by Ryan Fleming
Man holds a sign at a Romney campaign stop in Cuyahoga Falls, OH on October 9.
The election season has been super-heated in its fierce partisanship and negative campaigning, but as I stood in line outside the Natatorium in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio last week to attend the "Victory Rally with Mitt Romney and the GOP Team," all I could think about was how preposterous it was that I, a Democrat and committed Obama supporter, was braving the cold, stiff breeze, sinking temperatures, and partisan vitriol to hear a speech from a man whose candidacy I do not support.
The how, of course, was easy: a coworker dropped by during the workday and casually asked if I was an "Obama guy" or not. I was and am, of course - a cursory glance at my car betrays an Obama 2012 magnet, and I rarely miss an opportunity to snipe at the GOP in conversation. Still, I made my interest clear, and within five minutes, I had a ticket in hand to see Romney pump up the crowd against practically everything I believed in.
"Why?" was the next question. Why would a Democrat go to a Mitt Romney campaign rally? To this question, I offered three answers, some personal and others principled:
- I waited in line for two and a half hours to see President Obama in 2011, only to be turned away within sight of the ticket counter.
- President Obama came to my university four weeks ago to give a campaign speech, but I had to work both during the ticket distribution time and his actual visit.
- As someone who follows politics very closely, I ascribe a certain value to seeing a presidential candidate in person, as a form of democratic participation and engagement.
In the spirit of this lattermost point, particularly, I and one of my coworkers left work and scrambled over to wait in line for nearly two hours to see a man whose presidential aspirations we do not support. Both in line and during the actual rally, I learned several things, ranging from curious to inspirational to downright depressing. In no particular order, here they are:
The Republican Party still attracts plenty of xenophobes. The fellow in the above picture paraded down the street, parallel to the line, approaching at intervals to pose with his sign. As he came up to where we were, he leaned in as if telling an off-color joke and scoffed, "Romney got attacked for putting a dog on his roof, but Obama EATS dogs!" The family in front of us exploded into incredulous laughter. "He put it in his book," he added, as if that was lending himself more credibility. Leaving aside the fact that I guarantee that guy has not read Obama's book (nor any book in quite some time), it exposed the same nefarious xenophobic loathing of Obama based on his "mysterious" origins, foreign-sounding name, and (inescapably) race. Forget the intelligent retort that in other cultures (Indonesia, in this case, where Obama spent some years as a child) eating dogs is viewed as okay; that Americans eat pig, which is shocking in some parts of the world; that pigs are objectively smarter than dogs, and therefore disgust at consuming dogs is culturally based: these types of thoughtful responses have no audience at a campaign rally (as I'll discuss momentarily). The scariest part of it for me is how the man's sign blows past insinuation into accusation: "AMERICANS don't eat dogs." Barack Obama wrote in his book once that, as a child in Indonesia, he once consumed dog meat. Therefore, the thinking goes, there's something distinctly un-American about President Obama. It's scary, it's wrong, and it's a radical departure from simply holding small-government views or taking the President to task for falling short of his deficit-trimming promises.
Campaign rallies are ill-suited to be forums of intelligent exchange. The incredulity expressed at me, a Democrat, going to a Romney rally wasn't entirely out of place; as we approached the security checkpoint to get in, an older man appeared to walk up out of nowhere and slip in ahead of us. This sent another fellow ten feet or so behind us into a fury. He stormed up to the man, shoving an accusing finger in his face, and bellowed, "What do you think you're doing, cutting in line? What are you, a Democrat? We've waited for hours. You can get at the end of the line, Democrat. You must be a Democrat." The outburst, while appreciated in a general sense (if I had to wait in line for two hours, so should this guy) was overshadowed by two points: that the worst slur that came to his mind was to label him a member of a different political party, and the affront made to me, a real Democrat, who waited patiently and quietly in line. Among President Obama's more prosaic lines from the 2008 campaign is one of my favorites: "We are not as divided as our politics suggest." This exchange showed for me that, at least at campaign rallies, perhaps we are.
Mitt Romney appears more personable and comfortable than ever. Once we finally got inside the space and Romney took the stage, my spirits lifted. At last, after two hours in a frigid line peppered with tiresome, insolent people, I was going to lay eyes on the man himself and hear with my own ears what he came to my new town to say. Romney was introduced by Senator Robert Portman and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before bounding up to the stage to hysteria and adoration from the crowd. As he progressed through his campaign speech, I was struck by how much more at ease he seemed than at some other campaign events where he came across as stiff, clueless, or out of touch. Near the end, he told a funny story about how he accidentally went to what he thought was a dinner party, only to find out the party was elsewhere and he crashed someone's dinner, and I saw for myself what the country realized following his trouncing of President Obama during the first debate: there's more to Mitt Romney than the media-driven caricature. He is a real guy, an intelligent guy, and there was a tangible change in his demeanor following his home-run performance in Denver. If my opinion of Republicans in general suffered that night, my view of Romney himself actually ticked upward slightly.
The Big Bird distraction is paradoxically hurting Obama. Consider this: candidate brings up sideshow point that deserves ridicule. Candidate B misses chance to ridicule Candidate A, but does so later, in commercials and Internet banner ads. Candidate A mocks Candidate B's newfound fixation with sideshow issue and essentially pins it on Candidate B. This is precisely what happened with the Big Bird comment: Obama should have lambasted Romney over suggesting PBS funding as a source of budgetary relief during the debate. His surprise and disdain would have said it all without lingering on the point. Instead, Obama let it fly by unperturbed (like nearly everything else that night), only to come back to it later, when the moment had passed. A minute or so of the campaign rally was dedicated to mocking President Obama for "wanting to talk about Big Bird when so many people are out of work and hurting." It's regrettable, and I can't be critical enough of Obama's handling of what was really Romney's faux pas, but I must applaud the virtuoso manner in which the gaffe was dumped squarely on the President.
Romney is the candidate of hope and change. I know, I know, excited people are disproportionately represented at campaign stops, but the people I saw at the rally were seriously pumped. After torching the conventional wisdom that debates don't matter, Romney is inspiring genuine hope in his supporters, perhaps for the first time in this campaign. Gone is the view of a conservative party begrudgingly embracing Romney over the lack of a better option. People are now truly starting to throw in their chips with the guy as someone who is, in Christie's words, "uniquely qualified to turn things around."
These observations, of course, are snapshots in time: as I write, a second debate looms that could change the dynamics of the race once again or reinforce trends already set in motion. Regardless of what happens between now and the election, though, all sides can take heart in knowing they live in a country where a Democrat can go to a Republican campaign rally and emerge unscathed. We're divided, that's for sure, but perhaps not prohibitively so; and in this election climate, that's reason enough to be proud of our democracy.