The Ecstasy and the Agony

What did Dickens say about the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness?

Next week marks the tenth anniversary of two back-to-back events that still define our politics–and will continue to define our politics for generations to come. The first such event occurred on August 28, 2008, when then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama officially accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

With “profound gratitude and great humility”–something in very short supply in the White House these days–Obama magnificently made the case for change:

We meet at one of those defining moments — a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.

Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach.

These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.

America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.

He pointed out that his Republican opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain, was anything but a maverick:

[T]he record’s clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Sen. McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change.

The truth is, on issue after issue that would make a difference in your lives — on health care and education and the economy — Sen. McCain has been anything but independent. He said that our economy has made “great progress” under this president. He said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. And when one of his chief advisers — the man who wrote his economic plan — was talking about the anxiety Americans are feeling, he said that we were just suffering from a “mental recession,” and that we’ve become, and I quote, “a nation of whiners.”

A nation of whiners? Tell that to the proud autoworkers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made. Tell that to the military families who shoulder their burdens silently as they watch their loved ones leave for their third or fourth or fifth tour of duty. These are not whiners. They work hard and give back and keep going without complaint. These are the Americans that I know.

In perhaps the most powerful segment of the speech, Obama condemned Republican economic ideology and emphasized the critical importance of economic fairness:

You see, we Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country.

We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma. We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was president — when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000 like it has under George Bush.

We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job — an economy that honors the dignity of work.

The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great — a promise that is the only reason I am standing here tonight.

The next day–August 29–the McCain campaign attempted to undercut Obama’s post-convention momentum with one of the most bizarre political stunts in American history: the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

That evening, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tore into the selection of Palin; it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the press recognized how flawed Palin was. Of course, Palin’s fan club responded by viciously attacking those who were critical of Palin. Sound familiar?

Remember the rage and racism of the fall 2008 McCain-Palin rallies? It’s obvious that Donald Trump studied those rallies and realized that he could harness that hate and ride it to political victory. In this specific sense, McCain and Palin helped pave the road that Trump traversed on his way to the White House.

It was revealed earlier this year that McCain, now confronting his own mortality, is remorseful over the decision to select Palin–a revelation that obviously didn’t sit well with his former running mate. The selection of Palin was the second-to-last step in the full normalization of right-wing extremism in American politics; the election of Trump completed that sad process.

As you watch Obama’s speech again, think about the darkness in the souls of those who hated that speech and the man who delivered it. Palin and Trump appealed to that darkness–and our country has been permanently wounded as a result.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.