TAMPA — The Republican National Convention is over and Tampa has returned to what passes for normal here in the butt end of the summer. The Republicans didn’t send armored divisions through the Ardennes, but it was an invasion nonetheless.
The invaders have gone now, save for a small band of idlers who came here as part of the permanent demonstrating contingent, and, having no responsibilities or permanent addresses, are as happy to be here as anyplace else. And so are hanging on at a shabby encampment called Romneyville, just north of downtown Tampa. Eventually they’ll flake out elsewhere.
I can now go about my business at home — about a mile from what until early Friday had been ground zero — without the constant drone of news and law enforcement helicopters chopping their noisy little hearts out over my house. Convention-blocked streets are open again, and locals can go where they please or need to without consulting a map of closed streets, and enduring traffic snarls and delays on the remaining usable streets. The barriers have come down from around government buildings. You can actually travel a city block without encountering heavily-armed, riot-dressed police.
Speaking of police, the large contingent of cops, ably led by appointed Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor and elected Republican Sheriff David Gee, did a commendable job dealing with the surprisingly small number of demonstrators who showed up aiming to spoil the fun. Pre-convention predictions called for as many as 10,000 demonstrators, some of them hard cases bent on destruction. A small fraction of this number showed up. These were treated firmly but respectfully by cops from several agencies. The result was few disruptions and only two arrests (count ’em — TWO!) There were 800 arrests in Minneapolis in 2008. Perhaps the threat from Isaac and sub-tropical heat scared the red-hots off. Castor and Gee, competent top cops who serve their communities well, each rate another attaboy in their service jackets.
In the weeks leading up to the convention, Tampa media featured daily stories of the disruptions it would bring. In addition to the downtown that was essentially closed to non-convention business, there were high school football games re-scheduled because there would be no police protection for them. Some schools closed for the week because there would be no way for buses to get to them. Parts of highways were closed, making access to even non-convention areas difficult. Waterways around the convention site were closed — forget about using your boat — as was the airspace.
Local police instructed residents that if they were the victim of minor crimes they should not expect an officer to respond. They should just go to a local zone office to make a report.
It’s no wonder that many local residents were suffering from convention fatigue before the party even got underway. And no wonder that many are high-fiving as the last conventioneer departs. So, did the convention results justify all the bother to Tampa’s burgers? Probably. The convention projected a good image of both guys on the ticket. And every convention has to be somewhere.
A more important question, and one more difficult to answer, is did the convention justify the $100 million-plus price tag that it came with. Are political conventions past it? Could presidential candidates get more bang for a hundred million bucks by doing something other than dragging tens of thousands into one city for a gaudy pep rally?
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan got some solid press coverage during the three days (which turned out to be plenty), though TV ratings were down this year over 2008, and well down from historic highs when important things actually got decided at conventions. Speaker after speaker fleshed out things about the Romneys and about their lives that most Americans didn’t know. And the picture we saw is a positive one of a man who is much more than a successful businessman. This has all been well covered.
National political conventions, because of their size, complexity, and the tens of thousands involved, are inherently a mess. The one in Tampa was pretty well run, with only a small number of cock-ups.
One of the arguments for the conventions, other than attempting to give the ticket a good send-off, is to reward hard-working party members by appointing them delegates, alternates, or observers. But watching delegates and others Thursday evening standing and sweating in long lines outside in the Florida heat in order to get through security and into the Tampa Bay Times Forum, milling about in tightly-packed passageways inside the forum with people they didn’t know, and then squeezing themselves into small seats that were very close together and with almost no leg room to watch the proceedings, it was hard to see where the reward came in.
Access to this or that was restricted. There was much badge envy of those whose badges allowed them access to the good places. There weren’t even any adult beverages available unless one was invited to one of the private parties in the suites. It was a very stratified business, nobility down to peasants.
So people were trapped in maximum discomfort for long periods with no entertainment beyond political speeches, some of which were rousing, others painfully slow moving. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush gave an interminable lecture on the importance of education reform. An important concern, sure enough. But with the country $16 trillion in debt and engaging in what appears to be an aimless war in a non-country, it struck me as odd to be using this much convention time to talk about Teacher of the Year stuff. And perhaps word hasn’t reached Jeb, or Mitt, that education is a state and local responsibility.
Then came the guy most in the hall — admit it or not — were waiting for. Clint Eastwood. Clint’s warm-up was a lounge singer named Taylor Hicks, who did a number called “Taking it to the Streets” in an outfit he apparently lifted from the “Blues Brothers” movie wardrobe. He did some Belushi, Aykroyd shtick, only without the shades, backed by a bluesy ensemble called the G. E. Smith Band. Hicks and the band were well received, but both struck me as a little too hip for the room. Maybe George Strait and his band had another gig for last week.
And then came the only unscripted part of the evening, and the most entertaining, if not the most uplifting. With the teleprompter off, Inspector Callahan winged a piece of comic theater that featured an empty chair representing President Obama. There were some rude references to a physically impossible act that got laughs from the audience, nervous looks from the candidates, and, my sources tell me, sent the back stage army of political consultants reaching for their reflux medicine. (Not to worry — almost anything with any life in it gives political consultants the shakes.) Clint’s improv came from the heart, with no focus group editing.
Democrats and lame-stream media types have declared themselves puzzled to outraged by Clint’s performance. Late night comics, who are not as funny as Clint’s routine, hammed it up. OK, Clint’s 12 minutes was wandering and a bit eccentric. But it was clear enough. Clint is for Romney, thinks Obama ought to be fired, and ridiculed him a bit. What’s the problem? The people in the hall Thursday clearly loved Clint and were ready to applaud anything he said.
For all the nattering on since Thursday about Clint’s contribution, hardly anyone has asked the only important question about it: Did it win or lose any votes for Romney? Clint is not a professional politician, or a red-hot partisan. Which is exactly why his support is so helpful. This is a guy who is influential with the independent voters any candidate needs to win the presidency. Jon Stewart can mug all he wants. Clint’s presentation was a net-plus for Romney/Ryan.
Before the applause for Clint had died down Florida Senator Marco Rubio was on stage for a bi-lingual introduction of Mitt Romney. Marco was good, not the best I’ve seen him, but good. As was Mitt, though I was prepared to like what he said. Did what he said change any minds? Too soon to tell.
The patriots who made up the crowd clearly liked the show, liked the candidates, and liked their chances in the fall. Joy seemed unconfined while the red, white and blue balloons descended. It made a body think that perhaps, heat and discomfort notwithstanding, maybe coming to this outsized shindig was a reward after all.