Like most of the people watching the Democratic convention, Slate correspondent Dahlia Lithwick is chiefly occupied with critiquing everything they're doing wrong. Her first dispatch mostly just mocked the onanistic coverage and bipolar rhetoric, but the end of the article revealed a more urgent concern:
My overwhelming memory of the GOP Convention four years ago was of the harnessed, focused, laserlike energy of suppressed Republican rage. I keep hearing about the rage of the Democrats, but I can't find it here; with the exception of Michael Moore, who is whirling around like the Tasmanian Devil in a baseball cap.
Words like "Abu Ghraib" and "Guantanamo" and "torture memo" are choked back until your head hurts. I, for one, am not "terrified, yet braced- for- the- challenges." I am "terrified, yet petrified." I am "frightened, yet sickened." Today, I hit the streets of Boston in hopes of hearing that speech.
Today's report from the frontlines makes this thought more explicit:
I keep thinking that one speaker at this convention needs to stand up at that podium tonight and say: "Ladies and Gentlemen. Abu Ghraib. Thank you. Goodnight." Because shouldn't this election ultimately be a referendum on the rule of law? Shouldn't the only issue before us be whether or not there will be legal constraints on executive power? Walter Dellinger, former acting solicitor general under Bill Clinton and star Slate contributor, puts this far more eloquently when he warns that if we don't cast our votes about Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib and those torture memos, we will someday look back on this election as emblematic of a national moral failure.Unfortunately, Lithwich and other lawyers consistently overestimate the level of interest that voters have in "the rule of law," which for most people is fairly abstract in its constitutional sense. We see the need for "law'n'order," because we don't like getting mugged, but we demand limits on executive power only when it is clearly out of control. The average American can get het up over obvious outrages like Watergate and Abu Ghraib (hence the resignation and apologies that followed from those scandals), we're a lot more ambiguous about the rights of detainees in the war on terrorism, or the limits on what we will do to protect ourselves from another 9/11.
What is at stake, in this election, is whether we value the notion of being a nation that's ruled by law as opposed to rulers. This isn't just a voting issue. It's what used to launch revolutions.
Even if people did take a greater interest in issues that aren't directly related to their physiological and safety needs, I doubt the Democrats' ability to stake their fortunes on the simple invocation of Abu Ghraib and other excesses in the war on terrorism and the occupation of Iraq. The Bush Administration already has declared that Abu Ghraib happened entirely without official support; they have framed the torture as a freakish outlier, due to bad apples rather than bad policy or a bad human rights attitude at the Pentagon.
Can John Kerry promise that he will grant trials or release to every Gitmo detainee? or that his administration will never, in any circumstance, use pressures that can be described as torturous -- even if they think it would provide crucial intelligence?
Lithwick also argues, "For one thing, if you cared about gay marriage, or abortion, or the right to die, or civil liberties, as much as they say you do, almost nothing else matters but who's on the federal bench." But the hardcore single issue voters that Lithwick describes already do vote on this basis.
Sue Hodges is opposed to U.S. involvement in Iraq and is dissatisfied with the Bush administration's handling of the U.S. economy. So you might predict she'd cast her ballot for John Kerry in the presidential race this year. But that is not likely, she said.I would like for the Democrats to move the abortion debate from "legal or illegal" to "common or rare," but they don't seem to be planning such initiatives. So voters are left to make the determination of which candidate will reduce abortion by the judges whom each will appoint to retain its legality.
"I'm really opposed to what we're doing in Iraq, but at the same time I support the right to life and am very against abortion, so it's a hard decision," said Hodges, as she loaded groceries into her car in St. Louis, Missouri, where she lives. [...]
As many as 41 percent of Americans who want greater limits on abortions say they would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with this position, even if they agree with the candidate on most other issues, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Even on gay marriage, conservative homosexuals seem prepared to concede an issue so close to home and vote Republican -- some because they aren't interested in it, some because they don't want judges to decide it, some (like Andrew Sullivan) because they are ready to wait through the backlash.
In short, I don't think Americans are missing the link between the presidents they elect and the judges those presidents will appoint. But those of us who really care already vote on that basis, and the rest of us are more worried about a president's ability to fight terrorism and not screw up the economy than we are about his appointing judges in the mold of Scalia or of Ginsburg.