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.
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.
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