Tramping around Tampa for the Republican National Convention was easy. I had an SUV with air conditioning. A beachfront suite and white sand. Drunk without a care, I waltzed through the derangement, masquerading as one of Them. When They made me sick, I did not hesitate. I puked, farted, shat, and pissed without remorse.
Such a simple dismissal eventually became liberating: Everyone there was patently insane. Stone dumb, self-serving, or profoundly evil.
Upon arrival in Charlotte, however, life becomes a bit more complicated.
I am racked by a deep malaise. Though the twisted constraints of the two-party system have long been apparent, spending two weeks in the epicenters of each party's mangled, detached, and hypocritical heart profoundly shakes my already bleak outlook on the American future. If Tampa was Hell, Charlotte is Purgatory.
As I tumble around the so-called Wall Street of the South, a phrase from Tampa grows in volume. Upon its utterance by Senator Marco Rubio in Tampa, it rattled me. Now the resonance is haunting:
"'Hope and Change' has become 'Divide and Conquer.'"
Thursday around five o'clock, I set out towards the Convention. I've been to enough lunches, rallies, and speeches in the last week and a half to know the only thing worth taking away is the food. Twits, climbers, and lapdogs. Hot air, profiteers, and narcissists. I've had it with them all.
It's raining, and the bike I bought off Craigslist has no brakes. With some unease I put on my rain-slick. It doesn't look good.
But halfway down the hill I take the jacket off. Sun's out now. It's beautiful. Blue skies. Charlotte's lush greens are coming to life. It was like this on Wednesday, too. But damn, Thursday is even finer. Too bad they moved Obama inside, from the football stadium to the basketball arena.
I ping pong around Uptown for a bit, arriving at the gates at 7 pm. They are locked. Hundreds standing in line, anxious, bated breath. I wait an hour for an answer. Finally it comes: we're not getting in.
Strangely enough, I don't really mind. Sure, there remains a chance that the Barack of old may reappear. That he might do something special. Something historic. Something transformative.
But the odds suggest otherwise. They've been headed that way for years.
Eight years ago Barack Obama addressed the Democratic Convention as a state senator. His message, exquisitely delivered, was simple and profoundly affecting: within America remained a power and sensibility to transcend the trappings of partisan politics and achieve something real. Four and a half years ago, when I covered Obama's first visit to Portland, that message had taken the shape of genuine movement—one buttressed not only with hope, but with policy to boot.
Four years ago I traveled to Denver and watched as Obama accepted his party's nomination at Mile High Stadium. I remember feeling conflicted. Let down. Obama—this stunning communicator—seemed to be dulling his blade. As I wrote at the time, "The speech doesn't soar in the high winds of Obama's previous orations. It is down to earth, hacking a way through an overgrown political jungle. Although I acknowledge the pragmatism, it is not my ideal." With fear, but still some faith, I wondered if the generational wave propelling Obama had crested or had somewhere yet to climb. "Only years from now will we really know for sure," I wrote. "But I believe the fucker is still on the move—even if it has lost speed."
On March 23, 2010, after months of mismanagement, President Obama signed the watered-down Affordable Care Act. By that time, the wave was dead.
In October of that same year, just before the midterm elections, I traveled to Washington to cover Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" on the Capitol Mall. More than a quarter of a million people showed up. But those who did came looking for something more than calls for civility. They were refugees of Hope and Change, searching for someone to lead them, to resurrect the torch Obama had dropped. Instead they returned home empty-handed. Lacking a grand, unifying, and sustained push from the bully pulpit in the midterms, Democrats were beat to a pulp. The President's party lost the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Nothing has gotten done since. Even worse, they've learned nothing from it.
At the Convention in Tampa, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman attempted to explain to Charlie Rose the president's seeming deference and loss of narrative force.
"I still wonder sometimes whether Obama understands why he was elected," Friedman said. "I think people really believed that we needed nation building at home. And I think they really believed that [Obama] had both the vision and the ability to pull us together for that task."
In Charlotte, speaking about his election, Obama made the following statement and I winced. "It wasn't about me," he said. "It was about you."
In part, yes, Obama's election was about us. It was about him, too. But moreover it was about an idea—the very idea on which Obama rode to power and misplaced once he got there: divisive partisan politics could be overcome. Perhaps belief in such a possibility was misguided or naïve. Nonetheless, there was no reason for Obama to retreat.
Yet four years later he has turned almost completely. Today the Obama campaign banks on fracture, employing the same bitter politics of fear he once so decried. As his speech in Charlotte showed, the president, for whatever reason, is through with big ideas and done with hopes of change. His prime-time address in Charlotte was spent, largely, defending the status quo.
But surely there are issues American citizens, both Republican and Democrat, can get behind. What about mortgage relief for underwater homeowners subject to predatory loans? (Bank bailouts enflamed the Tea Party—why not turn the tables?) Or debt reduction? (Why won't the President endorse Simpson-Bowles?) What happened to the jobs plan? (Let's get specific!) Better yet, how about a moon shot on energy independence? (Republicans may deny global warming, but they hate expensive gas.) Perhaps even new rules for corporate governance? (Commit crimes, go to jail—no more fines.) Unquestionably there are many, many more ideas, from those much, much more qualified than I.
To be sure, President Obama paid lip service to most of these concepts in Charlotte. But what he failed to do is embrace any with a freshness, zeal, or specific enough policy detail to grow it beyond party lines and into some greater narrative.
Instead, Obama and his team plot to secure a second term by a score of 51-to-49. But what does that get them? What does winning a base election actually afford?
In the current climate, not a goddamn thing.
Without a presidential campaign that's capable of energizing the party as well as the people, down-ticket races will suffer. More than ever, mandates are fucking important.
Blame Republican obstructionism if you like. But rather than trying to reach over it, as he once seemed so capable, Obama appears resigned. Such reticence to take a chance, especially in the face of such a deeply flawed opponent, is that much more disheartening.
Nonetheless, the most basic human levels of compassion recognize him as well meaning and relatively just, and the White House looks to be Obama's to lose. Sadly—and without any satisfactory reason why—the path Obama has chosen in pursuit of a second term all but assures his greatest promise shall go unfulfilled.
So much for history.
Anyway, it's the future I worry about. And should Obama win reelection without overwhelming wind in his sails, enough to propel the country from these deep waters of greed, inequality, and mistrust, we shall remain marooned in a sea of slow economic growth, high unemployment, and ballooning deficits. We'll be watching like assholes as the world evolves around us, where, in 2016, America could fall victim to the most sinister threat of all: a political climate offering Paul Ryan a real shot at the presidency.