Archive for September, 2012
If Showtime’s exemplary “Homeland” is the new pace-setter for politically themed drama, and CBS’s “Good Wife” is a successful, if less psychologically rich, portrait of a scandal surviving heroine, what to make of Starz’s largely obscure “Boss”, an ensemble drama about a fictional Chicago Mayor who is fighting off mental illness and all manner of intrigue? It is a well-acted, intricately conceived narrative that has utterly failed to break through the popular consciousness, much less the Emmy circle, and it is worth pondering why its ambitions have gone unrealized at a time when political morality plays are newly resurgent on network and cable.
The rap on “Boss” may well be that the conceit at the heart of the show—that gaining and holding power is one sordid, muddy blend of egos and ruthlessness—is so shopworn that it manages to bore. The protagonist, the 20 years plus mayor of the Windy City, Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) is a brute: by the middle of the second season, we know that his power is built on a web of corrupt bargains with city developers, a sham of a marriage to the glamorous daughter of his predecessor, and a staff of devotees who protect his lies out of some alchemy of ambition and loyalty. We know he ruins and takes lives. Nothing new here: it is more or less an amped up version of every recycled stereotype about the unseemly nature of power. Nor is there any justifiable thread for Kane’s abuses beyond the old stand-by—at least the city works for its elite, and the trains run on time, and the poor and the marginal are subsidized by a mixture of patronage and spoils. It is no accident that Chicago looks in this rendition less like a modern metropolis than a hulk of decaying deals and faded urban monuments.
True to its form, there are few sympathetic characters in this narrative: the city’s First Lady Meredith Kane (Connie Nielsen) is an autocrat in her own right who was complicit in the estrangement of their drug addicted daughter; the Mayor’s top aides in season One (Martin Donovan as Ezra Stone and Kathleen Robertson as Kitty O’Neill) are amoral connivers who mimic Kane’s viciousness until they become expendable too; State Treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) the young Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is a puppet of Kane, is simultaneously callow, lecherous, disloyal, and vacant. Kane’s rivals on the City Council operate out of the same shallow moral vacuum as Kane.
The sole redeeming figures to date are the African American chief of staff in Season 2, Mona Fredericks (Sanaa Latham) who agrees to enter Kane’s orbit to resurrect a dying inner city development but whose presumed flaw is her weakness for sacrificing means for ends, and Sam Miller (Troy Garity) the relentless city editor who is bent on exposing Kane’s venality but whose motives are clouded by his own career advancement and a hopelessly conflicted connection to the aforementioned Kitty O’Neill.
One imagines that there is a deliberateness in the fact that virtually every sexual relationship in this drama has rot at its core: from the alliance of the two manipulators who are the First Couple; to the drug addled Romeo and Juliet bond between Kane’s daughter and her supplier/boyfriend; to Jack Zajac’s bedding of anything appealing (or available) that crosses his sight line; to the readiness of several characters to deploy sex as a bargaining chip or gratuity. This is cable, so there is plenty of sex, but it is rarely even erotic, and typically is either a semi-violent act of dominance, or a twisted submission.
And all of this degradation and treachery is Boss’s missed opportunity: there is nothing to root for and nothing to trust in this hypothetical Chicago. What “Boss” has to say about contemporary urban politics is pedestrian and clichéd and its larger ruminations about power are more the cardboard of comic book stock than Machiavelli. It is not that the show is without any realism or flair: for all of its sometimes cheap symbolism—Kane’s illness causes hallucinations that are a proxy for metaphorical demons and a troubled conscience—the cast is far better than average, the dialogue brisk and Grammer gives Kane at his best a savage kind of willpower. But what “Boss”utterly fails to do is give its central characters the appeal of genuine moral conflict: they are almost all stunted and emotionally dead, cautionary tales more than anything else.
There is a grim kind of remorselessness in each episode of this show: the writers seem bent on extracting one more piece of deceit, one more back-stab, every week as if they had a grim duty to render their setting a little more depressing at every turn. But that kind of starkness is as much off-base as it would be to idealize its subjects. In omitting any complexity, the show is at its least recognizable: isn’t politics notable for being a blood-sport where all sides still have their own pretense to virtue, where the most cynical practitioner imagines he is righting some wrong, and doing some justice?
