R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Dispatches From the Cheap Seats at the RNC:
Part Two

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday ReviewEditor

1. Reaching for the Bottled Water

It’s amazing what a few months can do. Time has a way of clarifying things and bringing events into focus. The much-watched, endlessly discussed presidential election of 2012 is now over. My neighbors have finally taken down their yard signs (half were pro-Obama, half pro-Romney) and removed their bumper stickers. There are no robotic calls, and my land line phone sits in relative silence between the few genuine calls from garden-variety telemarketers or—and here’s a shock—people who actually know me. Television viewers in Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and Florida are no longer assaulted by a continuous barrage of mostly negative ads. There is decompression, there is sobriety, and there is clarity.

Such is the case for me as I finally complete this piece, which is “Part Two” of a longer essay about my experiences at the Republican National Convention this past August. (see Dispatches From the Cheap Seats at the RNC: Part One). In the many weeks and months since the election, much time and effort has been placed on understanding the larger dilemma which now besets the GOP.

There is open friction within the Republican Party. Days ago, Rand Paul engaged in a remarkable Senate filibuster with a singular purpose: extract a straight answer from the President about the use of drones as a tool for covert surveillance and (in theory) pre-emptive violence against Americans on U.S. soil. Instead of serving as a rallying point for his GOP colleagues, Rand’s nearly unprecedented libertarian stand evoked sneers and snarky commentary from many of within his own party, including Lindsay Graham and John McCain. A day later, McCain chafes at questions of his own loyalty to his GOP brethren, getting angry in a nasty exchange with Fox News anchor Sheppard Smith and belittling Paul’s one-man-stand.

And this was just the latest vignette—on a slow news day, no less—in a long, dark chapter in the current GOPs narrative.

A little over a month ago Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as President, joining the elite club of modern chief executives who make it through a first term with their political capital intact. Now, facing a net loss of clout in Congress, Republicans face the harsh mechanism of compromise—as well as a President whose inauguration speech in January moves him decisively from bipartisan conciliator to left-of-center facilitator, and an opportunity, perhaps, for liberalism to reclaim a piece of high ground not available to them since the days of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Still, only days after the inauguration, partisanship seemed alive and well as outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced grilling by Republicans over her management of State in those infamous hours before, during and after the deadly terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton was combative, irritable and, at times, dismissive of the whole tragic affair. And despite her attempts to minimize the failures in Benghazi as yesterday’s news, the GOP members pummeled her on the fine points until her discomfort finally spilled over into open irritation. The next day, former senator John Kerry was grilled by the same Senators under somewhat warmer circumstances as he prepared to take over Clinton’s old job at State and prepare for his taking-stock tour of Europe and Asia.

In all, Obama’s second inauguration drew a measurably smaller crowd, and there was little in the way of controversy or excitement, unless you count the seemingly pointless flap over Beyonce’s apparent lip-synching of The National Anthem.

The great American penchant for spending, borrowing and printing money was—for over a month—displaced by gun violence and a new push for stricter controls on high-powered automatic weapons. The arguments, pro and con, seemed as divisive as ever as the issue seemed to eclipse all other national factors. There was the President’s state-of-the-union address, in which Republicans sat in grim, stony silence while Democrats applauded, sometimes with wild enthusiasm, sometimes with weepy eyes. Both sides of the aisle appeared in their comic extremes as if thrown back decades: the granite-faced offspring of flinty-eyed Goldwater curmudgeons versus the misty-eyed, glistening Hubert Humphrey smile-buttons, their starched shirts stained red from the blood seeping from wounded liberal hearts.

Despite partisanship and scenery-chewing inside, reality stood quietly just outside the doors of the Capitol as fears of more recession mixed queasily with a dramatic, nearly unprecedented rise in gas and energy prices. Working Americans saw a bite taken from their paychecks thanks to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and the dollar continues to plunge in value against the world’s currencies. Economists worry that the cumulative impact of these factors will surely trigger another long round of recession. Then, in the final days of February, the enduring budget standoff brought Americans to the brink and beyond—again—with a partial shutdown of some government agencies and services, also known as sequester. Neither the White House nor Congress was willing to budge. Democrats say the issue is revenue. Republicans say the issue is spending. As of the beginning of March thousands of federal services were minimized, suspended, or otherwise shutdown—a temporary measure until the politicians resolve this latest quarrel.

