A Tale of Two Conventions


Charles Dickens came to mind again this week -p his opening to A Tale of Two Cities — his intriguing contrast between “the best of times….the worst of times…the age of wisdom…the age of foolishness.” His cities were London and Paris. Ours were Tampa and Charlotte, but the contrasts remain the same. As we vote in November we need to decide. Tampa? Charlotte? Which offers us “the season of Light,” which “the season of Darkness?”

Maybe the conventions can offer us a clue because they were so very different — different on honesty, different on compassion and equality, different on economic growth and social justice, different on civil rights. Different — so making it easier to choose — different, so making it even clearer than it was before, just how vital it is for America’s long-term future that Democrats, and not Republicans, win in November.

HONESTY

The first convention, the one held in Tampa, was marked by an all-pervasive lack of respect for the present occupant of the White House and for the truth about his record in office. There was Clint Eastwood and the empty chair. There was Paul Ryan and the Medicare cuts, the failure of Bowles-Simpson and the closure of the Janesville GM plant. There was Mitt Romney on the support Republicans supposedly gave the Obama presidency at its outset, on the “apology tour,” and on the throwing of Israel under the bus. There was the persistent subterranean soft birtherism of the Party’s repeated claim that only Republicans understood and valued American exceptionalism. (Barack Obama certainly did not. How could he, since he supposedly “just doesn’t get it.” ) Republican speakers struggled in Tampa to hold together two intrinsically incompatible claims; that America is still the greatest country on the face of the earth, and yet is currently so scarred by un-American levels of unemployment, poverty and indebtedness to China that it requires new leadership at the top. The only way that Republicans could square that circle was to blame the president (and the president alone) for all our contemporary economic difficulties, even though in truth the unemployment, poverty and indebtedness with which we now struggle — as Republicans well know — was a legacy from the presidency of George W. Bush. The Obama Administration did not create the crisis. They inherited it. Because they did, and because Republicans cannot afford to admit that they did, systematic lying had to become central to the presentation of the Republican case in Tampa. For the underlying truth here is that the policies now being proposed by Romney and by Ryan are the very ones that created our present economic difficulties when pursued by George W. Bush. But no self-respecting Republican dare admit that. After all, “elect us and we will make things worse” will hardly be a winning slogan for Republicans in November. Lying is so much more preferable to truth, when the truth could be so costly in votes.

Now compare that to the underlying accuracy of the message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte. Unlike the Republicans in Tampa, the Democrats were not selling a policy package that was basically fraudulent. On the contrary and convention hyperbole apart, they had an honest story to tell, one indeed that they told endlessly. It was a story of difficult conditions inherited and of best efforts made to address those conditions — and of those best efforts being made in spite of unprecedented degrees of Republican resistance. “Facts are facts,” as Martin O’Malley put it. “No President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression inherited a worse economy, bigger job losses or deeper problems from his predecessor.” Or as President Clinton had it, Barack Obama “inherited a deeply damaged economy.” “He started with a much weaker economy than I did.” “He put a floor under the crash. He began the long hard road to recovery.” He “laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy.” Indeed the case for Obama’s record was put far better by Clinton than by Obama himself. “No president,” Clinton said, “no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” And particularly could not have done it in the political conditions to which Clinton also properly drew attention. “Maybe,” he said, “just because I grew up in a different time… though I often disagreed 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.” It wasn’t just honesty that was available in greater volume in Charlotte than in Tampa. It was also civility and the toleration of difference.

COMPASSION

Why? Well perhaps because the Tampa convention was attended by a Republican party-base that seemed uniquely low on diversity, high on anger, and short on the compassionate conservatism that more liberal Republicans like Jeb Bush still so enthusiastically espouse. When Mitt Romney, in his acceptance address, spoke of his capacity to create a united America that “will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need,” the audience in Tampa largely forgot to clap. When earlier Jeb Bush spoke of every child in America having an equal opportunity regardless of their ethnic background, that same audience was largely silent. But when both men spoke of school choice, the hall became immediately ecstatic. For “choice” encapsulates the escape route theory of poverty resolution. It is Republican code for breaking from poverty by leaving the poor behind. You don’t solve poverty. You just shake it off yourself, leaving it for others to endure; and you measure your own success by your distance from the rest. Speaker after speaker at Tampa provided us with personal stories to that effect. Nowhere in those Republican narratives was there any concession to the way in which market competition produces losers as well as winners; or to the resulting inequality of resources experienced by the children of both the winners and the losers, as they — the children — begin their own market-based competitive struggle to realize the American Dream. So committed were the speakers in Tampa to a politics that privileged equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes that they entirely failed to grasp the extent to which the “outcomes” produced by the unbridled pursuit of “opportunity” in the years since Ronald Reagan abandoned the war on poverty are now so unequal that only public policy to level the playing field can make the competition in any way fair for the next generation of Americans.

