Capture the Flag

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.”


This was the real red meat for Democrats — not just re-appropriating the symbols of nationalism and faith for the broader civic religion that Martin Luther King once espoused, but attacking right at the heart of the Lee Atwater–Karl Rove demagoguery that elected two Bushes and that the Republicans hope will sustain the second. Kerry’s speech, like the convention as a whole, didn’t run through the laundry list of Bush’s sins. His strategists read the polls and knew that the American people understood what those sins were and were prepared to reject Bush on account of them. The same polls also showed, however, that they hadn’t embraced Kerry yet, didn’t know how credible he’d be as commander in chief. So they planned instead to make Kerry look every bit as credible as Bush and then some, and to extol a broader form of patriotism that encompasses even dissent. And in this they succeeded.


But Kerry’s speech was just as striking for what it did not do, or even attempt. He offered no overarching vision of what he’d seek to do as president. In part, that’s a reflection on Kerry, who’s led discreet and commendable battles in his years as a legislator — against arctic drilling and exposing Iran-Contra — but never identified himself with a cause or ideology in the manner of, say, his Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy. In part, that’s a reflection on Kerry’s consigliere, Robert Shrum, a veteran campaign consultant whose candidates haven’t often had a single unifying theme to their message.

Then again, the domestic platforms of virtually every Democratic presidential candidate this year were very similar, with the exceptions of Joe Lieberman on the right and Dennis Kucinich on the left. All, including Lieberman and Kucinich, proposed, as their top-dollar item, greatly expanding health insurance, and Kerry did make clear that this was his foremost domestic priority. (Also like the other candidates, he vowed to pay for this program by rolling back tax cuts on Americans making more than $200,000 a year.) His program is actually crafted to avoid the kinds of political attack that crippled both Clinton’s program and any suggestion of single-payer, through the miracle of not really creating any new program. Instead, he has the government assume the cost of catastrophic illnesses that employers and employees now cover in the form of higher premiums and deductibles and co-pays. He expands Medicaid to benefit more poor people, and he authorizes the government to bargain with drug companies to bring down costs. No great vision there, but it would go a long way to making health care more affordable for the already-insured and more attainable for the uninsured.

Similarly, none of the Democratic candidates had particularly great ideas for bringing back manufacturing jobs, but then, neither does anyone else who works in or around the American political economy. Kerry, like his fellow Democratic candidates, embraced the Apollo Program, a project devised by a range of unions, enviro groups and progressive think tanks to retrofit buildings, manufacture more energy-efficient public transit and the like. To be funded through tax credits, the project envisions the creation of 3 million decent-paying jobs over the next decade, but even that could not stanch the bleeding of a state like Ohio, much of whose economy has been picked up and exported over the past several decades.

Until the past couple of years, free-trading Democrats have been able to dismiss the problems created by the growth of a global labor market in manufacturing; it simply wasn’t a problem at all, and the stagnation or diminution of American working-class incomes wasn’t even worthy of study. Today, however, those trends threaten to turn the industrial Midwest irrevocably against Bush. Ohio, and all it stands for, has concentrated the party mind, so that the Democratic platform actually reflects the AFL-CIO’s perspective in trade — that all subsequent agreements must make adherence to binding labor and environmental standards a central part of the accord. And so, the Democrats found themselves in unaccustomed agreement on the issue that has divided them most sharply since the mid-1980s.


On domestic policy, then, Kerry had programs but no grand themes. On foreign policy, Kerry had grand themes only — multilateralism, prudence, actually, more abstractions than themes — and no specifics, particularly on Iraq. To look only at the polling, the Democratic base is more opposed to Kerry’s support for a continuing presence in Iraq than it ever was to Lyndon Johnson’s support for the war in Vietnam. But the polling doesn’t measure intensity or trajectory — that for all that divides them on Iraq, Democrats still think Kerry will act rationally there, or in any event more rationally than Bush. Still, a Kerry presidency could in time see major defections in Democratic ranks if he failed to draw down the size of the U.S. force there.

But for now, the Democrats leave Boston as unaccustomedly happy campers. The media have noted the smallness of the Democratic bounce, but the smallness was pre-ordained by the fact that most Americans have already chosen sides in the presidential contest. But what bounce there was is not negligible. The polling makes clear that the public now views Kerry as more credible than Bush as commander in chief, with an advantage over his rival in every area but terrorism, where Bush’s advantage has shrunk to single digits. The polling also makes clear that swing voters are chiefly concerned about the economy, and that has to make Rove and Company more than a little nervous. It’s hard to predict the outcome of an election with an X factor as large as a terrorist attack a possibility, but that said, I still expect Kerry to emerge the victor in November, and by more than five points.

And for all that his themelessness is a frustration, it may just be one more consequence of the domination of this election by George W. Bush. The president is the radical in this year’s field, and the election ultimately turns on who loves him, and hates him, and fears him. Throughout the convention, the big screen at the Fleet Center was filled with images of one Republican after another who said that this time, he or she was supporting John Kerry. Taken together, and combined with all the generals and grunts who were on the stage, the images started to seem like all the defectors in Macbeth or Richard III who abandon the lead character during the fifth and final acts of those plays. So there are things we still don’t know about John Kerry? So how much do we know about Malcolm or Richmond after Macbeth and Richard fall? This is the Tragical History of George W. Bush, and Kerry’s role is to come in and take over when it’s done.


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