Now it's their turn, or: The case for partisanship

There's no show like a national convention of one of America's two great political parties. Now that the Republicans have had their blowout, and a couple of blowups, in Tampa, the Democrats get their innings in Charlotte this week. Call it a double header: Separate but equally extravagant reality shows. Neither may have much to do with reality, depending on who's speaking at the time.

Ann Romney and her husband were both big hits, and so was Paul Ryan. The GOP's standard-bearer took a gamble when he chose the young congressman from Wisconsin as his running mate, but it's paying off. To judge by the reception Paul Ryan got at Tampa, and the one he's getting across the country, Americans may not be as afraid of facing fiscal reality as we were supposed to be. Even if it involves making hard choices.

Then there was Chris Christie, the Republican keynoter who mainly fulminated. About himself and how tough he was. There was also Clint Eastwood, but the less said about his lounge act, perhaps the better.

There's reality and then there's a reality show. In Charlotte, the Democrats have the star of one -- Arkansas' own Wesley Clark, successful general, disappointing presidential candidate, and less than tasteful entertainer doing his bit outside the arena.

The founder of an antiwar group summed up the problem(s) with the general's television show, and maybe with the kind of country that finds it entertaining: "The role of Wesley Clark is a symbol of the warfare state that combines war, politics, media profits and show biz." That'll do for starters.

General/Mr. Clark wound up delivering a partisan appeal in the guise of a plea for nonpartisanship. As when he claimed that "the underlying message of the Obama team has always been, Let's Pull Together."

Really? Could've fooled me. Maybe the general didn't notice all the unfounded accusations the Obama team has been making of late against Mitt Romney -- from not paying taxes to killing a cancer patient. Or maybe Wes Clark just chose to overlook mudslingers like Harry Reid, his party's leader in the U.S. Senate. With a leader like Dirty Harry, it's hard to believe the Democratic Party is some kind of paragon of bipartisan idealism. Any more than the GOP is.

The besetting sin of politicians -- though there are many to choose from -- may be making appeals to high principle while indulging in some low practices. Wesley Clark's exhibition in Charlotte did both, though not very well. The hypocrisy of it was too obvious.

Politicians, it turns out, are as given to hypocrisy as the rest of us.

As for partisanship, it gets a bad rap. If politics were bipartisan, or even nonpartisan, how would the electorate know whom to hold responsible in government? There would be no party in power to blame or praise, no other party for the opposition to oppose.

The two-party system supplies a way for voters to make their choices clear. And be offered alternatives.

How have a contest without clearly defined teams? Or even vaguely defined ones. The players would be left to wander all over the field on their own -- without any discernible plan, goal, team or opposition. Whatever its faults, whatever sad spectacles it produces, at least the two-party system is a system, not a random encounter.

Wesley Clark's speech was just a warm-up act. Surely better things await in Charlotte -- and worse. Which is what makes a national convention such a variety show.

Viewers who tune in to only one of the political conventions get only part of the political picture. To get a glimpse of the whole, both conventions need to be watched -- like a hawk. Call it bipartisan skepticism. And it's fully warranted.

Yet there's always hope that some sign of greatness, or just a human touch, will emerge. The odds may be against it, but it does happen from time to time.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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