søndag 2. september 2012

Post-Convention Thoughts: Fathers, Family, and Foreign Policy

Going to the GOP convention was brilliant for several reasons. As it was my first convention ever, I had some expectations. Entirely predictably, I saw lots of white, older people who live in rural areas that wore funny hats. Many were displaying a sort of miner's hardhat, presumably to show to the world that they are attuned to what the future of energy looks like. Or not. 

Rather unexpectedly, I saw Meet the Press' David Gregory, unceremoniously taking the media shuttle bus from the media center to the convention hall. Unlike many famous people on TV, he is not smaller in real life. Way to go Gregory.
Another unexpected experience was the fact that the party that had me sitting through an obscene amount of speeches on how Republicans “built that” and are really good at managing businesses and such, had the hardest time organizing the shuttle bus system.

In any case, having heard all these speeches,* I would first like to humbly thank the GOP convention organizers for having exercised dictatorial control over their lengths (well, except for one speech that last night...) Second, I would like to share with you my three main thoughts.  

1. Political and Not-So Political Storytelling

At the convention, each speech followed a very specific pattern. I assume that some diktat went down from the organizers to the speakers on what they would like them to say and how they would like them to say it, as each and every speech followed the same pattern: Tell your story. This apparently meant: mention family. A lot. Talk about connection between family history and American dream. (One speech even made the chronologically impossible link between his grandparents fulfilling the American dream while his parents immigrated to the United States. I was a bit confused.) Last but not least, talk about "what my parents taught me." This mostly meant what their fathers taught them, although here Chris Christie gets an honorable mention for going against the grain and making a point of his mother teaching him to value respect over love. Finally, some straight talk.

The personalization of politics was in heavy rotation at the convention. Yes, I know. This is hardly a new insight. The focus on the family and one's personal "story" was anything but subtle, though, and I started feeing bad for people who don't much like their families and/or whose fathers never gave them succinct, memorable advice that can work as a punch line in a GOP convention speech. (Think about it, this advice would have to meet certain standards. Advice such as, "son, remember, abortion is always an option" wouldn't make the cut, for example).
In any case, these family-loving people put their best family foot forward and basically we all love family. A lot. The only person who noticeably did not spend a lot of time "telling her story" was Condoleezza Rice, who focused mostly on foreign policy. I will get back to that.

2. Females as Confusing Props

The convention organizers clearly were aware of the GOP women's problem. They featured lots of female speakers and Ann Romney was the certainly star of the convention. But in focusing on it, they also exacerbated their problem. Theirs was not an attempt at reaching out to female voters. Theirs was an attempt to reach out to married female voters. As two convention goers said, "Single women don't vote for us! What do we do about that?" To which the other replied, "Get more people to marry!" I had half a mind to turn around and propose they extend marriage to lesbians, after which there would be lots more married women in the United States. It was good I didn't, as we were in a line for a shuttle bus disaster that ended up lasting 3 hours. There was no need to make those 3 hours even more painful (in hour 2, many bus passengers started singing "God Bless America", which one woman exclaimed was her favorite song. Kind of weird how no one seemed to know the line after, "God Bless America," though). 

In keeping with the family-theme mentioned above, Ann Romney's speech was rather interesting in its portrayal of women. First of all, Romney seemed to be using herself as a prop in her husband's story. That might have been intentional, as the whole point of the convention was to "endear Mitt Romney to Earth's humans" and so the main goal was to make Mitt likable, not to tell the Story of Ann. But of course, when Michelle Obama speaks, no one thinks she is a prop on the Barack Obama Show. Rather, Mrs. Obama is a leading lady. 

For Ann Romney, however, the women in their men's lives are there to silently and humbly raise their children, only to be heard late at night, in their collective sigh. Said Mrs. Romney,  “We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.” As pointed out by The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, this was quite different from the men who were profiled at the convention because of their self-made success. Rather than be identified by their professional achievements, the women were identified by their family roles in Mrs. Romney's speech. "Is it possible to imagine a male speaker defining himself first and foremost as being among, 'the fathers, the husbands, the grandfathers, the big brothers, the little brothers, and the sons'?" asks Mayer.)  

Now, this is not to take away from, for example, Governor Nikki Haley's speech, which was heavy on family (yes, in case you were wondering, Haley also "told her story") and politics, but not heavy on her specific role as a mother or a wife. Nor Rice's speech, which, again, was all about politics. 

What Ann Romney conveyed in her speech may not necessarily be a problem for the GOP. They may be alright ignoring the single (or not-married) female voting bloc. And Ann Romney certainly seemed to win over those her speech was directed at. She was a smashing hit inside the convention center, and my personal impression was that her sparse experience in campaigning worked for her. Her personality shone through and her demeanor was authentic, even a bit naive. In short, politics has yet to destroy her soul, and we shall hope it stays this way until November 6. If not, see you on the other side, Ann.

 3. The F-Word

Foreign policy was definitely not one of the things the GOP wanted to focus on at this convention. However, it's only polite for a country that is still the most powerful in the world, and for a party who wants to keep it that way till infinity, to talk just a little bit about this topic. This party found itself in a bit of a pickle, however, as it was rather obvious that the convention was going out of its way not to make any connection between the current Republican party and a couple of ancient and irrelevant rulers named George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. What is interesting is that Rice was given a prominent speaking slot (and delivered a good speech, too). 

How is it that Rice seems to be the one person who has not been stigmatized by serving in the Bush administration? While I understand her appeal to the people sitting in the convention hall, one would think that the Romney campaign would be in no hurry to make the general viewing public think he would bring back the Bush-era foreign policies. Not only are those rather unpopular with the American public (it took a while to catch on, but one the American public did so, they stayed pretty miffed at 43). Indeed, as foreign policy is the one area where Obama is polling fairly well (especially on handling terrorism), there seems to be little gain in calling attention to a general area of policy that neither Romney nor Paul Ryan are able to talk about convincingly. The fact that Obama's upper hand in foreign policy is something that hasn't been the case for a Democrat in a presidential race in decades will have to be left for another blog post, as my flight back to Norway is currently boarding. 


In any case, if the convention is any kind of harbinger for the fall campaign, expect to hear quite a bit about fathers, a lot about family, and very little about foreign policy.

*Disclaimer: I did not attend the convention’s last evening, as I was supposed to be flying to the American Political Science Association’s annual conference in New Orleans. Because of extenuating circumstances (read: Isaac), I found myself watching the last night’s speeches on a couch in a friend’s apartment in Virginia. Thanks, Emily.

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