The Republican Convention: Roll Up For The Immaculate Misconception!
By Gerard WrightAugust 29, 2012
Storms natural (Hurricane Isaac) and political (legitimate rape, anyone?) gather as America’s Grand Old Party gathers in Florida to shower stage-managed patriotic schlock around its now and future candidates.
Twenty thousand people will attend this week's Republican Party convention in Tampa, Florida: candidates, delegates, politicians past and present, financiers, cheerleaders, spivs and fixers — the idealistic alongside the merely opportunistic.
As with its Democratic Party counterpart, the Republican convention once served as the gathering at which the presidential candidate and his running mate were selected. Now the convention exists only to anoint them and to sell the party agenda to the faithful, and thereby, the hope is, to the public.
Sharing the convention billing this week are two unwelcome guests, literal and figurative storms. It says much about the conundrum the Republican Party finds itself in that a potential Category 3 hurricane is the lesser of its concerns. Instead, it finds itself in the thrall of hard-core religious conservatives, whose cultural absolutism, particularly on anything relating to women, and women's health rights, makes the Taliban look like the Pet Shop Boys.
Tampa lies on Florida's west coast, on one side of a bay that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The burgeoning hurricane delivered what, in football terms, would be described as a vigorous hip and shoulder to the convention, rather than the feared king hit, with two days of heavy rain and attendant wind, as well as flight cancellations and other inconveniences. In some ways, the size of Isaac and its apparent direction worked in favor of Tampa, with the massive storm surge it is delivering to the northern Gulf coast drawing water away from the bay on which the city lies.
In anticipation of at least passing inundation, the first day of the convention, Monday, was cancelled and the remainder of the schedule, condensed and re-arranged.
One aim of the convention was that it should work as a narrative, re-introducing Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, to an audience that is assumed to have been largely oblivious to the political agenda up until this point — 16 months of campaigning in every corner of the country notwithstanding.
In turn, the narrative's plotline was to humanise and familiarise Romney, the Mormon multi-millionaire with the 13 per cent personal tax rate (compared to a notional tax rate on high-earning Americans of 35 per cent).
And there is much that could be said to show the candidate in a different or more revealing way: they could describe him as the father of five, cloak him as the bishop of the Latter Day Saints Church, venerate him as a second-generation politician — what lessons might his father, a former governor of Michigan, himself a White House candidate in 1968, if only briefly, have imparted to him?
What are the stories of Romney's life? He was a child and adult of privilege, certainly, but his biography is also a tale of ambition and achievement, starting with the private equity company he worked with, then bought out — the survival and then prosperity in a particularly bruising field of the capital world.
This gave him his much-vaunted economic and financial cred, as well as a massive personal fortune. Part of the story, too, is surely how he helped save the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics of 2002 but then went to considerable pains to eliminate any paper or digital trail of his time in Utah — the sign of a man setting out after a distant and difficult prize.
Some of this may be referenced in passing, wrapped up as a gauzy and wholesome life story suitable for mainstream consumption. And who better to tell that story than Ann Romney, Mitt's wife of 43 years. She is among the last of the speakers on the revised first night.
True, she comes across as a little haughty — "we've given all you people need to know", she said in a TV interview, having been asked when her husband was going to release his tax returns, as has been standard practice for previous presidential candidates. But she also knows the man and the journey he has taken.
Depending on landfall and disposition, Isaac may have more to say this week. So America may get to see how Romney and the Republicans think on their feet.
THE OTHER storm bearing down on the convention is invisible, but with no less potential to damage.
To understand the extent of the Republican Party's recent lurch to the right, you have to go back 20 years, to the convention in Houston, Texas, where it sought to convince the country that then-President George Bush was worthy of another four-year term.
Among the speakers at that convention was Mary Fisher. She was HIV positive, and addressed the party of Ronald Reagan, who during his presidency had refused to even acknowledge the existence of AIDS. At that point the disease had killed 15,000 people in America alone; it was incurable.
Fisher was chosen to speak because, to the Republicans, she was one of "us": born to a political family, her father an advisor of presidents. She was a blonde, attractive 40-something, whose words would be heard by an audience of 27 million. It was a bold attempt by the party to address and respond to one of the leading social and health issues of the day.
"… people with HIV have not entered some alien state of being," Fisher said. "They have not earned cruelty, and they have not deserved meanness."
It was arguably the high-water mark for the Republicans as a party of conscience and connection to a world far less perfect than its most conservative members would like.
Fisher is now 64, a survivor of both HIV and breast cancer. In an interview earlier this monthwith The New York Times, she described herself as a Republican of the 1970s. "My party's gone someplace else," she said.
That place is Tampa in 2012, a place and time where the likes of Mary Fisher would not be seen anywhere near the convention podium, let alone be heard.
In their place is a party platform that forbids abortion without exception, including in cases of rape or incest, and which bans the so-called morning-after contraceptive pill. In that sense, the Republican Party now has become a mirror of its most conservative members in Congress.
It's a political and cultural climate in which women are finding that what had been considered their rights — with regard to issues such as birth control and access to affordable, reliable reproductive health services — are now being presented as privileges, if they haven't been altogether revoked, with the consequent requirement that they will have to be fought and paid for all over again.
The party position with regard to abortion in particular could not be clearer.
