As has been the case for many years, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign produced a biographical film to introduce the candidate to the American public, who traditionally start paying attention in earnest to general election campaigns right around Labor Day. The video was a dramatically produced and emotionally moving portrait of a candidate who sought that night to present an image of himself as a warm, compassionate human being that has eluded him throughout his career in presidential campaigning. Inexplicably, the convention planners decided to present this potentially influential reframing of their candidate before the broadcast TV networks started their live coverage at 10 PM Eastern/9 Central Time. Instead, the “big night” led off with an ad-libbed piece of awkward performance art that has become a viral internet punchline and a big regret point for some Republican insiders. Clint Eastwood’s speech featured a cranky, snarky and rambling interview of an empty chair, representing President Barack Obama. Looking back on the fiasco, I’m starting to find the moment an oddly apt microcosm of the 2012 Republican National Convention as a whole: A potentially well-meaning but artificial diatribe against an opponent and actions that don’t actually exist. And this diatribe, while not a new phenomenon, is being executed in a way that may be a watershed moment for the mass-mediated propagation of untruth in American politics.
The RNC convention was comprised of three nights of messages intended to define the Romney campaign and the Republican Party in 2012. There were to be four nights of such messages, before tropical storm / hurricane Isaac threatened Tampa and forced a compressed schedule. This compression led to at least one unintended moment of undisciplined, contradictory messaging on Tuesday night, when headliners originally scheduled for separate nights had to share the stage. In an important (and largely successful) primetime rhetorical debut, Ann Romney presented a humanizing portrait of her husband that was framed with a clear theme:
I want to talk not about what divides us, but what holds us together as an American family. I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good, and the deepest solace in our dark hours. Tonight I want to talk to you about love. I want to talk to you about the deep and abiding love I have for a man I met at a dance many years ago. And the profound love I have, and I know we share, for this country.
This celebration of her husband and their relationship and family was tied to Romney’s love and concern for the nation. Mrs. Romney’s speech was, however, followed up by a keynote address by Governor Chris Christie that, while delivered in an authentic manner, was deemed by a number of Republican observers as a disappointment that actually drained the energy from the room. Christie actually spoke rather minimally about Romney, focusing far more of his energy on his own record and the failures of President Obama — and leading many (including me) to wonder if this was actually his first 2016 GOP primary speech rather than a tribute to the 2012 nominee. Christie also cautioned his party and the American television audience against choosing one’s heart over one’s head:
I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved. Our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to know that social acceptance and popularity is fleeting and that this country’s principles needed to be rooted in strengths greater than the passions and emotions of the times. . . . Tonight, we choose respect over love.
Of course, the two speakers were identifying different subjects and objects: Mrs. Romney’s love for her husband and Governor Romney’s love for his country, versus President Obama’s desire to be loved by the country leading to failed governance. But the intention and implication of Mrs. Romney’s speech was clear: You should love Mitt as I do, because he’s loving and lovable. Christie’s unintended retort: “Lovability” is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. By the end of the campaign’s national relaunch night, GOP messaging about Romney as a candidate was contradictory and confusing.
Message discipline reasserted itself after Tuesday night, Eastwood’s crank session notwithstanding. So I want to turn to how the GOP and the Romney campaign disciplined their rhetorical message during the convention, using the convention’s themes as a helpful frame for making sense of what transpired, and why it troubles me.
Part 1: “We Built That.”
