Thursday, July 29, 2004

The End of the Beginning
The Democratic convention is over. Now we catch our collective breath for four weeks, hope that the Republican convention comes and goes through this city I live in without undue damage to either the protestors or the collective effort to liberate our country from the right-wing thugocracy currently in control, and then watch the final two-month sprint that starts right after Labor Day.

I watched more of this convention than I'd planned to, and I'm mostly glad that I did. John Kerry wasn't my first choice to be the Democratic presidential nominee, but I think this week he moved me, and probably a lot of others, from supporting him as "not Bush" toward a belief that this man is worth entrusting with the leadership of the government. In his acceptance speech tonight, at the very least, he presented himself as credible, serious, and substantive.

Though it wasn't a slam-dunk from the get-go. Kerry will never be the natural orator that Bill Clinton is, or that Ted Kennedy once was. He still steps on his own applause lines, and he slips and stumbles over words--certainly not like Bush, but that's a low bar indeed. He seemed a bit goofy, a bit forced at the outset, and the stuff about his family and background seemed more de rigour than truly heartfelt. But he caught a rhythm about twenty minutes in and stayed on it for the rest of the way, with a series of great riffs on economic disparities, health care, and energy independence--the three issues where he can absolutely pummel Bush with confidence that he'll have three quarters of the electorate with him. And he closed with an honest-to-goodness rhetorical flourish, asking why we shouldn't dream again of a world where we cure diseases, build a truly new economy on the gains to be realized from new fuels and new technologies, and reconnect with our shared tradition of optimism and audacious dreams.

He was more than credible on the national security stuff as well... which, after all, is why the party nominated him. (Right?) I've thought for a long time that where Clinton did the Democratic Party a long-term favor by neutralizing the issues of crime and welfare which had long swung against the Dems, Kerry could finish the job by restoring general confidence that the party can be entrusted with the "defense" of the U.S. He knows this stuff cold, he's thought about it all very seriously, and unlike most of his former rivals (including the guy he picked to run with him), he doesn't seem eager to change the subject when security matters come up. I look forward to the foreign policy-themed debate; that's where Kerry truly could seal the deal.

Kerry's speech was effective and I think it marks an important milestone on his road to convincing the voters to change presidents. But the speeches earlier in the week by Barack Obama and John Edwards reminded me of why I am a Democrat. It really boils down to one thing: the Republicans, by and large, are content with a certain level of human misery in the world, and the Democrats are not. Whether poverty represents a dimly revealed divine judgment of some kind, or just the invisible hand of the capitalist system, with a few honorable exceptions of the Jack Kemp stripe, they're not really concerned with material want or with corrupted democratic or governmental processes unless it directly challenges their position. Perhaps this wasn't always so, but in my conscious lifetime (I'm 31), the Republicans have demonstrated a consistent love for power over principle. One of the very best things that might come of a Kerry victory this year would be for the Republican Party to re-examine the cynicism and compromises that underscore the strength of their current electoral coalition. A reformed Republican Party restored to its best self--fiscally responsible at home, cautious in foreign affairs, mindful of libertarian traditions and individual rights and freedoms--would be a great thing for the country. It would be nice to feel about more Republicans the way I feel about John McCain: I disagree with him on 75 percent of "the issues," but I trust his judgment and his character, and I believe he venerates the Constitution. Too many Republicans in the current ruling clique seem to view that document as an impediment to amassing power.

To be sure, the Democrats want power as well; that's why this convention was so much more disciplined and controlled than past Democratic events. But I believe the Democrats are much more prone to see power as a means to worthy ends, rather than for simple self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement. We are the party of ideals, the party of community, the party that values both individual freedoms and shared endeavor for mutual good. We recognize that responsibility is a part of enlightened self-interest; Republicans' self-interest is benighted and often mean-spirited. (Clinton's point Monday night about how the Republicans need a divided America, but Democrats don't, was right on.) I have often found myself in the ranks of "Democrats by default," but hearing from Obama, Edwards, Kerry and others, this week I enjoyed the rare and welcome feeling of pride in this party.

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