These Times' GOP Convention Coverage:
Day one of the Republican National Convention starts with the National Anthem, given a sultry bubble-gum rendition by a 10-year-old Latina clone of Britney Spears. Then comes the roll call of states casting their delegate votes for Bush, a bit of tedium that sums up the strange mixture of inevitability, anticlimax and hysteria ("Mr. Chairman, the peach state, the great state of Georgia, would like to ... pass!") that is the essence of the modern political convention. Mercifully, it is cut short at Iowa or so to make way for the next musical act, the Interpreters, a Philadelphia based boy band replete with soulful eyes and sparse facial hair. As the lights dim, they launch into a song about a boy who vows to convince the girl of his dreams that he's not too "sleazy" to date. "A, B, C, D, I love you, do you love me?" they croon to the delegates, who wave their "W is for Women" signs and boogie down.
It's a strange sight as the glitz and snap of MTV rudely shove the innate dorkiness of a Republican Convention to the side; stranger still is the Clintonian tone of seductive come-on. But this is the year the Republicans finally said, we get it. They remember the 1992 and 1996 conventions, the disastrous results of Pat Buchanan's truculence and Bob Dole's last hurrah on behalf of once-potent GIs. And they've concluded from the Monica Lewinsky fiasco that a way with women is Bill Clinton's strength, not his weakness. So they have determined that this year the convention will not be a guy thing.
Hence the focus on health care, child care, tax relief for young families - what Republican operatives, giving up the euphemism of "compassionate conservatism," simply call "she issues." Tonight's session is about education, the ideal theme to appeal to suburban obsessions and to showcase the Republicans as the party of social workers of color. The usual Republican boilerplate about character and discipline is repackaged into a softly therapeutic rhetoric of self-esteem, as a parade of African-American and Latino educators extol their own successes at turning inner-city kids into neatly uniformed readers, using nothing more expensive than high expectations. The evening ends with a speech by the famously reluctant Laura Bush, who tells of George's enthusiasm for parenting and literacy. Her message to other women is clear: Like you, I thought a Bush presidency would ruin my family, but I was wrong.
To see more of the softer side of the GOP, I went to PoliticalFest 2000, a Republican-themed display venue and shopping mall covering several acres of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia. Vast displays of First Ladies' Inaugural gowns, tea sets and dioramas of the White House dining room cover the floor. Front and center at the Laura Bush Library for young readers is a
selection of Dr. Seuss books carefully chosen for their Dubya-like balance of leadership (If I Ran the Zoo) and nurturing (Horton Hatches the Egg). Beside them sits A Dance for Three, a weepie about a pregnant teen who wonders, "Did I do it because I loved him? Did I want a baby? Or was it the madness taking hold inside me?" (She gives the baby up for adoption.)
A display of presidential biographies downplays political history in favor of domestic melodrama. One of James Buchanan's three paragraphs is devoted to the tragic death of his fiancee. Ulysses S. Grant's bio tells us that "In 1873 the economy collapsed into a five year depression. But Grant's home life was happy." LBJ's blurb confides that on their very first date, Lady Bird "admitted to being attracted to him."
Computer terminals are everywhere, offering the sort of online learning technologies that are touted in the Republican platform. They're not all bad; one offers links to the Green and Reform Party Web sites, as well as an intelligent discussion of the 1896 McKinley-Bryan presidential race. Unfortunately, all the kids are clustered around a talking robot, which quizzes them with "political trivia" questions like, "Who played the president in Air Force One?" The robot is from a Pennsylvania dotcom that is clearly hoping people will press the "Technology in Pittsburgh" menu option on the video monitor. When I do, the monitor shunts into a 5-minute video about BodyMedia, a line of blood pressure cuffs and electrodes you wear to monitor your vital signs as you exercise. A salesman materializes to ask if I have any questions. The kids flee. Another menu option asks visitors to participate in a poll asking whether robots should be allowed to vote. I click on "Results" to find that "By all means we should emancipate our enslaved brothers" is losing out to "No way! They should get back to building our cars!" by a vote of 121 to 173.
Many education initiatives - classroom TV channels, or corporate-sponsored computer labs - are like the robot: vapid technological facades that cover up infomercials with sinister ideological agendas. But it's hard to tell whether Principal Bush will save kids from that or cram it down their throats. Probably neither. The convention speakers mention a Bush pledge to spend $5 billion to ensure that "every child can read at grade level by grade three" - there's a goal to fire the imagination - and there is vague talk of encouraging voucher experiments, charter schools and the like, but the platform makes it plain that education is a state and local responsibility, not a federal one.
The Bush platform is clear enough on some issues to make a lot of people recoil from the Republicans' outstretched arms. The abortion plank calls for an absolute ban, even when the mother's life is in danger. Opposition to gun control is still adamant. The INS is to be beefed up, and extended family members of immigrants excluded from entry. Right-to-work laws are endorsed, and a ban on using union dues for political activities is threatened.
But the party soldiers on in its effort to convince the public that the authentic face of Republicanism is female, brown, working-class and kid-friendly. The face of Republican tax policy is Kim Jennings, a 26-year-old single mom, in school and supporting her daughter on less than $25,000 a year. Seated in the underground convention command center, amidst a warren of cubicles housing four speech writers, a speech "developer," a speech "policy" person, a speech coach and several rehearsal rooms, Jennings told me that the Republicans contacted her through a board that administers her college scholarship. "They showed me what I was paying now," she says, "and what I would pay under the Bush plan, and it was about a $1,000 less."
