By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
BOSTON— The Democrats had themselves one whale of a Republican convention last week, and not just on the podium.
The remarkable thing at the party’s quadrennial gathering wasn’t that John Kerry came off as a credible commander in chief. It was that the Democratic convention delegates took orders, rose and sat in unison, didn’t make undue noise during some boring preliminary speeches, and, above all, didn’t really argue with one another. In short, they were the very image of Republican delegates.
Not, I hasten to add, in their beliefs. Depending on whether you go with The New York Times’ poll of the delegates or the Boston Globe’s, either 93 percent or 95 percent of the delegates believe the Iraqi war was a mistake. They overwhelmingly support universal health insurance, bolstering unions’ right to organize and a woman’s right to choose, the whole liberal megillah.
And yet, when it came to suppressing real differences (such as their own with the presidential nominee on Iraq) and cooperating to produce a unified front, the Democrats were magically, unprecedentedly, as one. George W. Bush has put them on war footing, and they march in lockstep against him.
Coming out of the convention, they march for Kerry, too — and, for many of them, for the first time. They march for him because in his speech, he successfully took the fight to the enemy — not merely suggesting that his own credentials and perspectives would make him a better commander in chief than Bush, but because, in conjunction with a number of speakers who preceded him to the podium, he reclaimed patriotism from the right.
The Democratic convention was the closest approximation of a George M. Cohan extravaganza I suspect we shall ever see, and by its conclusion, the Democrats had surely captured the flag. But the show wasn’t just generals and Swift Boat mates and martial references. The Democrats actually recaptured the flag, as it were, twice during the convention — the first time as strategists, the second time as ideologists.
The theme that Kerry and the Democrats are superior military strategists to the Republicans, that they are the gang that can actually shoot straight, was first voiced on Monday night when Bill Clinton noted that “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.” (Clinton’s speech confirmed that he is still better able to frame issues than any Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt.) The military brass followed by attesting to the virtues of Kerry’s realism. In the fourth year of the Bush presidency, the military truism that you are stronger with allies than without has become a dividing line between the two parties, and since generals are seldom happier than when voicing truisms, they had no trouble singing Kerry’s praises.
It fell to the Swift Boat mates and Max Cleland to underscore that for Kerry, unlike a certain unnamed incumbent president, war has been no mere abstraction but a bloody mess with real dangers and losses. The strongest passages of Kerry’s speech were the ones in which he conveyed how his own experience of battle would inform any decisions he made to send others into battle. “I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can’t tell friend from foe,” he said. “I know what it’s like to write letters home telling your family that everything’s all right when you’re not sure that’s true. As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say, ‘I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm’s way.’”
There was also a more purely ideological recapturing of the flag. If Democrats believe that George W. Bush’s original sin was his election to the presidency by the Republican justices on the Supreme Court, their strategists believe that for moderate Americans, his sin has been to govern relentlessly on the right, to shatter the national unity that inevitably emerged after 9/11 in the pursuit of partisan ends. From the library-snooping provisions of the Patriot Act, to insisting on a Homeland Security bill that kept its employees from being able to join a union, to pursuing a doctrine of unilateral force and chip-on-our-shoulder xenophobia, to forcing a vote on the Iraqi War just one month before the 2002 midterm elections, Bush and his minions have devised one absurd test after another for measuring national values — tests that Democrats were not supposed to pass.
To some degree, alas, Democrats did pass those tests: John Kerry voted to authorize the war, though he continued to speak against it as though he had voted no. But much of the Democratic convention was directed at rejecting those tests, at affirming a less sectarian version of nationalism and condemning the Republicans for setting up those tests in the first place. Keynoter Barack Obama took aim at the politics of cultural civil war that the Republicans have been waging since Nixon — and that this president wages more avidly than any president since Nixon. There are gays in red states and Little League coaches in blue, he reminded his listeners. Predictably, Kerry asserted we are just one nation, red, white and blue. Better than predictably, he sought to depoliticize God no less than country: “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side,” he said. “As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”