I share the same concern with a number of observers who have wondered out loud about the choice by the RNC to theme their first big night explicitly around a campaign meme spawned by a decontextualized distortion of President Obama’s words. By now many of us are familiar with this meme and its origin in a speech by Obama in Roanoke, Virginia this past July:
In the Roanoke speech, Obama explicitly distinguishes between and recognizes the efforts of both individual business efforts and collective public enterprise (e.g., schools, transportation infrastructure, the internet, firefighting services). These remarks were quickly and strategically edited to create the assertion that Obama attacked the successful fruits of entrepreneurship as an outcome of government action. This claim has been repeated in campaign ads, applause lines in campaign speeches, and eventually an entire slate of RNC programming on Tuesday, in which Republican pols and a variety of business owners tell stories of entrepreneurial initiative and vehemently insist “we did built that!” The speeches — which aired well before broadcast TV network coverage in the evening — were punctuated by videos that featured a choppily edited audio clip from Obama’s speech. Note the editing that removes the immediate context of the statement before the now-infamous phrase. Listen for the cut-and-paste edit 19 seconds into this video:
Oddly, Romney and his campaign has repeated this distortion, even while underscoring the actual substance of what Obama said about the importance of taxpayer-funded, government-led initiatives that makes business-building possible:
It is important to note that Republicans are by no means the sole perpetrators of cleverly edited attacks, as this photo shot at the convention and shared virally demonstrates. Funny, but it’s fake. Two images from different parts of the Times Forum floor, photoshopped together for an ironic joke.
This counterpart is important for at least three reasons: because it reminds us that partisans on both sides are capable of (re-)building a “truth” through creative manipulation, and because there is an important difference between a snarky internet photo meme and a central, high-profile component of a presidential campaign staged by a national political party, and because there is a difference between a potentially unfair exaggeration (e.g., the Republican Party supported tax cuts and spending that increased the national debt, but they are not fully culpable) and a claim that is transparently and intentionally based on an untruth (e.g., Obama did not say what the GOP claims he said, and that fact is easily supported, and has been by numerous non-partisan fact-checkers… among them Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, CNN, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, just to name a few).
There is certainly more to say about the relationship of the attacks on Obama by Romney and the Republicans relative to the findings of fact-checkers… but that’s for Part 2, gentle readers. But let’s consider how else the Republicans “built” their messaging in the convention that may tell a partial story of the party to the newly attentive American voter.
The conventions this year are being produced for broadcast networks that are only devoting three hours of live coverage, one hour each night (PBS is the exception, covering the conventions with all of their primetime hours). Well, sort of — NBC is skipping Wednesday night — when Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren will speak, as will former President Bill Clinton, who will deliver the nominating address — to air an NFL football game. They’ll air two hours on Thursday night when Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama will speak. As for the Republicans, Isaac may have compressed their schedule, but the silver lining between those storm clouds was the ability to have Ann Romney’s speech aired in prime time on the broadcast networks. The original plan had Mrs. Romney speaking on Monday night, with the broadcast networks refusing to air anything until Tuesday night. Mrs. Romney took Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s slot, shifting him to Thursday — an unintentional big break for Romney, as Rubio’s impressive speech generated energy and provided a comforting buffer between Romney and Clint Eastwood (and Eastwood’s chair).
The argument made by the broadcast networks is by now familiar, and not without merit. The networks used to air hours of primetime coverage of the conventions, but eventually the parties became cognizant of the power of television for establishing a visual and rhetorical first impression of the candidate and the campaign. In that impression, the consistency of slogans and soundbites is important (for subsequent news coverage as well as for audience retention), and evidence of intra-party discord and disorganization is dangerous — there were to be no more 1964s and 1968s. As efforts were made by the parties to turn the conventions into slickly produced spectacles of a highly disciplined (and therefore repetitive, and not-too-seldom boring) campaign infomercial message, two things happened: television news divisions perceived dwindling news value in the spectacle, and network bean-counters noted the drop in audience ratings. These decisions corresponded with the rise of 24-7 cable TV news channels, followed by new media coverage over the internet. Networks could make a clean, guilt-free decision: limit their coverage to the most newsworthy (and commercially viable) moments, and let cable TV and the internet pick up the slack.
