Friday, July 30, 2004

I haven’t felt especially moved to write about the Democratic Convention as I’ve watched bits of it unfold on TV over the past few days (especially given the availability online of jokey, blow-by-blow coverage from the convention itself by my friend Patrick at Oxblog). I also managed to miss what everyone agrees was the highlight of the Convention, Barak Obama’s keynote speech. Drat.
I did however see Kerry’s speech, and have been thinking about it anyway, so I thought I’d commit my thoughts to paper – or rather to blog. Here’s an initial impression, before I read much commentary and have my perceptions re-shaped by the conventional wisdom.
(On a side note: my father’s name is Cary. When I hear crowds chanting ‘Kerry! Kerry!’, for a split second I think that my father’s suddenly won the public adulation he so richly deserves.)
I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised by the substance of the speech, such as it was. Kerry’s military service figured prominently, as we knew it would, it’s invocations running the gamut from the inspiring (Max Cleland’s [to me] deeply moving introduction) to the silly (Kerry’s opening ‘reporting for duty’ line). Patriotism and security were overriding themes. There were some uncomfortable moments – I thought that Kerry’s attempts at humour didn’t come off at all, and were cringingly awkward.
But, by and large, it was a pleasant surprise. My heart sank when it was announced that the speech would go on for 50 minutes to an hour. I actually rather like John Kerry; but I tend to like him rather more when I’m reading about his positions and accomplishments than when I’m listening to him speak. When I’ve seen him speaking on TV in the past, any glimmer of hope and excitement that’s begun to build up has been quickly dowsed and replaced by despair and a certainty of defeat.
But not last night. As Cleland finished and Kerry came into the hall – tall, affable but serious, bathed in blue light, Bruce Springsteen playing on the PA – I found myself becoming unexpectedly excited. I generally find myself unmoved – indeed, turned off – by political conventions. But I have to say, I fell for this bit of stage-craft. I suppose it helped that I, like a lot of Democrats, am yearning for a saviour. But I’ve pretty much dismissed that idea and stifled that yearning as best I could. Still, as Kerry entered last night, I did find myself curiously moved.
But, of course, that was before he started speaking; and I prepared myself for a stomach-churning let-down.
But it never arrived. The speech lasted about 45 minutes. And I actually didn’t grow tired of it. I’ve no idea what effect it might have had, or did have, on those less sold on Kerry to begin with than I am. But it wasn’t a disaster as oratory or political dramatics. And, as a speech, I thought it was pretty damn good.
One of the most interesting things about it, to me, was the way that the speech sought to advance a new synthesis of Democratic liberalism and patriotic centrism. One of the few commentaries I’ve heard on it so far was David Brooks’s on PBS’s coverage of the Convention. Brooks, if memory served, described the position set out as ‘liberal patriotism’, which I think is spot-on. He also characterized it as a speech that could have been given by either a Democrat or a Republican.
This, it seems to me, is further evidence that David Brooks inhabits his own strange world.
Kerry’s speech ended with a call to go beyond partisanship; but it was not bipartisan. It was not New Democrat; it was post-New Democrat. The speech traveled, interestingly and I think skillfully, from a more liberal, partisan beginning, to a more centrist, bi-partisan conclusion. It’s understandable that the conclusion would leave the dominant impression; but it’s worth looking at the earlier part of the speech. Kerry emphasized the environment and women’s rights in a way that is thoroughly in keeping with his party’s traditional liberalism. He invoked the 1960s, not as a disaster, not as something in the past that did its job and should now be moved away from, but as a period of positive, righteous struggle and reform – and as a moment in an ongoing struggle which, far from being over, should continue. Women’s rights, civil rights/racial justice, and environmental safety were presented, not as missions accomplished, but as causes that still need to be fought for. That’s not something you’d hear in a Republican speech, I think. It also pointed to the consistency of Kerry’s political vision: throughout his political career, he’s been consistently committed to women’s rights, the environment, and also education, which was a theme later on in his speech.
Thus the traditional liberalism. But Kerry also invoked his work for victims’ rights and his support of a balanced budget. And there was of course the constant references to his military service. This guy’s liberal, but he’s learnt the best lessons of the New Democrats: fiscal conservatism, a move away from being soft on crime, an emphasis on economic policies that will innovation and create jobs, packaging these policies in a way that appeals to the middle class and centres on an opposition between the majority of hard-working Americans and the very wealthiest, etc. etc. (The one big departure from centrism in Kerry’s discussion of economic policy, I thought, was his vaguely protectionist rhetoric about jobs being moved overseas – clearly a stab at populism. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out – Kerry’s record is that of a pretty consistent free-trader, but we’ll probably see him continue to take a more, though vaguely, protectionist stance in this election, encouraged perhaps both by Bob Shrum’s advice, and by John Edwards’s more protectionist positions). Kerry’s statements about his values and the policy that they would inspire moved from things that would appeal primarily to his socially liberal, environmentally conscious base, to middle-class Americans worried about jobs and benefits and taxes, to the unifying theme of security and patriotism.
