The GOP has figured out a clever and relatively gentle way to end Red State/Blue State politics. They’ve redecorated. Everything once red at the RNC, from campaign materials to temporary convention architecture, has been painted a rich shade of Obama blue.
Conservative America is working its way through an identity crisis, or so it would seem from overheard comments like, “Why is Janine Turner wearing that awful blue dress?” As Rick Santorum, the party’s boyish moral scold transitioned into another of his lectures about the awesomeness of traditional marriage, a young-looking blonde woman in the crowd got up and started screaming about money and politics. In the old days it would have been a safe bet she was a Democratic agitator making trouble for the opposition. This time she might have been a Ron Paul fan, angered by the decision not to seat members of Maine’s delegation, which was split between candidate Mitt Romney and Paul, the tenacious nominal Texas Republican whose libertarian views have won over a small army of young, politically active supporters, just not in the numbers it takes to win an election.
If there was a theme to this first night of the Republican National Convention, in addition to the obvious “We built it,” it’s that the party of Lincoln isn’t just for white people anymore. Although the crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum was, like the party itself, an overwhelmingly caucasian group, the speakers and performing artists on stage Tuesday night fairly represented the American melting pot. It was a good show, even if polls still show Romney receiving 0% of the African-American vote, and less than 30% of the hispanic vote. But it wasn’t a perfect evening either as tories quickly circulated about an African-American camera operator for CNN who was assaulted by an attendee who threw nuts taunting, “This is how we feed the animals.” When Zoraida Fonalledas, the Puerto Rican chairwoman of the Committee on Permanent Organization spoke portions of the crowd responded with a chant of “USA! USA!”
Former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis was better received, although his speech seemed to be constructed from little more than sour grapes and specious claims. The one-time Obama supporter who became a Republican after losing Alabama’s Gubernatorial primary to a more liberal Democrat, complained about President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — legislation modeled on a plan once popular among Republicans and passed by none other than Mitt Romney when he was Governor of Massachusetts—was created entirely without compromise or across-the-aisle a input. His ovation was considerable.
Bloggers were unkind. Andrew Sullivan tweeted that this is what a cold civil war looks like, accusing the speakers of vast duplicity in all things, especially descriptions of a boogie-man President who exists only in the collective unconscious of Republicans. Another commenter took issue with Janine Turner’s comment that America was built by working hands, not by people with their “hands out,” reminding the former Northern Exposure star that many of the hands that built America were in chains. At a breakfast for the Tennessee delegation Wednesday morning, a similar, but opposite idea was espoused by Vanderbilt Political Science professor Carol Swain. The African-American academic says she was “born” a Democrat but switched parties following a religious conversion and described public assistance programs supported by Democrats as being a less obvious but equally devastating form of bondage.
Throughout the evening conventioneers were treated to stories about hard work, overcoming adversity, raising special needs children, and the perils of big government and overregulation. In a less polarizing moment disarmingly personal Ann Romney spoke of love, recalling a time when she was a newlywed and the Romney’s lived, like normal college students, in something short of splendor. An equally affable Chris Christie advised that love, as wonderful as it may be, needed to take a back seat to respect.
While messages about tax cuts and small government remain unchanged it’s clear that the GOP is trying very hard to rebrand itself. It’s equally clear that some old, unsavory ghosts linger, making that job harder than it ought to be in an economy so unstable it’s hard to imagine how a sitting president could be re-elected.
In New York in 2004 emotions ran hot. But Republicans doubled down on President Bush, put their differences aside and marched shoulder to shoulder, like a great white river, from Times’ Square, through the culturally diverse landscape of Manhattan, and on to victory. St. Paul was every bit as electric in 2008 even though the GOP’s top ticket candidates were destined to lose.
But there’s something different about Tampa, and it’s not just all the blue. As a group the Republicans seem uncharacteristically uncertain, off their game and more interested in ousting President Obama than in electing Mitt Romney.