GOP speeches bluster, not substance

Editor’s Note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Story highlights

David Rothkopf: The big news out of the GOP convention is not what's said, it's what isn't

He says amid patriotic speeches there was little talk of urgent matters, such as the fiscal cliff

He says crucial question of China-U.S. relations ignored; bad sign for Romney foreign policy

Rothkopf: Both camps seem to think slogans, attacks are enough, but U.S. must hear truth

CNN  — 

Contrary to what you may have heard, read or seen, the great menacing shadow that has so far been cast over the Republican National Convention hasn’t been that of Chris Christie. It has not been that of Hurricane Isaac. Nor has it even been that of the towering mountain of words generated by speakers, commentators, bloggers, and tweeters.

No, the great shadow cast over the RNC’s blandtastic Tampa infomercial has been from that which has gone unspoken. To understand the relevance of this convention, next week’s Democratic equivalent, and the sad state of American politics generally, you have to go where few seem inclined to go these days: between the lines; beyond the self-congratulation and into what’s being avoided.

Tuesday night’s opening fusillade gave us tributes to hard-working grandparents, attacks on predatory regulators, and jingoistic salutes to the great people of this greatest great nation of all the great nations since it was created by Thomas Jefferson, Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan in 1776.

David Rothkopf

We heard about the virtues of small business. We heard indignation at Barack Obama’s alleged assertion that government may have had something to do with the success of this country’s most precious resource, our billionaires. We heard warnings that we were on the verge of becoming like Greece or France or some other weakling country. There was the in-your-face, Jersey Shore Chris Christie, with his truth serum and dynamite cocktail. You even heard, if you listened very carefully, tributes to Mitt Romney. (There were those sweet stories from Ann Romney.)

But did you hear any substantive discussion of the fiscal cliff? About how our so-called leaders – left and right – in Washington have strapped a time bomb to the foundations of the global economy that is set to go off in just a couple of months but is not something any of them are doing a blessed thing about right now?

Rest assured, the markets are watching and listening as the parties party and the clock keeps ticking. They know that if a deal is not reached on the debt ceiling – and if the automatic cuts with which both sides threaten to punish one another come into force – the result will be what one senior international economist and former top Obama administration official described to me as “an instant recession. That’s what happens when you cut 3.5 to 4% out of GDP overnight.”

The markets know the disaster waiting to happen is likely to get balled up with the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts. And they do not share the view offered to the world by the U.S. Treasury that rational heads will necessarily win out in the end. Investors think it is possible that one side or the other, stung by the election, might let the teeth of the automatic cuts kick in just to let the other side take the heat. They’ve heard Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid bicker like children and they’re worried.

But the professional politicians trotting across the stage last night didn’t say this. Just as they don’t acknowledge that if you take the economic uncertainty in Europe, and combine it with the potential victory of a GOP that has European leaders buzzing behind closed doors about its anti-European rhetoric, markets might be further spooked. If Europe looks as though it might stumble again, and the world takes Republicans literally that there will not be one penny coming to bail it out, the effects could hit markets hard – and that will spin right back to the U.S., hindering the slow recovery that’s under way.

Nor have we yet heard (perhaps it’s still to come) anyone address in any meaningful way the most important geopolitical relationship on the planet: U.S. and China. Behind the scenes, Romney’s tough anti-China rhetoric has, however, cast a pall over the future of that relationship and even triggered an extraordinary anti-Romney editorial in China Daily, timed to coincide with the convention. For insiders, it is also bad news that the Romney foreign policy team is riven with divisions between remarkably resurgent “neocons” and rival “realists” over policy not just on China, but on Russia and the Middle East. But that wasn’t spoken of either.

No, the fact that this week we learned that the Arctic ice cover is at a record low, its melt outpacing what experts had predicted, didn’t produce any talk of the looming climatic challenges scientists say we face. The complex spreading problems of the Middle East were not addressed. Indeed, not even the big core questions facing America about how to restart the economy were addressed substantively.

Instead what we got was Christie’s assertion that “Our ideas are right for America. Their ideas have failed America.” But as for those ideas, beyond a vague sense that they meant government getting out of the way and hoping that everything would revert to the Eisenhower era, there were few specifics. You may hear a few details before the event is over. But rest assured, the bigger and more complex a problem is, the less likely it is even to be acknowledged, much less addressed honestly.

This is not just a Republican problem. The Democrats aren’t likely to want to do what’s right and call for action on the fiscal cliff issue before the election or to do anything internationally other than to punt problems into next year.

Because both parties have reached the same conclusion: American people want slogans and personal attacks. And in any event, it’s too dangerous to raise the truth with them about the big problems we face.

My only question is: Are they silent because they think we can’t handle the truth, or because they fear we will see that they haven’t dared to?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.