These kinds of shows have a growth arc: Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal”got better once it shifted from the image crisis of the week to a sharper focus on a presidential affair that spirals in and out of control; “Homeland” set its course toward brilliance once it drew out Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison as damaged personalities. As “Boss” zips through its second season, it is improving in measured ways: the addition of Mona Fredericks and the slow temptation of Sam Miller are genuine ambiguities, if only for the suspense over whether either goes bad. The irony if the rebound is too late: that a show about the cynicism of political life was too cynical to survive.
Rick Perlstein, a elegant and perceptive left leaning writer, wrote a breathtaking account of sixties era polarization called “Nixonland”, which he marred only at the end by weirdly inquiring whether American ideological opposites secretly wish to kill each other. The answer is emphatically no, but based on the two most infamous “gaffes” of this cycle—Mitt Romney on the untaxed lower and working class and Barack Obama on the parentage of successful businesses—the truth might be that they would just happily tax the hell out of the other side.
In fairness, which inadvertent coining of a catch phrase, “the 47 percent”, or “You didn’t build that” lives on as a classic terminal wound, and which ends up being peripheral noise, is entirely unclear at week’s end: Gallup’s tracking poll still shows the race deadlocked; on the other hand, a flurry of other state by state polls this week showed more good news than not for Barack Obama, who leads in every large swing state even as a battery of smaller state polls remain in a statistical tie. And there is a lot of fog in this race, more than usual even by the standard of instant, all-day news and Twitter.
But it is striking that this year’s verbal blunders are different in kind and nature from their ancestors in prior races: John McCain’s “the economy is fundamentally sound” during the week Lehman Brothers capsized; John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it”, George W. Bush’s “do they think Social Security is some kind of federal program?” ranged from the inarticulate to the clumsy, to the horribly timed, but not one of them seemed to reflect any footprints around a larger ideological perspective. Rather than being hints of a future program, they were backfires from notably uneloquent politicians trying to riff their way through a lull in their prepared texts.
This campaign’s bloopers are made of sterner stuff. While neither nominee meant to contribute to the popular culture, or hand a grenade to their adversary, it is striking that both managed, inartfulness aside, to neatly articulate a major premise of their respective bases, and it is equally revealing that both gaffes were offered up in settings where the candidates were trying to rally those bases. It is a fact that decisive majorities of Democrats do regard the accumulation of wealth as a perk aided by government tax breaks and subsidies, while comparable numbers of Republicans take umbrage at a tax configuration that in their few, burdens achievement while liberal politicians sling arrows at the supposed selfishness of the over-taxed affluent. To substantial camps in both the right and left, the world seems stocked with either cronies or freeloaders.
Both views are depressingly wrong in polar ways: much of the left is far too dismissive of the confluence of audacity and leadership skill it takes to grow any large or small corporate entity, much of the right is too indifferent to the anxiety of middle and low income Americans whose end of the year tax bills are offset with deductions, but who still shell out sizable chunks of their take-home pay in Social Security taxes and the weekly payroll tax bite, and who are pinched by tuition, parental care, and health insurance premiums.
The continuing fluidity of this race, the fact that no Obama bump seems to last and Romney’s resilience in the face of what surely can’t be the campaign he planned to run, is no doubt connected to the fact that the nebulous, independent middle may have a simultaneous affinity for each side’s straw-man about winners and losers: their suspicion may be that both the top and bottom are coddled, a mishmash that perhaps, a reincarnated Ross Perot or a 20 years younger Pat Buchanan might have ferociously tapped to genuinely destabilize the system this year.
It seems settled that neither Obama nor Romney are running as candidates who would confront the flaws in their bases’ sketch of American society, and that each campaign’s outreach to the middle is in the form of a sledge-hammer at the other side. That eventuality is strategically unsettling for Romney, who has the bona fides of governing a famously ungovernable state with a Republican cohort that was too anemic to be of much help. It is fundamentally distressing for Obama, whose principal rationale to lead was a transformative presidency that he has openly discarded as unrealistic and unworkable.
