‘Don’t look at me, you might catch poverty.’
We were on Ashley Drive, where the Tuesday night convention crowd was being funnelled out through a hole in the fence. There were five men holding ‘Mr 1%’ signs and calling at the delegates.
‘How’s the middle class doing?’
The occasional delegate answered either ‘just fine’ or ‘terribly because of Obama’. Obama’s ‘all-out assault on free enterprise’ had been the evening’s relentlessly hammered theme. The assault had two elements: ‘an environment of regulatory uncertainty’ and his remark in July at Roanoke, Virginia, ‘If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.’ This was evidence of his scorn for the American Dream. The Dream, which can usually be reduced to home ownership, was in the hall reduced to being ‘a small business owner’. Trotted out on stage were a metal worker, a designer of trade show exhibits, and a sign maker. The metal worker doubted Obama’s ability to maintain an adequate supply chain, and the sign maker was bitter that Obama altered federal procurement policies for signage. (He still makes signs for the Forest Service and the State of New Mexico ‘thanks to Governor Susana Martinez’.)
The complaint wasn’t the most effective version of the evening’s ‘we built it’ theme, a slogan repeated so often you wanted to tell the speakers to re-enroll in shop class, but it wasn’t as tin-eared as the evening’s single invocation of the 11 September attacks. This was from one of the politicians who also happened to be a small business owner. ‘Like most Americans, our family's life changed after 9/11,’ New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte said, and someone down the row from me groaned.
My husband Joe – who was on track to be a commercial pilot – instead served our great country flying combat missions in Iraq. When he returned home from the war he found himself in the same position as so many Americans – he needed a job. So he started a family business, a landscaping and snowploughing company. And when I say he, I mean we, because I spent many a sleepless night shovelling snow. And I'm proud of the fact that in addition to being a United States Senator – I'm also pretty good with a snowplough!
Surely not a consequence the al-Qaida leadership or George W. Bush (a name unmentionable in Tampa) intended.
While there was plenty of talk of ‘creating more jobs’, the notion of holding a job or earning a salary, rather than being the boss of your own small business, was beneath the proceedings, something reserved for one’s immigrant grandfather, like Rick Santorum’s, who worked in a mine. Outright contempt was reserved for unions, so the biggest applause of the night went to public employee union-busters Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Christie’s Machiavelli-via-Michael-Corleone line ‘America has become paralysed by our desire to be loved’ led not into war-drum beating but into some bragging about how he’s made it easier to fire teachers in New Jersey. This created some dissonance with Ann Romney, who said:
Tonight I want to talk to you about love. I want to talk to you about the deep and abiding love I have for a man I met at a dance many years ago. And the profound love I have, and I know we share, for this country.
She also mentioned that they once lived in a basement and ate dinner off an ironing board. Her style was 1950s all the way: ‘We're too smart to know there aren't easy answers. But we're not dumb enough to accept that there aren't better answers.’
The GOP on Tuesday night was too smart to say the word Afghanistan. The only time I heard it was when a heckler in a purple dress started dancing behind Rick Santorum, saying: ‘This is corporate bullshit.’ I was mesmerised. ‘Get her,’ someone near me said. By the time she’d been escorted out, Santorum had moved from small businesses to how marriage is between a man and a woman.
Israel came up once, when Sher Valenzuela, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Delaware, mentioned that her small upholstery business makes ‘protective gear for our allies in the Israeli military’.
But foreign policy was mostly being saved for Wednesday. Last night I was surprised to see a video of both Presidents Bush playing as I arrived. I was walking the floor trailing Michele Bachmann when John McCain took to the stage to talk about our enemies. Bachmann, excluded from speaking, was talking about her admiration for the God-fearing quarterback Tim Tebow. Her handlers were carrying voice recorders, presumably to protect her from any vicious misquoters. She was happy to support Romney because he’d looked her in the eye and promised he’d repeal Obamacare, which was the reason she’d run for president. She was confident her Minnesota district would send her back to Congress because they trust her not to deviate on economics. ‘And I don’t deviate.’ I followed Bachmann out of the hall but her handlers cut me off before I could ask about Chief Justice Roberts or the late Gore Vidal, whose awful novel about Aaron Burr inspired her to go into politics. Back on stage McCain was saying:
The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater. People don't want less of America. They want more. Everywhere I go in the world, people tell me they still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether we still have faith in ourselves.
I wonder where McCain hangs out when he goes to London or Berlin.
The floor was clogged with cameramen looking for something to point at. There was an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and a man in a canary yellow suit and an Uncle Sam hat called Colonel Oscar Poole. But there were fewer freaky looking people than it seems when you’re watching TV. The delegates come on like they’ve had media training. A county clerk from Houston was happy to tell me that the Texas delegation’s Lone Star shirts from Tuesday and fascist-lite blue shirts for Wednesday would yield to blue suits for Thursday, the white cowboy hats staying on for all three nights. ‘We’re consistent. You can tell who we are.’ But when I asked him about politics he had nothing more colourful to say than that ‘Romney will bring change before our country is destroyed by the terrible change this president brought us.’ At least the Texans keep their canned lines a little bit apocalyptic. On stage a video was playing about Romney’s commitment to Israel.
When my floor pass expired, I watched the rest of the speakers from the third level, with a view similar to Laurence Harvey’s in The Manchurian Candidate. Mike Huckabee assured the evangelicals in the crowd that it was OK to vote for a Mormon because the only evangelical on either ticket was Obama. Condoleezza Rice opened her speech with a smooth segue about this painful young century, moving from 9/11 to the financial crisis to the Arab Spring, eliding her role in the events in between (she got into Iraq later). Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty showed that they lost out in the vice-presidential beauty contest because their Midwestern corniness was no match for Paul Ryan’s steely resolve and economic acumen. Ryan closed the night complaining about the current administration’s imposition of ‘rules, mandates, taxes, fees and fines that have no place in a free country’, showing that he has the steely resolve and economic acumen of an eight-year-old whose mother won’t give him another scoop of ice cream.
Back outside on Tuesday night, the Occupiers were considering a trip to a strip club to talk to delegates. David Brooks of the New York Times walked by. He always seems to be walking by. Another passerby pointed at the ‘Mr 1%’ sign and said, ‘That should be Mr .001%, thank you.’ I walked north with the Occupiers. One of them, in a Chicago Cubs hat, asked me what austerity was doing to Greece and Spain. Soon we reached Romneyville, a block of grassland just north of the highway exit into downtown Tampa, with a dozen tents, a camper van, a few cars, and the bus they drove down from New York. By the camper van they were eating macaroni. One of them kept breaking into song:
Oh when the trusts, oh when the trusts
Oh when the trusts come a-far-i-an
Oh I hope I don’t run out of grandma’s money
When the trusts come a-far-i-an
‘I’m tired of occupying. I want to do some feminist protesting. Time to de-cock us,’ someone said. I sat and listened to songs and jokes, then went looking for the leader of the strip-joint mission across the field. ‘Tomorrow night,’ he was saying, ‘we’re going to a strip joint to interview delegates, to see what they care about more, tits and ass or the issues.’ I said goodbye. ‘Thanks for talking to me about Europe,’ the guy in the Cubs hat said. I tried and failed to crash a party in a tent and a party in the theatre on Franklin Street. At the Hub, a dive across the street, there were about a dozen young convention-goers who’d also failed to crash the theatre party. I asked a woman in a zebra-stripe dress what she was doing at the RNC. ‘I’m a hard-core libertarian,’ she said, ‘but the economy’s more important to me than social issues, so I have to be at this.’