Now compare that to the basic message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte — to and from a convention audience which was visibly more diverse in its composition than that in Tampa, and arguably also less angry, more hopeful, much higher on genuine compassion. True, the content of last Tuesday’s keynote speech paralleled in many ways the personal success stories rolled out in Tampa, but it did so with one key additional element. That although Texas (Julian Castro is the mayor of San Antonio) “may be the one place where people still actually have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them,” even so, Democrats “also recognize there are some things we can’t do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.” “We all celebrate individual success,” Castro said, “but the question is, how do we multiply that success?” Not, according to Michelle Obama, “when you’ve worked hard and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, by then “slam[ming] it shut behind you.” No, “you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Instead of leaving the poor behind, the responsibility of middle-class and super-rich Americans alike was and is to address the problem of poverty head-on. We cannot afford, Deval Patrick told the Democratic crowd, to leave the children of the poor “on their own to deal with their poverty: with ill-prepared young parents, maybe who speak English as a second language; with underfunded schools; with neighborhood crime and blight; with no access to nutritious food and no place for mom to cash a paycheck; with a job market that needs skills they don’t have; with no way to pay for college.” Why? Because those children, he said, are yours and mine too — and among them are “future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, engineers, laborers and civic leaders we desperately need. For this country to rise, they must rise.” As the party platform put it, “we must make ending poverty a national priority:” not least by raising the minimum wage and by fighting “for equal pay for equal work, a strong labor movement, and access to a world-class education for every child.”

ECONOMIC GROWTH AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

The way the Republicans tell it, we have so much federal debt now because Big Government has mushroomed in Washington D.C. And because we have, the best way to restore prosperity to the American middle class — cutting unemployment and poverty quickly and effectively — is to reduce the size of government, take the regulatory burden off business (especially off small businesses), lower taxes on everyone (including the super-rich) and let private-sector job creators get on with the thing they do best: taking risks and making profits. The Tampa story was one of a uniquely American individualism and entrepreneurial spirit blocked by a Democratic Administration’s enthusiasm for European-style welfare capitalism or — in more extreme cases — for Cuban-style totalitarianism. Lost from that narrative was any concession to the fact that federal debt mushroomed after 2008 only because the private sector had already gone into crisis. Lost was any concession that the economy was well on its way to recession before Barack Obama took office, and was heading towards recession primarily because of the excesses of an inadequately regulated private financial sector. Missing from the Tampa narrative too was any recognition that the most successful American economic sectors — from armament production and finance, through big agriculture, big energy and “Big Pharma” — are the sectors closest to government and most dependent on federal aid. The Republicans in Tampa kept claiming that “we built it,” entirely missing in the process the extent to which both President Obama was right (when he said the “building” relied on publicly provided infrastructure as well as on private initiative ) and that earlier Elizabeth Warren had been right: companies rely on more than the highly-paid person in the top office. They rely too on the quality and commitment of their other stakeholders: not least the people who work diligently to make and sell the products/services the company generates; and the consumers whose income (if rising fast enough) enable those products to be sold, so making profit-taking possible. There was a time when both Republicans and senior business leaders knew that, but visibly those days have now gone.

Compare that to the view of the relationship between public policy and private gain in the basic message coming from the Democrats in Charlotte. “This Republican narrative – this alternative universe,” President Clinton called it, “says that every one of us… who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made…. As Bob Strauss used to say…e very politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. But as Strauss then admitted, it ain’t so. We Democrats think the country works better with… business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.'” “In times like this,” as Deval Patrick earlier put it, Democrats “believe that government has a role to play, not in solving every problem in everybody’s life, but in helping people help themselves to the American Dream.” “We don’t think government can solve all our problems,” the President told the convention in the midst of his acceptance speech, but also “we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems” On the contrary, public spending has a vital role to play in the upgrading of social capital, one reason presumably why the Democratic Party platform is currently replete with proposals for public investment in “clean energy, manufacturing… research, and a network of manufacturing hubs;” and in “roads, bridges, rail and public transport systems, airports, ports, and sewers – all” presented as “critical to economic growth.”

CIVIL RIGHTS

The speakers in Tampa were also united in one other general set of assertions: a shared view that market-generated outcomes are everywhere preferable, that state-designed outcomes are everywhere inferior, and that strong market-generated outcomes are never the product of previous sound public policy. The starkest example of that myopia was the speech by Condoleezza Rice, her celebration of her own life as the quintessential story of the American Dream. She told the story as one that took her from the racially-segregated south of her childhood to the color-blind senior positions of the American state; but she told it without once mentioning the civil rights struggles that had won the legislative change which alone had made her personal stor