Presidential nominating conventions are little more than political theater these days. Nonetheless, two very different modes of drama were on display in St. Paul and Denver. The Democrats used their meeting to tell a richer, more expansive national story, one more or less in tune with the party's platform and aspirations. In contrast, as we go to press, the Republicans are staging an elaborate fraud, the purpose of which is to divert the public's attention from their disastrous mismanagement of government and to deceive voters about their agenda. Rick Davis, John McCain's campaign manager, admitted as much when he said, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
And just what is the take-away from the RNC? The GOP would have Americans believe that McCain is a postpartisan "country first" maverick. But its attempt at stagecraft--never mind statecraft--runs afoul of inconvenient truths. By picking first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain exposed the cynical pandering that is his campaign's prevailing electoral strategy as well as the far-right ideology to which the controlling base of his party is fiercely committed.
In her debut speech in Dayton, Palin sought to appeal to women voters, many of whom supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But for all the talk about Palin representing a feminist crack in the glass ceiling, her true value to the party lies in her identity as a cultural reactionary--committed to abstinence-only sex education and creationism in schools and opposed to abortion in all circumstances except to save a woman's life (no exceptions for rape, incest or for a woman's health). The first piece of legislation she signed as governor launched a referendum that would strip health benefits from same-sex partners of Alaska state employees. If these positions are not shared by the vast majority of Americans--or by McCain--they are plainly endorsed by the Republican Party's platform, which calls for constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and abortion. It now appears that the same right-wingers who pushed these measures--Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and their ilk--are the ones who really "vetted" McCain's vice presidential choice, and it is abundantly clear that these extremists dictate the agenda of the Republican Party, the party of Palin as much or more than the party of McCain.
Likewise, the fundraisers and phone-a-thons the GOP hastily choreographed as Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast painted a self-serving veneer of charity on top of decades of neglect. The starve-the-beast mentality that made New Orleans so vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina is amply reflected in McCain's record after that storm (see Michael Tisserand, "Revisiting New Orleans," page 5).
The Republicans put on a happy face as the party of change while embracing an agenda to thwart it; the Democrats, inspired by the historic nomination of Barack Obama, stamped themselves as the party of multiculturalism--and backed up the symbolism with a robust populist politics. There were more women delegates than men, and 44 percent represented minority communities. The party platform was the strongest it has ever been on gay, lesbian and women's issues--including a new section on women's economic opportunity that urges passage of the Fair Pay Act--which McCain opposes. It's a platform that represents much-maligned "identity politics" at its best--it's not just about images but about those pesky "issues" Republicans don't want to discuss.