On Thursday night, Barack Obama strode to the podium and met all of our expectations, capping a week that may have marked a transition for the Democratic Party. But the defining moment of the convention – Obama's official nomination -- wasn't what stood out.
What did is that in 2012, after years of running away from the party's ideology, the Dems seem to have embraced it to a degree we haven't seen in some time. Perhaps we are, at long last, witnessing a backlash against the "backlash right." As the party has so clearly come to occupy the center of American politics -- in large part a result of the Republicans' sharp rightward lurch -- Democrats' usual fear of being labeled “un-American” or accused of stoking “class warfare” was far less evident.
The entire convention was more coherent and united in purpose than the Republicans' party down in Tampa – it just seemed, for the first time in many years, that it was the Democrats who excell at this kind of political theater, while the GOP seemed stiff, and strained, and overwhelmingly negative.
As for Obama's address, we knew he would deliver a rousing speech because he's an excellent orator, and while it wasn't the 'speech of his lifetime' – the president started slow and offered fewer specifics than Bill Clinton had the previous night – it was solid, and at times, inspiring.
We expected Obama to make this election a contest between two competing – and very different – visions for the future rather than a referendum on the economy, and he did. “When you pick up that ballot to vote,” he said, “you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” He talked about big decisions to come – on taxes, jobs, deficits, energy policy and education. And then he laid out a defining question for our times: are we citizens or are we just tax-payers? Are we on our own, or are we all in this together? “This is what the election comes down to,” he said.
Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing. If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s just the price of progress. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and “borrow money from your parents.”
We also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.
Because we understand that this democracy is ours. We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
Whereas Clinton offered up red meat, Obama tried to appeal to the very small number of persuadable voters in this election. “No party has a monopoly on wisdom,” he said. “No democracy works without compromise.”
We expected him to thrill the base, at times, and he did that too, with a full-throated attack on Republicans' trickle-down theory – their belief that tax-cuts skewed toward the top is a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem – and with his emphasis on kitchen table issues. He said to the crowd: "You are my hope."
“If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void,” he said. “Lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.”
We've also come to expect Obama to frustrate his base at times, and he did that as well. He talked about “clean coal” – a nonexistent product fabricated by the Big Coal's PR gurus – and promised to “take the responsible steps to strengthen Social Security,” which has never meant genuinely progressive fixes. He elicited groans from liberals across the country by assuring America that he was “still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission.”
We expected him to lay out some specific goals for a second term and he obliged, promising to create a million manufacturing jobs over the next four years, cut oil imports in half by 2020 – which is every bit as significant as cutting Pez dispenser imports – and slowing the growth of college tuition by half.
But while Obama's talk offered few surprises, the convention did – and not just for the fact that (by my reckoning) he gave only the fourth best speech of the three-day event. Whereas twelve years ago, many progressives rightly saw little difference between the two parties, today that is only remotely true of 'national security' policy, broadly defined. On the domestic side -- on the economy, and a host of social issues -- the differences have become stark. This was the first time a major party adopted a plank calling for marriage equality. It was the first convention addressed by an undocumented immigrant. Despite the stupidity with the platform language about Israel, Democrats seemed more comfortable in being Democrats than they have in the recent past.
Perhaps as a result, there was far more excitement in Charlotte than there had been in Tampa, and that was visible from the first day. The best speeches offered unabashed defenses of a woman's right to control her body and full-throated populist attacks on the GOP's creepy cult of wealth. Several speakers talked of liberal policy ideas as a manifestation of “economic patriotism,” suggesting in less-than-subtle terms that their opponents care less about the republic than they do. We saw real diversity not just on the podium, as was the case in Tampa, but in the audience. There was a sense that while the Democrats were certainly reaching out toward “swing” voters, they were also unafraid of what the dopes at Fox News would say about their party.
In part, that's a reflection of the growth of an independent progressive movement that was largely nonexistent during the 1990s, when the hangover of Mondale's 1984 thrashing was still fresh and triangulation was all the rage. But it's also a reaction to the GOP's growing extremism – according to Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.”
It's easy to be confident in your position on abortion when your opponents want to outlaw it without exceptions. There's no reason to be sheepish in calling for progressive taxation when your opponents want to effectively gut the federal government in order to pay for deep tax cuts for those who don't need them. And it's easy to openly embrace diversity when your opposition is a party made up of white, married Christians – a declining demographic – who throw peanuts at a black woman while yelling, “this is how we feed the animals!”
In a sense, the roles Democrats and Republicans have long played are now being reversed. We live in a liberal democracy, and today the Democrats are defenders of the status quo -- "conservatives" in the true sense -- while the right wants to roll back the last century, and that may ultimately end up strengthening the Democrats' spine.
We saw a party in the middle of a gradual transition in Charlotte. We still live in the only industrialized country without a party of labor. We still face the seemingly unkillable zombie of austerity lurking in both major parties. We still don't have a party that seems up to the challenge of truly addressing our environmental crises. Democrats still feel the need to embrace a hyper-masculine discourse on war and peace. They still use too much of Frank Luntz' poll-tested conservative frames.
But progress isn't made overnight, and for those of us who have been fighting to push the Democratic Party into closer alignment with the views of its progressive base, this convention ought to give progressives a moment savor.
Thu, 09/06/2012 - 15:26