Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
I had a decision to make. I'd been in Tampa for all of 15 minutes, and I was already late for something, anything, everything—a white rabbit with OCD, searching for Mad Hatters.
Of course, I knew that the real Republican National Convention would occur far from the klieg lights and sound bites of primetime. It'd be found in closed-door meetings, invitation-only events and the visceral experience of witnessing the awkward, painful birth of history in the making.
My choices were less reasonable. At that very moment, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing an exclusive gig downtown, Log Cabin Republicans were gathering at a bar called The Rusty Pelican and throngs of delegates, dignitaries and media were gaping at bright, shiny things dangled by the Tampa Bay Host Committee at Tropicana Field.
A lot has changed since Nov. 4, 2008, not the least of which is the hope for change that carried Barack Obama to the White House. That election night, millions cheered, doves sang and unicorns galloped through the streets of Chicago as Oprah and I sniveled like 6-year-olds.
Four years later, we're in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Beyond global recession and worldwide political upheaval, the tenor of U.S. politics is wedged in the grease trap of Sylvia Plath's oven. The partisan divide has reached Grand Canyon proportions while the national discourse has sunk deep into a fetid swampland of Fox News, death panels, MSNBC, bailouts, Twitter, birthers, Facebook and Occupy [Insert Location Here].
It's an election year, for starters. Republicans cite rabid liberalism, socialist agendas and Obama's utter lack of leadership as their excuse for being obstructionists. Democrats clamor about radical conservatism, cynical right-wing sabotage and the hot mess Obama inherited for their apparent impotence. It's the worst game of But they did it first ever.
Frankly, I've become exhausted with being a speck of mortar in one brick wall butting its head against another. I've got bigger catfish to noodle. After the 2008 election, I turned 30, and then it quickly turned on me. I became a father, got a "real" job and moved to the suburbs. In short, I'm as Republican as I'll ever be.
Reckless abandon these days means buying a WeedWacker at Home Depot that's way outside my price range. Don't laugh. That bad boy is the Jason Bourne of lawn maintenance: Methodical and ruthless with a thirst that can only be slaked with bloodlust and two-cycle oil.
Not unlike Mitt Romney.
I kid. Although neither Bourne nor Romney has much use for institutional memory: What? I'm a highly trained covert assassin? What? I was a pro-choice governor who acquiesced to civil unions and passed universal healthcare? The mind doesn't boggle. It's too busy playing Jenga with Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox.
Candidates will be candidates. My focus in Tampa was of a broader scope—to see if there is any room left for moderation or if we are, in fact, in the middle of an ideological civil war. Beg your pardon. An "Ideological War of Northern Aggression." This is the South, after all.
Whether you view the Tea Party as a beacon of light or the heart of darkness, there's no denying that the passionate consortium of pissed-off conservatives represents both the fervent desire for a better future and the philosophical abyss that divides the country's partisans.
Virtually every Republican I spoke to during the RNC believes that the Tea Party is unfairly maligned and its key issues (fiscal conservatism, small government, taxes) frequently misrepresented. Liberals see the Tea Party as the end result of conservatives going off their meds en masse. Republicans see a grassroots return to conservative principles.There was supporting evidence for both arguments at the Unity Rally. Dustin Stockton, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, told several hundred attendees—some waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags, others dressed in colonial garb—that "What we're proposing isn't radical; it isn't extreme." He then implied that the U.S. Postal Service should be abolished.
Stockton was preceded by conservative talk-show host Neil Boortz calling Democrats "the looters, the moochers, the parasites" and Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips pulling a Chuck Heston in offering his freedom and liberty to Obama and company "when you pry it from my COLD! DEAD! HANDS!"
"I'm very excited about the new generation of conservative leaders," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). "We have some outstanding, talented people who are representing the future of the party and of the conservative movement."
Speaking to the Unity Rally about the official party positioning, Bachmann declared that "the Tea Party is all over that platform." It was a sentiment echoed by the event's keynote speaker, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who cited vigilance and the unification of conservative voices as the key to defeating Obama.
"Stay informed," Cain implored the crowd solemnly, "because stupid people are ruining America."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a legislator with a more passionate, quixotic and flat-out perplexing political fan base. We're talking about a guy whose platform of limited government and individual liberty had his supporters flocking to a three-day P.A.U.L. Festival in Tampa leading up to the RNC. I repeat: A three-day festival. For a member of Congress.
In a bizarre scene, dudes sporting goatees and cargo shorts threw back Coronas on the beach alongside guys in full suits and discussed the merits of the Keystone Pipeline, how the tax system is institutional thievery and why the Federal Reserve should be investigated. All while being pelted with swirling wind and rain brought on by Tropical Storm Isaac.
Nevertheless, Paul supporters had the second-most visible presence on the streets of Tampa beside the thousands of khaki-clad law-enforcement deployed during the convention. The city had braced for upwards of 5,000 protestors. Instead, they got a whole lot of weak sauce.
