Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 July 2016

The Dems’ Convention

This post is devoted to reporting the Convention day by day. For my views on what Hillary must do to earn a three-branch sweep, click here. For a day-by-day review of the Trump Convention, click here.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3: Discovering Decency
Day 4: The Disappointment

Day 1

What a difference a week makes! Last week’s Trump Convention opened with serial laments by ordinary people who had suffered and—for reasons neither expressed nor apparent—blamed their suffering on Obama. It was amateur night of amateur nights, enough to make an American Idol blush.

That first day now seems even worse in retrospect. Having blamed their suffering on the wrong person(s) for reasons unknown, les miserables had no recourse but to follow the evil demagogue, who promised to fix their troubles by methods unsaid, with no recourse but “believe me . . . I am your voice.”

Thus were the dismal first day and Trump’s passably political acceptance speech all of a piece. They introduced the evil villain and his modus operandi as if in a Disney cartoon. Trump’s and Fox’ politics as entertainment were immanent, perhaps just not as intended.

The Dems’ first day was as different as day after night. Not only did it highlight professionals as distinguished from amateurs. It showcased some of the best Dem leaders.

The Dems (or some of them) served up a list of grievances, too. But they were not personal grievances; they were societal ones. Unlike Trump’s les miserables, the Dem’s savvy professionals traced the people’s grievances, step by step, to a generation of GOP mistakes and bad policy. And then—especially in the case of Bernie, who spoke last—they described exactly how to fix them.

You can lead a voter to logic, but you can’t make him think. If you could, any voter watching last night would have begun to understand how smart, practical people solve big problems with real solutions. And they would have seen it by being shown how, not told.

But there was much more than just information, facts and logic. There was also tone.

In an effort to pull the party together after the grueling primaries, Cory Booker and Michelle Obama gave “unity” speeches. Booker, a former Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law grad, gave a rather abstract speech. Pulling facts and words from our nation’s history, he traced our nation’s genius not to being the best of all possible worlds, but to having the strength and will to improve ourselves continually. What makes us a great nation, he told us, is striving always to form a more perfect union, wherever that striving may lead.

Michelle continued in the same vein, but with much more power. Her voice breaking with emotion, she noted that she “wake[s] up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” With that single sentence, Michelle demolished both the notion that we are not a great nation and the lie that we have not made progress. Our progress may be slow, and it may be subject to reversal, she implied, but it can move faster, and much, much faster if the Dems make a three-branch sweep.

Michelle also mapped out a course for the level of our campaign. “When they go low, we go high,” she advised. It’s a lesson derivable not just from her husband’s presidency, but from the GOP’s own primary campaign and its results. Where are all the GOP pros who tried to go low with Trump now?

In an odd way, the speeches of Day 1 also introduced Hillary, although she won’t speak until Day 4. They introduced her by showing the power of great women, albeit two very different ones.

Michelle spoke of children and grandchildren. She framed a president’s role as improving their futures. She spoke with self-evident conviction and personal power—so well, in fact, that I found myself hoping that some day she might run, too. That audience apparently agreed: its reception of her speech was the warmest of the night.

Elizabeth did what she is famous for. She catalogued the GOP’s blunders and frauds, explaining exactly how they cause people pain and bring our country low, and how to fix them. And she did so in words and concepts simple enough for any voter to understand.

Bernie capped the night with an extended concession speech endorsing Hillary. Among other things, he thanked his many supporters, noted how he had driven the party’s platform to the left, and promised that his “revolution” would continue. No doubt it will, for Bernie seems to have made Hillary aware of the futility of “triangulating” opponents that have no fixed position and are broken, splintered and at each other’s throats.

All in all, the Dems’ Day 1 was as organized and purposeful as Trump’s was dismal and chaotic. It set the tone of the Dem’s campaign (“high”) and its substance. Our country is great and need not be made great again. It just needs to recall what makes it great and follow the Dems’ prescription for equal justice and cooperation. Day 1 thus resolved the “oxymoron” of an optimistic case for big changes: we need change because the plutocrats and Citizens United have stolen our democracy, and we need to get it back. The theft was recent enough that the changes required shouldn’t qualify as “revolutionary;” it was that execrable decision that was radical.

