This Republican national convention has made one thing very clear. These days, the only practicing moderate Republican politicians are on Mad Men.
I wrote here in June that the Enlightenment, that sustained starburst in political thinking which ushered in the transition from the medieval to the modern and drove the American Revolution, has become a fundamental divide in American politics. And the increasingly insular and anti-science Republican Party is largely on the side of the anti-Enlightenment forces.
Political conventions lost most of their meaning a while back. Now they are mostly just grabs for media attention and excuses to congregate socially and do status self-checks. (And, more positively, network.) Folks get to play a more concentrated form of the political ping pong that is their stock in trade 24/7 and 365. From the outsider's point of view, conventions don't do much, but they do signal, often inadvertently, where a party really is. But they also ratchet up the distraction factor in a culture that doesn't need any more distracting.
For Mitt Romney, the convention provides his latest attempt to re-introduce himself to the American people. But what's that old ad tag line? "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." It's not a Don Draper line but it sounds like it ought to be.
Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, wowed the Republican National Convention Wednesday night as he complained about the Obama Administration blaming the nation's problems on the Bush/Cheney Administration. 1936 Republican vice presidential nominee Frank Knox did the same thing.
Romney running mate Paul Ryan had a big night to work on adjusting his still emerging first impression. 2008 Republican nominee John McCain and former Secretary of State Condi Rice joined in the fun, though his first impression is long past and hers, well, probably doesn't matter.
Ryan delivered a very spirited run-through of his very conservative agenda. More tax cuts for the rich, less regulation of Wall Street and business in general, privatizing Medicare while insisting he'll protect it, cutting social spending, beefing up our beefy military, hewing to the fossil fuel path on energy and denigrating renewables, and so on. He didn't mention his opposition to abortion for rape victims, or the ticket's super-hawkishness, for those would be too obvious for undecided independents.
Ryan's politics obviously aren't much different from Sarah Palin's. He knows more and is able to avoid the queasy deer-in-the-headlights stuff. He also lacks her pizzazz, though he's certainly peppy, if more than a little preppy. Ryan's speech was, er, severely factually challenged, as CBS and quite a few other outlets have pointed out.
A new Gallup Poll survey may, inadvertently and indirectly, sum up the reaction of the country to this presidential race as it delivers an assessment of Ryan.
The big reaction, as it were, is that there is no big reaction.
It's sort of a collective "meh."
The country is split on whether it views Ryan positively or negatively, with a quarter having no opinion whatsoever. That means that positive and negative reactions to him, after plenty of exposure since his debut early this month in Norfolk, Virginia, are each below 40 percent.
That's not very good.
Especially not good for Ryan and Romney is that the negative has climbed much more rapidly than the positive since he was announced as the veep pick on August 11th.
Today's 38-36 dead heat contrasts with the 25-17 positive assessment when Ryan was announced.
My guess is that Ryan is actually somewhat more negatively viewed than that, as I think that Gallup skews a bit Republican in its polling.
McCain and Rice handled the super-hawk side of things, especially McCain. Naturally, he didn't talk about Obama getting Osama bin Laden, nor about the sweeping Obama anti-terror program which has resulted in the deaths -- by unceasing drone strikes and special ops raids -- of thousands of jihadist cadre in several nations.
He also didn't talk about Obama's very successful program in Libya, which resulted in a true coalition effort and the overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. And the election of a non-Islamist government.
He did talk about him not staying the course in Afghanistan, not overthrowing the Iranian government, not doing something quite unclear to change the situation in Syria, not being sufficiently hawkish with Russia and China... You get the gist.
Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, did not say that "we are all Georgians" as he did four years ago, but did inveigh endlessly against deviation from widespread interventionism.
Rice's message was more measured, although most anyone's of substance would be. She's moved more to the right since she was on the advisory board of Senator Gary Hart's Center for A New Democracy during his Democratic presidential frontrunner days.
But she is much more moderate than most of the folks on display in Tampa. As a black woman, a useful symbol for the GOP, but nothing more, as I'm sure she will never run for public office. And given her deep involvement with the Iraq War -- not that she was one of the strongest advocates of it, but she was the national security advisor when the fateful deals went down -- her career in public office is probably over.
Would-be First Lady Ann Romney, originally scheduled for Monday night, addressed the conventioneers Tuesday evening as another part of the effort to deal with the GOP's problem with women, and Romney's humanization problem. "From my heart about our hearts," she discussed what a great guy who came from very little Mitt Romney really is. Except, it didn't happen that way. Never mind.
Then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivered the convention keynote address.
Christie, normally a big gust of wind to rival any hurricane, fell flat.
He was humorless in text and delivery, unpleasant in aspect, boiler plate in his rote Republican appeal, and remarkably self-absorbed, mentioning himself far more often than Romney. To put it briefly, as is richly deserved, he was boring.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie fizzled as the keynote speaker of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Christie, who is, to be sure, more than twice the man Governor Jerry Brown is (whom Christie cleverly insulted as "old"), insisted that "we have to fundamentally reduce the size" of the federal government.