As to which statement is the truer window into the next four years, I would still venture Obama’s broadside against materialism in Roanoke: while I side with the camp that thinks Obama has morphed from centrist to Man of the Left out of tactical convenience, more than concealed design, “you didn’t build that” is not some conceptual bolt from the blue. The skepticism Obama expressed toward the genuine autonomy of markets is of a piece with his administration’s regular refrain about their unfair, inequitable ways.
Unless Romney rolls out a plan to repeal mortgage deductions and the earned income tax credit, the musings at his fundraiser seem untethered to policy. The swift and deserved push-back from the intellectual center-right regarding Romney’s comments also guarantees that there is no negligible constituency in Republican governing circles for actionable items to make the 47 percent cough up more.
And therein lies a choice that won’t move souls but is huge enough: one well developed and flawed theory of reasserting government as the dominant civil force in our society versus a conservative work in progress, but one whose practitioners are at least self-critical of their own ranks and their party’s prior limitations. At this gray time in our politics, self-critical is good.
In its four years of re-setting American policy in the Middle East, the Obama Administration has made the following choices: it remained mostly silent when the 2009 Iranian elections seemed to momentarily destabilize the Ahmadinejaid regime; it pointedly called for a reconfiguring of Israeli borders with the tenuous pre-1967 lines as the starting point for negotiation; it has embraced the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya without expressing major reservations about the radical, even Al Qaeda based elements on the edges of the upheaval; it has not coupled foreign aid to the emergent regimes to a softening of internal policies that suppress religious minorities; and the White House has visibly tamped down momentum for Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
To President Obama’s allies, this is the carefully calibrated record of a government bent on shoring up American popularity in the Arab world. To critics, it is a muddled, ad hoc realignment of American interests. I lean toward the second perspective. But even the defenders of Obama diplomacy are hard-pressed to deny the obvious: the strategy seems to have yielded far from enough dividends within either the Arab street or its ruling classes in the wake of last week’s violence. And any results have ranged from ephemeral gains (a slight diminution of anti-Americanism and a rhetorical affinity for democracy, both of which have come undone under the recognition that American democracy is not empowered or inclined to censor the Internet) to the outright counter-productive (the appearance of an American/Israeli wedge has isolated Israel’s hawks on the global stage, which must embolden Iran’s conceit that it can militarize its nuclear capacity while the West debates).
Of course, making the critique stick has proved elusive for Obama’s domestic opponents. The Dinesh D’Souza charge that Obama’s approach is the work of a closet radical who wants to shrink America’s footprint sells more movies than an obscurely titled political documentary has any right to expect, but it is not a criticism that resonates with swing voters who find Obama admirable even if ineffective. Mitt Romney’s attempt to make the case suffered from bad timing—the murder of the diplomatic team in Benghazi hours after the Republican nominee’s blast at the administration’s response to protests in Cairo sowed confusion and made Romney seem to greet a tragedy with a political offensive—and the injury was compounded when an advisor too broadly suggested that a Romney presidency could have averted the week of violence, a conclusion that dug too hard to discern a logic in the motivations of furious rioters.
But the fact that the case has not been made well does not mean it shouldn’t be made. Obama’s presidency is actually much guiltier of the sin of calculation than the sin of being agnostic about Israeli or even American interests. The consequence has been a foreign policy in the region that seems drained of any conviction about the moral dimensions on the ground. Iran remains the sole nation not named North Korea that routinely lapses into a promise to extinguish a neighbor. The Arab world continues on an anti-democratic course that has ironically made Israel’s sizable Arab minority the freest Arabs in the Middle East, in terms of the right to political expression, and gender and sexual autonomy. An Egyptian government lavishly funded by US dollars is systematically repressive of its Coptic Christians, and seemed tongue-tied in confronting extremists threatening the American embassy. As Al Qaeda disintegrates, radical Islamic fundamentalism remains a prevalent world view even in an advanced society like Egypt, whose clerics and often its intellectuals continue to stigmatize Jews in the most despicable and verbally brutal manner.