THE NAME of any bill put forward by Congress can indicate one of two things, either a marketing ploy or obfuscation. Both sides of the House play loose with the language of bills. Thus, in the latter category, the reform last year of America's broken health-insurance system was announced as the Affordable Care Act. When the Bush Administration relaxed the rules for pollution controls, it was under the auspices of the Clear Skies Act.
In 2011, three anti-abortion bills were introduced into the House, which had been newly and virulently Republicanised after a sweeping victory in the 2010 mid-term elections. Under House rules, a bill may be written by a single member, whose work is then endorsed by co-sponsors, a sort of "me too" for grown-ups.
For the House Republicans, and a handful of conservative Democrats, these bills offered the chance to present and re-present their credentials to a hardcore base of socially conservative voters. That's how HR 358, the Protect Life Act, and HR 212, the Sanctity of Human Life Act, and HR 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, were all introduced during 2011.
HR 3 banned federal funding for abortions, with very limited exceptions. These included incest and rape, or, as Section 309 of the first draft of the act put it: "...[I]f the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape".
Among the co-sponsors of this bill were Paul Ryan, the not-yet Republican vice-presidential nominee, and Todd Akin, the senate candidate from Missouri who has called all these chickens home to roost for the Republican Party.
As The New York Times noted, Ryan and Akin signed on to a proposed law that narrowed the terms of its exceptions with a cruel precision — no abortion except in the case of rape, although that exception was never defined.
So they redefined the terms of sexual assault from "rape" to "forcible rape". Elsewhere in the world, this would be exposed as tautology, as in "a self-indulgent wank".
It might all have remained just another flank in the culture wars, but for a Sunday morning interview Akin gave to a Fox TV affiliate in St Louis on August 19, after winning Republican pre-selection for the state's senate election.
In the interview, Akin defended his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, offering this rationale: "It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," he said, referring to the incidence of pregnancy as a result of rape.
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child."
It was an immaculate misconception, with the added linguistic cruelty of also de-personalising the victim. Instead of a woman and her reaction, scientificallty validated or otherwise, to a sexual assault, it was "the female body", a sort of baby factory that man enters in order to create an image of himself.
Akin's interviewer, Charles Jaco, later apologised for not following up on this response, blaming his lapse on a "brain fart".
In politics, it's always difficult to tell if a politician, having gauged his audience, its interests and its sympathies, is telling them what he believes, or what he believes they want to hear. The one virtue of Akin's assertion was that it is absolutely, demonstrably what he believes.
Every Republican of even passing note, from Romney to Karl Rove, the man behind the curtain, AKA "Bush's brain", the political operative responsible for putting and keeping George W. Bush in the White House, called for Akin to withdraw his candidacy. He refused, and he now bears the honour, along with the last Republican President, George W. Bush, of being among the most prominent members of the party who will not be attending the convention.
In Akin's absence the anti-abortion flag can be expected to be taken up, or at least briefly waved, by Rick Santorum, whose long-shot presidential candidacy kept Romney looking over his shoulder well past the point when the primary was supposed to be a one-horse race.
Santorum is a conservative Catholic, a father of seven, whose surprisingly durable candidacy was testament to the capacity for either forgiveness or amnesia that is part of American public and political life. Santorum had lost his previous campaign, in which he had sought re-election to the Senate in Pennsylvania, by 18 points.
He speaks of contraception as something that should be banned, in any context, including among married couples, and abortion as God's little consolation prize, to paraphrase comedian Max Gillies channeling the Rev. Fred Nile.
"I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you," Santorum said in a January interview with CNN, in the type of political pidgin English that a surprising number of politicians on both sides lapse into when called upon to express themselves.
Santorum's sugar daddy — every candidate for national elective office in this country has to have one — Foster Friess, is a billionaire with some old-fashioned attitudes.
Friess confessed himself confounded by the uproar Santorum's views on abortion and contraception had provoked. He couldn't understand it, he said. Why, in his day, a contraceptive consisted of a gal putting an aspirin between her knees.
This will be the subtext of Santorum's convention speech, re-scheduled now for the first night of proceedings, or Wednesday afternoon in Australia.
And somewhere among the scheduled speakers, whether it's the combative New Jersey governor, Chris Christie; Nikki Haley, the first-term South Carolina governor, daughter of Sikh immigrant parents; or even, from way out of left field, Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and younger brother of Dubya… there will be a future party standard bearer.
The above trio represent three different arms of the Republican Party, with Haley the most favoured among conservatives, and Bush the sanest about social issues and the need for the party to become more centrist. Have no doubt that the responses to their speeches will be monitored closely, and that ideological purity would be jettisoned, or at least designated to an afterthought, if Christie or Jeb Bush were shown to capture the public imagination.
In that sense, the convention is also a talent quest, at which the message of the present is delivered, but with the hope of also validating an emerging star.
It happened for the Democratic Party in Boston in 2004, when a then-relatively unknown Illinois state senator, Barack Obama, addressed the convention in prime time on its second night.
Obama confirmed that night that he was foreman material, with a compelling message that an audience beyond the venue could respond to:
"… [T]hat is the true genius of America, a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted — or at least, most of the time."
Obama connected with both the conventioneers and the viewers beyond, because he showed what was possible. In such ways does history lurch forward.
The Boston convention was also notable for its closing. The music played, the confetti rained softly down and the crowd cheered its party nominees and their prospects… It was all stage-managed to the second. Then, during the confetti drop, an anguished voice broke in over the CNN feed: "BALLOONS! WHERE'S MY FUCKING BALLOONS?!"