A study by Edy and Daradanova from the University of Oklahoma published in 2009 tracked audience numbers for convention programming from 1976 (when conventions first really stopped being where candidates actually won the nomination) to 2008. Their findings call into question the conventional wisdom on whether convention converage on TV is ratings death. They found that, while TV audiences for the conventions have slipped 28% in the past three decades, audiences for all TV programming has plummeted. Simply put, the multiplicity of programming choices in the cable TV and internet environment have caused audiences for all types of programming to plummet. So, when one factors in cable TV viewers of the conventions, the overall audience has been rather stable, actually. An interesting finding was that broadcast audiences levels for conventions are roughly equivalent to those for Olympics opening ceremonies events — in 2008, they were higher than that of the Beijing opening ceremonies. This finding raises the question of whether, if promoted as aggressively as the Olympics are, the conventions might pull in even larger broadcast TV audiences. Ah, priorities.
In any event, what were the implications of this media infrastructure for the GOP’s design strategy for their general campaign launch?
One implication was the ability to negotiate a potentially vexing constraint: the need to both marginalize certain Republican constituencies that might weaken the party’s capacity to reach a broader media audience with a unified message, without jeopardizing the eventual support of those constituencies during the campaign moving forward. Another implication was the need to expand the reach of the party beyond the traditional base, without offending the traditional base. A third implication was the need to conceal any possible deviation from the central party message — focused on the economy, and Romney’s personal character — from those who might only watch the convention during the hour of broadcast network primetime coverage. So, how did they “build it?”
Media-friendly faces with undeniable constituencies from the Tea Party were represented during early primetime, before the broadcast networks switched on: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Dakota Senator Jon Thune. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite who has emerged as a controversial lightning rod figure in the party was also relegated to a very early Wednesday slot. Mainstream party stalwarts and veepstakes also-rans Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, clearly beginning their 2016 campaigns, spke near-but-not-during broadcast primetime. Up-and-coming conservative Latina/o Republicans featured prominently to display the party’s ethnic diversity: Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (who gave a compelling speech — she’s one to watch), and, of course, Marco Rubio’s introduction of the nominee. They were joined by two prominent African American Republicans, former Representative (and former Obama Democrat) Artur Davis — who spoke close to broadcast primetime — and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whose speech had foreign policy content before broadcast primetime, but pivoted to the domestic economy once broadcast primetime started. With the exception of half of Rice’s speech and Rubio’s lead-in to Romney, none of these speakers appeared during broadcast primetime, but all of them appeared close enough to it to get ample attention from the cable TV channels.
The socially conservative religious right was represented most prominently by only two speakers: former Arkansas Governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee — who spoke close-to-but-not-during broadcast primetime, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Romney’s chief rival during the primary season could not be denied a speaking slot; his relatively early evening appearance, however (before 8 PM Eastern time) was light years behind the speeches by Mrs. Romney and Christie, and guaranteed that only the cable TV news diehard audience would view his speech.
Note the scheduling pattern here: Influential voices of the Tea Party movement and the religious conservative wings of the party got speaking time, but only during cable TV news coverage time, earlier in the evening. Many observers have noted the highly polarized nature of this year’s electorate, with only 3 to 5% of voters undecided, and about 25% of voters mostly decided but potentially “persuadable.” It makes perfect sense, then, to position those most likely to alienate a small number of as-yet less engaged, centrist undecideds when only cable TV and uninterrupted streaming internet video is paying attention — since the likely viewers at that time and in those venues will be more politically interested and already committed to their candidate.
The only other primary campaign candidate to speak was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was joined by his wife Callista soon after the convention opened Thursday night, again minimizing his audience and impact. The other major GOP presidential candidates, several of whom claimed front-runner status at some point during the pre-primary season — Rep. Michele Bachmann, Gov. Rick Perry, Herman Cain — never spoke at the convention. And former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, hailed by many after 2008 as a presumptive GOP front-runner for 2012, not only did not speak at the convention, but Fox News actually cancelled her scheduled Wednesday night interviews. It seems odd that the last GOP veep candidate, who became a political and media star herself after her 2008 convention debut, would not be present or even interviewed on the evening of Rep. Ryan’s nomination and national debut address. It seems even more odd that the GOP’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain, would have a speaking slot in a relative dead zone a couple of hours before primetime. But it makes perfect sense when you consider the rhetorical infrastructure of the convention writ large: Don’t steal Romney’s thunder with a more charismatic figure, and don’t allow influential and/or controversial voices to deviate from the disciplined party message of the week.