GOP members of congress blame an arrogant White House, and Obama and his surrogates blame intransigent Republicans. Tours of the White House and other Washington sites are shut down, the President’s golf trips are under scrutiny, and emails seem to indicate both sides are willing to let things—even encourage things—to get a lot worse. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans now think that no one in Washington truly has the courage or moxie to enact positive change.

On Friday, March 1 the President—much to the consternation of sci-fi fans everywhere—mixed his metaphors by declaring his inability to employ “a Jedi mind-meld” to open a brass-tacks dialogue with the GOP on taxes and spending, leaving George Lucas confounded and Gene Rodenberry twisting in his grave.

Despite a stand-off that makes the field appear level, Republicans find themselves on the outside looking in, and, stuck momentarily in the wilderness, they fight amongst themselves.

Though it had largely subsided by January, a fresh round of the revolving blame game has started again, this time pitting the angry grassroots forces of the Tea Party against the more Machiavellian brain trust around Karl Rove. Rove seeks to develop a long-range plan to moderate the GOP at all levels, screening candidates more carefully to filter or reshape potential political-incorrectness before it explodes in the next round of House and Senate races (a rare case where I actually agree with Rove). Some Tea Partiers see this as meddling with the forces of shoe leather democracy, and an intrusion into open and honest debate. An ill-conceived and downright ugly email campaign by Tea Partiers last week depicted Rove in a digitally retouched photo image of a Nazi officer, describing him as scheming to control the selection of GOP candidates by depriving rank and file Republicans of their rightful opinions, and rewarding instead establishment candidates and big money interests. Rove’s defenders say that the Tea movement has become a pointless, self-destructive rabble of purists, hooligans and malcontents. The rift seems strangely familiar: it was Democrats who fought internally in this way—pragmatic centrists versus idealistic progressives—a decades-long war with a lineage dating back to the late 1960s. That feud cost Democrats dearly in many elections, and now savvy GOP strategists fear that this new Republican family quarrel may have grave consequences for the big party of Eisenhower and Reagan.

With last November’s result still stinging, and ringing in the ears like a bad case of tinnitus, some backchannel finger-pointing remains active: Rove, Clint Eastwood, Mike Blumberg, Colin Powell, Chris Christie, Hurricane Sandy—all had their fifteen minutes of fame playing the role of the great goat of Republican disaster. And that’s just a partial list, those names with the most immediate resonance in the headlines. There were plenty of other distractions, from Donald Trump’s continuous thread of birther commentary to Rush Limbaugh’s multiple stink bombs, to that hidden camera view of Romney at a posh fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, possibly fatal to the former governor for its viral power to define him to at least half of the country. And there was Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democrats in Charlotte, surely the best convention speech by any politician in 20 years, and certainly the single most effective and eloquent endorsement of the Obama administration yet offered—a vindication of the first term that seemed beyond the grasp of Obama himself.