The only protesters to show any balls, so to speak, were Code Pink activists wearing giant vagina costumes. Members of the women-led social-justice organization also managed to infiltrate the Tampa Bay Times Forum disguised as prim partisans. When they stood up and began shouting "People over profits!" in an attempt to disrupt Romney's acceptance speech, they were quickly subdued and led away amid arena-wide chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
The lack of dissent expressed at the RNC by virtually anyone not affiliated with Ron Paul wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Romney. It quickly became clear—in the way people chose their words like it was their last meal—that few were completely enamored with the nominee.
"It's hard to find the perfect candidate," said Jerry T. Miller, a Kentucky delegate and Louisville Metro Council member. "If I could, I'd probably take a quarter of Romney, a quarter of Ron Paul, a quarter of Rick Santorum and maybe a quarter of Newt Gingrich."
"I'm a journalist," I blurted, recognizing that the candidate was about two drinks past three sheets to the wind.
If I needed that kind of scratch, I'd be liver-deep in free drinks, too. Luckily for the fledgling politicians in attendance, there was plenty to go around. National conventions represent a golden opportunity for companies, lobbyists, Super PACs and partisan organizations to ply people of influence with everything from gratis Grey Goose to a complimentary Kid Rock concert.
"We never shut down early," the lady at the ticket counter told me in a hushed tone. "We close on Thanksgiving and Christmas—that's it."
Money is famously a non-issue for the Republican presidential candidate. But while unbridled enthusiasm for Romney may be lacking, complete vitriol for Obama—supplemented by the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as the VP nominee and the adoption of a conservative-friendly party platform—is clearly fueling the campaign.
Make no mistake, partisans thrive on red meat. Talk meaningfully about bipartisan compromise and you'll receive irritated silence. Mention 9/11, freedom, The American Dream and Barack Hussein Obama in the same sentence and your likeness will be carved into Mt. Rushmore by sundown. George W. Bush may be gone, but you're still either with us or against us.
That much was apparent at a screening of the documentary Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, part of an RNC film series operated by a company called Citizens United Productions offering such titles as Occupy: Unmasked (introduced by Bachmann) and The Hope & The Change (a film about Democrats and independents who've turned on Obama).
During the screening of Reagan, the audience cheered when the Gipper intoned, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" and was practically giddy when he said, "There is no substitute for victory." The room was silent when the documentary—narrated by Newt Gingrich and his unblinking wife Calista—mentioned Reagan's record of achieving across-the-aisle accords.
After the screening, I asked Gingrich—who was on hand to introduce the film and shuck merch—what the bipartisan prospects were for a Romney administration. He echoed the aspirations of a clean Republican sweep in November.
But in order to energize enough voters to unseat Obama, the Republicans have been forced into an awkward position of maintaining a hardline stance that appeals to the base while trying to expand the "big tent" far enough to soften its image and mobilize more moderate Republicans and independents.
As satisfied attendees filtered out of the room, they passed a table stacked with literature that included a promotional card for the book Why Obamacare is Wrong for America (authored by the panel moderator), a brochure titled "The 10 Worst Things About Obamacare" and a Forbes article with the headline "The real tragedy of Obamacare has yet to be felt by the poor."
"The Republican Party is not anti-immigration," Alejandro Capote, a 20-year-old Florida State University student (and Florida delegate) told me. "We support immigration. We just support legal immigration."
I received a similar—though more nuanced—response from Clarke Cooper, national executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay conservatives, when I asked him about the staunch position supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) written into the party's official convention platform.
Cooper rightfully pointed out the fact that Log Cabin has earned an increasingly visible and substantive position within the Republican Party. His view is that the doggedly conservative stance on DOMA held by the GOP is a "last gasp."
"Gay Republicans have much more of a voice today than they've ever had," said former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, one of the first Republican members of Congress to acknowledge his sexual orientation. "Sure, I'm dismayed when moderates don't get their voice heard—and I guess you'd have to consider gay Republicans on the moderate side of things—but it's a gradual progression that I think we're going to see continue."
Dr. Carol Swain, a former Democrat, was a featured panelist at an RNC forum titled "Black People and the Republican Party—A Historic Perspective." Her fellow panelists included Tim Johnson (founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation) and the Rev. C.L. Bryant, an ardent Tea Party supporter and star of a documentary called Runaway Slave that aired in Tampa in the same theater showing the conservative breakout film 2016: Obama's America to packed houses.
In many ways, the eerie calm that follows a storm is worse than being trapped in the clenched teeth of its wrath. All that's left is to survey the damage. Room 423 at the Wyndham Tampa Westshore had been hit hard by the storm. Debris was strewn across the desk and side table and on top of the coffeemaker, beds and TV stand and was slowly creeping across the floor toward the bathroom.
There were piles of crumpled papers, parking permits and press badges. A small mountain of creased business cards, road maps and newspapers with blaring headlines like "ISAAC INTRUDES," "ON THE ATTACK" and "MITT'S PROMISE." Two tape recorders containing hours of rants and laments, diatribes and monologues, pleas and pontification. Two notebooks filled with delirious scrawls. A pile of clothes best suited for an incinerator.
"So here we stand," Romney had said. "Americans have a choice. A decision."
Nathan Dinsdale is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., and a former CityBeat staffer.