Putin’s hackers may have tried to stir division in the Dems by broadcasting Schultz’ anti-Bernie e-mails. But the ploy backfired. Schultz got fired, as she should have been long ago. The Bernie and Hillary factions cried and made up last night, and the evening’s unity and powerful speeches reduced Trump’s chances of winning by 5% to 10%. More to the point, the gambit reduced Putin’s popularity here even further, if that were possible.

Unlike Trump (or what he may have said once), Trump’s likely supporters despise and fear Putin and Russia. So by trying to help Trump, Putin probably hurt him, not just indirectly through the failure of the ploy, but directly as well.

We do still have a great nation. Our greatness lies in our ability to improve ourselves and to rise from the ashes of our failures. We might reverse course, but we never quit. Those who don’t take the time to understand us will find that out to their chagrin, including both Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Our President’s newest diplomatic proposal will soon reveal Putin’s true intentions, just as his many reasonable proposals to Congress revealed the GOP’s. Either Putin will work with us to extinguish the scourge of IS and to stabilize what is left of Syria and its neighbors, or he will continue his present course of Metternichean power plays, causing death and destruction as he does. We and the world will soon know.

It’s may seem odd that all this comes from a political party about which Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” But those who write us Dems or us Yanks off have always lived to regret it. What appears to be our weakness often becomes our strength.

Endnote on Putin’s Ploys. For all his faults, Putin is an innovative leader. This is at least the third time he has tried to assert direct influence over the American political process. The first was an op-ed piece in the New York Times. The second was harboring Edward Snowden. The third was releasing hacked e-mails revealing Schultz’ improper campaign against Bernie.

We should expect this sort of thing to continue and not fret too much about it. It’s a far cry from the kind of “cyberwarfare” that makes centrifuges, dams or power grids fail. In some cases, it might advance the progress of our species. Truth is not often a bad thing, even if it outs awkwardly. And in tapping our communications, Putin’s spooks might learn something about how democracy works, just as our spooks (or our government) may have learned something about how great leaders think by tapping Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the resigning DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz as “Strauss.” Late-night blogging after a long day does have its discontents.

Day 2

About midway through the second day, the Dems’ Convention began to distinguish itself strongly from Trump’s. Except for the testimonial givers, its speakers are professionals pols, not amateurs like Trump himself. Second, its organizers are also professionals. Visible themes, and visible transitions among them, appeared as Day 2 grew on.

There was little evidence of tightly enforced discipline, as you might have expected from the GOP of old, when it was a real political party. After all, these were Dems, who often take Will Rogers’ quip (“no organized political party”) as a badge of identity and pride. But subject to the needs of tender egos and emotional healing, the Convention completed the party’s unification and, after a display of diversity, began to move toward humanizing and promoting its candidate.

The final push toward party unification came in an extended roll-call vote, before prime time. The party elders allowed the vote to continue until long after Hillary had gone over the top. It continued until Vermont, Bernie’s state, when he wisely and graciously asked that the vote be made unanimous by acclamation. And so it was.

Thus did Hillary Clinton, without excessive fanfare, become the first-ever female candidate for president pushed forward by a major party. A small number of “Bernie-or-bust” delegates walked out, with protest signs and garb and a few boos. It was unclear from PBS’ reporting whether they ever returned. But the vast majority of delegates remained to see the displays of diversity and the night’s crowning glory, Bill Clinton’s speech.

At various times, I have speculated on Bill’s loss of grey matter during his heart bypass operations. No more. Whatever he may have lost at some time since his presidency, he seemed to have gotten back in full force. And his thin-as-a-rail physique appeared to underline the reason: like most Dems, he believes in science, including the science of living longer.

It’s a difficult thing to praise your own wife of over forty years and make the praise real and credible, let alone when you’ve had some very public marital difficulties and political defeats. Bill did so, magnificently, in a rousing speech that was focused entirely on Hillary and family, was mostly personal, and was completely devoid of references to Bill’s own triumphs and accomplishments.

A good political speech is as fine a balancing act as tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls. It must blend emotion with reason, hope and inspiration with hard fact. It must be simple enough for people with ninth-grade educations to understand, and complex and detailed enough not to bore PhDs. It has to have enough truthful and accurate descriptions of real events and history to maintain credibility. It must have a heaping portion of human interest and humor, so that each listener hears himself or herself in it and doesn’t take it too seriously.

