At one time Labor Day was a moment to affirm America’s commitment to the working people of the country. It was the date perhaps most cherished by the Democratic Party. Speeches were given and labor leaders were honored as the heads of the largest and the most powerful interest group in the country. But while May Day in Europe still generates excitement, in this hemisphere a day conceived by members of the labor movement and meant to celebrate American workers has become the unofficial end of summer and an occasion for back-to-school sales.
The labor movement in America is a shell of what it once was both in numbers and political power, although it still raises big money for Democrats and still has the best get-out-the-vote machine in the country. Republicans no longer cringe at the workers’ power but just ignore it. Democrats are holding their nominating convention in Charlotte with all the proper acknowledgements to labor but without the old heart. The fact that North Carolina is largely a “right to work” state and none of the hotels in Charlotte is unionized did not stop the Democrats from convening there, since carrying North Carolina is essential to their reelection plan.
Labor Day also used to mark the launch of the final push for the presidency, with both candidates officially in place. On one level that is still true, but in truth the presidential campaign has been going on for at least nine months — and even 21 months, if you count the New Hampshire Republican State Committee’s straw poll for GOP presidential candidates in January 2011.
If the labor movement is the most notable omission during this campaign, foreign policy runs a close second. Where are the candidates going with U.S. national security policy and foreign policy in the next four years? The speakers at last week’s Republican National Convention barely mentioned the topic. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — whose speech was regarded by many as the best one in Tampa — was the only speaker who focused on foreign policy and even she returned to the domestic agenda and international economic issues as they impacted on foreign policy. The word “Afghanistan” wasn’t heard in any of the speeches, unless you count Clint Eastwood’s insulting monologue with an empty chair. Defense was mentioned only in the context of the military budget, which, unlike domestic programs, should not be cut.
This inward looking treatment within the Republican Party — especially among the Tea Party faithful, Ron Paul followers, and even Paul Ryan — ought to spell genuine concern for neo-conservatives and other realists. The neo-isolationist tone implicit in so many of the speeches in Tampa suggest that a Romney administration might be so focused on matters at home that foreign policy barely will be on its radar screen.
Don’t assume, however, that it is only the Republicans who are retreating from international affairs. When Vice President Joe Biden called Romney a warmonger looking to take the United States into conflicts with Syria and Iran, it implied that the Obama administration was considerably more careful and cautious about foreign “entanglements.” Rather than debating the two candidates’ approaches concerning Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, Biden’s remarks suggested the Democrats are less concerned about foreign affairs than Republicans.
Both parties seem to sense that with so much dissatisfaction, discomfort, and dislocation at home, foreign policy differences are not worth debating. The winner of November’s election, however, inherits a very unstable and difficult world.
Retreating under a rock isn’t an option. A drift to isolationism would be dangerous as America cannot avoid its role in the world. One hopes Obama will speak to the issue in his acceptance speech and attack Romney and Ryan for not doing the same.
This will undoubtedly be an intense and ugly campaign. Signs of civility left American politics some years ago. Rosh Hashana, nevertheless, is a time for personal introspection. As we contemplate the next year for ourselves, our families, and our country, it would be worth considering how the United States should best address its problems abroad as well as at home.