And there was plenty of blame to go around when it came to the Republican pollsters and numbers wonks. In the final weeks, buoyed by a better-than-expected debate performance in their first match-up, Romney seemed to gain a breathtaking momentum. Based on which polls one read, the surge brought him to within striking distance of Obama, or put him squarely alongside the President in a dead heat. This condition seemed briefly to confirm two things that many in the GOP suspected but could not prove decisively: many of the major polls all along had been skewed—inadvertently or deliberately—in favor of the sitting president; and that some voters were withholding their outright preference for Romney, much in the same way many undecided voters waited until the last days and hours to break decidedly toward Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But somehow the GOP numbers-crunchers got it wrong on every count except for Virginia. Wisconsin proved hopeless, despite Paul Ryan’s presence on the ticket. Pennsylvania was a Hail Mary, just as expected. Colorado wasn’t even close. In the end Ohio fell to the Democrats more-or-less the way some of the mainstream pollsters had predicted. Even Florida, caught in another near deadlock on Election Day, eventually fell narrowly to Obama despite those obviously flawed last minute polls released by The Florida Times-Union and other newspapers in the Sunshine State. In truth, some of the inaccurate last-minute surveys showing Romney with a slight advantage in Florida and Ohio—trumpeted loudly on Fox News an CNN, seized publicly by Republicans and expanded virally by conservative bloggers—may have further inspired tech-minded Democrats into what was arguably the biggest get-out-the-vote campaign since the 1960s. Aberrant polling begat Democratic fears of another cliffhanger, which begat that final push in Ohio, Colorado and Florida. Overconfident Republicans waited for that perfect roll of the dice.

Plenty of blame to assign all around, and—despite the mountains of money spent, billions by both sides, though Republicans outspent Democrats overall—it still came down to superior numbers at the voting booth. Democrats, using every new school technology and every time-honored old school form of voter-turnout, hustled harder and for longer hours. Negative ads and robotic calls can only take a campaign so far, just as blame is ultimately inadequate for the task—though it feels rewarding as it is being delivered.

For a few days there were other scapegoats—real or imagined. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc and unbridled destruction across multiple states, destroying communities, straining emergency services, plunging some areas into power outages that lasted months, and inflicting severe damage to the barely-recovered economies of the affected regions. Thousands were without homes, and many are homeless even now. This was bad news all around, but in those finals days before the election it can be argued that the enormity of the catastrophe redirected the national conversation away from presidential politics, depriving Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan of what may have amounted to several days of newsworthy momentum. But as I pointed out in my essay Anatomy of a GOP Loss: Part Two, none of the states affected by Sandy were likely to fall into GOP hands anyway—momentum or no—even if New York Mayor Blumberg had remained silent on the subject of global weather, and even if New Jersey governor Chris Christie had been less chummy with the visiting President Obama.

Besides, using weather as a scapegoat has never made much sense, especially now that so many voters are able to complete their ballots ahead of time. Furthermore, one’s strategic planning should certainly take into consideration the worst that might happen, and recent history has shown us what under-preparedness did for John Kerry in Ohio in 2004, and, likewise, the decisive role it played in Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000. Was voting machine confusion in Palm Beach County and Volusia County the pivotal factor that year? Or was the real issue those 14,470 votes cast for Ralph Nader in Florida?

Amidst all the recriminations and finger-pointing a few savvy, sober people were already looking ahead. By Thanksgiving there as the inevitable early betting and handicapping for 2016 (no rest for the weary nor the wicked), the next truly wide open Presidential election year—meaning that unless vice president Joe Biden decides to run himself (an unlikely scenario), there is no individual ascending by default to the front-runner position of either major party. There are the fully vetted recent GOP candidates to keep an eye upon—Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan, to be sure. There are the old pros and familiar heavyweights—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Tim Pawlenty to name three of the more prominent. And there are those Republicans seen as the future—Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Susanna Martinez, to name but four.

Christie’s stock seems to have risen a bit in recent weeks, even as Rubio—the man whom comedian Bill Maher calls the GOPs token brown man—made bottled water infamous during his response to the State-of-the-Union, when he reached for a bottle of Poland Springs while still staring into the live camera. And only days ago Jeb Bush demurred when asked to give a straight-up answer as to whether he would seek the presidency in 2016. Bush and Christie are each seen as potential conciliators, and certain facilitators for a new, improved GOP center-of-gravity.

Meanwhile, the early betting has begun for the Democrats as well. Assuming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton survives the lingering political fallout from the Benghazi attacks—and assuming she recovers from her recent concussion and other health issues, the key factors which seemed briefly to preclude her from testifying to a Senate committee on the profound failure of the State Department to prepare for the potential violence—we can expect the former Secretary of State to be at the top of the list of contenders, at least until she declares otherwise. Though she has been notably evasive on this subject when asked directly in recent interviews, media speculation has made her candidacy all-but-inevitable, and the positive effects of her partnership with Obama reached love-fest proportions during their recent combined interview on 60 Minutes, in which the President seemed to fall only a single sentence short of endorsing a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016.