A good speech must also vary the tone so as to avoid boredom. But it must lead inexorably to a final crescendo of approval or disapproval. At its end, each member of the audience must have the same undeniable urge to stand and cheer as after a once-in-a-decade concert. For a great political speech is a work of art.

Bill knew all this last night, and he delivered a masterpiece. In broad outline, it was a complete history of his life with Hillary, from their first meeting, through their marriage and childrearing, to their latest years. It was loving, personal and often whimsical, as if told by an uncle to a favorite nephew. Yet it managed to cover virtually every specific accomplishment of Hillary’s long political career, complete with formal names of places, bills, committees and effects.

The speech had three self-evident goals. The first was to humanize Hillary and convince listeners that she cares more about each American—especially the powerless and voiceless—than she seems to care about her own career when she hides behind a wall of secrecy and her defensive crouch. The second was to contrast Hillary’s multi-decade record of public service with Trump’s, who (as far as his public record shows) has never done anything for anybody but himself. The final goal was to paint Hillary as a “Change Maker,” not a protector of the status quo, as ubiquitous floor signs that magically appeared late in Bill’s speech insisted.

Bill is a supremely gifted speaker, raconteur, and persuader. His brilliant speech went far to meet the first two goals.

But on the third, he fell short despite his effort. Virtually all of the accomplishments he mentioned were incremental, partial, small, or unsuccessful. Perhaps the largest was Hillary’s pushing S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which subsidized the states in insuring about eight million children who had lacked health insurance previously. Perhaps the most important failure was so-called “Hillarycare,” her pre-Obama attempt at universal insurance, which Bill himself admitted had been overly complex and badly managed.

Bill and the many testimonials left the listener convinced that Hillary loves people, wants to improve their lives, and has left many, many individuals better off through her personal effort. What neither did was to convince listeners that Hillary can initiate or manage change big enough to satisfy the people who made Trump the GOP candidate and nearly made Bernie the Dems’.

There was also another vital question that Bill’s speech did not even address: trust. Believing that someone has a good heart and cares about you is not quite the same as trusting her. It’s easy to hope that more information and testimonials like Bill’s can alone instill the former belief, but much harder to see how to cure the trust deficit.

Logically, doesn’t lack of trust preclude earning trust by words alone? Doesn’t it require action?

If so, I can think of only two things that a candidate in Hillary’s position can do, in the midst of what promises to be an incredibly ugly general-election campaign, and while lacking the power of any current political office. First, she can endorse a policy or course of action that seems best in substance, but appears to contravene her own personal political advantage. (This was exactly what she failed to do in endorsing Dubya’s catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq.) Second, she can promise to include in her Cabinet people who already have earned the public’s trust and have it now. They include, among others, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown, on economics Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, and on climate change Martin O’Malley, her other serious primary challenger.

So far, Hillary has not taken either of these approaches to curing her trust deficit. Will she do so on Day 4, when she will first appear in person like a cloistered bride and address our nation as the first-ever female candidate for president from a major party? The President cannot do this for her when he speaks tomorrow, because the initiative and action must come from her.

Whether Hillary will take one or the other approach is probably the most important question to answer in the last two days. Everyone knows that she is a good speaker and debater. The basic quality of the Dems’ Convention already so surpasses Trump’s as to leave little room for improvement, only for a fall from grace. The sole big questions remaining are how big a change she can produce and how to cure her trust deficit.

Day 3: Discovering Decency

I had expected Day 3 of the Dems’ Convention to be somewhat lackluster. It was to be a day of testimonials and character witnesses for Hillary, but not the candidate herself.

Boy, was I wrong.

Day 3 was a parade of immensely powerful speeches by people who had known Hillary for decades and wanted the public to know what they know. Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. Joe Biden, Vice President. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, truly “balanced” newspaperman, former Republican and now Independent, who will be voting for and supporting Hillary this time. Barack Obama, the Dems’ beloved change agent, who saved us from the scourge of Dubya and a GOP bent on radical extremism. All testified passionately for Hillary.

