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

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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.

We all focus on issues that interest us to the exclusion of others.

What's troubles me, based on hours spent chatting up Democrats, is the dearth of insiders who care at all about vital issues prevalent in liberal talking points during the 2004 and 2008 cycles. It isn't that everyone mindlessly defends all Obama's actions. But neither to they volunteer criticism.

The most conspicuous example was Jimmy Carter, who addressed the convention via videotaped message broadcast Tuesday night. This is a man whose criticisms of American foreign policy are many and profound. It would be perfectly fine for him to say that he prefers Obama's policies to the Romney agenda, even on matters of national security. But despite his profound disagreements with Obama, he spoke to the DNC as if the president's record is praiseworthy.

There's an integrity to Jimmy Carter's criticism of American foreign policy. On Tuesday, his partisan loyalty diminished it. And insofar as Democratic delegates trust his judgment on those matters, due to the reputation he's built, Carter made himself complicit in their ignorance of Obama's real record. It was a Colin Powell moment: abusing one's reputation in a way sure to mislead.

It's no wonder that, throughout the Democratic Party, there is virtually no dissent as Obama pursues policies that would've provoked intense outrage if they were being done by John McCain.

The Republicans remain awful on these issues. 

A Democrat sits in the White House.

And as a result, America no longer has a party that's critical of the War on Terrorism.

What's left, outside the convention hall, beyond the security check points, and more often than not on the other side of blocks long metal barricades, are a rag-tag protest movement known for camping out in parks.

What are they saying? They're defending whistleblowers, including the one who allegedly fed documents to Wikileaks:

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They're tweaking the president and his supporters:

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They're worrying over basic rights and the failure to uphold them:

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And they're doing it on cardboard, using images and rhetoric that is, you'll agree, less likely to be heard by or persuasive to the mainstream than were the anti-war, anti-executive power, anti-executive-power dissents of the Bush years. Bless the Occupy folks for doing their best on these issues, but we've gone from outraged speeches on the floor of the DNC to, well, signs like this:

occupy drawing.jpg

Are Democrats really okay with that status quo?
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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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