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Upon returning from this year’s Democratic National Convention, I began to realize that something had been missing from the scene in Charlotte last week: the Democratic Party.
Oh, of course the party leadership was there, from past luminaries like President Bill Clinton to current chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to the rank-and-file who criss-crossed the stage from Tuesday to Thursday night. And the liberalism was there, with speakers from union presidents to Sandra Fluke wailing about a war on women while waging a war on wealth.
But this wasn’t your father’s Democratic Party, or even your older sister’s. This was an Obama Party, a four day festival of a man who to this crowd was less a president than a persona, less a politician who stands for ideals than a modern Greek hero who embodies an idea. Devoid of any tangible purpose beyond re-electing the president, the gathering relied on the magnetism of Obama, which evoked a near cult-like devotion among some attendees.
Consider this case: on Thursday afternoon, about 8 hours before the president took the stage, I stood outside the convention hall, asking passers-by whom the Democrats should nominate in 2016. On the heels of seemingly rousing speeches from Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker, I expected a compelling variety of responses. Instead, I was met mostly with blank stares and shaken heads. A pair of women shot offended expressions, as if I had just cursed in Church.
Finally, Terill Robertson, a good-natured Charlotte resident, answered my 2016 question. “In all honesty, President Obama.” But what about the law that says a President can serve only two terms? Robertson thought for a moment. “Well, that law’s the first thing we have to change.”
Clearly, I had a met a believer in a living, breathing Constitution.
Robertson’s position sounds extreme, but if you took a look around him, you could see what may have caused him to think that way. Lining the sidewalks College Street, stretching two blocks in either direction from the convention hall, hundreds of vendors sold wares at dozens of booths.
Obama hats. Obama pins. Obama t-shirts. Posters depicting Obama between Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Giant foam “OBAMA!” fingers. Life-size Obama cut-outs. Obama picture books and coloring books, lest the children go uneducated.
But where was the traditional convention spread? The toy donkeys, “Vote Democratic!” pins and pennants, and bumper stickers with party logos and slogans? Where–inside or out of the convention–were the references to a party that began with Thomas Jefferson, reached soaring heights under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and presumably will continue to exist when the curtain falls on the Age of Obama?
The donkey, the symbol of the party since the late 19th century, seemed to have hit the unemployment line, replaced by Obama’s likeness on all campaign memorabilia. Even the official convention logo went unspared. In place of the city-silhouette-against-flag images used for the gatherings in Boston and Denver, Charlotte used a modified version of the ubiquitous Obama “O” logo.
Welcome to the ONC, the convention center’s marquee may well have read.
“Hope” Has An Expiration Date
It’s understandable that a party’s base will be excited about re-electing their president. But the level of devotion to Obama, and lack of any apparent purpose to the assembled crowd beyond celebrating him, was unsettling, and should have forward-thinking Democrats concerned about what will happen to their party beyond this election.
A figure of Obama’s stature and oratorical ability can unite a party for decades, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s continued grip on the GOP, or FDR’s place in the hearts of Depression-era Americans. Yet these figures are almost always referenced alongside what they have done–Reagan’s economic reforms and foreign policy successes, FDR’s New Deal, Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, and so forth.
Obama, on the other hand, relies on the audacity of hope alone–and even if that’s a winning formula in 2012, it differs from the principles of the other transcendent figures in that it can’t be a strategy for the Democratic Party going forward. As 2016 approaches, Democrats will have more than a metaphorical “big pair of shoes” to fill. They’ll have to reprogram the brains of their base, which has spent the last 5 years marching in unison behind a personality, seemingly unconcerned with the party he represents.
But then again, that may not be a problem. As I continued asking folks on the street about who should follow Obama in 2016, one woman didn’t even bother to slow down. “Hillary!” she shouted. “That’s so obvious? How can you not know that?”
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