Like Michelle on Day 1, they all testified from a deep acquaintance with Hillary going back decades. The all told us how passionately concerned with all of us she has been, how hard she works, how she never quits, how much she knows, and how qualified she is. They called her the most qualified candidate ever to run for president.

But they did something better, too. They put the cosmic gulf between Hillary’s character and Trump’s in perspective and gave it a name: decency.

Up to now, pols have used terms like “character” and “temperament” to describe what Trump self-evidently lacks. But they are neutral terms, without specific content, let alone approval or disapproval. They are categorical, not descriptive or normative. They don’t hit the nail on the head.

Defaming Mexicans categorically when they are just trying to improve their lives—like the Pilgrims and every other group who ever came here—is not decent.

Defaming a fully American judge just because of his Mexican ancestors is not decent.

Excluding peaceful Muslims living and working here, when Muslims are, by far, the single group most murdered, maimed, and rendered homeless by Islamic terrorists and by Assad, is not decent.

Running so-called “businesses” through multiple bankruptcies, so that you emerge richer while your partners, investors, workers, subcontractors and customers get poorer is not decent.

Referring to women like a diseased adolescent who sees them only as arm candy and sex objects is not decent.

Proposing to abandon allies who, for decades, have depended on us for protection and freedom if they can’t pay is not decent.

Proposing to build a wall like the Berlin Wall is not decent.

Bringing political debate down to the level of prepubescent boys comparing hand and penis sizes is not decent.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Although not all four primary speakers used the word, all touched on the concept. Perhaps our President and Vice President did so most passionately. Joe spoke of the Scranton working-class culture in which he was raised. Barack spoke of the middle-class, Midwestern culture of his Kansas grandparents, who partly raised him. Both told us that the things described above, which Trump does without caring and often without even thinking, are not decent.

They are not who we are. If they come to dominate our thinking or our politics, we will lose our claim to being “exceptional.” And we will have lost our Republic, too.

The word “decency” has a good political pedigree. Joe (not Gene!) McCarthy was a demagogue much like Donald Trump. He set up a committee to purge so-called “Communists” not just from government, but from everyday life.

His committee was a bit like Trey Gowdy’s today: a pack of attack dogs. McCarthy led it with the flimsiest of evidence, mostly guilt by association. His targets were not people like Hillary, strong pols who could protect themselves. They were ordinary people in ordinary professions. Through innuendo, false claims, and lopsided procedures, McCarthy had scores of them blacklisted, blackballed, and ruined personally and financially—barred from their chosen professions and, in effect, exiled.

McCarthy was not a presidential aspirant. But he did incredible damage to our nation’s decency and self-image, let alone to the people he defamed with his demagoguery.

Dwight Eisenhower, our Republican president and our war-winning general, called McCarthy into his office and chewed him out like an errant private. But Ike didn’t make his displeasure public. McCarthy’s reign of demagogic terror continued until stopped by Joseph N. Welch, then Chief Counsel for the United States Army, in what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

In the key day of those televised hearings, Welch was trying to defend a young lawyer in his own law firm who was the latest of many targets of McCarthy’s baseless character assassination. Early in the exchange, Welch said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.”

After enduring minutes more of McCarthy’s trademark self-regarding and unresponsive ramblings, Welch hit the nail on the head again. “You've done enough [to defame innocent people]. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

According to legend, it was those words that finally showed the nation what a scumbag Joe McCarthy was. His influence began to wane. His Senate colleagues began to shun him. The good people of Wisconsin diselected him, and not long afterward he died of cancer. It was as if the evil that had consumed his soul consumed his body, too.

So it may be with Donald Trump. Along with showing us how good a person Hillary is, the Dems’ last night showed us exactly what a Trump presidency would do to our Republic.

God knows, we Yanks may make mistakes. We may commit blunders. But at our core we are a decent people. We don’t just believe in vague abstractions, like the nameless “freedom” of which Ted Cruz spoke, saying much but meaning nothing. We believe in concrete things like helping your neighbor, working hard, protecting the weak, telling the truth, and building a cohesive society, one brick of personal relationship at a time.

Trump lacks those basic values and virtues. So, unlike Obama—the so-called “alien,” “Muslim” and “extremist”—Trump is not one of us. We should reject him as our bodies do germs. And if last night’s powerful speakers have their way, we will.

