Tonight the odds are reasonably high that President Obama and Vice-President Biden — and, for that matter, Senator Kaine — will answer the charge that Democrats are avoiding any discussion of terrorism (other than the aftermath of 9/11) at their convention. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly talk about it, too.
But there is some evidence in both parties that a bad old habit is coming back: the tendency to talk predominantly about issues of most concern to the party base, and where the party’s policy prescriptions are relatively popular, and refuse to talk about anything else.
For many years, Democrats avoided talking about national security partly because they thought they looked and sounded weak on the subject, and partly because they figured if voters were absorbed with “good Democratic issues” like education and health care and wages they’d forget to worry about threats to the country. Republicans had a mirror-image delusion, trying hard to ignore “their” issues to the benefit of “our” issues.
One of the reasons Bill Clinton did well politically is that he refused to play that silly game and talked about crime and national security and, yes, even welfare dependency. You can make a good argument (on welfare policy, anyway) that he made the mistake of adopting conservative policies to address these problems. But he recognized something very simple: When politicians refuse to talk about something voters care about, voters fill in the blank with whatever distorted attributed positions the other side suggests. So when Democrats ignored crime as a “Republican issue” and Republicans accuse them of hating cops and sympathizing with violent criminals, a lot of voters had no real reason to conclude otherwise.
Republican George W. Bush (or his “brain,” Karl Rove) got this basic point, insisting on offering conservative prescriptions to improve education, to cover prescription drug costs for seniors, and to deal with the problem of undocumented workers. He even addressed Social Security, though his desire to “reform” the program and improve its solvency by simply reducing benefits was a little too apparent.
The issues discussed at this year’s Republican convention were remarkably straitened. One of them, climate change, was naturally ignored because most Republicans don’t even believe in it. But big areas of economic policy, education policy, health-care policy, environmental policy, food and nutrition policy, and on and on, were at most paid lip service in Cleveland. And even on issues they did address, they often exhibited a cramped perspective: By refusing to acknowledge the issue of police misconduct toward the minority citizens they are supposed to correct, their silence encouraged the impression that they thought police should be able to do any damn thing they want, and that the odd beaten or murdered African-American John Q. Citizens was just the price to be paid for keeping crime under control. Is there any wonder Republicans continue to struggle with minority voters?
But Democrats are making the same mistake if they minimize discussion of terrorism specifically or national security generally, or of immigration enforcement, or of crime policy. On the racially fraught subject of policing, Republican charges that Democrats don’t give a damn about police or even public safety gain traction they do not deserve from a convention where murdered police officers and their families are rarely mentioned.
Again, refusing to cede ownership of entire issue areas to the other party does not mean accepting their policy prescriptions; indeed, it means denying false choices between, say, strong and proactive policing and the liberties of citizens who ought to be presumed innocent when walking the streets or driving their cars.
Political parties ought to have something to say about any issue voters legitimately care about, if only to show they are listening. And any ideology worth having doesn’t let its acolytes fall silent when an inconvenient topic comes up. Convention managers in Philadelphia should remember that in the remainder of the Democratic convention.