I had a decision to make. I'd been in Tampa for all of fifteen minutes, and I was already late for something, anything, everything — a white rabbit with OCD, searching for Mad Hatters. Of course, I knew that the real Republican National Convention would occur far from the Klieg lights and sound bites of primetime. It'd be found in closed-door meetings, invitation-only events, and the visceral experience of witnessing the awkward, painful birth of history in the making.
The week before the RNC began, that manifested itself in the creation of the official GOP platform. According to a Washington Post account, proposed initiatives included returning to the gold standard, safeguarding against Sharia law, loosening gun regulations, building a new border fence, and excluding female soldiers from combat duty.
My choices were less reasonable. At that very moment, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing an exclusive gig downtown, Log Cabin Republicans were gathering at a bar called The Rusty Pelican, and throngs of delegates, dignitaries, and media were gaping at bright, shiny things dangled by the Tampa Bay Host Committee at Tropicana Field.
Instead, I opted to drive my Democrat-blue rental car with Rhode Island plates to the gritty outskirts of eastern Tampa for a Tea Party gathering dubbed "Unity Rally 2012." As Hurricane Isaac veered left, I was about to turn hard right.
A lot has changed since November 4, 2008, not the least of which is the hope for change that carried Barack Obama to the White House. That election night, millions cheered, doves sang, and unicorns galloped through the streets of Chicago as Oprah and I sniveled like six-year-olds.
Four years later, we're in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Beyond global recession and worldwide political upheaval, the tenor of US politics is wedged in the grease trap of Sylvia Plath's oven. The partisan divide has reached Grand Canyon proportions while the national discourse has sunk deep into a fetid swampland.
"Too often in today's poisonous atmosphere, those of us who reach across the aisle to work with colleagues of a different party end up vilified by both the far left and the far right," Senator Susan Collins, a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, told me in an email. "As one constituent said to me: 'Why can't you all be Americans first?'"
It's an election year, for starters. Republicans cite rabid liberalism, socialist agendas, and Obama's utter lack of leadership as their excuse for being obstructionists. Democrats clamor about radical conservatism, cynical right-wing sabotage, and the hot mess Obama inherited for their apparent impotence. It's the worst game of But They Did It First ever.
"For both sides, it isn't about what's best for the country anymore; it's about what's best for the party every time," said Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George W. Bush. "That's extremely disheartening for people who truly care about public service. Our Founding Fathers worried about a time when political party would supersede policy, and I think we're there."
Still, I don't really blame Mitt Romney or the team of Jim Henson Company puppeteers in charge of animating his facial expressions during stump speeches. He's a well-intentioned, self-aware Manchurian Candidate doing what it takes to fulfill a family legacy and get to Pennsylvania Avenue, even if it means pouring out a little pander-flavored Meow Mix for feral birthers with his "Nobody's ever asked to see my birth certificate" quip just before the RNC.
Candidates will be candidates. My focus in Tampa was of a broader scope to see if there is any room for moderation left or if we are, in fact, in the middle of an ideological civil war. Beg your pardon. An "Ideological War of Northern Aggression." This is the South, after all.
Whether you view the Tea Party as a beacon of light or the heart of darkness, there's no denying that the passionate consortium of pissed-off conservatives represents both the fervent desire for a better future and the philosophical abyss that divides the country's partisans. Virtually every Republican I spoke to during the RNC believes that the Tea Party is unfairly maligned and its key issues (fiscal conservatism, small government, taxes) frequently misrepresented. Liberals see the Tea Party as the end result of conservatives going off their meds en masse. Republicans see a grassroots return to conservative principles.
There was supporting evidence for both arguments at the Unity Rally. Dustin Stockton, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, told several hundred attendees — some waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags, others dressed in colonial garb — that "what we're proposing isn't radical; it isn't extreme." He then implied that the US Postal Service should be abolished.
Stockton was preceded by conservative talk-show host Neil Boortz calling Democrats "the looters, the moochers, the parasites" and Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips pulling a Chuck Heston in offering his freedom and liberty to Obama and company "when you pry it from my COLD! DEAD! HANDS!"
What the movement has indisputably done is energize Republicans and accelerate the swift rise of hardline candidates like Representative Michelle Bachmann and Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
"I'm very excited about the new generation of conservative leaders," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). "We have some outstanding, talented people who are representing the future of the party and of the conservative movement."
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