Dear Republican convention delegates,
Welcome to Fort Wayne. I hope you have a lot of fun, spend a lot of money and thoroughly debunk real estate company Movoto's new poll listing my hometown among the five most boring cities in the United States. How could the prospect of listening to 2,000 people discuss everything from bureaucratic minutia to gay marriage for two days be anything but scintillating?
But before you do anything you or the rest of us may regret, please spend some time thinking about President Obama's decision to exchange five high-ranking Taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – and what it suggests about the condition of the nation's governance, culture and (this is where you come in) politics.
The problem is not so much what Obama did – Israel once traded 1,027 prisoners for a single captured soldier – but the brazen, inept and constantly evolving manner in which the rescue of an apparent deserter and alleged collaborator has been justified, sometimes with much the same language the president used to honor the heroes who stormed the Normandy beaches 70 years ago.
You don't have to believe reports that Sgt. Bergdahl converted to Islam during his five-year captivity, declared himself a warrior for Islam or actively assisted his captors. Even his stated objections to U.S. policy in Afghanistan or admission that he was “ashamed to be an American” could perhaps be attributed to the stress of combat and captivity. Sometimes you simply make the best deal you can and live with it.
But announcing the trade in a Rose Garden ceremony indicates the president expected the deal to be politically popular, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice insisted that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction” even though it had been widely reported that Bergdahl had been captured after walking off his base. Only later did NBC News suggest that Obama, who has vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had planned to release the five terrorists anyway – and wanted to get something in return.
What do head-spinning decisions and statements coming out of Washington, D.C, have to do with a state party convention in Indiana? Just this: Assuming Bergdahl wasn't a CIA spy intending to be captured, the Obama administration's attempt to make a returning hero out of a soldier of dubious service indicates one of three things, none of them reassuring:
*The White House, despite its vast intelligence resources, was unaware of Bergdahl's alleged desertion and questionable loyalties;
*Officials knew about those facts but wanted to avoid them;
*They didn't care about those facts -- and didn't think Americans would, either.
The extent to which the president's usual allies in Congress and the media have questioned the swap, when added to the groundswell of anger in the general public, indicate that Americans can still be shocked and outraged by the questionable, self-serving actions of their leaders – if given the information and opportunity.
The president cannot seek a third term in 2016, but even before that there will be congressional elections in which some candidates will share his vision of a transformed America: more regulation, government spending and dependency, less personal responsibility and prosperity. More division, less unity. An emasculated military.
Republicans have proven too many times they are far from perfect, and the social issues that often dominate GOP politics are not illegitimate – the right to life is fundamental and I share a commitment to traditional marriage and religious freedom (everyone should be outraged that a judge has ordered employees of a Colorado bakery that refuses to make cakes for same-sex weddings to re-education camp).
But the most crucial issue right now is to win elections with candidates of honor, maturity and competence capable of limiting spending, building the economy, fighting oppressive regulations, supporting our friends and challenging our adversaries and, yes, restoring the public's confidence in its government.
But that government is not a church, and if purity on social issues costs the GOP elections – people actually told me they could not vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 because he is a Mormon – the party's national influence will continue to ebb at the very moment the country most needs an alternative to politicians who believe they can say anything, and that the public will believe anything.
The Bergdahl case illustrates that larger danger, but also represents a large opportunity for a party willing to fight, with ferocity, compassion, self-sacrifice, humility and integrity, for all that was, and is, good about America.
If you're that party, you have work to do when you get home.
And if you're not – well, this weekend is just one big party of a very different kind.