What the Delegates on the Floor Really Thought of Mitt Romney

August 16, 2012

In 1988, I was on the staff of the Dukakis campaign and spent a sleepless week in Atlanta at the Democratic National Convention. During the day, along with whatever else I was supposed to do, I’d barter for a pass to see that evenings proceedings in the convention hall. One of the first nights, I was only able to get an uncomfortable seat near the rafters and endured a very long speech by the Governor of Arkansas, an early hint that Bill Clinton had trouble limiting his remarks. But on subsequent nights, I managed – by trading lapel pins or party tickets, I can’t remember – to get a coveted “roving floor pass” that allowed me to go anywhere I wanted on the floor of the Omni arena. On the final night I was able to shimmy my way up to a spot just below the podium.

History may say that in 1988 the Party chose an unexciting technocrat who won the nomination with a disciplined, well-funded primary campaign. But on the night of his acceptance speech, I can tell you the assembled Democratic Party believed in Michael Dukakis as if Kennedy and Roosevelt had been combined and packed into a compact Greek frame.

In the hours leading up to speech, there was genuine anticipation and excitement. And when Dukakis entered the arena through the crowd on the lower roster – rather than from behind the podium – to the pulsing beat of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America,” the crowd swooned. Optimistic pandemonium filled the hall.

Now I realize that a paragraph that includes the words “Dukakis,” “Neil Diamond,” “swooned” and “pandemonium” will seem laughable to many. But I’m sure that’s what it felt like to almost everyone there that night. The people on the floor of a national political convention are the truest of true believers, people for whom the Democratic Party or Republican Party are not institutions that produce eye-rolling cynicism, but words with nearly sacred resonance. To them, references to “the Party of Lincoln” or singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” are sincere and meaningful. And they believe in the candidates they have chosen to lead them – far more than the jaded public and press can probably imagine.

But on that night in Atlanta, that truth was made clearest to me by the exception. Standing near me that night were two young men who did not share the feeling in the room. I don’t know if they were from the media or the sons of a large donor, but their cynicism was observable even without hearing them. Then, as the crowd cheered a line from Governor Dukakis’s genuinely moving speech about his family’s journey to America and his vision for the nation, one of them turned to the other and said of the jubilant crowd, “Don’t they realize it’s just a TV show?”

I have rarely felt more contempt in my life. That these two were taking up space on the floor that could have gone to people who believed in the cause, and their sneering condescension, still annoys me 25 years later.

Of course, it was a TV show, with a stage constructed for the camera and a procession choreographed for the audience at home. And their observation was one that many people would have made. But the floor of a convention is a place where, at a certain moment, the cynicism of politics disappears. Despite the stage management, swirling donors, and strategic machinations, a political convention still mostly belongs to the sincere of heart.

I’m sure that when the TV cameras scanned the faces of delegates cheering wildly for Mitt Romney, many sophisticated political observers noted that the Party isn’t really thrilled with him, that they are with him because they have no choice. But I think on the night he appeared before that convention, that wasn’t true. In that hall, at that hour, they loved Mitt Romney. Truly and sincerely.

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