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Conventional Thinking

Both parties are running scared and hedging their bets, but somebody's got to win this thing, right?


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CHARLOTTE and TAMPA BAY — Forget for a moment the 50-50 polls, the assumptions that the economy will swing (or dip) this way or that, and the consensus that the presidential election of 2012 — characterized, as always, by the contending parties as "the most important in our history" — will be decided in the forthcoming debates between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Consider the observation made to the Tennessee delegation to the Republican National Convention last week by Congressman Jimmy Duncan, who hails from the state's 2nd District (Knoxville and a large hunk of East Tennessee). He noted that Tennessee in modern times had nearly always been perfectly balanced between Democrats and Republicans and thus, as a border state, too, had been a bellwether, a reliable predictor of which way the political winds were blowing in the nation at large.

"Never in my life did I ever think the Tennessee congressional delegation would be seven Republicans and two Democrats," Duncan said to animated applause from his audience. And that wasn't the half of it. In the course of the GOP convention, all or nearly all of those seven Republican congressmen would be heard from. As would the state's two Republican U.S. senators. As would its Republican governor. As would numerous members of its overwhelmingly Republican legislature.

Shift to the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, North Carolina, a neighbor state to Tennessee now regarded as the break-even bellwether that Tennessee once was and whose 15 electoral votes both parties and their presidential standard-bearers will be vigorously competing for this fall. (Indeed, GOP pollster Whit Ayres, addressing the state's Republican delegation later last week, challenged the East Tennesseans on hand to "cross over" the border and do some proselytizing.

On Monday, the first day of internal meetings for Tennessee's Democratic delegation (though the convention itself would not start until Tuesday), the initial breakfast speaker was neither a governor (Democrat Phil Bredesen left office at the end of 2010) nor a U.S. senator (no Democrats have served in the Senate from Tennessee since the 1994 election year) nor a congressman (only two Democrats remain: Memphis' Steve Cohen in the 9th District was headed for Charlotte, as presumably was Nashville's Jim Cooper in the 5th).

The principal speaker to Tennessee's Democratic delegation on Monday was an ex-congressman, Lincoln Davis, the imposing-looking, white-maned, and perfectly named Middle Tennessean who represented the state's 4th District until he was upset in 2010 by a balding newcomer to the state named Scott DesJarlais.

"Someone asks, Are we better off today than we were four years ago," Davis said. "Sure we are. Osama bin Laden's not, though." The assembled Democrats laughed appreciatively at this reference to one of President Obama's undisputed triumphs — one that neither Romney nor any other Republican can take from him.

As Davis went on to note, General Motors and Chrysler were both better off, too, having survived, thanks to the president's supporting them with emergency subsidies and mandated reorganization plans. ("Bail-outs," Republican orators have snorted, though such language is less and less heard on account of the 17 electoral votes of Michigan, a state as crucial and fought-over this year as North Carolina.)

Davis was on less firm ground from that point on. He went on to cite as "better off" those Americans who were able to keep their homes during the past couple of years and "were able to refinance it at lower interest rates," as well as those who benefited from an extension of unemployment benefits. Then he enumerated more unlucky ones — the cadres of the Taliban who have been felled by drones in Afghanistan, the treacherous Pakistanis, whom Obama has outmaneuvered with bold American intervention. "You're not better off if you're one of those," Davis said.

There were "two different concerns" that voters had in this election year, Davis continued: "anger and fear." One result of the anger two years ago was that "some of us were kickd out of office — especially by those called Tea Party voters." (Boos and hisses emanate from the audience.)

Davis went on, saying this anger was balanced by the fact of fear. Fear of going back, of losing Social Security on the part of those Americans "who don't have a retirement package or a 401(k)," a fear that they may lose Medicare, which Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan has proposed should be replaced by vouchers to seniors. "Imagine me, at 69," David said, "trying to buy life insurance. It would cost me $5,000 a month." Davis also cited the fear that we may lose public education, also to be undermined by vouchers if the Republicans should get their way.               

Davis' conclusion was, in the strangest of ways, upbeat. "The fear factor will bring about a great election for Obama and the Democrats across this nation. Let's surprise and prove to folks across this nation that Tennessee is not a red state but a red, white, and blue state. Let's elect Obama in Tennessee!"

Davis would be followed by two other apostles of an unusual form of optimism. Will Crossley, a DNC counsel who specializes in voter issues, told the Tennesseans that here and there, notably in Texas, court cases were going the Democrats' way in legal challenges to a variety of "voter-suppression" laws like the photo-ID law, similar to the one in Tennessee, now under renewed legal attack.

