Scared Straight

Notes from our nation's awful political spectacles


Attending a major-party political convention is a lot like putting a metal dish into a microwave. You know something bad's going to happen, but after four years you need to be reminded of the acrid smell.

Whatever was wafting over Denver and St. Paul this summer, it certainly wasn't the fine, fresh scent of freedom (even if I did spy a Ron Paul banner behind a Cessna on the last day of the Republican National Convention). Both friendly cities became concentrated police states, where local and state and even national law enforcement dressed up like hyper-militarized Ninja Turtles, just in case any loose scattering of "anarchists" was able to assemble a division of tanks. Almost every type of local business I frequented complained of drastically reduced sales, as sensible locals fled far from the scene rather than watch the gruesome spectacle of thousands expressing actual enthusiasm for 19th-century political parties that ran out of fresh ideas long ago.

I would ignore these made-for-TV exercises altogether if it weren't for the unhappy fact that the participants share duopoly power over history's most lethal military and control a guaranteed income stream coming straight from you and me. Figuring out what they're up to strikes me as an act of citizen self-defense. And/or self-mutilation.

In Denver, at the Democratic National Convention, I went to investigate one hope and one fear. The hope: Would Barack Obama's stance against the Iraq War really "change the mind set" of Washington foreign policy, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle? The fear: Are the Democrats really planning to run domestic policy the way they've been campaigning-significantly to the left of any Democratic ticket since Michael Dukakis? Both answers were disappointing.

On foreign policy, Democrats are all political intent, no guiding principle. Outfits such as the three-year-old Truman Project, "the nation's only organization that recruits, trains, and positions a new generation of progressives across America to lead on national security," distributed guides of military terminology to young activists and organized a series of confabs to discuss Democratic approaches to the world's persistent challenges. These foreign policy events were among the most well-attended of the week, dwarfing similar panel discussions from conventions past. And they produced little if any evidence that the candidate who rode anti-war sentiment to the nomination will do any real "changing" anytime soon.

Obama's main foreign policy adviser, former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, hemmed and hawed whenever asked about various scenarios for using U.S. military force. Pre-emptive strikes in both Pakistan and Iran may prove to be necessary, he said, if Osama Bin Laden is located, or if Iran produces a nuclear weapon. When asked about a guiding philosophy for making crucial life-and-death decisions, Danzig offered up a nonsense slogan: "sustainable security." President Bush's (and would-be president McCain's) bellicose approach toward Russia helped lead to the invasion of Georgia, he and others contended, but then vice presidential nominee Joe Biden thundered that "we will hold Russia accountable for its actions." And throughout the convention the one ubiquitous foreign policy presence was former secretary of state and notable liberal hawk Madeleine Albright, who advocated "a more effective response" to "violent extremism" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Sudan, and Congo, because even if "the world may not be clamoring for American leadership" right now, "there is no doubt that a guiding hand is needed." We just need time to convince the world that "we're not imperialists."

That's not a changed mind-set. It's a changed clock-back to 1999, when humanitarian interventions trumped national sovereignty and congressional disapproval. (For more on Democratic foreign-policy incoherence, see Jim Henley's "Between Iraq and a Soft Place," Page 63.)

On economics, too, I left Denver disappointed, though less surprised. There was no moderating of the antitrade rhetoric that marred the primary season. The economy-whose second-quarter growth was revised up to 3.3 percent during the week of the convention-was repeatedly pronounced "broken" and worse. The pro-business (though anti-Fourth Amendment) Democratic Leadership Council, so influential in the booming 1990s, was almost nowhere to be seen, replaced by a New Democratic Network affiliated more with Howard Dean than Robert Rubin. And the biggest former New Democrat of them all plunged the knife into the ideas he once at least flirted with.

Limited government, Bill Clinton said in the most electrifying speech of the convention, was an "extreme philosophy" that "we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented."

Set aside the fact that the Republicans actually spent the last seven years making the government larger. (For more on that debacle, read Veronique de Rugy's "Fear of a Unified Government," page 24.) This was a repudiation of the best parts of Clinton's own record, when he worked with Republicans, in the brief window of time when they seemed to care about limited government, to balance the budget and reform welfare. And it was an acknowledgement that the more statist, government-is-the-solution politics of his wife now held the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

And the Republicans? Well, the bad news is that they only sporadically pay lip service to the philosophy Bill Clinton claims is so extreme. The third day of the GOP convention in St. Paul, which was supposed to be dedicated to the topic of "reform," was more about every economic policy under the sun. Speaker Carolyn Dunn, a self-described "farm partner and community volunteer," made the retrograde Ralph Nader-like argument that the U.S. should achieve food security while enacting federal programs to repopulate the Midwest. "I do not want us to rely on unsafe shipments from overseas, where little oversight and none of the same standards apply," she said.

Alleged economics whiz Mitt Romney warned that "China is acting like Adam Smith on steroids," a statement that makes up for in Sinophobia what it lacks in understanding of what makes a hand invisible. Other speakers assured us that President John McCain will come out of the gate "cracking down on the speculative pricing of oil," going after "all institutions of power of wealth," and basically fixing everything in the country marked "problem."

"If you want to fight childhood obesity through physical education and nutritional meals in schools, then you are a McCain voter," said small business owner Renee Amoore. "If you want action, McCain's your man."

No matter who wins what on November 4, you can rest assured that the victors will be set to take "action" and in the process feed the beast of Washington intervention both at home and abroad. So should we be booking our one-way flights to Estonia?

I think not. For all the oxygen Democrats and Republicans suck out of the national room, their combined market share continues to bleed, as Americans choose other parties or political independence in evergrowing numbers. (For a penetrating interview with the likely third-place finisher for president this year, see David Weigel's "Bob Barr Talks," page 26.) As the Ron Paul movement and even some of the Obama enthusiasm indicates, Americans are hungry for a genuinely fresh set of political ideas and ready to embrace new technologies to combine their efforts in sudden and interesting ways.

Some year, sometime soon, the two-party lock will finally collapse under its own intellectual exhaustion and crass cynicism. Until then, I'll keep sticking metal in the microwave, reminding myself why I'm glad I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason.