Notes on the Unseen Convention

The underside of the Democratic National Convention

By Jack Beatty

You have to trample on the First Amendment to get to this convention. The Amendment is chalked on Canal Street, though as the week went on you had to rely on memory to complete the scuffed out clause that reads, "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Protest is a casualty of the age of fear. In this first political convention since September 11 those petitioning for redress of their grievances are confined to a caged area out of view of many, and within hearing distance of only a few.

"Their problem is arrogance," a Texas delegate told me, meaning the Republicans. "Ours is anger." That insight lights up the hubristic temptations of both parties as nothing I've read from the punditry. The Republicans, like their ancestors the Federalists and the Whigs, act as if they alone possess the legitimacy to govern. They treated Bill Clinton like a burglar who picked their electoral college "lock" on the presidency; and they will confront President Kerry with a crisis in governance. Invoking the Democrats' use of the filibuster to block Bush's nominees for the Federal bench, Senate Republicans are likely to raise the bar for passing legislation to sixty votes. And the right-wing propaganda outlets will launch a jihad.

At the GOP convention in 1992 Rich Bond, then-chair of the party, declared "We are America's party." The Republicans have since learned not to say that aloud, but "This land is our land" remains the party's premise.

Anger—the righteous whine of moral superiority—is the Democrats' weakness. The measured tone of this convention has conspired against the expression of it, but in conversation with delegates, fury at Bush quickly surfaces; accompanied by anger at those fools in Red America who can't see Bush as the Democrats see him. The word "Canada" trails ruefully from conversations here—as in, "If Bush wins, I swear I'll move to Canada." The Democrats can't hide their disappointment with America.

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act contained a loophole: the special interests can no longer buy politics with soft money, but the political conventions are theirs for the taking. In the best piece of reporting so far on the convention, The Washington Post's Thomas B. Edsall and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum unearthed the kind of disturbing detail that makes Independents of Democrats and Republicans. Fifteen corporations, foundations, and unions have kicked in at least $1 million a piece to pay for the convention, and fifteen others have paid $500,000 or more. "In 1992," Edsall and Birnbaum point out, "the Democrats did not accept more than $100,000 from any single donor."

McCain-Feingold limits to $49.99 what a lobbyist can spend on a Senator's lunch; but here is Dick Durbin, the Illinois Senator and McCain-Feingold advocate, emerging from a $19,000 lunch given in his honor by the Chicago Board Options Exchange and other Chicago interests that have business before Congress and the regulatory agencies. Vermont's Pat Leahy is eating of the bread of the National Association of Broadcasters; Louisiana's Mary Landrieu is lunching lavishly courtesy of Textron; and who is that crowd gathered in front of the ballroom doors? Why ... it's the New York and North Dakota delegations going to breakfast on Lockheed Martin's dime! This is "reform" in the sense that Bush's "Clean Skies" initiative is about cleaning the sky.

An article in Sunday's New York Times magazine drew attention to another loophole in McCain-Feingold. The Soros exception, or 527 rule, allows groups supposedly outside the parties to spend unlimited sums on political advertising that promotes their causes. Kerry can claim he has run few negative ads only because these groups have been doing the dirty work for him. The article adds that Soros and some other investors are putting their money on the Democrats this year, but might finance a new party if Kerry loses.

The Democrats are happy that such groups are on their side, but they shouldn't be. Who elected George Soros? Isn't this the kind of top-down politics that one expects from the "arrogant" Republicans? Soros and company think they know what's good for us. For my part, I'd rather not be governed by Soros. In fact, as William F. Buckley Jr. once said in a different context, I'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory. "If I can lead you into the Promised Land," Eugene Victor Debs told his followers in the Socialist party, "somebody else can lead you out." He was almost as wise as that Texas delegate.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/07/notes-on-the-unseen-convention/303437/