And Michael Bremen, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who served the DNC as a military adviser, returned to the theme of Obama's military successes abroad.

Fear and resistance at home and assertiveness abroad: On the face of things, and in the best possible scenarios, these somehow did not seem to be foolproof recipes for electoral success. Not as long as job figures and other economic indicators lagged, not as long as the housing market remained stagnant, not when the hope and change Barack Obama had promised in 2008 with undeniably stirring oratory seemed as persistently and maddeningly elusive as a visit from Beckett's Godot.

Mike Turner, the Nashville fireman who serves as Democratic caucus chairman in the state House of Representatives, had also spoken on Monday, and he gave it to his listeners straight. After the legislative losses of 2010 and in the wake of sweeping redistricting changes, the Democrats stood to be out-numbered in his chamber next year by something like three-to-one.

And more reality was to be heard after the Monday breakfast from Chip Forrester, the beleaguered state party chairman who has had to endure not only the staggering electoral losses but the huge recent embarrassment of a right-wing eccentric's victory in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to carry the party label against Republican incumbent Bob Corker.

Forrester assessed the de facto legislative makeup, with general election races yet to be run, of course, as 24 Democrats in the House, out of 99, and 8 in the state Senate, out of 33.

Tennessee, of course, is not the nation. At a greeting party that arriving Tennesseans shared with Ohioans on Sunday night, Mary Revling of Cleveland made a point of stressing that her city government was almost exclusively Democratic. 

That's Cleveland, Ohio. By contrast, Cleveland, Tennessee, a somewhat distant suburb of Chattanooga, was one of the hotbeds of Republicanism in the Volunteer State long before the recent political sea change. And Ohio is not only yet another of the swing states both parties are courting this year, it is a bastion of the nation's onetime industrialized core, in decline now in terms of both productivity and jobs.

If the Democrats and their standard-bearer have their well-remarked problems in 2012, so do the Republicans and Mitt Romney.                

After Taylor Hicks, the nearly forgotten 2005 American Idol winner had channeled "Takin' It to the Streets," after movie icon Clint Eastwood took his strange, mumbling turn at the podium, and after an introduction by Marco Rubio, the boyish Florida senator who is the GOP's wedge into a presumaby offended Hispanic constituency, Mitt Romney was finally onstage alone in Tampa Bay last Thursday night to make the case for himself as president of the United States.

All last week, speakers from the rostrum at the Tampa Bay Times Forum had been doing variations on the basic Republican talking point of 2012 — that President Obama was a nice, well-intentioned man but had failed at national leadership and that something else needed to be done. It was the same point that Eastwood, in a whispery, almost indistinct voice, had made by saying, "When somebody does not do the job, we've got to let them go."

Rubio's way of saying it, in his introduction of Romney, had been, "President Obama is not a bad person. He's a good husband, a good father, and, thanks to lots of practice, a good golfer. Our problem is that he's a bad president."

And Romney would say, "He hasn't led America in the right direction. He took command without the basic experience most Americans have." The implication being that he'd never had a real job.

The former one-term Massachusetts governor contrasted that with his own career — most of it spent in the worlds of business and finance. He reviewed his upbringing as the son of George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and the hugely successful head of American Motors in the 1950s.  

"I wanted to be a car man myself," Mitt Romney explained, but he had finally realized, he said, that he had to prove himself on his own terms. That turned out to be mainly at Bain Capital, the successes of which — Staples and Sports Authority among them — Romney boasted in an account that skirted the issue of whether he had been, as Democrats maintained, a "vulture capitalist" who had shut down as many businesses as he had rejuvenated.

The 2012 Republican nominee also had to prove himself to an ever rightward-tending Republican base that famously distrusted him for his erstwhile "moderation" (exemplified in a Massachusetts health-care plan that had served as the basis for the president's own plan, despised by GOP critics as "Obamacare"). And Romney also had to prove himself to the nation at large that he was something more than a political chameleon.

Other speakers had previously done their best to craft a likable image for Romney, notably his wife, Ann Romney, who was having her own national debut last week. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, the keynoter, and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-loving economic ideologue whose selection as vice-presidential running mate was an obvious Romney bid for the affections of the GOP base, also made the case for Romney.

