Storm Warnings in Tampa — and Not Just from the Weather



A Tampa lawyers billboard seems to name the moment.
  • JB
  • A Tampa lawyer's billboard seems to name the moment.

TAMPA BAY, FL: Having mistimed my ride to the airport for a non-stop Memphis-to-Tampa flight on Delta — partly because of a monsoon that came up of a sudden, harbinger of all the hurricane talk dominating the news this weekend (and partly because, let’s face it, I am no stranger to missing flights, especially morning ones), I am sitting in the Atlanta airport on a Saturday evening, waiting for a connect to Tampa that will get me there, the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention, relatively late in the evening.

One stroke of fortune, which will ring bells of recognition for all travelers familiar with the sprawling Atlanta airport, a place in which merely going from one leg to another of a connect flight can take upwards of an hour — up and down ramps and escalators, through tunnels on light-rail trolley compartments that manage to go slowly fast from terminal A to B to C to D:

This time my Memphis flight arrived at a B gate, and the connection to Tampa turned out to be at another B gate, no more than a minute’s walk away. Hallelujah! There is indeed a first time for everything.

On the plane to Atlanta, I had read a piece in the Wall Street Journal making it clear that the non-cable networks, the once-upon-a-time "Big Three," planned to bring only one hour each night of convention coverage, no more — both of the RNC affair in Tampa and next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Both, of course, are coronations, theoretically devoid of the old-fashioned suspense and fireworks remembered so well in a piece by veteran pundit Michael Barone in the same WSJ issue.

On top of that the Democrats have decided to compact their convention into a mere three nights from beginning to end — show-and-tell affairs from Tuesday through Thursday, leading the selfsame networks to declare, ostensibly for reasons of fairness, that they would televise only those nights of the RNC’s convention — forcing the move of an address by Ann Romney, wife of nominee-designate Mitt Romney, from a Monday night slot to one on Tuesday night.

And now I see, via a news flash on my cell phone, that Reince Priebus, the RNC chair, has decided, ostensibly (and maybe actually) for reasons of safety prompted by the hurricane threat, to postpone the events that had been scheduled for Monday’s rump session of the GOP convention, until, guess what Tuesday, the first day of prime-time network coverage. What a coincidence.

Be this spin or be this reality, it is — as they say these days — what it is.

Waiting for the Tamps flight, still checking my cell phone, this time for email, I see that several political-junkie friends, members of a de facto debating society, are corresponding with give-no-quarter intensity about an article in the current Harper’s, “The Changeling,” by David Samuels, wherein the author documents in forlorn matter-of-factness President Obama’s cautious journey to what the writer sees as some safe and negotiable political center — a Dullsville of sorts, a place where nothing good can happen, even if, as a balancing corollary, the worst also happens to be avoided.

I defer my reading of that article, going instead to one in the same issue by Mark Halpern, entitled “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which essentially characterizes contender Romney in the same bleak light while assigning him far less redeeming social value.

This unusually readable issue of Harper’s, in effect, casts a plague on both men, one of whom a few short months from now will be guiding the destinies of what used to be called the Free World but which, the magazine’s contents suggest, is actually a Bought and Paid For place controlled by rival — and, to some extent, overlapping — special interests.

Once ensconced, along with the Tennessee delegation to the RNC, at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, a rather homey and elegant place in Clearwater, some five miles or so across a causeway from Tampa proper, site of the convention, I let the two jeremiads constitute my bedtime reading.

And I woke to a world in which more than acts of God or nature might be conspiring to alter the preordained script. Although it wasn’t obvious right away.

It turned out to be a day, overcast, with off and on rain, in which the elements performed a kind of protracted tease — never hinting at an all-clear, never threatening serious harm, never offering a clue as to what came next.

Driving back across the long causeway in daylight to get my week’s worth of credentials at the designated Tampa hotel, I was struck by the fact that the bay waters, which at spots seemed only a foot or so below the edge of an outer road, looked somewhat more than mildly roiled. It clearly wouldn’t take too much of a storm to put the causeway, and anybody along it, in jeopardy.

Back at Safety Harbor, some delegates were busy with pre-convention preliminaries, others were touching base with friends or making new ones, and others were whiling away the day. Scott Golden, an ex-Memphian who works for 8th District congressman Stephen Fincher, got in 9 holes of golf, but the wind and rain kept alternating enough little surprises to keep him out of any kind of groove. Shoot in the 40’s? “At least,” he said.

Golden had also been keeping up with the work of the Republican rules and platform committees, where an unsuspected drama had been developing through the previous week. Memphis lawyer John Ryder, a national committeeman for Tennessee who has been named assistant parliamentarian for the convention, would shed some light on that at a Sunday afternoon reception hosted for the delegates by GOP state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

As Ryder explained it, the forces of libertarian icon (and also-ran presidential contender) Ron Paul had rebelled against at least two revisions made by the party’s rules committee in the run-up to convention week. One — Article 12 —would give the standing RNC the power to make other rules changes between conventions. The other — Article 15, a complicated one — would in essence give established party organizations more power over the approval of convention delegates.

An organization calling itself the Republican Liberty Caucus was vowing to fight the changes on the convention floor, something that could disrupt the well-ordered itinerary and keep it from peaking in prime time on Tuesday night.

Even in the small talk that got traded by delegates at the reception, it became obvious that there was indeed a schism between Republican factions, one that had gone mainly unnoticed by the media.

And in ways surprising to the delegates themselves. Beth Campbell of Nashville, a well-remembered former Memphian, was jolted to realize that her brother Willis Ayers, attending his first convention as a Newt Gingrich delegate from Shelby County, was apparently a member of the dissident faction. Ayers had previously supported the failed challenge of Woody Degan, a Tea Party favorite, to Norris' releection.

Arnold Weiner, the eccentric but hard-working Memphis Republican who serves as president of the East Shelby Republican Club, the county’s largest, compared notes with another Tennessean who apprised him of the Paul faction’s challenge to GOP normalcy, leading Weiner to liken that situation to one within the last year in which he was able to mobilize virtually every living long-term Republican in Shelby County to turn back an organized Tea Party bid for control of the club.

Debra Maggart, the GOP caucus chair in the Tennessee House, famously defeated this year for reelection by a massive infusion of support on the National Rifle Association’s part for challenger Courtney Rogers, speculated that much of the damage may have been committed by restless, quasi-libertarian forces in opportunistic coalition with the NRA.

Kathleen Starnes, chairman of the Davidson County (Nashville) Republican Party, ticked off some of the components of that coalition: “9-12ers” (i.e., Glen Beck disciples); Tea Partiers; libertarians, Ron Paul libertarians (whom she regarded as a separate category); and, in cases like Maggart's, the NRA. But it was more than that, she and Maggart and Campbell agreed. They sensed the rising tide of something bigger even than those parts, a determined, revisionist force that had reared itself in Tennessee in the past year or two and was likely to do so again this week on a national scale.

Indeed, wherever Tennessee delegates gathered on Sunday, the conversation tended to run to anticipations of a suddenly swirled-up internal storm to match the external one that meteorologists were carefully monitoring as Tropical Storm Isaac, having savaged Cuba, made it way toward the Florida peninsula.

Would it blow over? Probably, but that remained to be seen.

TO BE CONTINUED. Meanwhile, here are further signs and signifiers of the occasion in Tampa, beginning with delegate Beth Campbell's own creation, a Romney-Ryan badge:






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