The Last Convention?

Some post-Tampa thoughts.

1. I think Charlotte is blending into Tampa and Tampa into Charlotte. The conventions were perversely scheduled—no time between them, no post-convention afterglow in which people could mull, consider, remember what was said, reflect upon a line, a gaffe, a revealing little stumble. The other day it was all Romney-speech-Romney-speech, soon it will be Clinton-speech-Clinton-speech and oh-yes-Obama-speech. I think normal Americans will experience it as One Week This Team Yells, the Next Week That Team Yells. And they will remember it as a yelling blur where nothing became clarified.

2. I never before came away from a convention thinking, “I have witnessed the end of the big four-day national convention,” but I did this time, and it added a layer of poignancy to everything because I wasn’t alone. There was a sense of an ending in Tampa. I left thinking: “No great party will ever tie up a great American city for a solid week again.” You know all the reasons conventions seem over—there’s no actual struggle on the floor, everything has already been decided, everything seems prefabricated, the speeches are timed and vetted within an inch of their life.
You’ve seen the evidence that conventions are over in the plummeting viewership, and the shrug-shouldered irony of the reporters and correspondents. Something poignant there too. The network and newspaper editors, producers and reporters who were sent to the convention are by and large at the top of their field, meaning they’re 40 and 50 and 60. They remember when conventions meant something—floor fights, gavels banging at 2 a.m., last-minute calls to the Michigan delegation to change the vote. “Ohio passes!” More or less spontaneous demonstrations. Drunken delegates—oh, how much more stilted America has become with its water swilling! In 1976, not all that long ago, no one really knew going in exactly who was going to be the Republican nominee, Ford or Reagan. And everyone misses that, the mystery and the struggle, and no one is satisfied with these three- or four-day re-enactments.

3. But members of a great political party have to meet every few years—they have to get to know each other, they have to meet their rising figures, and they have a right to show their stuff to America and the world. One wonders what the parties will do, how they’ll sort this out. Someone told me this week of a party elder’s comment as he reflected on Tampa. He said the convention cost about $100 million, and he could think of a lot of better ways to spend that money with an election coming. This will be an interesting story in the future, how it all evolves.

4. I am seeing the Romney speech as good enough, did no harm, rocked no boats, but I’m starting to see it as a bit of a missed opportunity, too. Romney did nothing to jar his support, to make those who think they’ll vote for him question their decision. But he didn’t do enough to make those leaning toward him make the jump. I think leaners wanted Romney to give them more reasons to vote for him. I ran into a lot of people the past few days who I could tell really wanted to say, “I gotta tell you, when Romney said that thing about such-and-such I started to really think I’ll vote for him.” But they never said it, not once. They talked about other people’s speeches. Marco Rubio made a big impression. Chris Christie is being put down a lot by members of both parties—selfish, shouldn’t have made it about him. When people like Christie, they call him burly, a big guy who looks like an American. When they don’t like him, they call him fat. The past few days they were using the f-word. And everyone of course had an opinion on Clint Eastwood.

5. A probably final thought on that. I liked his performance, for a number of reasons—it was wild, unscripted, surprising, fun. And not without meaning: He said some things in there. But what Eastwood’s appearance unleashed was even better. When Twitter blew up and the pushback began it made me laugh out loud. I liked the president’s tweet: “This chair is taken.” But the sheer joy and wit and sarcasm and pushback and defense that erupted was . . . well, it’s like what politics used to be like, full of fight and cleverness. Our politics now are superficial and grim. They used to be superficial and full of vim, and vigor too. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s kind of a sin not to enjoy life, and politics is part of life.