All had softened the harder edges of contemporary Republican thinking — the intent, especially evident in the well-known Ryan Plan, to move as many functions as possible from direct governmental administration to the private sector or to some hybrid zone in between. Vouchers for health care and education, a retooling of Social Security, and an acceleration of incentives for the class that Democrats call "the 1 percent" and Republicans call "job creators."

Romney was not expected to outspeak the president or outshine him. His task was to convey to all those groups who were listening, each for their own reasons, that, unlike Obama, portrayed as a well-meaning but ill-prepared neophyte, he was a businessman and had his own plans.

"What is needed in our country today is not complicated or profound. What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs," Romney told the nation. He promised to create "12 million new jobs."

He laid out a five-point plan:

First, he would make America "energy-independent" by letting the nation avail itself of its untapped natural resources. (The crowd dutifully whooped.)

Second, he would "give our fellow citizens the schools they need," making sure that "every parent should have a choice." (More whoops.)

Third, he would "make trade work for America" by engaging in new trade agreements. (A little too abstract to get the same level of whoops but still appreciated with applause.)

Fourth, "to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator" that he would "cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget." (Unlike Greece, he said, in a near non sequitur, but he was back on the whoopee train.)

Fifth, he would simplify a number of bureaucratic matters and, in particular, "rein in the skyrocketing cost of health care by" — wait for it — "repealing and replacing Obamacare!" (A veritable crescendo of whoops.)

Democrats and, for that matter, many ostensibly neutral pundits, dismissed the plan as platitudinous and overgeneral. But in the idiom of the day, it was what it was.

Both parties were keeping their cards close to the vest. Each was plainly wary of revealing too much to a public that was worried about the future and needed to be reassured, that wanted something different and didn't much care what it was so long as it didn't directly threaten too many holdover assumptions.

So it was that the Republicans had, as indicated, to camouflage somewhat their clear desire to dismantle and transform so much of what still remained of the New Deal and subsequently created governmental machinery — most of it Democratic in origin, though Richard Nixon had accounted for some of it as well.

For their part, the Democrats would present themselves as the guardians of the machinery and not so much downplay as put in perspective the transformations of the social landscape their party had become the cutting edge for. In the past, this had meant, among other things, the easing of restrictions on minorities, the broadening of women's roles, and the gradual (though far from universal) acceptance of legalized abortion. Boldly, but inevitably, the Democrats at Charlotte would confer the party's official acceptance of same-sex marriage, something President Obama had already endorsed earlier this year.

It was possible, maybe even likely, that both sets of changes would overlap and become reality, no matter who should win out in the presidential race of 2012. And, though Romney has already had his convention moment, Obama's at this moment is still in the future and could contain more surprises.

But neither party wants to tip over the apple cart. History may record that the contest between Republicans and Democrats in 2012 and the longer-term struggle for control of the 21st century — or at least the American part of it — was affected by the odd claim of a candidate for the Senate in Missouri, one Todd Akin, that women are biologically equipped to prevent pregnancy as a result of rape. Akin's contention drew near-universal condemnation and seems to have altered the odds of the Republicans' reclaiming control of the Senate.

When a Tennessee state representative talked out loud about a similar idea at the 2012 GOP convention at Tampa — to the Flyer, as it happens — it generated another big fuss. This one may not affect the balance of power in Tennessee, but it does pose the question: Underneath the veneer of caution in the politics of the 2012 campaign, how many such outlier ideas are out there waiting to spring?

Affirmative Action

The GOP's demographic problem was fully on display

at the RNC.

by Chris Davis


This newsflash probably won't surprise a lot of people, but the harmonious, richly multicultural Republican Party that Americans saw on their television screens during last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa was a carefully engineered fiction.

Fact is, the modern GOP is only now coming to grips with a serious demographic problem: Its cultural hegemony — also known as overwhelming whiteness — has become unsustainable.

Although it may sound like some liberal media construction to say so, this is the same data-driven opinion conservative pollster Whit Ayres shared with Tennessee Republicans over breakfast at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, where Tennessee's delegation was housed throughout the RNC.

Ayres heads a public research firm that works with Republican candidates such as Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, Governor Bill Haslam, and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist. He also consults for South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who stirred unwelcome controversy going into this year's national convention by complaining in The Washington Post that Republicans aren't "generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

Although he's been known to appear on TV and to pen the occasional opinion for The Wall Street Journal, Ayres is a backstage player. His comments to Tennessee Republicans were less public and presented in less incendiary terms than Graham's frank estimate of the Republican dilemma, but the two messages were cut from the same bolt.