This combination of realities demands a toughness of mind and language. While it is off-base to think that toughness would silence mobs or take the fangs away from murderers, an administration that spoke more bluntly about the absolutes in the Middle East would impress Arab governments who in the way of politicians everywhere want to have it both ways and who therefore exploit ambiguity. The same inspiration might also strengthen American ties to the forces within Arab society that view fundamentalism as a backwater.
A perceived failing of George W. Bush’s neoconservatives was the tendency to construe Islam as one monolithic force with no ideological shades of subtlety. To be sure, Obama’s White House has understood the strains in the Muslim world and has sought to capitalize by appealing directly to the rank and file with a kinder, gentler, more sensitive rhetoric. But the Arab resistance to Western style pluralism has thwarted the young, secularized moderates whom Obama is seeking to capture. In Cairo, they have been brusquely pushed aside by the Muslim Brotherhood and dead-end military autocrats; they have been outmaneuvered by Hamas, and brutalized or expelled in Damascus and Benghazi.
Which leaves a fantastic irony: Obama, who has strived to distinguish between Muslim factions, has actually treated the elements in power as if they shared the interests and aspirations of the next generation in the Arab street. But the thugs and theocrats left in power are resistant to a charm offensive. And the radicals still outnumber the modernist idealists. Obama’s version of the Middle East calls to mind Gandhi on Western civilization: it would be a very nice idea.
How odd is it that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech seemed the least consequential part of the week that just ended in Charlotte? While the average, not over saturated with politics voter probably received Obama’s talk more favorably than most pundits, who from left to right (with the charmingly amusing exception of Al Sharpton) panned the talk as fair to middling, it was certainly an address that was low on ambition or imagination. Michael Gerson is probably right to suggest that an incomparable number of political low-lights could offer it at a Democratic banquet next weekend without making much of a stir.
But the evidence, as of this writing, is that Obama gained measurable ground last week, at least before being hit by another set of poor jobs numbers. Whether the gains last, or fade as other Obama bounces have done this year, depends on how effectively Team Romney pivots to reenter the conversation this week, and how much the dark economic clouds dominate post-convention coverage. It is fair, though, to conclude that Democrats used their week more effectively than their Tampa counterparts.
Part of the difference, obviously, is the bravura speechmaking of Bill Clinton, who seems destined to hold two spots of prominence in this era: the last universally popular president and the sole politician of his generation who mastered the technique of persuasion. In a time span in which Barack Obama and George W. Bush won the presidency primarily by selling themselves, and in Bush’s case, and perhaps Obama’s, held the office by relying on their opponent’s deficiencies, Clinton alone has the gift of arguing for a theory of government and policies that match it.
I am more reserved about the other popular conclusion, at least in liberal circles—that the litany of Democratic speakers was simply better than the one in Tampa. That quickly adopted wisdom in the mainstream media is too tied to a particular conceit of the journalists offering it, which is that a fiery denunciation of Republican economic royalism, and a full-throated embrace of every left-leaning enthusiasm, from reproductive rights to LGBT equality to universal health care, describes the world as they would like to see it, and therefore meets their first test of eloquence.
It is revealing that a succession of Republicans who did manage to ignite their own convention, notably Mia Love, the African American congressional candidate in Utah, and New Mexico’s Governor Susanna Martinez, were glossed over or ignored altogether both in coverage and analysis, and that Marco Rubio’s speech, which generated the single most emotional response in the hall, received relatively minimal attention in the establishment press. In the same, ideologically filtered vein, Paul Ryan was chided for an opaque reference to a plant shutting down, one which might or might not have implied that a closing date in the final Bush months had something to do with Obama, when Clinton’s reconstruction of 2009-10 as one long and successful Republican siege against Obama has escaped scrutiny when the facts are the opposite. (During that stretch, it was congressional Republicans who lost at every turn, and Obama who racked up a near unblemished slate of legislative victories.)
