Those few showbiz-savvy enough to instantly gauge the Eastwood fallout, led by Beck, were also savvy enough to brood about the convention’s overall lack of appeal in the broader cultural arena. Television viewership was tanking in comparison to 2008, and in the key 18-to-49 demographic, even the most highly rated coverage (on Fox News) fell behind both the TLC self-styled “redneck” reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and, particularly galling for a party desperate to reclaim Hispanic voters, the nightly telenovelas on the Spanish-language channel Univision. The morning after opening night in Tampa, Beck fretted aloud about whether anyone had been watching at all. He was equally nettled by a study showing that conservatives “just don’t do viral stuff.” Saying that the right doesn’t share speeches like Ann Romney’s with friends and that the left does, he asked, “Are we even in the game at this point?” I thought Beck was being histrionic, but my own anecdotal experience that week bore him out: The Twitter feeds I followed of conservative voices, pundits, and institutions generated far less volume and snark than their liberal counterparts. “Got an awesome hug from the convention info lady at the terminal,” read an all-too-typical missive from one of the more prolific conservative tweeters, Jonah Goldberg.
The gap separating the convention I witnessed via right-wing media from the convention presented by mainstream media speaks to the very heart of this year’s presidential race. Watching a broadcast network or relying on the usual news organizations, you learned that the week was mostly devoid of the rhetoric and anger of the tea party (which was not mentioned by name from the podium during prime time, even by the tea-party champions Rand Paul and Ted Cruz) and was relatively restrained in its expected criticism of the president. The pugnacious Christie pulled his Obama punches, after all, and even Ryan’s tart Obama jabs were well within the traditional norm for vice-presidential attack dogs of either party. In his own speech, Romney went out of his way to credit his opponent for being a decent guy even as he faulted his leadership.
This was technically accurate. And it was certainly the story the GOP Establishment wanted the media to tell. Its gist was summed up by Karl Rove when evaluating Romney’s acceptance speech the morning after on Fox & Friends. Romney had succeeded, Rove said, because he had achieved “one of the big goals of this effort—to critique the president not in anger, not in malice, not hot but cool, reflective, polite, pointed and disappointed and regretful.” Or in other words: to placate the 6 percent of American voters thought to be in play, that ever-elusive band of Independents, centrists, undecideds, and suburban women who are said to like Obama but are also disappointed enough to consider firing him.
The mainstream media took the bait, presenting the convention at face value and portraying the GOP as more or less unified, civil, and semi-successful in convincing voters that its nominee shopped at Costco and loved his wife’s pancakes. The kinder, gentler tone of the GOP image reboot was also upheld rigorously at Fox. Neither the downsized Palin nor the yapping Fox & Friends hosts nor the alpha dogs Hannity and O’Reilly lapsed into the unhinged anti-Obama invective that had fueled the network’s growth back in the day when birtherism was a given, Obama was palling around with terrorists, and Jeremiah Wright was the go-to embodiment of the president’s seething hatred of America and subversive socialist ideology.
The only flaw in this placid picture was that if you ventured beyond both the mainstream media and Fox, you learned it bore little resemblance to the mood of much of the right. You also learned that many in the grassroots were infuriated by the media airbrushing, to put it mildly.
That fury, unsurprisingly, was articulated early by Limbaugh. At the start of convention week, he replayed a Bill Kristol admonition, delivered the day before on Fox News Sunday, that the convention had to advance a positive agenda. “So what he’s basically saying is, ‘Don’t make the convention about bashing Obama,’ ” was how Limbaugh translated Kristol’s advice. He was having none of it. “I think it’s been a trick the Democrats have used for decades, and I’m stunned that our side keeps falling for it,” he said. “The trick is: ‘These Independents don’t like criticism! They don’t like raised voices! They don’t like partisanship! It makes them nervous. And whenever the Republicans get critical of President Obama, these Independents just run right back to the Democrats and vote for them.’ I don’t believe that for a minute!”
Limbaugh’s disgruntlement proved mild compared to that of his radio peers. As Romney prepared to deliver his acceptance speech Thursday, Michael Savage was on fire during his early-evening broadcast. Declaring himself “sickened” by “the eunuchs in the Republican Party,” he derided the convention for ignoring issues like immigration and Afghanistan in favor of stunts like Ann Romney’s speech domesticating her husband (“Just what we need … a man who may be president, that he does his own laundry!”). He was scarcely more charitable toward Ryan’s, asking if any of the vice-presidential nominee’s fans could “remember one word” that he said. His contempt for the GOP Establishment was bottomless. “The drunken speech the other night by John Boehner was the beginning of the end,” Savage said. “The man slurred as though he was a janitor in a bar, not the speaker of the House of Representatives … Now you understand why the tea-party movement arose, and now you understand why they haven’t even mentioned the tea party … I have no idea what they stand for.” And he was still just warming up. “The Republicans have just dug their own grave,” he continued. “Unless Romney gets up there like a man and stops acting like a pocketbook carrier for his wife, he is finished.”