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RNC Night One: A Parade Of Platitudes And Odd Contrasts

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With the first night of the Republican National Convention scuttled by Hurricane Isaac, this year's uninvited and ultimately never-present guest, Tuesday night's rejiggered festivities had one consistent theme: softening. A parade of GOP all-stars, from Nikki Haley to Ted Cruz to Scott Walker, softened up President Barack Obama for the attacks to come. Ann Romney gave a florid speech about her husband, in order to present his softer side. And Chris Christie attempted much the same, though he left many with the impression that his speech was the soft launch of a future national campaign.

Ann Romney and Christie presented an interesting contrast. Romney spent her entire time on the stage talking about her life with her husband and the love they shared from the instant they first met. She promised a speech "not about politics and not about party" but rather, "about love," and that's precisely what the audience got. Christie, on the other hand, provided the speech about party and politics, with conspicuously fewer references to Mitt Romney, and this declaration: "I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved." Which was, frankly, one of the more improbable things I've ever heard at a political convention. "Paralyzed By Love" is, like, the name of an Erasure song, not a Chris Christie talking point.

But most of the topics of conversation were well within the probable, ranging from the sorts of things you always hear at Republican National Conventions -- paeans to hard work and family and personal responsibility and smaller government and no taxes ever -- to the sorts of things you always hear at any political convention.

For instance, did you know that every single speaker at the Republican or Democratic Conventions has definitely came from hardscrabble, humble beginnings? It's terrifically true, according to the people touting these origin stories. Everyone's poppa or grandpappy was a mill worker or a dust herder or a stevedore or spent some significant amount of time pursued by revenuers. And look at you now! You're at a huge expensive convention, being wined and dined by industry lobbyists at a swank party at an aquarium with human beings swimming around, dressed as mermaids.

Looks like you made it! But one can't help but feel that if the current political culture stands, and income inequality continues its steady divergence, that we may be witnessing one of the last conventions of the humblebrag era. Pretty soon, no one in this culture will be able to tell a story of having risen from the working class by hook and ladder to success and societal prominence. Instead, you should look forward to the way they describe their gated communities and chic academy education and brokerage house careers and lifetime presence in the Beltway petri dish (a la Al Gore, for example) in ways that make them sound folksy. "My father started out working entry-level at an artisanal hedge fund. My mom slaved over slow-poured white papers at Brookings." Everything will be sepia-toned -- the rise of the Rich Kids Of Instagram.

Last night, Rick Santorum talked about hands. A lot. He knows a lot about hands, and how they work, and what they feel like, in ways that make him better suited to discuss handsiness than, say, Herman Cain. During the primary season, Santorum was the most adept at discussing his beliefs through a sort of working-class prism, what with his grandfather's fabled coal-mining beginnings and his semi-relentless focus on the decline of manufacturing jobs in America. Last night, he revived those aspects of his campaign, delivering an oration on the virtue of hard work on behalf of a candidate who likely hasn't had a callus in a few decades.

The "hands" metaphor did get a little strained -- had Santorum cut, say, the last seventeen references to digits, he wouldn't have had Twitter making Jewel jokes all night -- but he was nevertheless the ideal speaker on the night themed around "We Built That." Santorum was preceded by a handful of hand-picked (now I'm straining) small-business owners who testified to the crowd about how aggrieved they were to hear President Barack Obama say something he never actually said about the businesses they had help from the government building.

(Ann Romney did create a very strange moment, however, when she described her husband as "the man who will work harder than anyone so that we can work a little less hard." I'm not sure to whom she was directing that promise. It was presumably not intended for the faux mermaids.)

The relentless focus on these small business owners is one of the things that has kept this convention -- and frankly, the larger campaign "debate" -- at a far remove from what's actually happening in America. All of these slighted owners may take issue, perhaps even legitimate issue, with the policies advanced by the Obama administration. But in the great scheme of things, these are still people who are coming out ahead in these post-crash years. Their businesses may not be as prosperous as they'd like, but they still wake up each morning with a place to go and a future unfolding in front of them on the calendar. The forgotten people in the political debate are those who wake up unemployed, foreclosed upon, and with the vanishing point of their imagined futures defined by weeks and days.

But this is, as David Frum has pointed out, what Romney has yoked itself to in picking Paul Ryan as his running mate. "Paul Ryan's various plans and road maps," Frum writes, "contain many interesting elements for the reduction of government in the decades ahead. They do not respond to the most immediate and urgent problem: prolonged mass unemployment caused by heavy household debt." (One would imagine that if this short-term crisis had been solved, all of the RNC's small-business orators would be feeling much more sanguine about their circumstances today.)

As the Democrats fondly hoped to bind Romney to Ryan (along with keeping one eye on the missteps of the Bush administration), you can expect the conversation at both conventions to continue to stray away from the present calamity and its victims. Like Hurricane Isaac, they too, are uninvited guests at these proceedings, though less influential by far.

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