A funny thing happened to Bill Clinton on the way to the White House in 1992. He had planned to run as a New Democrat, the champion of the post-industrial economy, a Southern Gary Hart, against the more traditional liberal Mario Cuomo, the Democratic frontrunner as the primary season loomed. Then, in December 1991, Cuomo stunned the political word and scrambled Clinton’s calculations by announcing he wouldn’t run. Clinton’s leading primary opponent became former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who was running not just as the more upscale, new economy candidate but on a platform—Simpson-Bowles avant la lettre—of scaling back Medicare and Social Security in the cause of fiscal prudence.
The message of the first night of the Democratic Convention was “We built it together.” Speaker after speaker took aim at the Republican Party’s Randian, libertarian vision, at the ideology that Britain’s Margaret Thatcher succinctly expressed when she said, “There is no such thing as society.”
There is, too, replied the Democrats. There is temporal society—the intergenerational links, the investment in education that pays off not in your own success but, as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro pointed out, in your children’s. There is the society of laws, where Democrats (in general) and Barack Obama (in particular) have fought for equality in matters of sexual orientation. There is the economic society—now more unequal than it’s been in 80 years—where Obama, in his wife’s words, ensured that paying your medical bill won’t mean you “go broke.”
My first Democratic National Convention came when I was ten. My parents took me along to the new Los Angeles Sports Arena for the second night of the 1960 gathering that nominated Jack Kennedy. The tickets came courtesy of my father’s employers, who ran a mega-tract-home construction company. They may well have been to the right of the Democratic Party; my parents were still stubbornly to its left —members of the all-but-extinct Socialist Party—but no matter. A national political convention didn’t come around every week, and besides, my parents increasingly considered themselves close to the liberal reformers who dominated California’s Democratic Party.
As chance would have it, the second night of that Democratic Convention provided the last gasp of liberalism’s romance with Adlai Stevenson, the party’s nominee in the past two elections, which he lost both times to Dwight Eisenhower. More through his eloquence and his pose of somehow being above politics than through any of his policies (he had disgracefully ducked supporting the fledgling civil-rights movement), Stevenson had become the darling of anti-big-city, machine liberal professionals during the 1950s. He still had strong support in those circles, among California reform Democrats in particular. Kennedy, who was closing in on the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination, had dispatched the genuine liberal in the field, Hubert Humphrey, in a series of primaries, and many liberals were still resistant to his charms. Big-city bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley still held the balance of power at the convention, since only a relative handful of states held primaries that bound delegates to vote for the candidate their state’s voters preferred.
This year’s Republican Convention wins the prize for most conflicted message. Half the time, the convention was devoted to assuring those elusive swing voters—who needed assurance that Republicans really aren’t all angry white old men who hate women and minorities and would close your plant in a blink of the eye if they could make a nickel on the deal—that Republicans in general and Mitt Romney in particular were inclusive, caring, nurturing patriots. The other half of the time, it was devoted to bashing President Obama for his anti-American agenda, an agenda the Republican base has fabricated out of its own paranoia.
By the time Paul Ryan finished speaking on Wednesday night, Mitt Romney’s place in the new Republican order had become clear: Win or lose, he’s the placeholder for Paul Ryan until Ryan himself can run for president. In his vice-presidential acceptance speech, Ryan accomplished two distinct tasks: He delivered the convention’s first telling attack on the Obama Administration, and he seized the mantle of leader of the American conservative movement.
Like Caesar’s Gaul, the first night of the Republicans’ Convention was divided into three parts: the Diversity Hour, the Caring Wife, and the Chris Christie Anti-Climax.
Much of the art of the convention these days is devoted to convincing viewers that we—the elected officials and their spouses at the podium—are just like you. At Republican conventions, this means assuring racial minorities that, although they may not see people who look like them when the cameras pan the hall, there are actually black and Latino Republicans—especially Latino, since the Republicans don’t really expect to pick up more than a handful of black votes anyway. But it also means assuring working- and middle-class voters that, notwithstanding party tax policies that hugely favor the very rich, there are actually very rich Republicans who can remember times in their lives when they or their parents or, if needs be, their grandparents, lived almost like ordinary people. Rick Santorum and Ann Romney told us that their grandfathers were miners. Chris Christie assured us that his mom was one mean working-class Sicilian.
