Dispatch From Charlotte: The DNC Abandons War-on-Terror Criticism

Vocal defenders of civil liberties are mostly operating outside the Democratic Party, whose insiders censured Bush and moved on.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention, delegates filing into Time Warner Cable Arena found on their seats a bound copy of their party's new platform, a document titled "Moving America Forward," but takes several steps back on civil liberties issues. Unlike in 2008, the Democrats are officially silent on indefinite detention, silent on the Patriot Act, and silent on racial profiling (for side-by-side comparisons, see Adam Serwer's analysis).

Watching the DNC on television four years ago, and speaking with supporters of Senator Barack Obama, I remember a Democratic Party vocally committed to reining in excesses in the War on Terror.

I remember outrage at Bush policies President Obama has since adopted.

On Tuesday, wandering around Charlotte, I found a lot of Occupy and Code Pink protesters who remain committed to those issues. Almost all now consider themselves outside the Democratic Party. Inside the convention hall, where I asked perhaps two dozen Democratic delegates what issues were most important to them, zero cited civil liberties, executive power, or drones.

The divide here is not just symbolic, but literal.

Tall metal barricades are erected at the edge of the park where the Occupy movement is camping, separating them from the secure area where "the most open convention in history" is held. The leftists standing outside those barriers denounce Obama's national security record as immoral.

The Democrats credentialed to pass through the checkpoints and into the convention hall are celebrating President Obama's national security record, citing the Iraq War pullout, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and their belief that Obama is less likely than his opponent to start a war with Iran.   

John Moffitt, a delegate from Houston, Texas, has participated in this week's events both inside and outside the secure area. An oilman who has achieved financial comfort, he volunteers in Democratic politics because he's "not a greedy jerk," he told me from his seat in the arena. Asked what issues matter to him, he focused on economic policy, especially tax rates, and energy issues. He also wore a pink sticker on his lapel that said, "I am a delegate - PEACE."

"I'm anti-war. My one disappointment with Obama is we're not out of Afghanistan yet. I know he's moving. He got us out of Iraq. Bush, I was just appalled, him getting us into those useless wars," he told me, adding that World War II and the first Gulf War were the only ones that he supported.

Here's what he said when I asked him about Obama's drone strikes:

MOFFITT: I went and I marched in the protest rally, just because I hadn't been in a protest in 50 years and I thought, you know, you should be in a protest every 50 years. I go down there, and I'm just a few feet behind the cardboard sign that said, "Obama is murdering people with these drone strikes." Well let me tell you, that issue is about the size of a gnat. If they want to not vote for Obama, and/or vote for Romney, giving him half a vote or a whole vote, what Romney is going to do will be staggering. If Romney gets elected president I'll bet 100 dollars that we'll be at war within a year. Those drone strikes will look like a walk in the park. They'll look like Miss Suzy Cupcake compared to what the Republicans will give us.

ME: So you think they're relatively unimportant given the alternatives.

MOFFITT: I think they're relatively unimportant.

ME: But are you in favor of them, or against them, or undecided?

MOFFITT: With drone strikes, I think Obama probably puts it right. When they ask him about that he says it's basically a tool in his kit. And it's not him, it's the whole country. He's the executive, the chair of the country. He's not making all these decisions. There's a thousand other people. And I think you need to keep all your tools in the kit... I'd rather see them do a drone strike on a guy than drop a nuclear bomb on a whole country to take a guy out.

That's the most explicit argument I heard suggesting that Democrats just don't think drones are significant issues. But implicitly, the opinion was common to everyone to whom I spoke, from a postal service employee who got involved in politics to save the institution that employs him, and cited that issue as by far the most important, to Ana Sol Gutierrez, a state legislator from Maryland, who spoke proudly about her work on behalf of the DREAM act and the importance of comprehensive immigration reform, never mentioning anything outside domestic policy. I hasten to add that there isn't anything wrong with individual Democratic delegates focusing on an area of domestic policy, or social issues, or the economy, instead of national security or civil liberties.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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