The “Great Opportunity Party”

Yesterday's GOP.

I could spare you the niceties of yesterday’s GOP convention and just say that the Republican agenda is very much aligned with the preservation of The American Dream. But besides missing out on some fine and rather compelling rhetoric, you’d also miss out on attempts to humanise flip-flop Mitt, if only by proxy.

Some of the finer points of the Republican plan to revitalise “what America has always offered in abundance – opportunity” (John Boeven, Senator for North Dakota) include “unshackling (…) assets” that will lead “to real energy independence” (John Sununu, Governer of New Hampshire). Here Hoeven and co. are referring to the “Obama red tape” that is allegedly blocking the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. However, as FactCheck notes, these claims are largely untrue and overstate the positive impact of the Keystone XL (the much touted rise in employment would be as negligible as the impact on fuel prices).

The point is, the whole evening was carefully orchestrated to signal that Republicans stand for the shift from “an entitlement society to an opportunity society” (Bob McDonall, Governer of Virginia), and that Mitt Romney – a hard-hitting business man that crawled his way up from the gritty Detroit suburbs - best embodies these values. Obama, on the other hand, was repeatedly caricatured as a dirty European Socialist who would rather drown in Obamacare debt than embrace “free enterprise” or recognise American Exceptionalism. (This may or may not be my biased abridged version of it.) But the theme of American Exceptionalism, I promise, was as prevalent country music intervals.

In addition to fitting Romney squarely into the “Great Opportunity Party” (coined by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn) ethos, Steven King (National Committeeman) and Ann Romney (Potential First Lady) attempted to make the man that kept his dog on the roof his car a bit more personable.

King did so the only way he knew how - by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, apparently, “even at the age of 27, (…) was a man with big ideas and the courage of his convictions”. This bodes nicely for Romney, mainly because it’s a well-known fact that integrity is osmotic. Paul Ryan is also a “genuinely good man from the Midwest” who “can be found at church on any given Sunday” before retiring to watch a Packers game and exchanging stories with neighbours about fishing (I’m not making this up).  It’s good that Paul Ryan likes sports, like the rest of us, because Mitt Romney probably has “some great friends who are football team owners”.

Ann Romney would later address her husband’s social awkwardness head-on by acknowledging that he was the funny, shy type that girls liked for his vulnerability. In all seriousness though, Ann did a good job of making Mitt seem less robotic. In particular, she stressed his willingness to help others, both in the private and public sphere. This proved a good opportunity to rebut Mitt's reputation as an opportunist:

“Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.”

Ann then strengthens the Mitt-as-the-embodiment-of-the-Land-of-Opportunity theme by concluding,

“This is the genius of America – dreams fulfilled help others launch new dreams.”

The land of opportunity Photograph: Ghetty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war