The Financial Times is reporting that the Republican platform to be unveiled in Tampa next week calls for establishing a commission to examine whether the United States should go back on the gold standard. The theory behind this antiquarian fantasy, much loved by Ron Paul and his cult, is that by de-linking the dollar from the value of gold—a move begun by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and completed by President Richard Nixon in 1971—America’s leaders have debased our currency and loosed the genies of inflation, since the Federal Reserve can print as many dollars as it likes.
Another day, another survey charting the decline of the American middle class. Yesterday, the Pew Research Center weighed in with “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” to which they appended the kicker, “Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier.”
The custom, I know, is not to speak ill of the recently dead, but it’s not a custom to which I’ve invariably adhered. Ronald Reagan’s death evoked so many hagiographic tributes I felt compelled to write a Washington Post column noting the damage he’d done to his country and to the liberal values that, when honored, made his country great.
Tiny Sandford was a very big guy (6’5”, around 300 pounds) who played small parts in 1920s and '30s comedies—Laurel and Hardy’s in particular. Perhaps his best known role is that of the cop in the Laurel and Hardy classic Big Business, a brilliant comedy supervised by Leo McCarey, who was later to direct the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and other notable films.
This past weekend, American journalism commemorated the 100th birthday of one the nation’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Many of the articles noted that Guthrie’s universally known national counter-anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” was written as a rebuttal of sorts to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” America had too much squalor, too much disparity of wealth, Guthrie believed, to be thought of as blessed, and his song includes a seldom-sung verse identifying “private property” as the culprit.
What’s far less known is that Guthrie was the second songwriter to have a critical take on “God Bless America.” The first, Harry Ruby, actually delayed its release for 20 years.
In 1991, in the early days of his presidential run, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton would occasionally cite and paraphrase from what was clearly his favorite new book: E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics. The book excoriated any number of politicos, but chiefly Republicans, for posing “false choices” to the American people—as in, you’re either pro-family or pro-government (as if there weren’t a raft of government programs to help families). Clinton wove these ideas into his stump speech, now and then taking care to attribute some of them to E.J.’s book. (E.J. is a close friend, so in this blog, he gets first-name treatment).
The prize for the most abjectly wrong headline in American journalism this week goes, I grieve to say, to the Los Angeles Times. Atop an article analyzing how California cities are coping with horrific budget crunches—which ran one day after the working-class exurb of San Bernardino followed its fellow working-class exurb Stockton into municipal bankruptcy—the headline writer plunked the following line: “Rising costs push California cities to fiscal brink.”
Back in the days when Michael Kinsley was the designated liberal on CNN’s “Crossfire” show, paired off against Pat Buchanan or Robert Novak, he would answer the complaints of actual liberals that he really wasn’t a liberal himself by agreeing with them. Kinsley was and still is a man of the cautious, corporate center, which means liberal on social and cultural issues and an Aspen/Jackson Hole corporate elitist on economics. Which is to say, while he’s a trenchant social critic, he hasn’t even noticed the bankruptcy of mainstream economics.
In early 1990, as the lackluster California governorship of the lackluster George Deukmejian was running down, the two Democratic front-runners to succeed him were Attorney General John Van de Kamp and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein—in that order. Then, at the state’s annual Democratic Party convention—a body with no nominating power (that was to be decided in a subsequent primary) but nonetheless a yearly gathering for liberal activists—Feinstein included in her speech a ringing, if otherwise gratuitous, endorsement of the death penalty. Predictably, the delegates booed her. Just as predictably, her standing in the polls quickly shot past Van de Kamp’s and she went on to win the Democratic primary (though she lost the general election to Republican Pete Wilson).
Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. His articles on politics, labor, the economy, foreign policy, and American culture have also appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Statesman; the op-ed, commentary, and book review sections of The New York Times, The Washington Post, andthe Los Angeles Times, and in numerous other publications.