All that may sound abstract, but it has a number of concrete applications, some of which are vividly pertinent to the spectacle now unfolding at the Republican National Convention. High up along one wall at the Forum is a huge digital display on which the federal debt ticks its way toward $16 trillion. That by itself ought to be enough to assure the defeat of Barack Obama, but in really it is merely one data point in a litany of failure. Last night at dinner, I expressed my surprise to a friend that the polls were as close as they were. By any factual measure, I said, Obama’s administration had been an extraordinary failure. Median household income had plummeted nearly 5 percent since 2009, the year Obama promised that, if only Congress would approve the stimulus package, he would have the unemployment rate down to 5.6 percent by now, the summer of 2012, by which time he would also have halved the annual deficit. Et very much cetera. The only promise I can think of that Obama has kept is to make energy prices “skyrocket.” That he has well and truly accomplished. But otherwise, I asked as I made my way through the Caprese salad, hasn’t his record been abysmal? And doesn’t this mean the polls should point to an overwhelming victory for Romney?
Maybe, said my dinner companion, but remember that most people really have no idea what you’re talking about when you drone on about “median income.” You tell them the federal debt is $16 trillion and they shrug. What does that have to do with tomorrow’s lunch? The answer, “quite a lot, actually,” won’t cut it because numbers, especially large numbers, impress most people as mystical, by which I mean mystifying, talismans. If a gallon of gas has shot up from an average of $1.85 to over $4.00 a gallon during Obama’s tenure (which it has), that is just barely graspable. But do not ask the electorate to wrap its mind around such a prodigy as an annual deficit of $1.5 trillion. Those numbers lack traction and, besides, haven’t we been hearing about the deficit ad nauseam for decades?
You see what we’re up against. I reluctantly acknowledged that my friend was right about the relative imperviousness of the electorate. Lectures about economics are not going to inspire them. Dramatizations about economic peril, however, might just do the trick. Which is where all that choreography and convention planning comes in.
Rhetoric, said Aristotle, is the art of persuasion. It involves not having the best argument, necessarily, but of putting your case in the most effective and affecting way. That’s what this gigantic spectacle is all about. It may seem like some hypertrophied theatrical event. And in some ways it is. But it is more than that. It is theater employed not for entertainment but for awakening. Will it work? The mood here is energetic and upbeat. We’ll know in a couple of days whether that energy and cheerfulness is communicable. If, as I suspect, the answer is yes, the question will not be whether Romney will win. As my dinner companion last night put it, if he wins at all, it will likely be by a landslide. It might not happen. There is still time for an “October surprise,” which might come in September or even early November. It won’t, however, be in the shape of a stupid remark by a Missouri Senate candidate, much as the Democrats would like to pretend it could. Nor will Chris Matthews’ deployment of the race card work. Right now, anyway, the horizon looks clear. My astrology is a bit rusty, but were I a prophesying man I’d say that the stars are aligning to bring not just a Romney victory but an historic rout.