I had a decision to make. I'd been in Tampa for all of 15 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 prime time. 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 Nov. 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 6-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 U.S. 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 of Fox News, death panels, MSNBC, bailouts, Twitter, birthers, Facebook and Occupy [Insert Location Here].
"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," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), 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 as reasons 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, 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."
Frankly, I've become exhausted with being a speck of mortar in one brick wall butting its head against another. I've got bigger catfish to noodle. After the 2008 election, I turned 30, and then it quickly turned on me. I became a father, got a "real" job and moved to the suburbs. In short, I'm as Republican as I'll ever be.
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.
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 grass-roots 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 inferred that the U.S. 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 precocious rise of hard-line candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
"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. "We have some outstanding, talented people who are representing the future of the party and of the conservative movement."
Speaking to the Unity Rally about the official party positioning, Bachmann declared that "the Tea Party is all over that platform." It was a sentiment echoed by the event's keynote speaker, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who cited vigilance and the unification of conservative voices as the key to defeating Obama.
"Stay informed," Cain implored the crowd solemnly, "because stupid people are ruining America."
For all the rewards – and risks – that the Tea Party provides to Republicans, arguably no individual holds more power in keeping the conservative alliance intact than former GOP presidential candidate and Libertarian idol Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
You'd be hard-pressed to find a legislator with a more passionate, quixotic and flat-out perplexing political fan base. We're talking about a guy whose platform of limited government and individual liberty had his supporters flocking to a three-day P.A.U.L. Festival in Tampa leading up to the RNC.
The night before the convention, Paul loyalists gathered at a waterfront bar called Whiskey Joe's for a late-night event hilariously titled "Ron Paul's Liberty Rocks Beach Party" featuring Blues Traveler frontman John Popper and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan.
In a bizarre scene, dudes sporting goatees and cargo shorts threw back Coronas on the beach alongside guys in full suits as they discussed the merits of the Keystone Pipeline, how the tax system is institutional thievery and why the Federal Reserve should be investigated. All while being pelted with swirling wind and rain brought on by Hurricane Isaac.
"We're all very independent-minded, and that's one of the great things about the liberty movement," said Bryn Dennehy, a 24-year-old college student who traveled from Eugene, Ore., to support Paul. "On the flip side, that means everybody kind of wants to do their own thing, so it can be kind of hard to get everybody organized and all in one place."
Nevertheless, Paul supporters had the second-most visible presence on the streets of Tampa besides the thousands of khaki-clad law-enforcement officers deployed during the convention. The city had braced for upwards of 5,000 protestors. Instead, it got a whole lot of weak sauce.
The convention perimeter was fortified for an invasion. Instead, the only "activists" to show were Ron Paul supporters, bored street kids, a few curbside preachers, two anti-gay groups, some Scientologists and a couple of scattered groups advocating assorted causes.
The only protesters to show any balls, so to speak, were Code Pink activists wearing giant vagina costumes. Members of the women-led social-justice organization also managed to infiltrate the Tampa Bay Times Forum disguised as prim partisans. When they stood up and began shouting "People over profits!" in an attempt to disrupt Romney's acceptance speech, they were quickly subdued and led away amid arena-wide chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
The lack of dissent expressed at the RNC by virtually anyone not affiliated with Ron Paul wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Romney. It quickly became clear – in the way people chose their words like it was their last meal – that few were completely enamored with the nominee.
"It's hard to find the perfect candidate," said Jerry T. Miller, a Kentucky delegate and Louisville Metro Council member. "If I could, I'd probably take a quarter of Romney, a quarter of Ron Paul, a quarter of Rick Santorum and maybe a quarter of Newt Gingrich."
That sound you hear is liberals collectively shuddering. Then again, in an era of super PACs gone wild after being unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, anything is possible in an election where both campaigns will collectively spend more than $2 billion. The role of money became uncomfortably obvious at an event with an open bar when I was randomly introduced to a third-party congressional candidate from a Midwest swing state.
"I'm a journalist," I blurted, recognizing that the candidate was about two drinks past three sheets to the wind.
"Here's what I need from you," she slurred, undeterred. "I need you to get together with your friends and raise $250 to $500 for me because I need at least $100,000 to even run a shoestring campaign."
If I needed that kind of scratch, I'd be liver-deep in free drinks, too. Luckily for the fledgling politicians in attendance, there was plenty to go around. National conventions represent a golden opportunity for companies, lobbyists, super PACs and partisan organizations to ply people of influence with everything from gratis Grey Goose to a complimentary Kid Rock concert.
Needing a break from the RNC chaos, I slipped away one afternoon for something a bit more practical and grounded: a visit to the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg. I made it as far as the gift shop before I was informed that the museum was closing early for a "private event."
"We never shut down early," the lady at the ticket counter told me in a hushed tone. "We close on Thanksgiving and Christmas – that's it."
Judging by the large phalanx of Men in Black talking into their sleeves, I figured it was somebody big, somebody important. Romney? Ryan? Turns out, it was a reception celebrating Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, sponsored by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Talk about surrealism.
Money is famously a non-issue for the Republican presidential candidate. But while unbridled enthusiasm for Romney may be lacking, complete vitriol for Obama – supplemented by the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the VP nominee and the adoption of a conservative-friendly party platform – is clearly fueling the campaign.
"There has always been a passionate sense of need and urgency to defeat this president," Cardenas said. "But you also want to be excited about the ticket. I think with the selection of Paul Ryan, the adoption of the platform and that sense of urgency, we're getting a confluence of factors that are really energizing people."
