Watching the past two weeks of the Republican and Democratic conventions, it's hard to remember a more grotesque political event.
- By Alex MassieAlex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
LONDON — Watching the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week — and with the horrors of the Republican assembly in Tampa still all too fresh in my mind — I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip about fox hunting: "The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable." Something similar may be said of the carnival of grotesques unleashed upon an innocent world these past two weeks. When Republicans or Democrats gather to celebrate their faith, America loses.
That’s how it looks when viewed from the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, anyway. My, how each party is doing its best to make the other seem strangely electable. If Republican arrogance grates, Democratic smugness is just as aggravating.
Thank heavens for Michelle Obama. Her speech (perhaps the finest of either convention thus far) at least rescued something from what had been a grim, though doubtless successful, first night for the Democrats — a night during which many of the party’s worst attributes were not so much on display as celebrated with wild enthusiasm. But even the first lady’s largely admirable speech was not without its low moments; declaring herself "mom in chief" was a toe-curling lapse of taste. Nonetheless, with the first lady’s speech on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and Bill Clinton’s on Wednesday, the Democrats marshaled star power that eclipsed anything the Republicans could offer in Tampa, Florida.
There are, in truth, two different conventions taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week. One, televised in prime time, tries to talk to all Americans; the other, unscreened by the networks and followed only by political anoraks, is a back-slapping, complacent celebration held by and for a Democratic Party utterly persuaded it enjoys a monopoly on decency and wisdom.
Of course, the Republicans were just as bad. But no sentient person can possibly watch these pep rallies and think he or she wants to have any part of either party. By their nature, parties are cults, but their creepiness is never better displayed than at their quadrennial conventions. The theme of this week, always present in the background and sometimes stated quite explicitly, is that the United States and, hell, the world too, is lucky to have Barack Obama as its savior and protector.
If no one has yet quite plumbed the depths George Pataki reached in 2004, it’s not for want of trying. Eight years ago, Pataki told the world: "Ladies and gentlemen, on this night and in this fight, there is another who holds high that torch of freedom. He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge. And he is lighting the way to better times, a safer land, and hope. He is my friend, he is our president, President George W. Bush." People actually cheered this. (To be fair, it might be said that if the United States could just about survive eight years of Bush, the republic can probably endure four years of Mitt Romney.)
If the Republican National Convention had one small saving grace, it was that there was a whiff of apostasy in the air. Granted, that’s an unavoidable consequence of nominating Romney, but compared with past conventions and the Democrats this week, the GOP’s reluctance to give its heart to Romney seems a model of prudent skepticism. There was plenty of hagiographical nonsense in Tampa too, but the Democrats’ slavish enthusiasm for their candidate is something to behold. In primitive people, you’d consider it a kind of madness.
Some of it was oddly defensive too. According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "His [Obama’s] whole life, there have been so many who told him what he shouldn’t or couldn’t do" — which seems an odd way of describing a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School who taught at the University of Chicago and worked at a top Windy City law firm before he entered politics. Instead, Reid presents Obama as a scrawny kid who can’t go to the beach without having sand kicked in his face. Very strange.
Nor was Reid alone. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — who, oddly, seemed reluctant to lash Romney to his record of health-care achievement in Massachusetts — told conventioneers that they can’t allow Obama to be "bullied" out of office. That’s an odd way to talk about an election, but then again, politicians are odd people. Regardless, this doesn’t sound like a party that will take defeat well. Indeed, one suspects there are plenty of true believers gathered in Charlotte this week ready to believe that if Obama loses, it will be because Romney will have cheated.
Indeed, Bill Clinton may have put himself in a minority among convention attendees when he said: "Though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats." The depth and range of conservative hatred for Obama is often startling, but many liberal Democrats are just as disinclined to grant that their opponents might plausibly be making their arguments in good faith. As former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland put it: "If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves."
The red meat chucked to the Democratic base was, like its Republican counterpart last week, a reminder that it’s always wise to shield these moments from an easily startled public. "Women are not an interest group," said Obama in a video introducing one set of speakers. "They shouldn’t be treated that way." I dare say this is true — which left one wondering why speaker after speaker treated women as, well, an interest group. Moreover, and though Lilly Ledbetter stepped up to offer praise for the equal-pay bill named in her honor, it seemed as if the interest was particularly narrow — as if abortion is the only women’s issue that really matters to Democrats.
Nancy Keenan, president of the abortion-rights group NARAL, even made the bold suggestion that "health decisions" (i.e., abortion) should be made in consultation with a woman’s God. Enlisting the Almighty in the service of unlimited abortion might verge on the presumptuous.
At the very least, there’s usually a distinction to be made between defending abortion and celebrating it. Usually, I say, because Democrats so ignored that difference on Tuesday night that you could have been forgiven for assuming an abortion was some kind of feminine rite of passage without which no American woman could consider herself whole. Or patriotic.
"Safe, legal, and rare" — Bill Clinton’s elegant formula — suddenly seems quaintly old-fashioned. Democrats in Charlotte proved themselves every bit as extreme as Republicans in Tampa. More so in fact, given that all-access abortion all the time is a minority view. "Don’t assume that every voter knows what Barack Obama has done for the women in this country," said Keenan with all the smugness of someone who knows only wickedness, terminal gullibility, or incorrigible stupidity could persuade someone to vote for the other team.
If all this was predictable, so too was the party’s cheerful xenophobia. The party elites and big thinkers may know free trade is a good thing that lifts American boats as well as those flying other flags, but deep down, the Democratic base doesn’t believe in free trade. How else to explain the relentless foreigner-bashing on display in Charlotte?
According to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — as always, more impressive as an idea than in the flesh — Romney wants to "ship our jobs to China." This is not, in fact, true — though it’s a mystery what poor Chinese people have done to so offend O’Malley. The idiocy of the Democratic position on outsourcing or, as it is also known, "overseas investment" is apparent if you consider what would happen if every company, from every country, followed the Democrats’ advice and kept their investments inside their own borders. No more Toyota in America. No more BP. No more Deutsche Bank. And so on. Strickland’s call for "economic patriotism" would, if emulated worldwide, see every foreign company flee the United States. Remember, they’re "shipping jobs overseas" too.
And they call the Republicans the stupid party? I mean, come on. I understand why Democrats want to attack Romney’s wealth and highlight his reluctance to release his tax returns. But there are limits. According to O’Malley, however: "Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts don’t put cops on the beat or teachers in our classrooms. Swiss bank accounts never created American jobs!"
Actually they did. That is, Swiss banks did. And so did British banks, German banks, and French banks. Foreign capital and foreign bondholders played a vital part in America’s great 19th-century expansion. They still do. Why even today, it’s Chinese bondholders who put cops on the street and finance the building of American bridges. Americans didn’t build America on their own.
For that matter, mind you, let’s not forget that this global financial crisis really was built in America. Other countries, especially in Europe, contributed to their own miseries, not least through their eagerness to buy whatever Wall Street was selling; and, yes, European banks acted like schmucks. Nevertheless, it all began in the United States. If there’s any subject suitable for some kind of global apology tour, this might be it.
Perhaps only a fool would expect some appreciation of nuance or complexity to be allowed on stage at a political convention, but that’s another reason for sensible people to be appalled by these cultish celebrations of mendacity.
If the Republicans demonstrated their unfitness for office in Tampa last week, all one can say today is that, on the evidence put before the court thus far, the Democrats are determined to give the Republicans a run for their money. No matter how pundits dress it up, this election is a contest between two political parties that deserve one another. Yet again, let H.L. Mencken be your guide: "In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." Nor, he might feel like adding today, a Democrat.