The Democrats’ First Day
As we now know from polls, the so-called “Grand Old Party” is 90% white. There’s nothing wrong with that: whites like me have a prominent place in this country. But the GOP Convention’s uniform hue—along with its tightly scripted party line—gave the impression of identical puppets dancing to some unseen movers’ tune. You could almost see Karl Rove and the Koch brothers pulling the strings.
The only human interest came from an aged and seemingly demented Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. In my mind, he conjured the spirit of the senile fool who cried “Get your government hands off my Medicare!” These are not the sorts of people you want running your government, with the fingers on the Doomsday Button.
What a difference the Democrats made! There were electrifying speeches. There were people who looked like America, not just on the floor but on the podium. There was enthusiasm for something besides bashing the President.
And there was quality: quality speeches, quality memories of things that really happened, and quality ideas. Most of all, there were empathy and compassion for all the suffering that thirty years of GOP policy failures have wrought, to which the GOP’s only response is blaming the President.
The two most powerful speeches came from African-Americans. Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts gave a line-by-line critique of Mitt Romney’s governance of his state. That has been Mitt’s only experience in elected office and his only claim to fulfilling public dreams, as distinguished from lining his own and private clients’ pockets.
Patrick had to clean up the fiscal and private-sector mess Mitt made in the Bay State, which was 47th out of fifty in the nation in job creation under Mitt. He deconstructed Mitt’s disastrous tenure as only he could do.
But there was more, much more. Not only did Patrick debunk the myth of Mitt’s governorship. He ticked off the President’s accomplishments and the GOP’s obstructionism and dark alternative vision. He also offered the most perfect grammar, diction and elocution that I can remember. (I’m a retired professor, and I notice these things.)
Maybe because Patrick is nearly blind, he focused more on the sounds he made. If so, his speech was a metaphor for the whole first day: overcoming hardship with work and determination, so as to offer a better quality of leadership to all of us.
Quality, yes. Substance, lots. And blame? A little, but based on facts and figures, not fantasies.
The icing on the cake was the First Lady’s closing address. She told of her love for the President and their kids, their family’s journey during the last three years, the president’s commitment to reducing human suffering, and his growth in office. She described where he and she get their values: from the suffering and struggles of their own families and from the President’s experience in working to improve people’s lives in blighted parts of Chicago.
The First Lady’s values point should be a constant campaign theme. With her razor-sharp mind (like the President’s, trained at Harvard Law School), she described how presidents make decisions. There are the Cabinet members, and there are advisers, and they usually disagree. They each have their own predilections and constituencies, and they see things differently.
A smart president like Obama wants it that way. He (and some day she) wants to hear all views and arguments before deciding. But as Harry Truman so beautifully put it, “the buck stops” on the President’s desk.
So how do good presidents make decisions? Do they trust in a publicly enigmatic private ideologue, as Dubya trusted Cheney? Or do they keep their own counsel? And if so, how do they decide?
As the First Lady described the President, the good ones trust their own values. There is no computer program that can make tough presidential decisions. Even if there were, the necessary data wouldn’t be there. Only the toughest decisions get to a president’s desk, and there is rarely enough information to decide on facts alone, let alone a single, reliable, decisive fact. So a president must prioritize and rely on his values—what he cares about most.
The First Lady made that point only after describing the President’s values at some length, and how he came by them. He cares deeply about ordinary people—the so-called “middle class”—and their struggles and suffering. He cares because his parents and his wife’s lived those struggles, and both he and she grew up with them. He and she remember because those were their formative years, and neither is yet old or complacent enough to forget.
The First Lady described convincingly how neither the President nor she ever lost those values and have them today. In contrast, Mitt was born into a prominent political family with wealth and power. It’s a wonder he wasn’t delivered by Caesarian section so his silver spoon woundn’t puncture his mother’s womb. And there’s no human sympathy in Mitt, only an unjustified certitude that his abstract economics theories will improve life for people other than their immediate and most obvious beneficiaries, namely, rich people like him.
The First Lady didn’t make this comparison explicitly, but she didn’t have to. When she said her husband’s values and character hadn’t changed since he became president, she didn’t make that comparison either, but she didn’t have to. Everyone who can reason understands that Mitt will be the same indecisive, flip-flopping, unfathomable enigma that he is today if (God forbid!) he should ever sit in the White House. Even he won’t know what he’ll do next.