Make no mistake, partisans thrive on red meat. Talk meaningfully about bipartisan compromise and you'll receive irritated silence. Mention 9/11, freedom, the American Dream and Barack Hussein Obama in the same sentence and your likeness will be carved into Mount Rushmore by sundown. George W. Bush may be gone, but you're still either with us or against us.
"This isn't the time for middle-of-the-road politicians," Cardenas said. "The only way Congress is going to move forward is if either party has the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress. Our focus is on a Republican majority."
That much was apparent at a screening of the documentary Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny, part of an RNC film series operated by a company called Citizens United Productions, which offers such titles as Occupy: Unmasked (introduced by Bachmann) and The
Hope & the Change (a film about Democrats and independents who've turned on Obama).
During the screening of Reagan, the audience cheered when the Gipper intoned, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" and was practically giddy when he said, "There is no substitute for victory." The room was silent when the documentary – narrated by Newt Gingrich and his unblinking wife Callista – mentioned Reagan's record of achieving across-the-aisle accords.
After the screening, I asked Gingrich – who was on hand to introduce the film and shuck merch – what the bipartisan prospects were for a Romney administration. He echoed the aspirations of a clean Republican sweep in November.
"Look, if we win control of the Senate, he'll be able to put together a majority coalition and there will be a handful of Democrats who will vote with him," Gingrich said. "If that doesn't happen, it's much harder. If Harry Reid is still the majority leader, it is going to be very hard to get things done that we want to get done."
But in order to energize enough voters to unseat Obama, the Republicans have been forced into an awkward position of maintaining a hard-line stance that appeals to the base while trying to expand the "big tent" far enough to soften its image and mobilize more moderate Republicans and independents.
That approach seemed to manifest itself in an RNC panel discussion promisingly titled "Can we have a bipartisan debate about health care reform?" After some legitimately thoughtful discussion among an all-Republican panel, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) concluded, "I think we can do it, and we can do it in a bipartisan fashion."
As satisfied attendees filtered out of the room, they passed a table stacked with literature that included a promotional card for the book Why Obamacare is Wrong for America (authored by the panel moderator), a brochure titled "The 10 Worst Things About Obamacare" and a Forbes article with the headline "The real tragedy of Obamacare has yet to be felt by the poor."
One thing that was becoming readily apparent as I forged my way through convention week was a collective – if almost universally unrecognized – penchant for cognitive dissonance.
"The Republican Party is not anti-immigration," Alejandro Capote, a 20-year-old Florida State University student (and Florida delegate) told me. "We support immigration. We just support legal immigration."
The fact that Capote had just finished telling me the harrowing story of how his father hand-built a raft in a failed effort to flee his native Cuba and immigrate – illegally – to the United States didn't seem to register.
I received a similar – though more nuanced – response from Clarke Cooper, national executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay conservatives, when I asked him about the staunch position supporting the Defense of Marriage Act written into the party's official convention platform.
"While the platform language is abysmal," Cooper began, measuring his words, "I was heartened to see the debate and the dialogue that occurred. I think it reflected the push-pull within our party on these issues. The trend is in our favor."
Cooper rightfully pointed out the fact that Log Cabin has earned an increasingly visible and substantive position within the Republican Party. His view is that the doggedly conservative stance on DOMA held by the GOP is a "last gasp."
Then again, the group is still understandably cautious. I was allowed to interview delegates attending a Log Cabin event at a posh waterfront restaurant but was forbidden from taking pictures. One guest understood the sensitivities better than most.
"Gay Republicans have much more of a voice today than they've ever had," said former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, one of the first Republican members of Congress to acknowledge his sexual orientation. "Sure, I'm dismayed when moderates don't get their voice heard – and I guess you'd have to consider gay Republicans on the moderate side of things – but it's a gradual progression that I think we're going to see continue."
It's a measured approach that's been adopted by what Herman Cain flamboyantly calls the "ABCs" or American Black Conservatives. And, yes, I can confirm that they do exist, despite the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that was bandied about during convention week surmising that Romney figured to gain exactly 0 percent of the African-American vote.
Dr. Carol Swain, a former Democrat, was a featured panelist at an RNC forum titled "Black People and the Republican Party – A Historic Perspective." Her fellow panelists included Tim Johnson (founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation) and Rev. C.L. Bryant, an ardent Tea Party supporter who starred in a documentary called Runaway Slave that aired in Tampa in the same theater showing the conservative breakout film 2016: Obama's America to packed houses.
"On election night 2008, I was doing analysis for BBC Radio, and I told 186 million people that I thought Obama supporterswould have buyer's remorse, and everybody was shocked," said Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt University. "I think the black community is worse off because of his election. I wish it had been a different black person who was elected the first black president; I wish it was somebody that I knew loved my country."
In many ways, the eerie calm that follows a storm is worse than being trapped in the clenched teeth of its wrath. All that's left is to survey the damage. My room at the Wyndham Tampa Westshore had been hit hard by the storm. Debris was strewn across the desk and side table and on top of the coffeemaker, beds and TV stand and was slowly creeping across the floor toward the bathroom.
There were piles of crumpled papers, parking permits and press badges. A small mountain of creased business cards, road maps and newspapers with blaring headlines like "ISAAC INTRUDES," "ON THE ATTACK" and "MITT'S PROMISE." Two tape recorders containing hours of rants and laments, diatribes and monologues, pleas and pontification. Two notebooks filled with delirious scrawls. A pile of clothes best suited for an incinerator.
The speeches had been given, messages delivered, facts massaged. The balloons had fallen. The confetti had flown. Now, another crossroads.
"So here we stand," Romney had said. "Americans have a choice. A decision."