Roger’s Rules

What Counts as Failure?

I spent several hours yesterday in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the huge hall in which Republican delegates will confer their official blessing upon Mitt Romney later this week. It was an odd day. It was to have been the first full day of conference activities, but the media succeeded in whipping up public hysteria about the weather to such an extent that RNC chairman Reince Priebus decided to err on the side of caution and to reschedule most of Monday’s speeches later in the week.

The result was that yesterday had a sort of half-holiday feel to it. The Forum was a bustling hive of activity. Musicians were rehearsing their acts — the national anthem, rock songs about virtue and freedom, etc. — and conference planners and journalists hummed up and down the rows of empty seats. I was in one of several small groups who were given a tour backstage to view the magic workshops in which the spectacle of the convention was being forged, rehearsed, planned, and plotted. The miles of digital cabling, run along metal trays hung from the ceiling, reinforced the sense of technological bravura that is behind a contemporary political spectacle. The long corridors with their honeycomb of rehearsal suites and green rooms, the LED glow of the control room, and hurrying minions clutching sheafs of paper as they jabbered into their iPhones all reinforced the sense that one was deep in the bowels of a battleship preparing for general quarters. This event was being planned down to the last placard and cue-the-applause option. The thousands upon thousands of red, white, and blue balloons congregated grape-like in nets in the rafters of the great hall all but trembled with anticipation. At the appointed moment, someone would push a button or pull a string and they would all come cascading down in cheerful triumph. What I was witnessing were the final touches in preparation for a great piece of political choreography. How many hundreds of people were involved in putting this together? How many thousands of man-hours were required to synchronize all the moving parts, the speeches, the audience, the music, the look and feel of the stage, the auditorium? Even the preparations constituted an impressive performance.

It was no ordinary performance, however. A big opera at the Met requires a lot of planning and rehearsal of a not dissimilar sort. But the end of that performance is a couple hours of aesthetic delectation. The end of the preparations I was witnessing is the future of America.

That sounds portentous, but only because the stakes in this election are so high. I have never been particularly impressed by Karl Popper’s idea that a theory must be “falsifiable” in order to be genuinely scientific. I won’t go into the reasons for my skepticism now (though the curious will find more on the subject here) other than to say that binding the pursuit of truth to the presence of untruth is a mug’s game. Still, despite my reservations about Popper’s theory, I do believe that it touches upon a key insight that is applicable not only to “the logic of scientific discovery” (as Popper put it) but also to everyday empirical reality. For example, when we ask whether a certain policy has been a success, we often begin by observing the ways in which it has failed to live up to expectations. Our criteria for success are at least in part organized around our definition of failure.

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.