Reflecting on the national conventions

I usually avoid politics on this blog, in part because there are already too many political bloggers and I prefer to stick to issues in theology. But I am also an American citizen who loves to talk politics, and the Democratic and Republican national conventions have left big impressions on me and currently dominate my thoughts at the moment. So I will make a few observations about what I saw and heard over the past two weeks.

1. First, neither party’s convention mentioned the problem of torture, and that was a real shame. The Democrats had an opportunity to publicly reclaim America’s moral standing. Of course, that does not mean the two parties are equal on this issue. By no means! We heard a couple of the most scary and morally reprehensible lines from the RNC, given by Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney. (Romney’s speech, by the way, was the worst speech I’ve heard this entire election—truly a disgrace. I would write a whole post on it, but he’s not worth my time.) In the midst of a sloppy and factually false series of attacks on Obama, comparing her position with his, Palin said the following: “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?” Last time I checked, our Constitution declares that all people are endowed with rights from their Creator, rights which do not suddenly disappear when it’s convenient. What distinguishes a modern democracy from a totalitarian regime is precisely the insistence that every person must be treated with dignity, even criminals and terrorists.

Earlier that day, in his attempt to argue that the current administration is not conservative but actually liberal (yeah, WTF??), Romney said the following: “Is a Supreme Court liberal or conservative that awards Guantanamo terrorists with constitution rights? It’s liberal!” Actually, Romney, it’s neither conservative nor liberal, it’s right. But Romney’s statement actually mischaracterizes the situation. It’s not that terrorists should be given “constitution rights.” Rather, the Supreme Court simply affirmed that every person has a right to due process, to habeas corpus—i.e., rights that have been in place since the Magna Carta of 1215. Moreover, the UN declarations on terrorism have all affirmed that states prosecuting terrorists must give them a fair trial. Romney and Palin show that they support Bush’s immoral treatment of detainees, which dehumanizes them by denying them the basic fundamental right of all democratic states: the right to hear what you are being charged with. The Bush administration placed terrorist suspects outside of legal jurisdiction—both physically, by putting them in Guantanamo Bay (if they were lucky), and theoretically, thanks to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, by calling them “unlawful combatants” (rather than criminals or POWs) and thus giving the U.S. government the “right” to do whatever they want with them, including all manner of torture. The failure of McCain to speak up about that in his speech shows that he is really not a maverick but a tool of the Republican Party, and his choice of Palin, who apparently supports such immoral and illegal actions, shows incredibly poor judgment.

2. With the nomination of Palin for VP, the RNC stopped criticizing Obama for a lack of experience, for obvious reasons. Instead, they criticized the kind of experience he has, hence the repeated mocking of his years as a “community organizer” in Chicago. They came close to outright laughing at Obama. Giuliani’s comments were especially bad: “He worked as a community organizer, and immersed himself in Chicago machine politics” (is this a NYC-vs.-Chicago jab? and is Chicago’s politics somehow different from other cities?); “he's never run a city, never run a state, never run a business” (neither has McCain for that matter); and “Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada” (it’s almost as if he’s begging the Democrats to respond in kind). All of this is deeply offensive, not only because Obama accomplished a substantial amount in Chicago, but also because it demeans the important role of community service in the life of a nation. Quite frankly, I’d like to see more community organizers and less politicians.

3. The RNC’s most persistent criticism of Obama is that he will raise taxes. Of course, what Obama actually said is that he would raise taxes on the most wealthy who have received huge breaks under Bush and on corporations who ship jobs overseas. The RNC, again for obvious reasons, chose to oversimplify matters and charge him with a platform of higher taxes. This is the same old conservative tactic: scare voters by saying the T-word, even if the record shows that conservatives have consistently hurt the economy over the past 50 years, while the Democrats have consistently made the economy better. Moreover, as Bush ably demonstrated, it’s not as if the current Republican party is any advocate of small government. On the contrary, they are a big government party with different values: instead of valuing health care, socioeconomic justice, education, and infrastructure, they advocate military power and the freedom of the market.

4. One of the sharp differences between the two main speeches by Obama and McCain has to do with the way they attacked each other. Obama’s attack was the same one heard all convention: McCain voted with Bush over 90% of the time, and McCain’s economic platform is the same old trickle-down economics. In other words, Obama criticized him for things that everyone already knows, things that are not controversial. McCain, by contrast, attacked Obama not for what he has said or done, but for things that he “will” do: “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it. My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them.” It’s easy to attack someone when you speak about the future, because the future hasn’t happened yet. The Republicans relied on blatantly false accusations about what “would” happen in the future, whereas the Democrats relied on well-known facts about McCain’s record. Most disheartening of all was the fact that during this part of McCain’s speech, the entire convention crowd loudly booed every time he mentioned what his “opponent” would do. This is the kind of partisan malice that Obama has really attempted to excise from his campaign.

Before I move on, it’s worth noting that Palin used the same tactic as McCain in attacking Obama: make wildly false claims using rhetorical abstractions which rile up the crowd and oversimplify the issues. For example, “Victory in Iraq is finally in sight ... he wants to forfeit. Terrorist states are seeking new-clear [sic] weapons without delay ... he wants to meet them without preconditions...” (The spelling of nuclear as “new-clear” appears twice in the text of the speech.) Neither of these claims is true, and it demonstrates the kind of low-blow politics that the Republicans are playing right now.

