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[Political Asylum]

Courting Disappointment in Charlotte


The delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, are absolutely delightful. Taken all together, they make the Republican convention look like a convocation of especially dreary MBAs. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats here come in all shapes and sizes, colors and ages, professions and faiths. They look like America, only prettier. And last night they were rocking, secure in their candidate and their beliefs, confident of victory in November.

They are also some of the most delusional people I have ever met.

Last night, as Michelle Obama rocked the house, and one speaker after another scored the Republicans and their candidates, all was right with what Karl Rove once belittled as “the reality-based community.” ( Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, current Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and Newark mayor Corey Booker had the crowd howling as they moved ebulliently to the attack. A video tribute to the late Ted Kennedy, which featured his winning 1994 senate campaign against Mitt Romney, did the same. For inspiration, there was Lilly Ledbetter talking about fair pay for women, while Sandra Fluke succeeded even before she’d stepped to the lectern in dragging yet another right-wing knuckle-dragger blinking out into the sun—Bill O’Reilly, who suggested on his show that condoms be dropped on her head instead of balloons.

There were some speed bumps. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley seems to be operating from the John Glenn “How to Turn Yourself From a Viable National Candidate Into a Punch Line in One Easy Convention” manual. And is it just me, or is there something a little creepy about the brothers Castro?

But by and large, Democrats looked like the party that America wants to look like.

It was especially refreshing to watch them run straight at the hoary Republican charge—as they have this entire campaign—that they are the party of “special interests,” i.e., “most of America.” Democrats are now able—and willing!—to trot out so many women, Hispanic, and black speakers that the G.O.P. has been reduced to trotting out its usual tokens. Up on CNN this morning was Crystal Wright, a blogger and former theater major who bills herself as “a triple minority” because she’s a black conservative living in Washington, D.C. Wright came on to assert, ludicrously, that Michelle Obama’s speech “attacked success.” One can only pity these creatures—all these Ron Christies and Michelle Rhees and Condi Rices—as they cycle through a condition akin to Dante’s Second Circle of Hell, driven endlessly hither and yon by the winds, seeking in vain to satisfy their fathomless lusts for power, wealth, and credibility.

Real people of color and womb, and practitioners of what the more rabid protesters both here and in Tampa denounced as “the Homo Sex” are in ready evidence. Two of the latter even gave a pretty good demonstration on a Charlotte street corner, reducing the insufferable homophobes-in-a-sound-truck prominent at both conventions to sputtering indignation with an extended liplock just inches from their faces.

The delegates in the house last night truly were a delight to be around. Sure, they’ve learned the mind-numbing, Republican discipline of always being on message, but haven’t we all? You could wake these people up in the middle of the night, with a heavy smell of smoke in the air and the noise from a Medevac helicopter hovering above their houses, and they would still tell you that it was Barack Obama who saved the automobile industry and reduced the interest on student loans.

The difficulty comes when you ask them what they expect out of a President Obama in his second term, should he be able to win one. A rough survey of a dozen randomly selected delegates on and off the convention floor yesterday—from California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin—revealed a chasm about the size and depth of the Marianas Trench between the top Democratic leadership and the faithful about what is to come. From Diane Welsh of Madison, WI, to Lisa Starr of Los Angeles; from Mary Salotti and Judy Baker of upstate New York to Leon Brathwaite and Toody Healy of Massachusetts; from Halisi Vinson of Denver to Lakshmi Lakshmanan of Evanston, IL—all randomly selected—the Democrats here universally expect two things from Barack Obama: completion and redemption.

That is, they expect that he will occupy himself in his last four years in the White House with what they so fervently wanted him to do in his first four years: creating jobs and righting the economy; “completing” and “improving” health care reform; making education at all levels cheaper, better, and more accessible; developing clean, renewable energy; and knitting the social safety net back together again.

Asked just how Obama was likely to accomplish any of this in the face of a rabidly intransigent Republican opposition, the most optimistic delegates said they expected Obama’s coattails to whisk in Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress—or at least to preserve the party’s Senate majority while shrinking the Republican margin in the House of Representatives. Some of them expected the president to get more done through the increased used of “executive powers.”

But most delegates echoed Obama’s own thought of a few months ago: that his successful re-election will simply bank the fires of obstructionism within the G.O.P., that Republicans, as caring Americans, will work together with the administration for the good of the country once they have been gently chastised by another electoral defeat.

They could not be budged off this touching assessment of their fellow Americans across the aisle, even when it was pointed out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch “The Human Ferret” McConnell (R., Ferrethole, KY) had just vowed that Obama would get absolutely nothing done with Republican cooperation unless he had “an epiphany”—presumably to start agreeing completely with Mitch McConnell.

(In the same interview, the McConnell suggested that the president of the United States was a mental case—

Much more significantly, though, none of the delegates I talked to volunteered anything about Obama reaching a “grand bargain” on the budget and reducing the deficit. This topic has become the obsession of the national commentariat, Washington insiders—and, increasingly, the administration itself. Barring some dramatic outside event such as war with Iran, the president undoubtedly views the budget as the only significant thing he might be able to do in a second term, as well as the only thing he wants to do, in order to complete his legacy.

In the constant blare and hustle of the convention, I didn’t bother trying to go into the details of just how much Mr. Obama was willing to give away in the “debt deal” he nearly reached with Republicans in 2011. What I did ask them was how far they were willing to go with a re-elected President Obama on a grand bargain. Their answer was, essentially, not very far at all. A few were willing to “maybe” countenance the raising of the Social Security/Medicare eligibility age to as high as sixty-nine. The rest were unwilling to go that far. They did express a readiness to “compromise” in general for the good of the country, but they emphasized that the social-welfare safety net should be repaired or even expanded—not diminished. Above all, they were willing to draw a deep line in the sand against anything that smacked of vouchers and privatization.

This strikes me as a truly ominous note for the party going forward. Discovering that Republicans still will not work with them will be a minor and fleeting disappointment, something along the lines of your eight-year-old realizing that there is no Santa Claus. Discovering that the president you’ve just labored so hard and long and against such odds to elect and re-elect—assuming they are successful at that endeavor—is likely to be something else again.

A president truly determined to significantly alter Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the cause of a balanced budget or anything else is likely to stun and enrage his party—he came within a hairsbreadth of sundering it altogether during the debt deal negotiations last year.

The inconvenient truth is that the elite leadership of the Democratic Party has seceded from its own base. It really did this years ago, when Bill Clinton and his DLC pals took over the White House and the party machinery. This is a terrible thing in its own right for all of us who support liberal government in the United States and the world, but it is even worse for all of us who have only voted for the Democrats for a long time now because we count on them to at least throw up a leaky, tottering, sandbag barrier against the extremism of the Republican right.

If President Obama is really about to pull down the sandbags once and for all, he owes it to his base to at least let them know. Don’t bet on that happening before November 7.


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July 2020

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