But, having said that, it would take tone-deafness to miss the reality that the crowd enthusiasm was consistently more intense in Charlotte, and that a half-dozen (non Clinton, non Obama) Democratic speakers touched off a frenzy that surfaced very infrequently in Tampa. Better oratory? For Deval Patrick and a few snatches of Julian Castro (whose much more acclaimed speech was actually less skilled than Chris Christie’s keynote) the answer is yes. But by and large, what was on display is the not well understood fact that the Democratic partisan base is currently more angry and intense than their counterparts on the right. It is a base that is on fire over what it views as a slew of Republican sins, from obstruction, to hatefulness, to greed, to backwardness, and a genuine conviction that a Romney victory would constitute a reversal of progress on every front the liberal base holds dear.
That simmering fury, which had it been present in Tampa would have been slandered in the press as intemperate right-wing heat, is one of the major elements in the next sixty odd days, and would pollute the first year of a Romney presidency. The same mood has already airbrushed out of the Democratic platform the Clinton inspired admonition that making abortions rare (albeit legal) should be a goal of public policy, and has all but marginalized any sensibility other than a full scale embrace of same sex marriage.
There is a rich irony around the fact that the Democratic motivation to win is less about Barack Obama than it is about denying Republicans the fruits of what liberals regard as a dead-end, country be damned strategy of roadblocks. But whatever its source, passion counts in elections and it is no longer correct to conclude that Republicans will have an edge over Democrats in this regard. And that may be why Charlotte has given Democrats such a gift: they are on fire again, and there will be nothing that is light or civil in store for the last two months of this contest.
This article also appeared in Politico on September 8, 2012.
It’s a conceit of journalists who must take a stand by a deadline that one speech in a campaign could ever be decisive, even one as prodigiously brilliant as Bill Clinton’s opus in Charlotte. Add to that the fact that half the speech—maybe its most blistering half regarding Republicans—happened after 11 EST, as well as the variable that the man delivering it is not on the ballot and governed for his six best years in a manner strategically and philosophically distinct from the man he was defending. (I won’t even revisit my point on this site a few days ago that an admittedly powerful address shredded and disguised facts shamelessly).
Republicans would be wise, however, to recognize that Clinton’s central theme, “‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own’”, happens to be the single most compelling weapon that Democrats will wield this fall, far more effective than spinning Barack Obama’s record on job creation, and much more lethal than point by point engagement on who does what to Medicare. The argument is an all purpose indictment that suggests that a Romney-Ryan administration might not have much of a moral core—and that the default result would be policies that deregulated Wall Street at risk to the rest of us, threw the vulnerable off the safety net, or hoarded prosperity so tightly that it barely trickled down to the middle.
To be sure, the Obama iteration that society is a connecting web of responsibilities is too complex for its own good and comes close to reimagining individual success as not all it’s cracked up to be. The formulation is one Republicans have mastered rebutting, aided by Obama’s ill-advised articulation that “you didn’t build that.”
But Clinton’s brand is something else in several respects: first, it offers that good communities should try to boost the prospects of their own without leaving mobility entirely up to individual effort. Second, it trades on the uncontroversial notion that societies can turn selfish unless checked by some sense of mutual obligation. While the Obama version flies in the face of our own experiences about what makes individuals flourish, the Clinton version avoids diminishing personal accomplishment while evoking our well worn sensibilities about human nature.
The world sketched by Obama makes government the single dominant instrument in civil society, and a steady majority of Americans would recoil at that prospect. The Clinton conception, though, arguably doesn’t so much grow government as it gives government a morality for measuring its deployment of resources.
It may be that no words will sway voters from concluding that Obama’s “incomplete”report card is just not good enough. But if the economy muddles along enough to create reasonable doubt, or even if Mitt Romney wins and has to survive Democratic obstruction, Republicans will need a case that is broader than a defense of economic liberty. The conservative future will have to include aspirations as well as guard-rails, and cannot rely solely on rose-tinted lenses to assess human and corporate conduct.