5. If I hear one more word about the surge “working,” I might explode. Everyone at the RNC, from McCain on down, made the Iraq surge the key point of contrast between McCain and Obama: McCain had the foresight to know that the the surge would work, while Obama rejected the surge and thus, implicitly, he disdains our troops and hates America. Listen, everybody, the surge did not work. Have we forgotten already? The primary claim was not that the surge was going to increase security; everyone already knew that more troops would help with that. The claim was that a surge would enable the Iraqi government to stabilize and unify so that they could be an independent nation. But the surge did not accomplish this goal. The Iraqi people are just as divided as before. There is somewhat less violence—of course, what violence there is the media here hardly even covers—but that’s not the same as peace. Moreover, the Iraqi government agrees with Obama’s timetable for troop withdrawal. But at the RNC all we heard were ridiculous claims about Obama wanting to “forfeit” and retreat into defeat. C’mon, Republicans, have you really descended to that level?

6. Finally, I just have to say how tired I am about every person, Republican and Democrat, closing his or her speech with “and God bless America!” As a Christian, I cringe every time the God-card is used. God has nothing to do with our national politics, just as the state has nothing to do with the church. Our nation is not a “Christian nation” and never has been. Unfortunately, if God is not mentioned in every speech, people in this country get worried and confused. Americans seem to think that paying lipservice to God is something commendable, something indicative of a truly good person. I actually think it breaks the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. And if I were preaching this Sunday, that’s what I would preach about.

Of course, as always, the Republicans were the biggest offenders. Romney said that “I firmly believe, by the providence of the Almighty, that we will succeed.” (Does it get any worse than Romney? No one, in either party, was so presumptuous as to claim God’s providential support of his or her party.) Giuliani said that “we are a shining city on the hill.” And McCain closed with: “I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth.” Yeah, because you couldn’t thank God if you were a citizen of some godforsaken country—like Canada or France.


Anonymous said…
Technically, John Kerry mentioned torture (and strongly condemned it) in his speech, which was great but, unfortunately, not broadcast on prime time.

I do wish Obama would make an issue of the whole nexus of torture/detainee treatment/executive power, but he seems to be focusing (somewhat understandably) on economic woes.
This comment has been removed by the author.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hey DW -

Sorry bout the deleted comments above: having trouble getting the link to work.

Anyway, when you get a chance take a look at my recent post on Palin's Manifest Destiny. Mitt Romney is bad, but - as the AP reports - Palin's comments are deeply troubling.

Anonymous said…
Great post David! Up here in the cities we're now sifting through the various legal issues regarding police action over the convention period. It's proving to be far more sinister than the national media has touched on. The militarized police response was coordinated and overseen by federal agencies who raided homes based on intelligence that indicated capability rather than intent. In other words, if you have a glass jar in the house, some rags in the garage, and some lighter fluid in the back yard, you have a molotav cocktail. I'm sure there's more info to come on this, and I don't support violent anarchism, but at this point there appears to have been more going on than meets the eye.
Anonymous said…
Invoking deistic references in political discourse is as American as apple pie. I don't know if you call it Christian nation talk, but Americans have traditionally assumed it to be anyway, claims to secularity notwithstanding. Abe Lincoln invoked providence. I think it's silly too, but I just want you to know you are on the opposite side of most "uh-maricans" through history and perhaps even today. The right will never pay a price for invoking God for noble visions of the country or military actions already underway. The left will always pay for any affections for France or its way of doing things, except wine and cheese.

The New Republic has a nice piece out on what exactly Obama accomplished as a community organizer and what he actually thought of it. You might give it a look.
Anonymous said…
Sadly, your silence on abortion is telling.
My "silence on abortion is telling"?? Have we learned nothing from 8 years with Bush?

Bush is the most anti-abortion president we have ever had, the most explicitly evangelical president in history. He put together the most conservative Congress (before 2006) and the most conservative Supreme Court since Roe v. Wade. Every single piece was assembled. There was a "perfect storm" of conservatism the likes of which we have never seen and never will see again.

And what happened? Nothing. There was not even the remotest bit of legislation or discussion about abortion, apart from the Supreme Court's decision to allow North Dakota to make some slight changes in its discussion of abortion (but even this might be unconstitutional). So the notion that Roe v. Wade would ever be overturned is a complete fairytale. Christians need to come to grips with the fact that this is national law and get over it.

At the end of the day, there's a whole lot of people who don't think that abortion is self-evidently murder. Christians have a particular perspective on the issue, but it is inappropriate to legislate that perspective for all people, including those who do not share the particular values of Christian faith. We live in a pluralistic democracy, and that means we live in communities (or ought to live in communities) with people who radically disagree with us. And in the midst of such pluralism, we need to learn how to maintain a public witness -- certainly, a "pro-life" witness -- without presupposing that this stance is one that all must adopt. Christians need to learn to live with disagreement, not seeking to change the laws of the land when they don't suit their particular positions, but rather seeking to display the love of God to those most needing it -- viz., to the mothers who have had or are considering an abortion.

Finally, the way to really have a witness against abortion is for the church to actively tell women that they will adopt those children if carried to full term. Unless the churches around the world are ready to step up in that way, they should shut up.

For Christians to make abortion the single issue in an election is just a disgrace. It demeans all of the other more important issues at stake in the world today.
Also, as I have said before on this blog, have the courage to state your name. Otherwise, please go away. Since we're trying to have an informed dialogue among mature adults, I don't look too kindly upon people who leave anonymous comments. That's just a sign of immaturity.

Unless it's a sign of someone who was in a rush of passion and forgot to put a name at the end. In that case, please correct the mistake next time.
Anonymous said…
It should be noted that overturning Roe is not the only means to outlawing abortion. A constitutional amendment could outlaw it at the federal level, and a law could limit the jurisdiction of the federal courts on the matter and leave it to the states (which is what happens if Roe goes anyway). Still, DW, you are probably right that we Christians should accept it as the law of the land. It is growing increasingly unlikely that it will ever change.

As for the surge, there have been some interesting demographic changes which probably point to the reason for decreased violence: Baghdad has become increasingly segregated since the surge started.