BOSTON - When Homer Simpson ran for the office of sanitation commissioner, he offered this stirring call to arms: "Animals are crapping in our houses and we're picking it up. Did we lose a war? That's not America!" The crowd went wild and Homer won the race.
After the first night of speeches here at the Democratic Convention, it's pretty clear the Democrats are borrowing from Homer's playbook. Here's the drill: State the obvious as if it is insightful. Then twist it to make it sound like the Republicans are fools or ogres for not seeing the wisdom in what you're saying.
"The Republicans in Washington believe that America should be run by the right people - their people," Bill Clinton declared to thunderous applause here Monday night.
What in the world is he talking about? This is an election, right? The Republicans think Republicans should run things. Democrats think Democrats should. Is there something I'm missing? Are Republicans somehow "cheating" because their campaign platform suggests that their own party is the right one to run America?
This was one of the many ironies, alas, lost on the Democrats.
So, too, was the rather rum spectacle of Jimmy Carter lecturing about the need to "restore the greatness of America" and gird American strength around the globe. Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps on the morning of September 11, 2001, millions cried in anguish, "If only Jimmy Carter were president!"
Aside from his shockingly gratuitous and unpresidential cheap shots about Bush's military service - wasn't it Carter who pardoned all those honest-to-God draft-dodgers? - what stood out in Carter's oration was his tendency to attribute so many of the world's longest-running and most intractable problems to George W. Bush. "Violence has gripped the Holy Land," Carter intoned. Talk about walking into the movie half way through. Violence has gripped the Holy land for a very, very long time. In fact, bears have been using the woods as a bathroom since George Bush has been president, too. That's not exactly George W. Bush's fault. (Indeed, the worst flare-up of violence occurred after Bill Clinton failed to seal a peace deal in 2000 between Yassir Arafat and Ehud Barak.)
This is just a small sample of the convention's rhetorical drift so far. The Democrats have decided George Bush is guilty of every charge imaginable until proven innocent, and they are not interested in considering any evidence to the contrary. Admittedly, that's the nature of conventions, which are essentially giant choirs hungry to be preached to. Nevertheless, what varies from convention to convention and party to party is the credibility of those assumptions, and here the Democrats come up wanting.
The Boston Democrats take it as a fact that George W. Bush deliberately divides people, and for bad reasons. Time and again, Clinton insisted that Republicans "need a divided America." Jimmy Carter accused Bush of lying, or of "manipulating the truth" about the war in order to "generate public panic." The analysis behind such convictions goes something like this: George W. Bush enjoyed an astronomically high approval rating after 9/11 and the war with Afghanistan. But for political motives no one can explain, he chose "to divide" Americans and risk that popularity by "lying" about a war we didn't need to fight.
None of this is supposed to make sense on a rational level. These are expressions of faith. And for the Democratic Party, a Republican is by definition "divisive" whenever he does things Democrats don't like. It's similar to the way Democrats bang their high chairs about "wedge issues" - which is to say, issues that work better for Republicans than Democrats.
Speaker after speaker insisted that President Bush was a dangerous unilateralist who broke the common bonds of the international community. Among the evidence cited by Bill Clinton was George Bush's refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto treaty. Never mind that Clinton took pretty much the same position when he was president. Bush is a dangerous maverick! Similarly, speaker after speaker took John Kerry's word for it that he has the sort of charm necessary to persuade the "international community" to share the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan it now refuses.
In other words, as with Homer Simpson, the Democrats are in denial. Homer thinks that someone else needs to clean up the messes in our homes, that somehow it's unfair that we should do our own dirty work. The Democrats have convinced themselves that George Bush unfairly - "divisively" - interrupted the holiday from history that was the 1990s. This is all nonsense, of course. But that's beside the point.