I didn't watch Mitt Romney's acceptance speech last night. I can't do it: even under normal circumstances, watching politicians of any stripe talk about anything at all makes me unable to sleep. And a convention speech, which is almost always a deeply schizoid address authored by 38 different infighting political consultants and amplified by the heaviest possible doses of network TV's goofball effects and nuclear-powered stagecraft, is generally the most unwatchable of all political performances. So I try always to watch such speeches the next morning, and am just now taking in the Romney address.
The Republican convention in general has been a strange affair. The vibe around Republican politics in general was much happier in the days before the Bush presidency cratered. Republican politics before Bush imploded was a confident brew of guns, Jesus, and Freedom.
A Republican politician's job back then was, if not easy, pretty clear: you bashed welfare queens and free-riders, told tearful stories of fetuses composing operas in the womb, and promised to bomb America's enemies back to the Stone Age. You didn't have to split hairs or hedge bets: you got up on stage, took a baseball bat to liberals and terrorists and other such perverts, and let the momentum of the crowd carry you to victory. You were like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, riding high with a nuke between your legs, waving your ten-gallon hat at and going out in a blaze of yeeee-hah!!!s.
Republican politics used to be fun. Even I sort of got into it. When I was undercover working for George W. Bush in a campaign office in Orlando back in 2004, it was a much easier acting job than I expected it to be. You went into the campaign office, sat with the other volunteers, and talked about all the Hollywood actors you wished would keep their damned mouths shut. Any liberal who claims there isn't lots of fun to be had making fun of liberals is a goddmaned liar. Anyway, one of my fellow volunteers back then gave me a copy of Shut Up and Sing – not the Dixie Chicks documentary, the Laura Ingraham book – and that quickly replaced Lawrence Taylor's Over the Edge as my go-to bathroom reader. It was crazy, paranoid stuff, but that sort of politics had a reassuringly simple quality to it; it was dependable, like a rock.
But today's Republican politics are totally confused. The Romney-Ryan speeches were a bizarre exercise in tightroping and hair-splitting. Ryan's speech weirdly went after the Democrats for a plan to cut Medicare that he himself had rejected for not cutting enough – and then in the same speech went after the Obama vision of society that is a "dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us."
The Ryan VP pick was clearly a calculated gamble. Like the Palin pick, it was intended to fire up the base by bringing in a young, fresh-faced politician with hardcore conservative credentials. That would help bring out the red-state die-hard vote for Romney, a onetime pro-choice creator of a state-run health care program who struggled with exactly those voters in his primary battles against the likes of newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
But Ryan's conservative cred derives almost entirely from his strike-hard-strike-first-no-mercy-sir reputation as a ruthless chainsawer of all government-funded "waste," including sacred-cow entitlements like Medicare. If he was coming on board, surely it was to preach the gospel of budget bloodbaths.
So what does Ryan the Vice-Presidential candidate do? He goes to Tampa and spends half his speech doing a Ted Kennedy impersonation, talking about the "obligation we have to our parents and grandparents," pitching his party as the defender of a beloved government entitlement program! "The greatest threat to Medicare," he said, "is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it."
Then, like the Unknown Comic, who used to switch bag-faces mid-routine, he moved right back into his young-Barry Goldwater act, bashing entitlements and the "supervision and sanctimony of the central planners."
Are you confused yet? I was. Is the move here dog-whistling an unspoken promise to the base to slash "entitlements," while somehow retaining Medicare? Or is it dog-whistling an unspoken promise to the base to slash "entitlements," including Medicare?
I couldn't tell. Ultimately I think the answer was actually behind door number three, as in:
My fellow Americans, whatever Barack Obama is doing with Medicare, it's bad, and we promise to reverse it!
And not only that, we'll go even further in cutting wasteful entitlements from our bloated government budget!
Does that make logical sense? No. Does it make political sense? Sort of – if your voters either have extremely short attention spans, or they are themselves comfortable with certain minor rhetorical contradictions.
If they're like the Tea Partiers whom I watched in Kentucky lustily cheering Sarah Palin from their Medicare-funded wheelchairs as she railed against government entitlement programs, then a speech like Ryan's works well enough. It just doesn't work quite as well as a speech that doesn't have any contradictions at all – like George Bush's 2004 acceptance speech, cleverly set in post-9/11 New York, in which he promised that electing anyone but himself would result in terrorists running free down the smoldering wreckage of Your Town, U.S.A., followed by prancing sets of gay married actors from Hollywood.
