08/31/2012 11:09 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Best Democratic Party Convention Ever!

Not even Hurricane Isaac could prevent the gathering in Tampa from being the best Democratic National Convention ever!

There was former presidential candidate Rick Santorum as a featured speaker invoking the memory of his father. Who worked in a government job at the Veterans Administration. And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie getting teary-eyed about his father. Who worked his way through college thanks to the GI Bill. And Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan vowing to save Medicare for the next 100 years.

Rarely have we heard such inspiring stories about the value of government programs as we heard in Tampa. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson are smiling somewhere.

The speechifying in Tampa certainly demonstrates just how confused these politicians are about the history of their own party and the implications of their own hard-right ideology. The GI Bill, of course, was the creation of Democrats in Congress, particularly Arizona Senator Ernest McFarland, known now as the "Father of the GI Bill." It was signed in 1944 by President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was the most loathed man in American history for generations of conservative Republicans.

More recently, Democratic Senator Jim Webb proposed a modernization of the GI Bill. Yet, despite the obvious benefits the program has brought to millions of Americans -- from homeownership to the college education Governor Christie's father enjoyed -- John McCain opposed the new bill and President George W. Bush threatened to veto it. It passed anyway.

Medicare remains one of the hallmarks of President Johnson's Great Society, and it has been even less popular with conservative icons than the GI Bill. In the early 1960s rising GOP star Ronald Reagan campaigned aggressively against the passage of the Medicare bill; George H. W. Bush called it "socialized medicine" when it was being debated.

Barry Goldwater, who carried the Republican banner in 1964, asked during that campaign: "Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink."

And years later, when in 1996 Senator Bob Dole was running for president, he proudly reminded voters that as a young Congressman in 1965: "I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare." He was one of only 12 House members to vote against it. That kind of ideological purity used to make Republicans proud.

Now we have the spectacle of Ryan, Santorum, Christie and others cheerleading for Democratic "big government" programs -- never mind that each has called for the dismantling of government as we have known it. So how do you explain that to the Tea Party folks back home?

Perhaps these GOP leaders have been fulminating so furiously about "big government" they simply can't see the connection between government programs like the GI Bill and the success so many Americans have enjoyed. After all, Paul Ryan didn't build his own success by himself either. He went to a state-supported college where the difference between his tuition and the cost of his education was made up by government subsidies.

Perhaps they were being disingenuous, telling voters what they want to hear while cynically not really believing it. When Ronald Reagan was challenged during the 1980 campaign about his opposition to Medicare, for example, he simply lied about it and claimed he was supporting an "alternative" piece of legislation, one that existed only in his imagination.

More likely, I suspect, is that this collection of angry, middle-aged white guys is appealing to what is now the core of GOP support: even older, grumpier white guys who like "big government" just fine as long it benefits them, but resent it when it benefits anyone else. Repeal "Obamacare," but keep your government hands off my Medicare -- though as far as I am aware it has not led to free six-packs for seniors as Barry Goldwater predicted.

The ugly fact is that the GI Bill and Medicare are big government programs that have, by and large, accomplished their aims. Both have been successful at achieving the goals they were established to achieve. And while both have been supported by moderate Republicans, they were opposed by the conservatives of the sort who have taken the party over.

Still, the Republicans have raised the bar very high for the Democrats when they meet in Charlotte. It will be difficult for Democrats to supply a more rousing defense of their own party's programs than the one Republicans just gave them in Tampa.

Steven Conn is Professor of History at Ohio State University and editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government just out with Oxford University Press.