CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” the narrator is conveyed to the gates of hell, upon which he finds a sign: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
This city is not hell. But a case can be made, as the Democratic Party convenes here to nominate Barack Obama to a second term, that the same admonition applies. Abandon hope.
Hope and change, of course, were the promises by which Obama swept into office four years ago, heralding a “post partisan” era in which Republicans and Democrats would work together in solving the nation’s problems. We all know how that turned out. The GOP lurched further to the right, driven by a “tea party” that scorned compromise, the ordinary horse trading that defines politics, as traitorous and weak.
There was an element of fanaticism there that one watched with a kind of awestruck horror, unable to believe that what you were seeing was really real. But it was. They actually did take the economy hostage, actually did vote down their own major bill because the president supported it. They actually did declare war on objective fact, bow to a ludicrously rigid anti-tax pledge, abridge the religious freedoms of Muslims, commit acts of voter suppression, require Latinos to show their papers. The great Clint Eastwood actually did stumble through a dialogue with an empty chair that was supposed to represent the president. And yes, they actually did call that president “uppity,” a “boy,” and a “secret Muslim,” actually did question his birthplace and academic credentials, actually did accuse him of being a radical socialist out to destroy America.
They actually did.
Three years ago, a distraught woman at a health-care protest cried out, “I want my country back!” Better she should demand her party back. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan doesn’t seem like a party at all anymore, but a cult.
Yes, that’s just the sort of observation you’d expect from a liberal hack, Democratic Party shill and assorted other epithets by which GOP true believers routinely ward off questions about their true belief. But let them note that similar concerns are being voiced by GOP stalwarts like former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Indeed Barack Obama seems to have been the last person in America to understand how things have changed, to realize that there can be no bipartisan problem solving because the GOP has decided it has no problem bigger than him: black, funny name, center-left leaning him, and all that his elevation to the presidency portends for a changing nation and for a political party that, in that changing nation, remains whiter than polar bears in snow.
So we don’t hear so much about hope and change anymore. The president has lately been more prone to unilateral action and has taken the wood to Mitt Romney in attacks as negative and misleading as those that are leveled against him.
It is always gratifying to see the bullied kid finally stand up for himself.
But what happens then?
That is the question Obama and his party must answer this week. This is not an election about big government versus small or more taxes versus less, but, rather, about reason versus unreason, coherence versus incoherence, tomorrow versus a yesterday that never really was, that exists only in sepia-colored GOP fictions.
To win the election, Obama needs 270 electoral votes. But to deserve to win it, he needs to articulate a tough-minded new vision about how to shepherd America into a challenging future some of us plainly fear. The sweet platitudes of four years ago will not do. Instead, Obama must answer a stark and simple question:
What now? What do you do after hope and change have failed?