Anyway, when Ryan had the Goldwater side of his paper bag turned to the audience, he railed against Obama's health care program, calling it "two thousand pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees, and fines that have no place in a free country."
That line drew genuine cheers from the crowd, especially since it coincided with the ejection of much-despised Code Pink demonstrators from the stadium. But I could swear the cheers were tempered just a little bit at the end when the audience members – even these audience members, even that ridiculous lady wearing the red-white-and-blue "America" vest – slowly remembered that Ryan's running mate had not only proposed but implemented an extremely similar health care program in Massachusetts.
Which brings us to Romney's speech. Romney spent a lot of time talking about his various successes as a businessman. But the only reference to his government experience – his most relevant qualification for this office, remember – came in a moment where he reminded the audience that as governor, he "chose a woman lieutenant governor, a woman chief of staff."
He left out the part where he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a pro-choice centrist who supported the teaching of evolution and the banning of assault rifles. He completely omitted any mention of his own health care program and in fact said exactly two things about health care in the entire speech: he repeated Ryan's line about Medicare, and then promised to repeal "Obamacare."
On the other hand, he mentioned all the women he hired as governor, and in general spent an enormous amount of time talking about women's issues. Which would be great, if it were not for the fact that the reasoning behind this rhetorical decision is so transparent – Romney added to the traditional Republican weakness among female voters when he chose Ryan, whose other major claim to fame as a hardcore conservative is his uncompromising stance on abortion. Ryan's history here is similar to his history on budget cuts: he made himself famous by going further than other pols were willing to go.
He co-sponsored legislation with Todd Akin (who is about as popular with women right now as flesh-eating streptococcus) called the "Sanctity of Human Life Act," which would have given a human fertilized egg "all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood." (I imagine that before Akin's gaffe, the next planned bill would have stripped those same fertilized eggs of Miranda rights). Moreover, Ryan supported the notorious "Let Women Die Act," which would have refused women access to abortion even if her life is in danger.
So to recap: the candidate himself used to be pro-choice, spoke glowingly of his mother's support of abortion rights in his 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, then suddenly became anti-choice in 2006. The VP candidate has been firmly anti-choice his whole career. Yet neither candidate went anywhere near the abortion issue in his speech.
In fact, you could build a walking bridge across the Bering Strait with all the major stuff the two candidates didn't bring up in their speeches. Romney's signature achievement as a politician was his health-care program. Ryan's claim to fame was his budget. But they spent most of their time in their speeches slithering, Catherine-Zeta-Jones-in-Entrapment style, around their own records.
So what did they talk about? The line that astonished me most from Mitt's speech was this one, where he talked about the changes Americans "deserved" and should have gotten during Obama's presidency:
You deserved it because you worked harder than ever before during these years. You deserved it because, when it cost more to fill up your car, you cut out moving lights, and put in longer hours. Or when you lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour, benefits, you took two jobs at $9 an hour…
Are you kidding? Mitt Romney was the guy that fired you from that $22.50 an hour job, and helped you replace it with two $9 an hour jobs! He was a pioneer in the area of eliminating the well-paying job with benefits and replacing it with the McJob that offered no benefits at all. One of the things that killed him in the Senate race against Ted Kennedy were Kennedy ads that reminded voters that Mitt's takeovers resulted in slashed wages and lost benefits. He was exactly the guy that eliminated that classic $22.50 manufacturing job, like in the case of GST Steel, where Bain took over with an initial investment of $8 million, paid itself a $36 million dividend, ended up walking away with $50 million, and left GST saddled with over $500 million in debt. 750 of those well-paying jobs were lost.
What kinds of jobs were left for those fired workers to look for? Well, in the best-case scenario, you might have found one at Ampad, another Bain takeover target, where workers had their pay slashed from $10.22 to $7.88 an hour, tripled co-pays, and eliminated the retirement plan.
So a guy who eliminated hundreds of $22 an hour jobs and slashed hundreds more jobs to below $9 an hour blasts Barack Obama for not giving you the better life you deserved, after you lost your $22/hour job and had to take two $9/hour jobs. Are we all high or something? Did that really just happen?
Just a lame pair of speeches, overall. They made me miss George Bush. At least the Bush/Cheney/Rove era offered a clear ideological choice – and some pretty passionate, ingeniously-delivered political theater, comparatively. Where's the blood and guts, the bomb-‘em-till-they're-crispy war calls? Where are the screw-the-poor tirades, the "you can pry it from my cold dead hand" guns-and-liberty crescendos? This stuff is pretty weak beer compared to those days.