On Facebook and other social media Democratic friends are posting images of buttons and bumper-stickers pointing to a 2016 Dream Ticket consisting of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Republican friends already pine for a Bush III candidacy with Chris Christie in the co-pilot’s seat. Or, vice-versa.

In the fast-track, front-loading of national politics, such early betting is no longer a parlor game for the politically-addicted or for those journalists with too much time on their hands. It is a necessity, especially for party operatives, potential candidates, and those political mercenaries whose livelihoods are linked to candidacies. This pressure affects both major parties, but over the next few years the GOP—most especially—has much work to do. GOP co-chair Sharon Day has admitted as much in recent interviews: the party was out of touch with realities on the ground, despite the pre-November view (mine included) that it was the Obama White House suffering from a profound disconnection.

Republicans now find themselves in such a position of relative weakness in Congress that substantial compromise will now become the operating template on issues ranging from gun control to fiscal responsibility. Despite a lot of heated, red-faced rhetoric and stubborn, blue-faced breath-holding, the GOP must take several steps forward (or backward, depending on one’s viewpoint) toward the Democrats on the issue of taxes, spending and the much-dreaded fiscal cliff, and even those among the Democrats predisposed toward budget restraint and prudence will find it hard to resist the Obama administration’s call for unity in the face of Democratic gains in the House and Senate. The GOP has its back against the wall.

2. Another Fork Stuck in the Road

For that reason, “Part Two” of this essay will dovetail directly from where I left off eight weeks ago: with that huge high-definition prompter monitor on the back wall of the GOP convention in Tampa—a big screen upon which scrolled in totality literally every sentence and every word and every pause spoken from the main podium. The image of that scripting and prompting mechanism stuck in my mind, and has grown larger as the weeks and months have passed.

So instead of more chatter about the Tampa Bay Times Forum and its surroundings—from the infinite supply of bottled water to the thousands of friendly volunteers, from the Facebook kiosk to the “GOP Shoppe,” from the departure of Stephen Baldwin to the arrival of Clint Eastwood, there is instead the opportunity to dovetail this article into the concept of scripting—the very place where we left off a few months ago in my review of the 2012 Republican National Convention.

The notion of scripting—a reliable fixture of convention planning for both parties since the 1980s—attaches itself neatly to the concept of message, and tone. But this may be in fact where the GOP found its most profound failure in the long run-up to 2012. For all its copious scripting, the Republican Party was already gravely off of its base footprint long before the convention was gaveled to order in late August of 2012.

It is unfortunate for Mitt Romney that his defining moment came during a fund-raiser among a few dozen heavy hitter donors in Florida—at a Boca Raton fundraiser in which he was secretly recorded suggesting that 47% of the country had little, if any, predisposition toward the GOP, for indeed that 47% was socially and economically beholden to the longstanding and generally successful Democratic template of entitlement and dependency. Romney’s words seemed barely menacing when read in print, and certainly nothing politically incorrect. In fact, the text of the speech is numbingly anti-climactic, and when I first read it in print form online days after the whole affair had started its upward trajectory in the media and on the internet, I wondered what the fuss was about. Hadn’t plenty of Republicans and even some honest Democrats been saying the same thing more-or-less continuously since about 1970? Dedicated social liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a neo-liberal Democrat, had used practically the same words 40 years ago to describe the gentrification of those below the middle class boundaries, and their semi-permanent dependency on government assistance.