Arguably,conservatism did not face this challenge in the last decade, when it was Democrats who were the party of cease and desist—as in end the war in Iraq,expire the Bush tax cuts, and don’t touch Social Security. Nor was Clinton’s vision much of an issue in 2010, when expanding government was the only real Democratic mantra. But Clinton just served up a reminder that stripping down government need not mean stripping it of core values. Conservatives need an answer.
Last night, Bill Clinton was the consummate trial lawyer that he would have become had his Arkansas comebacks not worked out: saddled with bad facts, he talked three times as long and tugged on twice as many heartstrings as he and his text had planned.
To use a riff that Clinton regularly invoked, was he right? Infrequently, and the wrongs included some whoppers: like the Democratic meme that a grinch named Mitch McConnell stole Obama’s prospects by pledging to block his reelection. The only problem: when McConnell said it, he had a meager 40 votes in the Senate, and managed to stop a grand total of 0 Obama initiatives in the first half of this term (even after gaining a 41st vote to preserve the right of filibuster). Then there is the inconvenient truth that the allegedly obstructive McConnell cut a deal with Democrats that avoided a massive scheduled tax hike at the end of 2010 and by so doing, almost certainly saved Obama from a second recession in three years.
And the jobs bill that the grinch supposedly blocked in 2011: still waiting for an Obama loyalist, Harry Reid, to bring it to the floor in a Democratic Senate. Which of course calls to mind the multiple Obama budgets, the prescriptive documents that Clinton once called “blueprints for the future”, that failed to command a single Democratic vote in either house. An oddity perhaps of the legislative process, but one more thing that undercuts the theme that it is a unique kind of right-wing intransigence that has undone Obama.
What about the notion that hard-hearted Republicans have it in mind to devastate Medicaid and to leave the old and poor in a tear-inducing state? Powerful, beautiful words–it just happens that it was the Obama Administration that threatened to shut down state Medicaid programs if governors refused to accept the Affordable Care Act’s new Medicaid regulations, until seven Supreme Court justices stopped them. Or the glossing over of the Affordable Care Act’s 700 billion dollar reduction in Medicare on the grounds that it was “merely” a reduction in provider fees: a shrewdly constructed distinction until one recalls that the essence of Medicare is reimbursing providers rather than making direct outlays to patients.
It was telling, too, that Clinton in full flight, and with 50 minutes to do it, never found his way to a rendition of Obama’s record that is as succinct and as definitive as the former president’s take on his own tenure: 22 million jobs, expanded wealth and reduced poverty, and fiscal policies that augmented enough purchasing power to amount to a check to American. The Obama case, even in its most lovingly embroidered light, is too textured with mitigation—replacing precipitous losses with still meager private sector job growth that is way short of the natural expansion in the labor pool; a healthcare overhaul that does not contain private costs; a Wall Street reform that does not rein in wild speculative losses at JP Morgan; heightened poverty and child hunger on a liberal president’s watch, a relatively successful legislative record that few Americans feel affected by. That the master orator could not condense it into a success story with no “buts”, and the fact that the words “Barack Obama has succeeded” were missing from Clinton’s text and the ad-libs, speaks volumes to Obama’s dilemma.
No one litigates ugly truths better than Clinton. It is a marvelous thing to watch him and that is no saracasm or damnation with faint praise: in a culture where speeches are over-laden with biographical inventory and where speakers reserve their greatest passion for an embellished retelling of their own struggles, Clinton knows how to argue and deploy details on behalf of the diminished art of persuasion. He does his audience the credit of assuming it can follow threads without needing the faux connection of a hard knock story. Not one other address in Tampa or Charlotte has touched those heights. (Although more than a few of the competing oralists in Charlotte have relied on decibel levels, and motherhood, and every conceivable shout-out to the Democratic litany of aggrieved minorities to try to stir souls). But rarely has a major speech trashed so many undeniable facts.
Artur Davis recently spoke to Mike Huckabee on Fox News Channel before the Republican National Convention. Former representative Davis said that he believes that President Obama is too liberal in his views. Please click below to view the interview.
