The general consensus (look to the left) is that Democrats are going to win big. Real Clear Politics has, as Powerline observes, a sea of blue. Insta lists reasons. The only “but” may be that it can’t possibly be that bad. The bloggers here seem to feel the Republicans have been sufficiently lacking in vision & seriousness to deserve to lose. Well, maybe, though some Democratic committee chairmen are not a pretty sight. Perhaps, with such weighty responsibility they will take more interest in the welfare of our country as a whole and less in petty partisanship (be less Sandy Bergers and more Joe Liebermans). Principled disagreements would sharpen all our understandings. Some candidates have noticed that Lieberman is well ahead of Lamont. They are less shrill than the national & public voices. This may not bode well for Republicans, but it could be worse.
My youthful students are not known for depth or breadth but they are barometers of a common mood. One in a discursive aside told us he was for the war but against the way we were fighting it. I’m sure he had no idea why he should be for the war, but vaguely believed he should be. He also wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong with it, but has heard it’s going badly. This reflects the attitude of many going into this election – the 80% Hanson describes. (In ”Do We Have a Strategy in the War?” he addresses that 80% with his tough, suck-it-up argument. Unfortunately, that works best – and perhaps only – with the converted. I find it bracing, but he didn’t need to convince me.)
And he isn’t going to convince the faithful far left. Such Democrats think the majority of Americans agree with Pelosi – just as they think most Americans support NARAL when polls show a majority favor some legal abortion options. As Hanson argues, that 80% moves; it becomes a good-sized majority when a policy works and unhappy when it doesn’t. So, as Barone notes, the responses are more ambivalent than communicated by the main stream media. Many are like my student, uninformed but not flippant, chatting in bars, listening to MTV & talk radio. Somehow, they arrive at a vague consensus. But watching summaries of contests as ad is pitted against ad, another consensus appears: many Democrats clothe themselves in what have been Republican issues and even style (a candidate rides off on a horse). The Republicans have actually won some kind of contest and the candidates are learning fast. Of course, that Democratic obsession with labels rather than ideas, their strange belief that Bush sells a bad program well are a bit worrisome & can appear both patronizing and hypocritical. But perhaps those Democratic candiates’ homage is to more than style.
The tradition of appropriating the ideas of another party as history moves on is central to Barone’s argument, inspired by John Lewis Gaddis’s more lengthy New Republic review essay of Robert L. Beisner’s Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War. Both Barone & Gaddis view current political battles from a longer perspective. Gaddis’s essay, “The Gardener,” argues:
The fall of France and the attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the Republican Party into expanding its horizons. In the years that followed, leaders such as Wendell Willkie, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Thomas E. Dewey, and Dwight D. Eisenhower showed that Republicans could agree with Democratic presidents on the fundamental objectives of national security strategy, even as they criticized specific practices and proposed constructive alternatives. They appropriated Democratic principles, and thereby rescued their party from the extinction it might otherwise have brought upon itself. Five years after the shock of September 11, despite ample evidence that the Bush administration’s practices have fallen short of its principles, today’s Democrats have produced few such leaders; and as the fate of Joe Lieberman suggests, their party seems bent on expelling the ones they have.
Perhaps it is because in Texas you don’t need to be Republican as much as a cowboy, that this seems familiar. An independent Kinky Friedman chomps his cigar, pulls down his hat, and has a belt buckle we can’t miss – he constantly bows to his double heritage as when he was – probably more appropriately – a part of the Austin music scene as “Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys.” Sure, he isn’t a serious candidate – but he’d have gotten a lot fewer votes without that hat & cigar, without his stance on border security & schools.
As Gaddis observes, the logical next step for a party with no ideas is to appropriate those of their opponent, promising better implementation. The Republicans did it after Pearl Harbor. While the leadership seems incapable of seeing Bush’s policies except from a partisan perspective, those who are running to win – and probably will win – are more likely to be taking clues from constituents whose dissatisfaction with Republican actions are more complicated and are voting more as a complaint than from affection for the Democratic positions. Such voters are easily lost in the next election.
Our fear that this may be only a pretense, a style assumed for the commercial, is comforted by what Gaddis sees as embryonic substance:
There are younger Democrats, however, for whom September 11 has been what Pearl Harbor was to the Republican internationalists: a wake-up call for a party in need of a larger vision. Still mostly in their twenties and thirties, still predominantly students and staffers, they are not yet in a position to lead. But they are organizing for that day, and one of their goals is to regain credibility for Democrats on the biggest issue on which Republicans still retain public confidence: what it will take to keep this country safe. That will require, they understand, moving beyond claims that the chief danger confronting the nation resides not in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan, or in the weapons laboratories of Iran and North Korea, or among suicidal Islamists devising increasingly innovative ways to blow themselves and us up, but rather in the Oval Office itself.
Well, in the long run, more of us are interested in policy than party – at least if we consider policy seriously. But, how much of this appropriation is heart-felt & how much performance? How much of it comes from a real understanding that if things didn’t change on 9/11 it was because we were blind to how much they had been changing since Tehran, since Beirut. How willing will Democratic winners be to listen to other ideas, other policies? Actually, how deep is Bush Derangement Syndrome sunk in their party?
Peggy Noonan acknowledges the likely outcome but voices a warning & worry:
The left in America–Democrats, liberals, Bush haters, skeptics of many sorts–seems to be poised for a significant electoral victory. Do they understand that if it comes it will be not because of Columbia, Streisand, O’Donnell, et al., but in spite of them?
What is most missing from the left in America is an element of grace–of civic grace, democratic grace, the kind that assumes disagreements are part of the fabric, but we can make the fabric hold together. The Democratic Party hasn’t had enough of this kind of thing since Bobby Kennedy died. What also seems missing is the courage to ask a question. Conservatives these days are asking themselves very many questions, but I wonder if the left could tolerate asking itself even a few. Such as: Why are we producing so many adherents who defy the old liberal virtues of free and open inquiry, free and open speech? Why are we producing so many bullies? And dim dullard ones, at that.
Of course, her editorial begins with a discussion that makes the Democratic surge chilling: “The Sounds of Silencing: Why do Americans on the left think only they have the right to dissent.” She then lists examples from pop culture of the last few weeks.
Her examples of shrill self-righteousness & intolerance do not surprise us; nor do they make the left (even on horseback) appear attractive. My not unreasonable fear that, armed with governmental power, those like the audience at Columbia might feel sufficiently righteous to silence others determines my vote. I have long suspected the arguments that Bush has taken extraordinary measures to limit our rights is often projection by those who shout down speakers & burn newspapers, who find Walmart & McDonald’s as well as Bush and Condi evil. And the distance between those views and the Democratic leadership is not far enough to make me comfortable.
This returns us to the contrast between a Lieberman who argues against Republicans on most issues and a Berger who thinks we are better off not knowing what notes were put on what documents during his time in office. In this grim season, we might at least be thankful that the former appears poised to win and the latter may finally be called to account.