A new America, where opinion seems to matter more than race or identity

Between conventions, in this contentious election year, glimmers of a nation comfortable with its diversity

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

On a post-convention retreat at his lakeside home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, over the weekend, Mitt Romney was treated to some high praise from an old friend.

“There has never been as much positive attention to the [Mormon] church, thanks to the wonderful campaign of Mitt Romney and his family,” former Marriott International CEO JW “Bill” Marriott, Jr. told a group of Mormon worshippers gathered with the Romneys at the Wolfeboro Mormon Church.

The Romneys and Marriotts, both prominent Mormon families, have been close for decades. Romney, whose first name is Willard, is named for Bill Marriott’s father, J. Willard Marriott.

“Today we see the [Mormon] church coming out of obscurity, and we see that 90 percent of what has been written and said… about the church, 90 percent of it has been favorable. And that’s a great tribute to Mitt and Ann and their family for living such an exemplary life,” said Marriott.

The convention held a great deal of predictable rhetoric and symbolism – flags, endorsements, balloons, rock bands, speeches (some more accurate than others) on the failures of the other side. Expect much of the same in Charlotte this week from the Democrats.

But on one major issue the convention departed from expectation and, reportedly at the request of Mitt Romney himself, offered a targeted moral message.

It talked about difference.

In electing a Mormon candidate for the presidency, the country’s major conservative party showed – and at the convention, publicly prided itself on – its commitment to values over identity politics.

Evangelical leader Mike Huckabee was one of those who put the question of diversity on the table, saying he cared more about shared values than shared religious affiliation.

“I want to clear the air about something that has been said,” Huckabee told thousands of convention delegates last week. “People wonder whether guys like me, an evangelical, would only support a fellow evangelical. Well my friends I want to tell you something. Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama – and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb, even beyond the womb, and he tells people of faith that they have to bow their knees to the God of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls ‘health care.’”

In a much-quoted line many pundits viewed as marking the “evangelical endorsement” for Romney, he announced, “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church, than I do about where he takes this country.”

It was a fitting speech to a convention that formally appointed the first presidential ticket in US history, from any party, that did not contain a Protestant.

In choosing their own unconventional ticket, the Republicans were in lock-step with the overwhelming trend in American politics. In a country with a long, dark past of racism and identity politics, diversity is now so ordinary, so expected, that it goes almost unnoticed even in the most conservative circles.

Thus, we are witnessing an American presidential election in which an African American incumbent is facing a Mormon challenger. Both have Catholic vice-presidential picks. And the only Protestant on either presidential ticket is the African American.

Even among the Republican base, opinion seems to matter more than race or identity, evidenced by the fact that Herman Cain, the African American former head of a large chain of pizza restaurants, led in the polls for several weeks. At the convention, Condoleezza Rice’s speech, which touched on Jim Crow segregation laws and other parts of America’s dark past of racism, was one of the best received by the crowd of thousands of state party delegates, perhaps second only to VP pick Paul Ryan.

The invocation was even delivered by an Orthodox rabbi, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Meir Soloveichik.

This diversity extends beyond presidential politics, to the House and Senate and state politics throughout the country. With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens in 2010, even the US Supreme Court, the country’s most staid and stable institution, is without a Protestant for the first time in history. Instead, it has three Jews and six Catholics from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

In this contentious election year, you may not hear this from Americans. But for outside observers one thing is clear. Irrespective of who wins in November, the conservative Mormon or the liberal African American, it’s a new America, one so comfortable with its diversity that it is barely conscious of it.

Who built that, anyway?

The Republican campaign has made much ado over an unfortunate sound bite from a campaign speech Obama delivered in Roanoke, Virginia, on Friday, July 13.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Listening to the actual speech, the tone on the word “that” in “you didn’t build that” makes clear that Obama was referring to the roads and bridges. He was saying, “You, the business owner, didn’t build the roads and bridges you need to flourish.” Written down, the tone is lost, and he’s left saying, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, the business.”

Indeed, later in the speech, Obama said, “the point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together.” Both are necessary, he noted.

But by the following Monday, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign had shifted its focus to a new campaign titled “I built this,” complete with a campaign website and special events in a dozen states.

“If you want to understand why [Obama’s] policies have failed, why what he has done has not created jobs or rising incomes in America, you can look at what he said,” Romney said in a campaign speech that Monday, July 16.

“And what he said was this…. ‘If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.’ That somebody else is government, in [Obama’s] view,” Romney continued.

“To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motors,” he said, adding jokingly, “that Papa John didn’t build Papa John’s Pizza, to say something like that, it’s not just foolishness. It’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America.”

The Romney campaign was taken to task by many commentators for misrepresenting what Obama had actually said, since Obama did not deny that entrepreneurs had built their businesses, but rather that they hadn’t built the roads and bridges leading to their businesses.

Then, on Wednesday night, Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky and son of libertarian icon Ron Paul, rescued the Republicans’ “you didn’t build that” campaign from its intentional misrepresentation.

In Paul’s reframing, Obama did indeed refer to roads and bridges when he said, “you didn’t build that,” but that, Paul explained, was the problem.

“When I heard the current president say, ‘You didn’t build that,’ I was first insulted, then I was angered, then I was saddened that anyone in our country, much less the President of the United States, believes that roads create business success and not the other way around. Anyone who so fundamentally misunderstands American greatness is uniquely unqualified to lead this great nation,” he said.

For Paul, the problem wasn’t that, as Romney had framed it for the past two months, Obama thought government built the country’s successful businesses, but that Obama believed infrastructure came first, and successful businesses came later, rather than the other way around.

It is, in a way, a semantic debate, a chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first, the business that pays for the infrastructure, or the infrastructure that enables that business to function and flourish?

That, too, may not be what Obama intended to say, but it is at least a criticism that matches the words the president uttered on that Friday the 13th in July.

The Democrats’ turn to shine

The Republican convention is past, and the Democratic one is set to begin Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina. The goals are the same: formally nominate the ticket for the presidential election, and energize and focus national media attention and party activists on the election campaign’s key messages.

Ahead of the convention, president and candidate Barack Obama launched a campaign tour through Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia, all states considered “battlegrounds” for the election. Ohio is particularly important to any party hoping to win the White House, as no Democrat has won the presidency without Ohio since 1960, and no Republican has ever won without Ohio.

After the campaign swing, it’s on to Charlotte, where tens of thousands of Democratic activists and delegates have been arriving throughout the long Labor Day weekend.

But Democrats won’t be alone in Charlotte, as Republicans are reportedly planning an “unprecedented” counter-convention.

According to ABC News, Republican Party “communicators” will be stationed at the entrances to the convention venue, Charlotte’s 73,000-seat Time Warner Cable Arena.

Republican heavy hitters, including party chairman Reince Priebus and popular Florida Senator Marco Rubio, will be in Charlotte in order to be more accessible to media outlets and to offer Republican counter-messages to whatever is said or done by Democrats.

Media-savvy gimmicks are planned, including letting convention goers play with “You build it” Legos and Monopoly sets, and offering Kleenex to passers-by, “because breaking up” with President Barack Obama “is hard to do.”

In response to the Republican announcement, the Democratic National Committee reminded reporters that they, too, had had a strong presence at the Republican convention in Florida. It was the first time some reporters had heard of it.

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