After two unaccustomed weeks away from writing on this site, I return with some observations about the shortened, but effective Tampa convention. The primary one is that Mitt Romney completed a phase in which he has strengthened himself without having to accumulate unnecessary risk: unlike George H.W. Bush, whose bid to inject energy into the Republican ticket saddled him with Dan Quayle, or John McCain, whose move to exploit Barack Obama’s residual weakness with working class white females prompted him to gamble on Sarah Palin, Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan has added a needed reservoir of boldness with a downside that has proved, so far, to be minimal: two weeks of hammering from Democrats have not had measurable negative impact (the comparably weak favorability numbers for Ryan have much more to do with the hyper polarized climate than the partisan knock-up of his budget proposals) on Romney’s standing. Nor, given Ryan’s deftness so far, the ample experience he has defending his proposals, and the compromised hand Democrats hold on Medicare, is there much reason to fear that the upcoming debate between he and Joe Biden pose more danger than opportunity.
Second, the most obvious vulnerability for Republicans heading into Tampa—that the party’s more hard edged social conservatism might spill too much into view—never materialized. Ironically, had Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin not imploded a week earlier over his tone-death, primitive case against a rape incest exception to an abortion ban, the Republican platform’s own hard line might have garnered more withering scrutiny. Instead, the swiftness and intensity of the Republican blowback against Akin cast one obscure candidate rather than a platform plank as the extreme element in the abortion wars, offering Romney and his party an opportunity to isolate the far right rather than being crowded by it.
By the way, it continues to be Romney’s good fortune that the resistance to him in his own party was always more visceral than ideologically anchored. The threatened Ron Paul flare-up over future rules and disputed delegates died of its own insubstantial nature: the Paul insurgency retains the feel of a personal idiosyncrasy that does not neatly correspond with any discernible philosophic camp in the party.
Third, Condoleezza Rice’s elegant speech the convention’s second night, marking Rice’s evolution from respectful neutrality to forceful opposition to Obama, was the most significant defection on stage last week—and that is no false modesty on my part. The relatively apolitical Rice’s evisceration of Obama’s tentativeness on the diplomatic stage (as opposed to his assertiveness in marshaling American power in unilateral contexts like the campaign against terror networks) couldn’t be diminished with ad hominem attacks. The surest sign of her impact: the fact that Democratic commentators like Chris Matthews were reduced to coopting the moment by praising its substance and making a mountain out of her failure to call Obama’s name.
Fourth, Marco Rubio’s tour de force address preceding Romney may not have been classic introduction fare, but it signaled that the Florida senator could conceivably dominate the landscape in the next few years in the event of a Romney defeat in a way that resembles George W. Bush’s meteoric ascension in the late Clinton years: like Bush, and unlike Romney, John McCain, or Bob Dole, Rubio seems capable of assembling a front-runner’s coalition that is comprised of grassroots activists as well as establishment donors and operatives. For all of Chris Christie’s brilliance as a conservative reformer in an unpropitious environment, and Paul Ryan’s bona fides as a fiscal truth-teller, it is Rubio whose rhetorical narrative seemed to most energize the delegates. The template is one that could prove enormously appealing if the party’s aspirations shift to reconnecting conservatism to both imagination and boldness, as opposed to austerity. (It will help that unlike Christie, he will not face the peril of a reelection prior to 2016, and unlike Ryan, will not be in any way accountable if the ticket ends up losing.)
Lastly, the message discipline in Tampa is unlikely to be matched, or even attempted, in Charlotte this week when the Democrats gather. There are far too many scalps for the practitioners of Democratic identity politics to wave—from a policy coup against the Catholic church over contraception, to the emergence of same sex marriage as a threshold criteria of liberalism, to the burgeoning left-wing economic populism. The best case for Republicans is that Charlotte is a festival of priorities that look to swing voters like either distractions, or the updated version of slowing the rise of oceans and healing planets.
In any case, it is inconceivable that the Democratic convention will be one sustained defense of how 8 percent plus unemployment trumps the alternative, or why growth just north of 1 percent is a basis for optimism: those are conceits that not even hard-core Democrats hold. Also, in a party that is intent on revamping the civil and economic culture, the most potent liberal fantasies are no longer about Barack Obama.