Sounding chords from the past and future of their party, Democrats joined hands last night to acclaim Barack Obama as their nominee. While this may be the end of the Clinton era in Democratic presidential politics, it was fascinating last night to see how much the party has absorbed commitments and lessons from the Clinton years--particularly in the areas of values, the military and patriotism.
Last night's hymns to family values, the appreciative video on veterans, and invocations of patriotism all echoed Bill Clinton's efforts to govern from the center. Of course, the Republicans attacked him as a philanderer and peacenik who did not share the virtues of ordinary Americans. While the first charge was true, the rest were part of a Republican strategy of demonization and polarization.
This time, the Democrats are doing all they can to neutralize those tactics. If they succeed, they will owe something to Clinton's success at making the Democrats a party who could appeal to moderate-minded and traditional voters. (Clinton's centrism on these issues never bothered me. I was troubled by his inability make lasting inroads against economic inequality, especially on health care. Clinton was no FDR.)
For all their differences and rivalries, Bill and Hillary Clinton each gave Obama a big boost. Commentators chatter endlessly about whether they are sincere in this, but in her Times column today Gail Collins got it right: "The Clintons did everything they were supposed to do here and in politics, like so much of life, feelings are irrelevant to everyone except the persons doing the feeling."
Both Clintons delivered speeches that will help Obama. (I thought Joe Biden's speech last night was workmanlike but not his best effort.)
John Kerry, on the other hand, ventured into tricky waters for the Democrats and mentioned the Sixties. He spoke with a passion and a righteous anger that I have rarely seen in him. He also invoked his antiwar days and cited a phrase that got much attention in the Sixties: "My country, right or wrong."
That phrase was often rolled out to silence critics of the Vietnam War. Last night, Kerry's speech offered a fuller version of the statement: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." This version of the phrase is attributed to the German-born Republican of the nineteenth century, Carl Schurz. It still bears repeating today as an example of the highest kind of patriotism.
On a night when Democrats were building on the foundation of Clinton years to erect a new kind of party in the image of Obama, Kerry's speech recalled older Democratic causes that are still worth remembering. Obama will need to draw on the best of the Democrats' distant and recent pasts if he is to win in November.