Kerry also moved, interestingly, from attacking the Bush administration, to decrying negative campaigning and calling for unity. This was a tough act to bring off, and I’m not sure that Kerry was able to avoid the appearance of trying to have things both ways – in fact, I rather doubt it. At the same time, I thought he was pretty effective on both counts. Kerry’s jabs at the Bush administration were largely indirect, but obvious; and I thought they were pretty solid, furnishing many of his speech’s best lines. He sought to defend himself against the Bushies’s attacks on his ‘complexity’ and weakness on security and lack of patriotism by going on the attack, and I think he succeeded pretty well (of course, I would think so, being on Kerry’s side in this; but I could have found, and in the past often have found, myself disappointed by his handling of these issues. Not so last night.) His restrained but telling criticisms of Bush’s record on domestic security worked well; ditto his indirect jabs at Cheney and Ashcroft.
There was one glaringly weak part of the speech, I thought: Iraq. Kerry repeated what other speakers have been saying throughout the Convention: that we need to internationalise the operation in Iraq – which is true – and that Kerry will be able to win back allies the Bush administration has alienated, and whose help we desperately need – which is also true. But while this is necessary, and while I think Kerry could and would do this, while Bush can’t, it isn’t sufficient to deal with the mess that Bush has created in Iraq. Kerry, and others, attacked the failures of planning that have bedeviled the occupation of Iraq, again rightly; but he, and they, pretty much just said ‘I’ll do a better job, because I know this stuff’, rather than actually proving that he can and will.
The speech was also interesting, and not reassuring, when it came to foreign policy more generally, in its mix of realist and liberal idealist rhetoric. Again, there was an impression of vagueness, of trying to have it both ways, of shifting back and forth to make Kerry’s vision sound as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. Complexity? Perhaps. Better than the ham-handed mix of ideological self-righteousness, recklessness, and mendacity that’s characterized so much of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? To be sure. But not very inspiring or reassuring. I worry less that Kerry is a closet Realist – at this point, a bit of realism wouldn’t be so terrible – than that his foreign policy would wind up being muddled, disunified, and ineffective (that is to say, Clinton’s foreign policy part II).
On the other hand, a lot will depend on the execution. On paper, Clinton’s foreign policy vision, going in, seemed attractive, if vague; Bush’s foreign policy, during the last campaign, was unattractive, vague, and utterly different than what it’s wound up being. Kerry has much more experience in this area than Clinton did; and we’re living in a rather different world than we were in the ‘90s, when it was possible for America to live in a fool’s paradise, which is what the Clinton administration largely did. (This was not of course true for much of the world. One of the most infuriating moments last night came with Madeline Albright’s speech, extolling America as a beacon of liberty, a force for good and human rights etc. around the world, and so on, and so forth. All of which rang distinctly hollow, to say the least, coming from the woman who, as Ambassador to the U.N, was instrumental in keeping that body from intervening, and selling a dishonest apology for U.S. and U.N. non-intervention, during the genocide in Rwanda. Kerry, incidentally, says that he thinks the US should have intervened in Rwanda, and Bosnia, and was right to intervene in Kosovo, and he’s been close to foreign policy hands, like Richard Holbrooke, who favoured intervention, and in some cases helped to achieve it. Kerry’s platform also calls for supporting the spread of democracy and the defense of human rights around the world, as an expression of America’s values and interests; but this again is rather vague. Would a Kerry administration do something about the genocide in the Sudan? I’m not sure. Would it do a better job than the Bush administration has in Afghanistan? I’m pretty confident it would, which is enough for me. But that still leaves some questions hanging in the air. I’ve no doubt that a Kerry administration would be better on foreign policy; but I’m not sure if it would be good enough.)
The caveats are significant, and worrisome. And while the speech exceeded expectations, I don’t know whether it will really win many undecideds over to Kerry’s cause. I’m still pessimistic about the upcoming election. My initial and overwhelming feeling, as the speech finished, was ‘I really want this guy to be the next president’ – not ‘this guy IS going to be the next president’. This may just be an expression of my pessimism, my fear of my own hope. But I think it’s more than that. Kerry faces a tough campaign; and while I think that he’s a good guy, and could be a good (though not a great) president, I don’t think he’s a very good candidate.
But we’ll see. A lot will hinge on events. And everything will hinge on the individuals who make up the American people. To my eyes, this looks like a classic hedgehog vs. fox contest. Generally, it seems like hedgehogs are more immediately attractive than foxes – particularly when, as in this case, certitude and simplicity are joined to personal appealingness (which I admit I don’t get at all), while an appreciation for complexity and contingency, always hard to sell, is further cloaked in an impression of dour aloofness and awkwardness. But last night, Kerry didn’t seem aloof or awkward to me. He did seem like a man who was prepared and girded for a fight – not a happy warrior, but not a gloomy one either; rather. a determined and committed and – to invoke one of the other catch-words of the convention – hopeful one. We’ll see how he does now.

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