Romney’s audio, however, makes it a bit more troubling for many listeners (the video portion is pointless, since all that can be seen is the backside of a few dinner guests and the occasional passing waiter). Coupled with the economic disparity of the day—a room filled with big-ticket donors, some of whom would that night gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Romney candidacy at a time when many Americans had virtually no income and literally no savings—that voice made the hidden camera clip a source of great joy for Democratic strategists in Chicago and Washington. Those words became the great wedge, a tool to enable what Rubio was routinely calling the President’s strategy of “divide and conquer.” The Republicans had no equivalent blunt weapon. Even the video footage of a young Illinois State Senator Obama talking once again about redistribution of wealth had little effect after a day or two, and seemed a recycling of similar unguarded comments by candidate Obama back in 2008. For many younger voters, especially those under the age of 40, the “redistribution” flaps and the accusations of “socialism” seemed obscure, even pointless, four years ago, and they became empty barbs by 2012.

Romney’s 47% remark, which had in fact languished in the backwaters before it was picked up by Mother Jones magazine, became the turning point…that fork stuck in the road, to paraphrase Billy Joe and the fellows from Green Day. And no amount of Tele-Prompter scripting or electronic spin-management would correct the damage once the convention came to order in Tampa. Other than those few awkward minutes with Clint Eastwood, everyone gathered in that huge arena by the bay had the time of their life, and there was an expectation that the GOP’s day of vindication would come in November.

Instead, Romney’s remarks about the 47% became his defining achievement. There’s an ancient political rule which some say trumps all others: never, under any circumstances, let your opponent paint your portrait. With those unguarded remarks in Boca Raton, Romney gave the Democrats and the Obama campaign all the artist’s tools—canvas, brushes, oil and acrylic paints, extenders, color palette, even the easel.

A close friend—neither Republican nor Democrat, but someone I would describe as a true independent (and there are indeed few of those)—told me recently that it was inevitable that Romney would implode in the manner that he did, with the albatross of some off-the-cuff remark girdled around his neck, for Romney, as we saw during the endless debate season of 2011 and 2012, was his best when he was on his script, and, at his worst when off script. Romney’s generally consistent, steady performances through the GOP debates became his sturdiest quality, sustaining his front-runner status despite the sometimes grueling, merciless pummeling he received from his GOP competitors. His level, consistent performance in those rare interviews also burnished his position.

His unscripted, unguarded moments, however, produced occasional chaos and disruption—to say the least—and on several occasions provided moments of inescapable negative blowback. From jauntily extending his right hand toward Rick Perry in that infamous challenge to a $10,000 bet, to his offhand comment during an interview about middle class economic pressures that he was not overly “concerned about the poor or the rich,” to his clumsy use of the phrase “binders full of women” in reference to his goal to promote women in his administration as governor of Massachusetts—Romney’s occasional misfires were profoundly powerful distractions. Romney’s top strategists and handlers seemed incapable of managing the conversation when these negative diversions struck. The damage control always arrived late, and often had a laugh-it-off quality. The governor was just joshing, they would say—which made the spin inevitably worse.

A few diehard Republican friends blamed this on a hostile press, though, in fairness especially to CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC, the majors—still stinging a bit from the charge that they had given the rising superstar Obama a free pass in 2008—provided ample opportunity in 2012 for Romney and his surrogates to offer up reasonable explanations, verbal adjustments, and even counterattacks. Those opportunities were either missed, or mishandled.

With unemployment at painfully high levels and U.S. jobs hemorrhaging into Asian markets, the issue should have been, all along, the economy. But Romney’s missteps inevitably kept his image locked into caricature—that of a blueblood rich guy hopelessly out of touch with average working Americans. It’s not as if his gaffes were unrelated to economic suffering—he did not misplace Poland, misspell potatoes, or mispronounce Medvedev. His pratfalls threw him face-first into the narrative most useful to his detractors, especially those on the internet. The result was, perhaps, decisive.

