The Republican National Convention is scheduled to open Tuesday in Tampa after a brief pause to let Hurricane Isaac go by. The Democrats will mass a week later in Charlotte. Often, these gatherings are riveting as representatives of each state vote on their favorite candidate as the public watches the tally. The results can be surprising or even comical. Anyone remember “Ohio passes” at one convention?
Speeches are rarely memorable, but, on occasion, someone like William Jennings Bryan or Rep. Shirley Chisholm can electrify the audience. Bryan won the 1896 Democratic nomination with his “Cross of Gold” speech, while Chisholm made herself a viable national candidate with her 1972 speech to the Democratic convention that year.
This year should be reasonably boring since the party candidates are already in place: Mitt Romney for the Republicans; Barack Obama for the Democrats. No “smoke-filled room” of the kind that ended up with Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920 or seemingly endless ballots like the kind that finally allowed John Davis to win the 1924 Democratic Party bid.
No dark horses either, like James K. Polk back in 1844.
Instead, the public will be subjected the traditional rhetoric filled with unsustainable promises and intense criticism of opponents. All of it will be partisan; much of it will be hypocritical nonsense, something both major parties are guilty of.
Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly shifted positions enough over the years to cause a disk jockey to get dizzy trying to follow the spinning logic.
No field has been left untouched by the sordid slime of hypocrisy. Let’s start with the budget.
The Republicans are pushing for fiscal responsibility and reduction of the national debt. However, the two presidents who oversaw the largest expansion of government and the greatest national debt were both Republican – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The last president to balance a budget was a Democrat, Bill Clinton. Before that, Republican Dwight Eisenhower balanced the budget.
Vice President Joe Biden, when a senator, voted against increasing the national debt ceiling. Today, he favors it. President Obama has also been on both sides of the issue.
How about Civil Rights?
The Republicans started in 1854 in opposition to slavery. That was the sole reason for the party. They lost the presidential election two years later, but came back in 1860 to win with Abraham Lincoln. The election of the Great Emancipator, considered one of this country’s finest presidents, precipitated the Civil War. South Carolina seceded, convinced that, with an anti-slavery advocate in office, it could not retain its distinct culture. Ten other states joined suit, launching the Civil War.
For many years after the War, the South was controlled by Democrats, who cheerfully supported racist policies. In time, however, the conservative South eventually turned solidly Republican, opposing the so-called liberals of the Democratic Party who were seen as pro-Civil Rights only following the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Today, in complete opposition to its origins, the Republican Party contains relatively few Black members and is seen as the party of rich, white conservatives.
Democrats hardly have anything to crow about. Founded in the 1790s, the party was led by Thomas Jefferson, who was to become another highly ranked president and was committed to civil liberties. Yet, Democrats were the primary proponents of racist policies in the 1950s, led by Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Civil Rights laws proposed by Democratic President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, changed the ground rules, this time against Republican opposition.
The political candidate who started today’s emphasis on religious faith was Jimmy Carter, who, in 1976, promoted his Southern Baptist roots. He is a Democrat. In contrast, political icons Democrat Jefferson and Republican Lincoln were at best deists. Neither was openly religious. Lincoln did not belong to a church and rarely went to religious service. His religious feelings were private and intense.
Today, however, Lincoln’s party has become the bastion of religious conservatives while Democrats are seen as comparably irreligious. Both Romney and Obama have touted their beliefs and values in an effort to court pious voters.
In addition, Republicans started as outsiders, the upstarts who were pushing for the abolishment of slavery. Naturally, once getting into power, they began to attract wealthy supporters. The same thing happened to Catholic orders like the Franciscans, which preached poverty and accumulated vast fortunes.
In time, with only one Democratic President (Grover Cleveland) between 1860 and 1912, the Republicans evolved into the party of establish wealth. However, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt pushed through the anti-monopoly laws as well as laws improving conditions for workers and food safety, all ideas originally proposed by Socialists.
Republicans often have spoken out in opposition to international treaties. Republican isolationists, for example, headed opposition to the League of Nations. However, prior to that, Republican Teddy Roosevelt started America on the road to being the international leader in 1907 by sending our navy around the world to broadcast our “power and prestige.” Naturally, by showing off such force, Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Democrats led opposition to the Civil War. They were labeled Copperheads by their opponents and were thought of as pacifists. However, presidents during World I and II were Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt respectively. Democrats were also presidents during most of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. A Republican served as commander in chief for the war with Iraq and the start of current conflicts in the Middle East.
The list goes on. Early Democrats supported strict reading of the Constitution – today a Republican theme song – and states’ rights. The latter issue was a key element in the Civil War. Today, the Democrats favor a strong national government at the expense of states.
Scandals have undermined the credibility of both parties, who can also equally claim some of the worst American presidents: Democrat James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce; Republicans Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding and George W. Bush.
Fortunately, leaders in both parties can rely on historical ignorance that runs rampant in this country. People simply don’t recall that their chosen party has shifted and changed its message more than any halfback running through a broken field.
It's not a new situation either. In the 1950s musical L'il Abner, lyricist Johnny Mercer penned these words for a song, The Country's in the Very Best of Hands:
“Them GOP's and Democrats,
Each hates the other one.
They's always criticizing
How the country should be run,
But neither tells the public
What the others gone and done.
As long as no one knows
Where no one stands,
The country's in the very best of hands.”
It’s not going to change, not as long as people don’t remember what our politicians said in a convention contradicts what they claim the following day.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus usually writes about religion and religious history, but did his doctoral work in American Studies. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.
You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1