I'm writing from Chapel Hill North Carolina. Like many New Yorkers, I've escaped the city and the tumult of the Republican convention as did Bostonians with the Democratic conclave in July. These conventions have become pure theater, sadly less reality than those awful TV shows that have become so popular of late. Much of what we'll see in New York, and what we saw in Boston, is aimed right over the delegates heads to the larger mainstream, our election cycle "swingers". The staged focus of the GOP convention is far more centrist (compassionate is making its quadrennial comeback) than either the delegates or, most significantly, the party's office holders. The public talk in Boston was far to the right of the assembled, though not as out of sync with post Clinton Democratic office holders. What we don't have on either side is straight talk. Messages are delivered in code in this election season, which is probably the last thing we need during these troubled times.
Take for example the swift boat flap. The focus of the initial attacks which, thanks of intensive repetitive media coverage got so much of our attention, were on John Kerry's war performance and whether or not his citations and purple hearts were earned. But that was all a smoke screen because it was in the second commercial that the real complaint emerged – John Kerry the anti-war protester is what bothered these people and the Administration ideologues behind them. What really unnerves the right is that John Kerry embodies a war gone wrong whose aftermath has hung over the military and America's use of power ever since. And this is not a trivial matter because underlying the current aggressive foreign policy is the notion that at long last we are over Viet Nam and all that unmanly self doubt. The reason it's important to discredit John Kerry the protester is that every day Iraq is looking more like a Viet Nam style quagmire. That doesn't suggest that the two wars are the same. For one thing, however horrendous, the body and casualty count pales in comparison. For another, connecting the dots of Communist expansionism was much more credible (albeit equally wrong) than linking Saddam to terrorism. That said, Kerry is a living reminder of our fallibility and of the patriotism of dissent. He contends that we can't just use our power because we want to or have the capacity which is precisely what Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have been all about since Bush took office. Swift boats are a code, not straight talk.
The greatest challenge for Democrats is not in marching against Bush which may feel good but might not result in victory, but in marching for John Kerry which probably will. Straight talk is not that we don't like what's happening, but what we believe should and must happen to get things back on track. Straight talk means being willing to say that perhaps in a shifting world our perceived best days are behind us if we mean by that our absolute dominance of the agenda and our ability to make everyone salute when we pass by. In a world of technology and ever increasing accessibility, we may not be the only ones to invent, may not always be the most successful and capitalizing on what we discover. Nor, speaking of straight talk, have we been that in the past. Straight talk doesn't lend itself to sound bytes and simplistic slogans which, however commonly employed, are not how any of us, including our government, functions. And as to Liberals, of whom I count myself as one, straight talk means saying what we believe, not what we think will play well. On that, the compassionate bull not withstanding, the Conservatives have been much more successful. Their ideological straight talk has played well, not because it is right, but because it's been proudly stated and weakly refuted. Straight talk: we better get our act together.