A Gallup Poll survey as the convention got underway had some unwelcome news for the new Romney/Ryan ticket. The expectation of a victory by Obama is overwhelming, 58-36 over Romney. In May, it was 56-36.
The needle has moved only slightly with all the sturm und drang, and not in the right direction for the conservative challenger and his would-be Robin.
Gallup consistently has the race closer than I believe it is, not incidentally.
The funny thing about polls regarding the likely victor is that the candidate viewed as the likely victory usually wins.
In fact, the candidate expected to win actually did win the last four presidential elections.
Notably, Democrats are more optimistic about Obama's prospects than Republican are about Romney's, with 80 percent of Dems saying Obama will win to only 60 percent of Republicans saying that Romney will win.
Meanwhile, Obama is prepping for the the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, and managing some geopolitical crises.
While he works with former President Bill Clinton on his one-time opponent's nominating speech, he dispatches Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on another lengthy geopolitical Pivot tour, again to the Asia Pacific region. (See my articles on the emerging US geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific here.)
Clinton was to have met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a Pacific island nations summit in the capital of the Cook Islands, but Gillard is staying at home to deal with the death of five Australian soldiers Wednesday in Afghanistan. It's the bloodiest day for the Oz military since the Vietnam War.
Most were killed in the latest example of "green on blue" violence by an Afghan military colleague.
Australia is a key partner in the Pivot, with US forces increasingly flowing through the base in Darwin.
Gillard says the tragedies won't hasten Australia's departure from Afghanistan, but that may be wishful thinking, as the deployment is very unpopular.
The news was better for Obama and the US elsewhere, especially in Tehran, heartening since it was embarrassing for Israel and the US how Iran's hosting of the 120 nations in the Non-Aligned Movement summit disputed the notion that Iran is isolated in the world.
New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader with a Ph.D. from USC, laced into Iran's ally Syria for its ongoing violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters in his speech to the summit. That prompted an angry Syrian walkout and displeasure from Iranian leaders.
And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took Iran to task for its human rights violations and for its support of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as its foot-dragging in allowing UN inspectors in to its nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat for war continues in the Israeli press, as does the fighting in Syria.
Some of Israel's backers in the US are pushing for a congressional resolution to authorize US military action against Iran, ostensibly as a tool to convince Iran that the military option is a real option and that Tehran can't simply tough out the sanctions regime and get to nuclear weapons capability.
While the usual hot air, accompanied by complaints about a shallow campaign, not exactly a novelty, emanates in American politics, the real effects of hot air are being seen in the Arctic Sea, where we now have the lowest extent of sea ice in history.
That would seem quite reasonable as a tool of leverage, but for the fact that the very same people made the very same argument in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Authorize military action as a tool to force Saddam Hussein to back away from his weapons of mass destruction program. (Which, er, didn't really exist.) Then he will take our position seriously.
What happened is that the congressional authorization was used to, wait for it, legitimize the invasion of Iraq.
Which certainly has backfired, among other things removing the most important check on Iranian power in the region and thus playing a major role in creating the present crisis.
Which is not to say that Iran is not in need of serious containment, or that its nuclear program should be viewed as peaceful and benign in intent.
But it is to say that it is rather amazing that the media isn't noticing the remarkable sameness in argumentation here, as we slide closer to a war with Iran that, like the Iraq War, has not been thought through.
Mitt Romney said last week in New Mexico that his pledge to make the US energy independent by 2020 by unleashing the oil companies is not "some pie in the sky" idea. Romney's plan depends heavily on California offshore drilling with risky techniques and leaves out the big hole his rollback of fuel efficiency standards would cause. It also ignores the fact that oil is a global market, meaning that it is not independent on price. Naturally, Romney ignored climate change and the greenhouse gases his plan would further unleash.
By now, we really don't look to Mitt Romney to think things through, do we? He's a creature of habit who clings to that old-time religion (I'm speaking in terms of political thought, not religion).
Nowhere is his clinging to the old ways that have been getting us in trouble since the first Arab oil embargo nearly 40 years ago clearer than it is on energy policy and climate change. Here we have a great encapsulation of Romney's fundamental insularity and attachment to the biggest money politics.
Not that the political media is paying attention to this, distracted as it is by conventioneering, but we learned this week that the Arctic Sea has its lowest level of ice coverage in history. Which is ironic, because it was only last week that Romney rolled out his energy program, which is naturally tied to perpetuating the same old policies promoting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Which is perfect, in a perverted sort of way, because it is these old energy economy interests which are increasingly the big unlimited funders of Romney and the super PAC mania that the Citizens United decision gave rise to.
It's all there, and all connected. Malign global impact, unlimited big money politics, increasingly conservative electioneering.
Too bad the connections aren't being made while the party rocks on.
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