The music here is terrific, if you like that kind of thing—Bebe Winans? slow gospel take on the National Anthem, and a mid-sized band of really good players and soulful singers leaning into Sly Stone?s ?Everyday People,? Marvin Gaye?s ?What?s Going On,? Bob Dylan?s ?Blowin? in the Wind.?
But these songs, no matter how interesting individually, say something quite different when placed together consciously by a political party itching to, in Jimmy Carter?s words tonight, ?restore the judgment and maturity to our government.? You can imagine that Democrats want to identify themselves with the more thoughtful and edgy protest pop of the sixties generation that produces all their political stars. But, much like the Party?s incoherent foreign policy approach, these songs only know what they?re against, not what they?re for.
?What?s Going On?? is a catalogue of anguished bewilderment ripped out of the early-1970s headlines, with nary a solution in sight. Gaye tells cops not to ?punish me with brutality,? and pleads that ?war is not the answer,? but the most he can offer in its place is a rather desperate-sounding question.
?Blowin? in the Wind,? puts a more biting, specific, and literary gloss on that concept, but at heart war is still not the answer, and the answer, as it were, is rather hard to put your finger on.
The biggest applause lines tonight came when Jimmy Carter and Al Gore slowed down their delivery, ratcheted up the southern growl, and condemned the Bush Administration?s war in Iraq.
?And of course, no challenge is more critical than the situation we confront in Iraq,? Gore said, to thunderous silence. ?Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war, isn?t it now utterly obvious that the way the war has been managed by the Administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?? (Applause; now slower and growly:) ?Wouldn?t we be better off with a new President who hasn?t burned ? his ? bridges to our allies (biggest applause), and who could rebuild respect for America in the world??
Note what?s missing here, and the rest of Gore?s speech—any sense of what a Democratic president might do with Iraq, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia; any sense of just whatever happened to the Al Gore who tried to convince Americans in 1998 that putting the military squeeze on Saddam Hussein was one of the world?s most urgent priorities, and any position whatsoever on the Middle East democratization project.
No word, in fact, whether such a project is worth focusing on at all. Gore just knows that Bush & Co. ?are headed in the wrong direction,? pursuing ?policies [that] are clearly not working.? While the former vice president might well be right with these criticisms (I rather think he is), and while convention speeches are not necessarily the place for dense foreign policy proposals, it is clear his driving animus—and the thing that wowed the crowd in a way he didn?t come close to in 2000—is an impassioned, almost bewildered anger at President Bush and the conduct of his foreign policy.
Unlike Gore, Jimmy Carter seems to be pretty sure he?s got a handle on what?s going on—it?s that Bush is a venal sociopath. ?Our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world,? Carter said tonight. ?In just 34 months, we have watched with deep concern as all this goodwill has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations.? (Huge applause.) ?The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of ?preemptive war.??
For Carter, the election is about ?repudiating extremism,? and punishing a president who has ?mislead? the public while waging ?unnecessary wars.? As for what might take the place of Bush?s assertiveness, that would be to insure ?the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and in global affairs,? while getting more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and staring down North Korea.
Carter?s negotiation-favoring non-interventionism clearly had a big audience at on the Convention floor tonight, while Al Gore?s once-vaunted hawkishness—he was an influential voice urging Clinton?s military action in the Balkans—was barely in evidence. Carter was a marginalized figure in the more assertive second Clinton term, but now he?s united with his former rhetorical foe in his hatred of all things Bush.
None of which is to say that they?re wrong, or that their preference for rebuilding the transatlantic alliance is not a legitimate and significant difference of policy opinion.
But the shrinking percentage of people still on the fence about this election want to hear what a Kerry-led Democratic Party is for in the War on Terror, not just against. The answers are not just blowin? in the wind—they?re out there. But not tonight.