And that brings us to Representative Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and indefatigable presidential primary gadfly who has developed a rabidly loyal following among certain libertarian conservatives and young voters. Paul’s consistently uncompromising, extreme stances on constitutional literalism, federalism in domestic policy, and anti-interventionist foreign policy make him very unpopular among the mainstream party. But he came into Tampa with claims on as many as 20 percent of RNC delegates, according to Paul, many won over as a result of quiet efforts to influence delegate assignments on the state party level once the media stopped paying attention after the primaries and caucuses. Some of these efforts, in states like Louisiana and Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, were met by responses from mainstream party officials to block or unseat delegates that were Paul supporters by compelling them to either be bound to the state party’s winning candidate or to leave. The Republican Party’s contest committee were to hear challenges throughout August from Paul supporters representing four states — Oregon, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Maine — whose Paul delegates were either ousted or in danger of being ousted. Compromise agreements were reached to seat some Paul delegates, but not enough to put Paul’s name into nomination from the floor. Paul supporters massed into Tampa by the thousands to attempt to lobby RNC delegates, who may not have been bound to Romney under extant RNC rules, to change their votes. Challenges were raised by pro-Paul delegates from Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Maine to the RNC’s Credentials Committee.
The replacement of 10 of Maine’s 24 delegates with Romney loyalists by the Credentials Committee led Maine Governor Paul LePage — a Romney supporter — to boycott the convention in protest, and led Paul supporters at the convention to protest loudly (if far from primetime coverage). In this video, note how Romney supporters chanting “U-S-A!” attempt to drown out Paul supporters chanting “Point of order!” and “Seat them now!”
After the brouhaha, The Los Angeles Times reports that
As the roll call of states [to select the party nominee] commenced, several states listed votes for both Romney and Paul. When repeating back the count, those at the podium cited only the Romney votes.
The RNC’s response to the Paul constituency? Wednesday’s events opened with a “tribute film” to Ron Paul, well before primetime, in lieu of giving the candidate any speaking time at the convention. The film featured Paul’s fiscal conservatism, but left out his controversial foreign policy positions, such as his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post, RNC security even resorted to forbidding and confiscating Ron Paul signs in case anyone wanted to display their support. As this video depicts, this poor guy couldn’t even hold up a Ron Paul campaign mouse pad — and during the Ron Paul video, to add insult to injury.
Hold on… it feels like I’ve forgotten somebody… but who? Who….? Oh, yeah, the previous two-term President of the United States, George W. Bush, who was nowhere near Tampa last week. Neither was his dad, another former Republican President of the United States, or other members of his family, save for brother Jeb, former Governor of Florida (home state of the convention, so can’t leave him out… it’d be too weird), and still popular in some mainstream GOP circles. His message on education policy, and his nearly toxic name recognition, kept Jeb out of broadcast primetime. The two former Presidents Bush, one-time party leaders in their own rights, were relegated to a soft-focus human interest tribute video, too early for most viewers to take notice.
Taking the strategic scheduling (and non-scheduling) of speakers and the disciplining of the party’s delegate counts and vote together, we can see how the GOP worked within their media constraints to build an outwardly unified message to the American television viewer, shielding them both from aspects of the GOP party platform (e.g., regarding social conservative values issues and controversies like abortion and same-sex marriage) and from dissenting or distracting voices that would detract from the primacy of Mitt Romney as the hero of the hour. At the same time, the mainstream party knew they could either rely on cable TV and internet media to reach out to the conservative base constituencies on whose support they depend in November, or marginalize them out of the process entirely, as in the case of possibly “loose cannon” former presidential candidates and renegade Ron Paul supporters.
A “unified” Republican message that finessed, concealed or exiled divergent voices in the party? They built that.
Next time: Part 2 in this series focuses on theme #2 of the Republican National Convention: “We Can Change That.” What did they change? Well, documented facts, for one thing.