The viral power of the internet still seems an elusive and inscrutable mystery to some Republicans. There was a time—in my lifetime—when the GOP was known for its savvy embrace of election technology, whether through better television and radio advertising, through computerized phone and mailing lists, or through more sophisticated deployment of resources, money and volunteers. There was also a time in the not-too-distant-past when Republicans understood and managed polling far better than their counterparts on the Democratic side. The GOP was even smarter and savvier when it came to Election Day turnout, having learned to leave nothing to chance after 1960, when John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon by 110,000 votes, most of them in Illinois and Texas. Unfortunately for the GOP, these are not the prevailing conditions today, and even recent Republican efforts to clean-up (or purge) antiquated or outdated voter rolls in some states has met with stiff resistance from Democrats and progressives.

But technology and resources can only take a party so far. My mind keeps wandering back to that huge flat panel monitor at the back of the room in Tampa, a screen upon which scrolled every word, comma and period being spoken at the podium. The party of Eisenhower and Reagan wanted no surprises—and, other than a pair of hecklers who were quickly escorted out of the hall, and other than Clint Eastwood’s strange performance in the minutes prior to Marc Rubio’s short speech, there were no unexpected nor unscripted moments for those delegates and visitors.

A tropical storm serious enough to delay the start of the convention shut down much of Monday evening’s proceedings. Overnight the storm began its slow but sure westward veer, and by Tuesday Republicans could get down to business. There was the parliamentary stuff: RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate leader Mitch McConnell and others moving the delegates and alternates through the required political formalities and proceedings, including nominations and roll call votes. There were no surprises, save for a tempest over votes cast for Ron Paul—which were called out by the delegations but not read into the record by Iowa’s Kim Reynolds or by convention secretary Kelly Knight.

Tuesday also brought other highlights: actress and radio commentator Janine Turner; Nevada governor Brian Sandoval; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, once Romney’s most dogged challenger; and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, then a lightning rod for liberal fury for his controversial position on state workers unions in his home state.

But Anne Romney and Chris Christie were Tuesday’s headline attractions. Indeed, few who saw those speeches were disappointed. Even many reporters and analysts offered positive reviews. Anne Romney’s speech—as expected—was crafted and delivered largely to humanize her husband, offering a personal narrative of the former Governor’s lifetime of hard work, religious dedication, personal character and charitable commitments. Aimed squarely at women, as well as the always elusive undecided voter, Anne’s address was meant to—at least in part—offer a bridgehead between the caricature of Romney as the son of wealth and privilege, and that of the softer, kinder Romney known for his generosity and compassion, details often left out of the mainstream media’s biographical summaries of the son of George Romney.

Christie’s job was one of muscle and heavy-lifting: there was work to be done. It would not be enough that Republicans rally around their candidate—the effort would require the GOP faithful roll up their sleeves. Christie cited the sacrifices and labors and struggles of previous generations—the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who had made the last one hundred years into an American era. In a speech peppered with references to the hard life of his parents and to the music of Bruce Springsteen, which he listened to as a teenager in New Jersey, Christie challenged Republicans to accept the task of making the 21st Century a second American Century. And the Garden State governor, speaking bluntly but eloquently, harkened back to a time in the recent past when the GOP drew in the support of as many among the working classes as it had among the upper middle class. With echoes of Ronald Reagan in his language, Christie challenged those in the hall—and those watching on TV—to make the concept of American exceptionalism into something resonant again, not just a punch line.

Christie’s speech ended with a rousing call to action for everyone in the room, as well those predisposed to his message who might be watching on television.

"If you are willing to stand up with me for America’s future, I will stand up with you," the governor thundered. "If you are willing to fight with me for Mitt Romney, I will fight with you. If you’re willing to hear the truth about the hard road ahead, and the rewards for America that the truth will bear, I’m here to begin with you this new era of truth-telling."

It was an arresting, powerful speech, delivered by a man whom many in the party had regarded as the true heir to Reagan’s legacy, and someone for whom many a distraught rank-and-file Republican had hoped might enter the fray in late 2011, when the fight amongst the principal contenders seemed mired in chaos and dysfunction. Christie’s address was one of the high points of the convention, and, some might argue, an eloquent call for the party to find its way back to the issues that mattered most at the time, and for the future.