Day 4: The Disappointment

After devoting eight solid days to absorbing both conventions, I leave disappointed. I feel like a kid two days after Christmas. I now know that no gift of material things can ever provide the transcendent happiness I expected. But that’s a feeling common to all kids with any sense of maturity. This time my disappointment was greater: the main gift I had expected never came.

Hillary’s acceptance speech simply didn’t measure up to the best of the Convention: not to Michelle’s, not to Joe Biden’s, not to the President’s, and not to Bill’s. It didn’t because it was vintage Hillary: making lists, checking the boxes, promising something for everyone. The striving was there; the passion was not.

The speech was flat in tone. Twice—once in the professional video introduction and again in her speech itself—Hillary referred to her mother standing in the doorway of her home and forcing her to face bullies. That mother was all you could hear in Hillary’s virtually constant, strident, almost abrasive monotone. She became her mother, forcing all of us to do the right thing, using the same harsh tone a mother might use who had been abandoned as a toddler and forced to work to survive from the age of fourteen. There was little joy in Hillary’s delivery, even when noting her brilliant example for women and girls.

Finally, Hillary did not even attempt what I had hoped she would do: assuage public doubts and try to cure her trust deficit by naming reinforcements. She gave absolutely no hint of whom she might appoint to her Cabinet. I guess she thought the earlier speeches of some who might be included would be enough. They weren’t for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Hillary’s speech wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t very good. She showed off her policy wonkishness, named plausible solutions for most of our serious problems, and nodded to Bernie on Wall Street, free college and college debt. Her diction and articulation were excellent; she got through a 65-minute speech with only one noticeable slip of the tongue. She even referred, albeit obliquely and too quickly, to Trump’s decency deficit. She derided him appropriately and humorously, leaving absolutely no doubt that she would make an infinitely better president than he, under any foreseeable circumstances.

Yet she left me with all of the same doubts I had had about her from the day she first challenged Obama in 2007. She makes fine lists. Almost every big thing we need to do as a nation was on hers. But what if she has to set priorities? What if she has to choose? What if, for practical or political reasons, she has to pick one or two things to get done and leave the others behind?

The President did that. He put all his political chips on health insurance and bet his legacy on it. As a result, twenty million people have health insurance who never had it before, and a century-long span of political failure is history. He won on that score despite the most awful, mindless and, yes, racist opposition I had ever seen in my 71 years.

My second doubt, about Hillary’s judgment, also remains. She is good at triangulating, sensing where people stand, and doing things to make people’s lives better. She works hard. But what if she has to predict cause and effect on grossly incomplete information? What if the decision involves something as consequential as war and peace?

Several months before our invasion of Iraq, the President did just that. He gave it a short paragraph in a sparsely covered speech. He wasn’t dogmatic; he expressed himself in terms of probabilities, not certainties. But every one of his doubts has become fact, as if he had been a biblical oracle. Hillary, in contrast, jumped on the bandwagon for war, without even reading the NIE.

Nothing Hillary said tonight in her hour-long speech convinced me that she will avoid such errors of judgment as president. And nothing convinced me she will have in her Cabinet people whose judgment I trust more. I don’t know Tim Kaine.

Nevertheless, this is a unique election. There is no grey here; all is black and white. Hillary is the serious, smart, experienced and earnest candidate. Trump is the utterly unqualified buffoon. If you take him at all seriously, he’s a man who could bring us the Third Reich, Light.

So there is absolutely no doubt that you and I should vote, and vote for Hillary, this November. There is no other choice. But I didn’t need to follow four days of a convention to know that.

Despite the division of Bernie’s near win, the Dems’ convention was infinitely more interesting, well planned and persuasive than Trump’s. A few speeches of people I trust persuaded me that Hillary might do better than I expect, maybe a lot better. But nothing Hillary herself did or said persuaded me more. Nothing she did or said even surprised me. If I had spent a couple of days on it, I probably could have written a close facsimile of her acceptance speech myself.

So I left the Dems’ Convention much as I came in. I’m a little more optimistic, both about Hillary’s chances of winning and about her competence and character. But I still have the same doubts that I’ve suffered since 2007. They will dog me even as I vote for her and (if she needs it) send her money. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a sacred duty, and I will do mine.



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