NEW YORK -- This year's political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America's defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry's revisionism: "I defended this country as a young man." This week Republicans will try to achieve a Molly Bloom moment, exclaiming, "And yes I said yes I will Yes." But yes to what?
Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him -- that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens' groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.
President Bush's convention challenge is to tell voters, who already know America is at war, how the parties differ. Last week he made it dismayingly clear that, in the parties' contempt for the First Amendment, they don't.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan cheerily reported Bush's vow to join John McCain in trying to "shut down" what McClellan called -- nine times in four minutes -- "shadowy" groups. He means citizens working quite publicly -- contributions to "527" organizations can be scrutinized on the Internet -- to influence U.S. governance.
But the political class wants them silenced -- "outlawed," Bush says -- because it considers the political process its private property. And Bush, adopting the cringing posture so prevalent in today's scramble to be seen as a victim, says, "I understand how Senator Kerry feels -- I've been attacked by 527s too." Oh, well, then.
Bush, a supposed critic of the imperial judiciary, wants a court to order the Federal Election Commission to, in McClellan's words, "shut down" all such groups. And if a compliant court cannot be found, McClellan says Bush will try legislation. First try judicial fiat, then legislation as a last resort. Ah, conservatism.
From the New Deal through the civil rights revolution, liberalism strove to use expanding government to drive the alteration of society. Conservatism's mission was largely restoration -- rolling back big government. Neither persuasion is now plausible.
Kerry insists he is not a "redistribution Democrat." But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no "natural" distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.
In disavowing "redistribution," Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.
The vocabulary of the two-party argument just a generation ago now seems as anachronistic as the 1890s argument about the free coinage of silver. Liberals have next to nothing to say about poverty or, because of their servitude to the public education industry, about the calamitous inadequacy of inner-city schools, which is both a cause and a consequence of the social pathologies of poverty. Conservatives, whose party has delivered on its 2000 promise to increase federal involvement in education and health care, no longer invest even rhetorical energy in the cause of "small" or "limited" government. And now their presidential nominee wants an even bigger government role in policing speech.
Bush receives so much rotten advice because he does not seem indignant when he does (see: Iraq). He signed the McCain-Feingold speech restrictions in 2002 because incompetent advisers assured him that by the time the Supreme Court and the Federal Election Commission were done construing it, Republicans would be advantaged. Now Democratic 527s, which were active in 2000 but which evidently were not considered by Bush's advisers in their cynical calculations, may outspend Republican 527s by $100 million. This McCain-Feingold fallout -- the diversion of ideological money from the Democratic Party to left-wing groups, the diversion of business money out of electoral politics and into lobbying -- was predicted in a 2001 report by Cleta Mitchell, a campaign finance lawyer, for the American Conservative Union.
Few voters care about questions of political process. That is why the political class feels free to act with scandalous impunity, as in this Bush-Kerry collaboration to silence what the political class persistently calls "outside groups." A question: Outside of what?