Let’s be clear: as a predictable result of specific Republican overreaches throughout the period from 2001 to 2007, and the 2008 presidential contest itself, a struggle which remained—in the words of many analysts—“unsettled” until late in the process, the GOP of the last decade (especially the last five years) moved measurably and dramatically rightward, and in some cases, into dangerous waters, guided in part by a series of events, personalities and entities.

My several days in Tampa put me squarely in the room of a major American political party no longer practicing the “big tent” politics which had once made it so successful. The Tampa Bay Times Forum was notably lacking in faces of color, whether among the delegates and alternates on the floor, or among the thousands of visitors and guests in the upper sections. Convention planners had gone to great pains to give prominent podium time to Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans, but even then it seemed an arduous stretch, for the vast sea of faces looking back were predominantly white. There were young people, but those under the age of 35 seemed greatly outnumbered by delegates and guests over the age of 55. Furthermore, though the section I sat in was heavily populated with people my age and younger, as I wandered around the convention on several occasions, it seemed there was an overrepresentation in those over the age of 65 or 70. And after a lifetime of attending political events—large and small—I was startled to see how few Latinos, African-Americans and Asians were present in Tampa.

When I made note of this on Facebook and in emails dispatched during the convention, a few of my liberal friends chimed in with comments like “well, what were you expecting from the Republican Party?” As if it had always been that way.

The problem is—of course—that it has not always been that way. In fact, the story of the GOP’s astonishing comeback through its linkage to the conservative movement is one of the great political success stories of the 20th Century. The party was once presumed to be dead—or at least dying its last few breaths—upon Barry Goldwater’s infamous defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Then, despite Richard Nixon’s colossal Watergate muck-up, the same party managed to rebound in the late 1970s, eventually realigning the electoral map entirely in 1980. Demographic changes had a lot to do with this shift, as well as the faces and personalities—like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush and others—who helped carried the banner. But there was more to this sea change than the affable charm of a man who often described himself as the "Errol Flynn of “B” Movies," just as FDR’s personality and coattails would not have been sufficient to bring about a resurgent Democratic Party earlier in the same century.

Goldwater’s defeated Republican Party had by the 1980s embraced a practical blend of center-right pragmatism and movement conservative idealism, a successful merger which thrust the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower back to an essential relationship with the majority of American voters. Seen as the party of economic growth and an expanding middle class, the GOP drew in large numbers of Latinos and a measurable number of African-Americans. This large footprint was effective both electorally and legislatively, redrawing the Red/Blue divide, fueling a Republican resurgence in dozens of key states, and even serving nationally as a reality check for popular Democrats ranging from Tip O’Neil to Bill Clinton.

Today’s Republican Party seems—in part—disconnected from the majority of voters. Though it would be easy to embrace some of the more hyperbolic predictions of a GOP again in its death throes, the reality is that the Republican Party can begin taking proactive steps to right itself, and find its way back to relevancy with Americans within a few short years. The pressure is real, as fundraising and early planning begins for those making serious exploratory considerations for 2016. Obama’s star-power may insure a powerful inertia for whoever emerges from the Democratic sweepstakes over the next cycle of primaries and caucuses. When my Republican friends scoff at this notion, I remind them that as Reagan was stepping aside, preparing for the last horseback ride into the sunset, his charisma and goodwill buoyed the prospects of all top-tier GOP contenders in 1988 (Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Pete DuPont, Alexander Haig), and may have been the essential element which fueled George H.W. Bush into comfortable victory over Michael Dukakis in an election cycle which some had earlier predicted might rightly go to the Democrats.

In the run-up to 2016 it will not be enough for Republicans to assume that after eight years of Barack Obama, a majority of Americans will be ready to shift their allegiances away from the Democratic Party and swinging, pendulum style, back toward the GOP. This time Republicans will have to earn that purchase.

3. The Big Tent

So, where do Republicans go from here?

