food on black linen tablecloths and a well-stocked bar featuring his line of ultra-premium liquors.
At first, I thought this was going to be a chance for him to say “I built this” and fight back against the President's mythical war on success. After all, DeJoria had taken a $700 loan and parlayed it into a $900 million enterprise – just for the hair products, mind you, that's not including the millions he rakes in on the high-end hooch. I sat down at a table surrounded by movie stars, or Hollywood liberals as they're known in such environs. However, it turned out that they were all here to appeal to the political media, as to the financial wisdom of investing in the arts.
“For every dollar invested into the National Endowment for the Arts, there's a $7 return in tax revenue,” Tim Daley, star of the hit show Private Practice told me. “Who wouldn't want to invest in that?" he asked. "Forget about politics. People who say they're fiscal conservatives, I say put their money where their mouths are. Where else are they gonna get this sort of ROI?”
I nearly spat out the glass of Pyrat rum John Paul's people had been generously feeding me.
“You don't think so?” asked Daley. “Who could be against that?”
Who? I live in Florida, ace! Our governor is unsure why we have anthropologists, let alone concert pianists. The NEA is a good investment? Hell, if you count the money that's donated to the arts supported by NEA, every dollar that goes in generates 16! But the political capital in taking out the NEA will get you five points on a presidential ticket – and that's worth more than all the Asian violinists and cello prodigies combined.
“But there's a greater benefit,” argues Evan Handler of Sex in the City and Californication fame. “Look at that overpass,” he says, pointing to an exit off the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway which hovers above. “Surely it didn't build itself, and I doubt that the architect who designed it only became interested in art when he went to college!”
Touché Evan, but again – who cares?
One after another, famous people told me it was as simple as beating eggs. Don't get me wrong, they had good intentions. Angus T. Jones is one of the sharper 18 year olds I've met. Rachael Harris is not only beautiful, but intelligent and full of good ideas about ways to use art and music classes to ensure enrichment in our schools. They're not out of touch, or even disillusioned. They, like most apolitical Americans, just think that the grass is green and the manure is brown. It's a rational notion for those who've never been pelted by legumes.
Still, the actors, who were there representing a non-profit called the Creative Coalition, pressed on. They reminded me that exposure to and active involvement in the arts help students outperform their peers in school. They have higher graduation rates and score higher on standardized tests. I scoffed and asked them what right they had as entertainers preaching what amounts to fiscal policy. I mean sure, the entertainment industry is America's number two export and about the only thing that still endears us to the outside world. It provides millions of jobs from the talent to the techies, to some guy called a "key grip." Not to mention the dozens of spin-off jobs from the catering companies and security guards to the guy driving the truck full of DVD's and CD's to the people working in the thousands of stores that sell entertainment. It turns out that even the non-profit arts create $166 billion in economic activity each year, supporting 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs.
But in the world of politics, the sum of the parts never add up to the whole. It doesn't matter that the NEA amounts to 54 cents to each American taxpayer and has one of the best ROI's in the budget. Actors have no business talking about politics – unless of course, they're Clint Eastwood. Eastwood killed it when he did 20 minutes of improvised shtick on the convention's last night – the only guy to gig non-teleprompter the entire week. But there's always room under the tent for the unlikely supporter. Sure, Clint's fathered at least seven kids from five different women, so he might not be able to hit the high notes on family values, but he took notes on the message this ticket is sticking to. Romney will save you, though who you is, is never made clear.
Clint warmed them up and Marco knocked them down. Mitt didn't exactly fall flat, though there were some awkward moments when protesters who'd somehow managed to get guest credentials from the RNC twice interrupted his speech. If you were watching on TV, that was the part when the U-S-A chants broke in. As if he were in a competition with his VP candidate, Romney flew fast and loose with the facts. The phantom apology tour, the phantom tax increases, the phantom gutting of Medicare, the phantom gutting of the military and then the contradictory attacks of not reining in spending, because of course defense and Medicare spending have grown, while taxes have remained at historical lows and tax revenues have plummeted. Fact checkers be damned, Mitt had a speech to give.
So the balloons dropped, the cheers rained down and 20,000 Republicans flooded into the streets of Tampa – though George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, James Baker or Colin Powell weren't among them, lest we remind people that it was the same ideas spoken by their voices that had led us to where we were three and a half years ago. No, this week was about the ghost of Reagan, whose image and voice appeared over and over like a floating deity above the convention floor. There wasn't a single mention of W, or even Ford or Nixon for that matter. Forget that Reagan tripled the debt, or even that he raised taxes seven times. These days, facts don't matter – just keep repeating the lie until enough people believe that it's true.
also by Dennis Maley:
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised... or Printed... or Mentioned on the Radio
Boots on the Ground at Zuccotti Park
Follow Dennis on Facebook