The shape of the election is already clear; as was predicted here and elsewhere, the administration cannot and won’t run on its record. The economy is in shambles, the prospects are poor, the dollar is falling faster against gold than the Euro for the first time in several years, and so the Democrats are left with a campaign of mood and feelings rather than facts and policy. The Democrats have placed all their bets on what they represent as their superior empathy. They care, feel our pain, and as Bill Clinton said of Barack Obama, are “cool outside” but “burn inside.” All the stops were pulled out in support of this fable, which is in any case irrelevant, as the actual nature of the nominees is not of the slightest consequence, as long as they are sane and civilized, and may be assumed to possess adequate levels of integrity, intelligence, judgment, and courage to carry out their oaths.
Let us pause for a moment to record, in sadness and without hyperbole, that this is surely the most inane, fatuous, and deceptive basis on which a major party has sought the headship of the nation since the Log Cabin and Hard Cider election of William H. Harrison and John Tyler in 1840 (which was at least lively and entertaining). The Democrats tried to ignore slavery in 1852, and ran a “copperhead” defeatist campaign in 1864 with an inept general Lincoln had fired for indolence and insubordination (George B. McClellan), but at least they had a program of sorts. The Democrats’ campaigns for bimetallism in 1896 and 1900 were a child’s dosage of voodoo economics but they were arguable and the party had some other points that were sensible. The 1920s Republican espousal of isolationism, Prohibition, no regulation of stock-market credit, and drastic curtailment of immigration was bad policy that led to war, gangsterism, depression, and the massacre of would-have-been emigrants, but at least it was policy.
Despite smears, pandering, and skullduggery in most of the subsequent elections, there were generally statements of policy, however unfathomably swaddled in partisan flim-flam, and, as was mentioned here last week, every incumbent administration seeking re-election ran on its record, no matter how unrecognizably resculpted the record was. The Democrats emerged from North Carolina with what polls indicate was a modest bounce after a mighty hallelujah chorus in an echo chamber celebrating their human values. As I have taken issue with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in this space before, it is only just to record that she described the president’s remarks at his convention, crediting the people with what the government has done, as effectively laying his administration’s failings off on the country: “We are grateful to the president for deigning to point out our flaws and giving us another chance. . . . The buck stops with us.” It was all a little like when the East German puppet state maintained by Stalin’s Red Army declared in 1953 that it had “lost confidence in the people,” causing Communist sympathizer Bertolt Brecht to ask if it wished to “dissolve the people and elect another”?
Specialists in the history of these events can tell us which party was responsible for introducing the candidate’s spouse as surety for his character. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, after all, a political activist of many years, who had driven around in the early Twenties in a car modified to look like a teapot to dramatize the Teapot Dome scandals of the Harding administration and confounded the efforts of her first cousin, Theodore Roosevelt II, to become governor of New York, famously told the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1940 that “this is no ordinary time.” But she wasn’t commenting on her husband’s character, only on his (very unwise) choice for vice president, Henry Wallace, which rightly failed to enthuse the delegates. But this practice of spousal superhumanization of the last five conventions, I think, began with Hillary Clinton, levitated gratingly with Mrs. Lieberman in 2000 (“Let me tell you about my Joey”), and strove determinedly for the stratosphere with Teresa Heinz Kerry’s exposition of her Hegelian reconciliation of being an African Marxist with becoming a billionaire widow, before we soared, weightless, into the magic kingdom of the Obamas. For the Republicans, Elizabeth Dole somewhat let the side down with her “Can we talk?” of 1996, and Ann Romney last month was something of an issue herself and was attempting damage control for her husband and herself after the Democratic sniper squads had been blazing away for months, aided by the Romneys’ own bouts of foot-in-mouth disease. But Laura Bush and Cindy McCain deserve a special place in the pantheon of American political ladies with a superior sense of taste and self-control.
Since the Democratic claim is empathy, feeling, good vibes, and warm humanity, it would have been discordant to turn the Democratic National Convention into a firebase targeted at all the real or magnified public-relations vulnerabilities of the Republican candidates. Seamus — the Romneys’ late dog, who has elicited more sympathy for his car-rooftop trip to Canada than any American quadruped since the great horse Ruffian broke his leg in a match race – was left, like Mrs. Romney’s bicoastal Cadillacs and liking for dressage, and the candidate’s $100,000 wagers, and the Democratic theory that Paul Ryan is the secret head of the Wisconsin Inquisition, to the Democrats’ media snipers. But that part of the empathy campaign that rests on the wobbly cornerstone of alleging a Republican campaign against women was much on display. Representative Deborah Wasserman Schultz tangled even with the usually credulous market-trailing liberal network CNN over her claim that Mitt Romney himself wrote a more restrictive abortion platform for his party than he had personally espoused.