Central to the troubling GOP narrative of late has been a penchant for base-driven political decision-making. The ill-conceived selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, a move highly popular with some conservative commentators and bloggers, but of little value in the real world of contemporary presidential politics, serves as an example of this dysfunction. Palin’s breathtaking lack of understanding of national and international affairs accelerated the GOP’s embrace of rejection of nuance, deepening the cleavage between neo-conservatism’s unilateralism and the internationalism of those who see the world as a more complex set of moving parts. Palin may have rallied some within the base, but she inflicted near-fatal damage to McCain’s reputation as an experienced and seasoned statesman.

Palin’s sudden ascension into the spotlight also fueled the mainstream media obsession with stories of a Republican Party veering sharply to the right, even as McCain himself was still being sainted by many in the press for his maverick-style “independence” within the party he called home—a party which had very nearly denied him the nomination when far more conservative candidates (Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Dalton Thompson) were struggling to appropriate Reagan’s legacy. Though Palin was not pivotal in the final analysis—for it was the great economic meltdown of the fall of 2008 that cost McCain most dearly—the populist phenomenon of Palin had an indelible effect on the party’s interactions between grassroots movements and the party’s mainline establishment, and may have been the driving force behind early Tea Party developments.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, the Tea Party—ultimately—had little (if any) effect on the administration of Barack Obama or on the policy priorities of Democrats in the House, the Senate or in State Houses across the country. GOP gains in specials elections and in the 2010 off year congressional races were the high-water mark for the movement. The Tea Party’s measurable achievement was an internal restructuring of the GOP—an alteration of the party’s last vestiges of centrist outreach by narrowing the footprint and pushing the conversation further toward the right. Further, the Tea movement was built largely on frustration and angst, and in many cases spilled forth as a thinly disguised swelling of all things anti-Obama. A movement built in part around resistance to Obama’s health care initiatives, Tea Partiers quickly—and unfortunately—appropriated nearly all the hoariest and most dubious personal and political assessments of Barack Obama: the he was foreign-born; that he was overtly anti-American; that he was a crypto-socialist or Marxist; that he was a Muslim. These talking points became central to the most strident conversations among many who migrated the Tea Party revolution—en mass—into the Republican resistance.

Again, as I have pointed out in many previous Road Show columns, this conversation came to dominate the Republican narrative through a long season, beginning in early summer 2011, of nearly 30 nationally-televised GOP debates—more presidential debates than were held in all the years from 1960 to 1992.

Those debates at first seemed to serve the interests of the Republican Party quite well. They were watched by unprecedented numbers of viewers, and gave the GOP candidates a virtually unlimited venue into which anything anti-Obama could be injected. But presumptive front-runner Romney quickly became a stand-in for Obama, and the others used the former governor as a punching bag—pummeling him more-or-less ceaselessly and casting him broadly as the moderate, the quasi-liberal architect of Romney-care, and a flip-flopper on key social issues. The argument can be made that this trial-by-fire made Romney a stronger candidate (and it certainly seemed that this was the case during his first one-on-one debate with Obama much later), but an equally string case can be made that the intensity of his fights with those on his right flank—especially those who each enjoyed momentary favor of the Tea Partiers, evangelicals and other insurrectionists—bloodied him beyond complete recuperation. Worse, Romney’s frequent attempts to step rightward made him appear a serial panderer with a selective memory, forcing him in many cases to deny outright his own past positions.

By the time Romney had finally dispatched his most tenacious opponents—Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul—the damage to his credibility was severe, and his ability to create useful outreach toward the vital center of American belief was, perhaps, destroyed, despite the optimism which many in the GOP felt for their chances in November.

Thus the stage was set, and by the time I arrived as a visitor and reporter to the convention in August, I would sit among thousands of Republicans in Tampa with the same singular goal—victory in November. And, despite the billions of dollars spent, the Big Win would prove to be a mirage.

Now the GOP faces the critical task of finding its way back to relevance. Obviously, this can be achieved, but not without yeoman’s work for all. The brinkmanship must stop, and the infighting will need to be tamped down. In the meantime, the clock is ticking for the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.

(Thursday Review Editor Alan Clanton will add more to this commentary later in March to be posted here and on our WordPress blog)