by E.C. Fish on September 10, 2012

ISSUE OF THE WEEK — CONVENTIONAL WISDOM?: Labor Day is, according to conventional wisdom, the kick-off point of the “real” campaign season in election years: the conventions have ended, the players and platforms have been established, and the formerly sun-and-fun-dazzled citizens are supposedly finally ready to pay attention. Unfortunately, as tightly as mainstream media reporting has tried to cling to conventional wisdom, it has thus far meant less than nothing in considering this bizarre, mutated political season, which didn’t by any means start last Monday.

Part of this has to do with a somewhat unusual political schedule this year, with both major party conventions held back-to-back and ending after the traditional Labor Day cut-off, thus blunting their impact. Somewhat more has to do with how little impact conventions have in this age of media-driven, postmodern politics. An unexpected but palpable subtext to the coverage of this year’s conventions had to do with the question of why the parties still bother to have them, with senior correspondents waxing nostalgic about the “real” conventions of the past. With the nominees predetermined, the platforms marginalized to the needs of the campaigns (Romney and party chair Reince Priebus essentially dismissed the RNC platform, while control over this year’s DNC platform was tightly held by the party establishment), and any and all ancillary controversies either bought off or suppressed, the conventions have devolved into mere media events — hours-long infomercials for the parties and their candidates that determine exactly nothing in terms of actual policy.

This further begs the question of just what the comparatively small sliver of this polarized electorate that hasn’t yet made up its collective mind is supposed to pay attention to. Convention speeches? Stump speeches? The debates? Paid advertising from the campaigns? Paid advertising from the campaigns’ private-money surrogates (showing up these days at the beginning of sponsored YouTube videos, among other places)? The news? The Onion? Stewart and Colbert? With media manipulation and psychological warfare tactics worthy of the CIA firmly in place, and with a large chunk of both the electorate and the elected showing no concern whatsoever for objective truth, a lot of what will be presented to We The People between now and November 6 is bound to be distracting, misleading, or confusing, whether by happenstance or by design.

RNC 2012 — THE ACCIDENTAL CANDIDATE VERSUS THE IMAGINARY PRESIDENT: Before the start of the Republican National Convention, conventional wisdom had it that this was Mitt Romney’s opportunity — perhaps his final opportunity — to define himself as a candidate and offer a vision of himself as a serving president. He failed quite completely to do so, offering instead as much evidence as he could muster — up to and including spousal testimony — that he is a real human being (something his campaign had failed to establish), while otherwise continuing his policy of avoiding specific content as much as possible.

It didn’t matter in the least. The dirty secret about this year’s Republican National Convention (and indeed about the Republican party as a whole) is that Mitt Romney’s place at the top of the ticket and his nominal leadership of the party is both accidental and irrelevant. He could pretty much be anybody, and — if you recall this primary season, wherein nearly every one of his opponents and occasionally people who weren’t even running regularly kept him from being number one in the polls — damn near was. One could easily imagine any number of erstwhile, would-be nominees heading the ticket and headlining the convention with only a few minor cosmetic changes.

The nomination itself is strictly plug-and-play and would look pretty much the same if the ticket read Perry/Trump. The policy agenda of the Republican party — lower taxes, less regulation, less legal accountability, and a general brief to make life as convenient as possible for the wealthy and powerful — hasn’t changed appreciably since the late 1970s, and since that time has been presented as an appropriate response to the current conditions of each and every election year, whether boom or bust, war or peace. With Republican navigation plans for the ship of state consisting of lashing down the tiller and proceeding at full sail regardless, the ideas, opinions, and governing philosophy a candidate might otherwise bring to the nomination are completely irrelevant. If anything, it has spoken in Romney’s favor that his are also completely expendable — most have changed several times over the course of his career to better conform to whatever might get him elected. Likewise, the campaign strategy Republicans have been carefully crafting for this election — voter suppression aimed at those unlikely to cast ballots in their favor, a conservative media established to propagandize whatever talking points get handed down, and effectively unlimited funding thanks to Citizens United — is sufficiently form-over-content as to work equally well for whatever figurehead happens to rise to the top.

As such, the convention that was to have defined Mitt Romney turned out to be barely about him at all. Instead, most of the speeches delivered by the prospective contenders for what is increasingly looking like an open nomination in 2016 (including keynoter Chris Christie and Romney nominator Marco Rubio) were about the personal stories and finer qualities of the people delivering them, with pro forma references to Romney and Ryan tacked on out of obligation. The rest were about an entirely imaginary version of Romney’s opponent: a tax-raising, welfare-spending, anti-Christian foreigner (and probably a Muslim, according to a shocking percentage of declared Republicans) whom they declared likely to destroy the nation either by incompetence or design, personified on the last night of the convention by an empty chair harangued at by “American hero” Clint Eastwood. Hey, they said, anybody would be better than that, right? How about Mitt?

DNC 2012 — NOT A CANDIDATE, BUT A PRESIDENT: The “design” charge (Obama’s not like us, doesn’t like us, and obviously wishes us ill; I mean, just look at him) and the “incompetence” charge (his failure to “git ‘er done,” as beloved redneck comedian and commercial pitchman whatshisname might put it) were neatly refuted last week by a Democratic convention that was both a point-by-point rebuttal and tonal polar opposite of the Republican presentation the week before. While the Republicans spent their week offering a litany of negativity and fear in hopes of making their candidate seem a preferable and urgently needed alternative, the Democrats effectively presented the actual accomplishments of a president who (despite Republican best efforts) is still personally well liked by a majority of voters, as well as the plans — sometimes in stultifying detail — that Republicans spent the prior week pretending he didn’t have.

Lacking the freak-show fascination and factual train-wreck-but-I-cannot-look-away appeal of the RNC, the DNC was (for me, at least) best appreciated in its highlights, which addressed the Republicans’ indictments of their imaginary Barack Obama directly. First Lady Michelle Obama’s first-night keynote presented her family as normal and relatable, and her husband as the genuinely caring individual that polls indicate most people think he is in the first place. Bill Clinton’s chapter-and-verse fact-check on the second night — in addition to highlighting the complete absence of the Republicans’ most recent two-term president from their convention — laid out the conditions faced by Obama when he assumed office and the publicly declared Republican program of obstruction that hindered him, even with the mythical “filibuster-proof” Congress of the early term. Finally, the president himself presented the election as a clear choice between “a president and a candidate” and the future of the country as dependent on the choices and commitment of its citizens, as opposed to the top-down vision offered by the Republicans.

It was a successful, if not entirely satisfying, display. Despite an emphasis on foreign policy that contrasted nicely with the complete inexperience of Romney and Ryan, little mention was made of the drone program or the human rights issues it raises. And despite a record of accomplishments, it is hard to forget just how many of this president’s problems are of his own making, and how many of the solutions he proposed in his first term were designed — I’d actually say diluted — to appeal to an opposition that very early on indicated no interest in working with him. The convention argued quite convincingly for the Republican role in obstructing the nation’s progress over the last four years, but given Obama’s record of clumsy conciliation, I can only hope that he himself was listening.

AND IN THE END . . . : With both conventions over and the campaign season supposedly about to begin in earnest, we effectively find ourselves where we were two weeks ago,  with the numbers shifted ever so slightly into a slim Obama lead. While the Democrats won the convention face-off pretty decisively, it is a far cry from winning the election, and things are bound to get both weirder and nastier from here. Stay tuned . . .

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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