When the First Lady spoke of the President’s honesty and integrity, she didn’t mention all those lies told in Tampa, but she didn’t have to. And when she spoke about humility and respect for others, she didn’t mention Mitt’s planet-sized ego or his campaign based entirely on bashing others. But she didn’t have to.
When the First Lady’s speech ended, she had done a brilliant hatchet job on Mitt without ever mentioning his name or his party. And she had done it in a way that all our parents always urged on us: nil nisi bonum, but about her husband.
There was much more. There was Julián Castro, San Antonio’s Latino mayor, who delivered a rousing and impressive speech combining praise for the President with the same sort of “let’s work together” theme that made Obama a national figure in 2004. Castro’s own unique contribution was something more: a theme of opportunity that should become a staple of Democratic politics through the election and beyond.
The great philosopher John Rawls once posed a powerful metaphorical question. Suppose you were a disembodied soul about to be infused into a random human body on Earth. Suppose you had no idea where or in whom you would end up—in what country or city, with what race or ethnicity, or with what sexual orientation. What sort of society would you want to exist for this “human roulette wheel” game? Would you want a society of equality of opportunity, as the US used to be, or would you want a society of a few winners and many losers, like France or Russia before their respective bloody revolutions, or like what may become of our society if Mitt wins?
The rational answer, of course, is that you would want an opportunity society. It would improve your chances of winning in life’s game. Today it would vastly improve your small chances of becoming one of the very few super-rich, as distinguished from the masses of struggling and confined middle classes or virtually hopeless poor.
John Rawls’ abstract and metaphorical question leads right to the idea and values of America. Equal opportunity, especially to education, is what put the President in the White House and what made us the strongest, richest and most envied society in human history. That theme, which Castro renewed last night, is not just a campaign slogan but our national anthem. It is a direct cause of our power, wealth and greatness.
There were others stars, too. There was Corey Booker, now Newark’s rising mayor (of rush-into-the-burning-building fame), likely destined for national prominence. There were the Governor of Maryland and ex-governor of Ohio, who gave rousing stump speeches and (in Ohio’s case) made a brilliant contrast with the current Republican-ideologue governor, who has become widely unpopular due to overreaching of Tea-Party proportions.
From a professional political point of view, the day was a grand slam, planned meticulously and delivered flawlessly. There was something for important “swing” ethnic groups like Latinos and key battleground states like Ohio.
But from a human perspective, it was much more. It reminded us all that politics is not just a game of chess with human pawns as pieces, or an argument about economic abstractions. It’s an enterprise in bettering the lives of real people in a complex, dangerous and ever-changing world. And in that game it matters that the leader of the free world be someone who cares about and understands the people he is supposed to serve.
The closing commentary inadvertently made this point. James Carville, a former Democratic operative, noted how flawlessly and beautifully the day had gone. So did others. Then a Republican spinmeister (whose name is not worthy of mention) refused to “join the general swoon.” He said, in effect, that voters must still decide whether the President’s failure to cure the economy quickly (after thirty years of GOP mismanagement) entitled him to a second term.
At that point, Carville nearly lost his cool. With evident frustration, he asked why supposedly professional commentators couldn’t recognize the simple, self-evident truth: that the day had gone splendidly for the Democrats.
Inadvertently, the nameless GOP zombie corroborated the day’s two main points. First, Democrats respond to facts and events. In contrast, the zombie, like a wind-up toy, reverted to his stale talking points, rather than responding to what had just happened. Just as the GOP’s answer to every question is lower taxes, less regulation, more pollution and more power to the powerful, his answer to every political question is “the president failed.” Why even bother to ask? (Whether it’s “journalism” to give such zombies a platform is another question, one I’ll address in a future post.)
Second, the Democrats care about people and facts, not theory. The zombie wanted to change the subject to a theory: Mitt’s tired abstract allegation that the President has failed. But the realities of the day were speakers polished and shining like multicolored jewels, radiant in their confidence, competence and caring for the people they serve. Now the question becomes whether voters will believe the evidence of their own eyes, or abstract propaganda planted in their minds by Fox.