"The main issues right now are the racial percentages," Ayres said near the top of a lively Q&A, where he fielded inquiries about everything from the president's apparent ambivalence toward African Americans to the "Dream Act" or, as the elderly questioner put it, "giving those young Mexicans driver's licenses."

"You've got so many more Hispanics coming up, and you've also got whites who are declining," he said, accusing Obama of "serial demographic pandering."

For context, Ayres looked back at the watershed election of 1980. The year Ronald Reagan was chosen as chief executive over sitting president Jimmy Carter, 88 percent of the electorate was white. By contrast, when Barack Obama defeated Arizona Republican John McCain in 2008 to become America's first black president, the number of white voters had dropped to 74 percent.

"If we had the same demographics in 2008 that we had in 1980, John McCain would be president of the United States," Ayres insisted. "We're not talking about differences at the margins. We're talking about fundamentally different outcomes."

With the changing face of the American electorate, the margins become more important. In 2008, McCain captured only 55 percent of the white vote. This election year, Ayres thinks it's possible for Romney to outperform McCain and take 60 percent.

"[Romney's] doing better than expected among whites. ... So he could make up with the blue-collar whites what he's losing with Hispanics," Ayres said. "That is a short-term winning strategy," he added, calmly establishing an end-times sense of urgency.

"The percentage of whites is going to keep going down, and we're going to have to start doing better among nonwhites."

It's not likely that the GOP can move the needle on nonwhite voters in time for the November election. President Obama's job approval has dropped among some voter groups but not among African Americans. "There's just something about having one of your own, particularly for the first time," Ayres said.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Romney getting zero percent of the African-American vote. A subsequent Gallup poll showed only 29 percent of registered Latino voters backing the Republican presidential candidate, while 61 percent support the reelection of President Obama.

How are these political realities changing the face of the campaign? Some claim that they've been a driving force behind the raft of Republican-backed voter-ID laws aimed at protecting Americans from the statistically nonexistent crime of in-person voter fraud. The laws, which have drawn comparisons to Jim Crow-era poll taxes, are, according to a new National Agenda Poll by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, most strongly supported by Americans "who harbor negative sentiments toward African Americans."

It's interesting that Ayres chose 1980 as the year for comparison. In 1980, 22 percent of Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Reagan. According to research presented by Thomas and Mary Edsall in their book Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, that number shot up to 34 percent among Democratic voters who worried about overreach by the civil rights movement.

By repeating the hyperbolic story of a nonexistent "welfare queen" from Chicago with 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and a six-figure, tax-free income, Reagan tapped the frustration of working-class whites, and, over the course of his campaign, the public face of poverty and public assistance became black and female.

In the weeks leading up to the RNC, Mitt Romney drew criticism for attack ads falsely accusing President Obama of eliminating the work requirement for welfare. Instead of apologizing for it after the misinformation was called out by a battery of fact-checkers from all corners of the political spectrum, Romney stood by his assertions, telling USA Today that the president's actions were calculated to "shore up his base."

A week before the convention, Romney drew more fire when he quipped that nobody had ever asked to see his birth certificate, a clear reference to the anti-Obama birther movement, the tenacious conservative conspiracy theorists who believe the president was born in Kenya. With Larry McCarthy, the media consultant who produced the original 1988 Willie Horton ad, poised to release a series of anti-Obama ads on behalf of Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, the racially charged rhetoric seems unlikely to abate.

And then there's what happened on the floor of the RNC last week:

On Tuesday night, which was the convention's first night, due to a hurricane-related delay, Condoleezza Rice elicited show-stopping applause when she took the stage and delivered a speech about "the essence of America," an idea, she said, that can't be easily reduced to ethnicity, nationality, or religion because in America "it doesn't matter where you came from but where you are going."

Rice, who served as national security adviser and secretary of state under George W. Bush and as senior director of Soviet and East European affairs under his father, George H.W. Bush, shared a bittersweet memory of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, when Jim Crow laws prevented her mom, a science teacher, and her dad, a school guidance counselor and minister, from taking their little girl to see a movie or to eat a hamburger at Woolworth's lunch counter.

Even under the weight of so much discrimination, Rice said, her parents still believed in the American promise and instilled in their daughter an unflagging belief that she could still be president of the United States some day.

Rice was just one of a slate of African-American and Latino speakers who addressed the assembled GOP. She was joined by Senate nominee Ted Cruz, former U.S. representative Artur Davis, New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, Florida senator Marco Rubio, and others to give a party that's desperately seeking diversity a face considerably darker than its natural body.

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