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
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
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
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.