Jennings would indeed pay less under the Bush plan, which cuts the lowest tax rate from 15 percent to l0 percent and doubles the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. The rich, who would receive similar tax cuts in their much larger incomes, would make out like bandits, with their tax bills cut by many thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars. And of course, the Republican plans to abolish estate taxes on the wealthy and lower taxes on married couples sail right over the heads of single moms like Jennings. But no one at the convention spoke on behalf of the rich and their heirs.
Tax policy always brings out the worst in Republicans. At the "Scrapping the Code" pseudo-debate between flat-tax enthusiast Dick Armey and sales-tax enthusiast Billy Tauzin, the Republicans pushed the envelope on what Al Gore would call risky tax schemes. I've never heard two raspy-voiced Southern congressmen promote so many false and pernicious doctrines at one time. The average American pays more to the IRS than he pays for food, clothing, shelter and transportation combined, Armey said falsely. Income taxes add 25 percent to the cost of American goods-a tax that foreign imports don't have to pay, Tauzin responded perniciously.
Armey invoked the freedom and dignity of the individual against the meddling of the tax engineers. Tauzin recalled the bravery of the patriots at the Boston Tea Party (without mentioning that they were protesting a sales tax). Suddenly, the moderator broke in with the news that the police were using tear gas and water cannons against protesters in the city. A cheer went up from the assembled Republicans.
The black-clad, masked anarchist is, of course, the iconic opposite of the Republicans' cherished soccer mom. I tagged along with an anarchist band one day as they were tailed through the streets by a mob of Philadelphia bicycle police. I've never found bike cops, with their absurd Tyrolean outfits of short pants and rakish, swept-back helmets, to be very intimidating, but the anarchists were clearly unnerved. They were wary of answering my questions, but their legal adviser urged them to "hug the media" to help ward off the police. One of the anarchists hugged me.
The anarchists insisted that they had no organization or ideology. All decisions were made by consensus. One was an anarcho-primitivist, opposed to all technology (despite the bright-yellow cell phone he kept muttering into), another an anarcho-syndicalist. Their orthodoxy is an absolutist rejection of all orthodoxy. The only thing that united them was allegiance to "the natural individual powers of the human being." I told them they sounded like Republicans. Could they make common cause with anarcho-capitalists? Sure, they said.
One 17-year-old anarchist was there with his mother, an internist from Woodstock, Massachusetts, dressed in the sensible slacks and knit shirt of a soccer mom. She wasn't an anarchist, she said, just a democratic socialist, there to provide medical care and try to keep people out of jail. Rain started to come down, and the anarchists hailed a cab.
Later in the week, I sat in as a group of Young Republicans listened to a Florida State Health Department official admonish them that Republicans could be a majority only when they claim the She Issues. But commitment seemed to waver, especially in the back of the room, where some of the more boisterous in the group loudly commented on the short skirt worn by the national co-chairwoman. She turned to them with
a pained expression and brought her thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol of tininess, a sort of genteel "fuck you" gesture I've seen a lot of Republican women use when Republican men are around.
On the surface, the Young Republicans couldn't be more different from the anarchists. Anarchists wear black denim and spiky hair; YRs wear business suits and brush cuts. Anarchists use consensus; YRs use Robert's Rules of Order. Anarchists are cagey about telling you where they're from; YRs can't stop braying about their great state of origin. And they recognize each other as the enemy. At the end of the meeting, someone announced that the Secret Service was looking for YR police officers and military personnel to volunteer for security duty against the protesters.
Unlike their anarchist counterparts, conservatives are all about orthodoxy. At the College Republican luncheon with Newt Gingrich, everyone seemed to have been exhaustively briefed by the party leadership. None would admit to being McCain supporters, although they support campaign finance reform. When asked about Dick Cheney's embarrassing congressional voting record, they uniformly responded that legislative acts are vast and compendious, so we can't be sure exactly what he was voting against, as if the Clean Water Act had been some obscure rider on a pork-barrel appropriation. They don't seem to realize how lame that sounds. They're for sales taxes but against estate taxes; for sin taxes, but against gas taxes. Hewing to the party line, they are as self-contradictory as the anarchists.
They worship Gingrich, who ends his speech on his usual note of self-satisfied futurism about the unstoppable "rate of change." Then, inevitably, in walks ex-Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten, an MTV camera crew in tow, his blazing yellow shirt festooned with drawings of the Bohr atom and the word "Web," symbols of unstoppable change. The original anarchist punk clasps hands with the original conservative globalist, the College Republicans gather round and send up a whoop of joy, and the circle is unbroken.
Fighting my way out of the dream logic of American political culture, I walk over to four waitresses standing in the corner. We talk about She Issues. Three of them have no health insurance. Should the government pay for health care? Yes, but not for the rich. How about a sliding scale? A sliding scale works for them. What about the estate tax? Not for ordinary people. How about for big estates, say over a million dollars? Yeah, rich people should have to pay the tax.
None of the four are Republicans. One is a Democrat. One likes Ralph Nader. I ask her why. "Because this," she says, sweeping her hand around the marble ballroom, toward the chandeliers far above, toward the red- white-and-blue streamer on the walls, toward Johnny Rotten sadly intoning "this space is for rent" as he poses for photos, "all this is bullshit."
Election 2000 Coverage
Mind the Bollocks
Battle of Philadelphia
I'm Voting for Nader ...
And Why I'm Not
to Deal with Gore
Labor, Old Politics
Courts the Black Vote
Great Right Hope