Arriving in Minneapolis Sunday afternoon for the Republican National Convention, Blackberries and TV monitors in the airport helped spread the word that many expected: Monday’s primetime program was off due to the imminent arrival of Hurricane Gustav. The RNC put out a statement which contained a statement from John McCain campaign manager Rick Davis:
“We are deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of the residents of the Gulf State region. Our top priority is to assist those who will be affected by Hurricane Gustav. This is not a time for politics or celebration; it is a time for us to come together as Americans and assist the residents of the Gulf States.”
The required legal business of the Convention, it was announced, would proceed Monday afternoon, but there would be no hoopla or primetime speeches. John McCain informed voters and attendees alike that this was no time to celebrate. The rest of the week schedule is “to be determined.”
Rather than frenzied panic at the loss of precious Convention time or dismay that the big party was to be interrupted, the general reaction here in Minneapolis ranged from resignation to quiet satisfaction. Commentators noted the many benefits including the cancellation of the speeches by the politically toxic President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Perhaps the mood would have been darker if not for the astounding news that the Democratic Convention provided Barack Obama with absolutely no bounce. The latest CNN/Opinion Research Center poll showed the race to be a dead heat. Well, if there is no ground to “make up” maybe a delay or two of the Convention and a day or two more of Palin-mania might not be such a bad thing, many mulled out loud.
The specter of Gustav also set off a round of “a-political politics.” McCain traveled to Mississippi to be briefed on preparations and explained:
“I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary throughout our convention, we will act as Americans and not as Republicans because America needs us now.”
That lovely sentiment, of course, meshed perfectly with his “putting America first” message. And when Barack Obama continued to campaign with his usual jibes at McCain, the McCain camp shot back:
“So he attacks us while there’s a hurricane going on and John McCain suspends his convention basically. What bigger contrast can you have about putting your country first?”
The politics of appearing non-political were clearly in full swing.
The next update on Convention scheduling is set for mid-day on Monday. But the mood here remains sanguine. So long as McCain continues to keep pace with Obama and Sarah Palin dominates the news no one seems terribly concerned that precious time is being lost.
But perils do remain. The mere presence of a big hurricane story revives memories of the calamitous Katrina response, perhaps the trigger for the swift slide in George Bush’s public approval. The potential for other failures and pictures of suffering flood victims looms large. As with everything in politics, the true impact depends on execution — how well the Republican president and Republican governors of the affected states respond and how deftly McCain maintains the balance between concern for his fellow citizens and the necessary business of rallying his supporters and making the case for his own election.
In a sense, the intervention of natural forces beyond the control of mere politicians seems somehow appropriate in a presidential election where no one predicted much of anything correctly and the improbable happened again and again. McCain was politically done? Not quite. Hillary Clinton was invincible? Not really. Then Barack Obama had sewed it up? Well, not so fast. Perhaps this is simply not meant to be a paint-by-the-numbers election.
Moreover, the collective shrug which greeted the delay suggests that Conventions as currently constituted leave much to be desired and have outlived their usefulness. If we can lose a day and not even miss it, can they be largely dispensed with? It seems at the very least everyone involved is coming to the conclusion that less is more.
Here in Minneapolis hopes and prayers –that the storm won’t be as severe and that it won’t be a replay of the Katrina debacle — are directed to the Gulf. Soon enough there will be time for politics. And for McCain, riding out the storm is nothing new.