August 7, 2007
Premature 2008 DefeatismBy J.R. Dunn
"One of the things I learned during the war was never to pick up my pen to transmit my own despair."
- Albert Camus
So we've got a candidate who is among the most radical ever to stand for the presidency. One who was furthermore at the very center of the most corrupt administration in modern history. Who has a lengthy trail of dubious (to put it mildly) deals and arrangements behind her. Whose record as a senator is conspicuous for lack of any serious accomplishment. Who is, above all, one of the most unappealing personalities to run for president in this or any other era.
According to reputable polling, 52% of the voters have gone on record to declare that they will never, under any circumstances, cast their vote for Hillary Clinton. The last time I looked, 48% was a losing number in the presidential sweepstakes.
You'd think that, under those conditions, the GOP would be aching to come to grips with Hillary. But you'd be wrong. According to the conservative commentariat, the election is over, a year and more ahead of time, and Hillary has it in the bag.
It's a similar case with Congress. The Democrats, in control of both the House and the Senate, have astonished the world by getting even less done than the recent GOP Congress. None of their electoral promises have been kept. (Apart from raising the minimum wage, which took eight months, and an "ethics" bill distinguished only by the fact that it's emptier than most such exercises - I'm surprised they didn't add an earmark or two before they passed it.) Their greatest effort was put into trying to pass - not once, but twice - the immigrant amnesty act, possibly the most actively detested bill of the new century. The boast of the new Congress, run by some of the most ghastly personalities on the national stage (Pelosi, Murtha, Schumer, and Reid) is that they've done their best to undermine the Iraq war effort - not, historically, a stance to gain much in the way of a public following. (Trust me on that; I've checked.)
The numbers concur here as well. Confidence in the Congress bottomed out at14%, one the worst levels (the worst, did I hear someone say?) on record. Fool all the people all the time? This crew can scarcely fool themselves.
But we get the same response from conservative pundits - the Congress is lost. Forget about 2008; head for high ground, the deluge is coming.
In recent weeks we've heard variations of this chant from Mona Charen, Robert Novak, Dick Morris, Tony Blankley, and John Podhoretz, among many others. The GOP is "tottering on the edge of a cliff," falling short in fundraising, losing voters, alienating minorities. A statistical shift "stunning in its ferocity" threatens to condemn the Republicans to long-term minority status. (These ferocious numbers originated in a poll by CBS, not traditionally a friend of the GOP.) Morris sees things the most bleakly. He's ready to write-off the Republicans as an artifact of history that may squeeze out one more election after Hillary throws the nation into chaos, but will become one with the Whigs and Federalists shortly thereafter.
This loser's attitude is largely shared by politicians, fundraisers, political activists, all the way down to posters on the Net. An electoral landscape that would have had the party chomping at the bit under Gingrich or even as late as 2004 now arouses only wails of despair. Is there any actual reason to join them? Can things actually be that bad?
The 2006 election lies at the heart of the GOP's current malaise. It's true the party suffered a whipping. What's often overlooked is that it was a deserved whipping. Republicans had grown overconfident to the point of arrogance. They had begun to believe that control of Congress was theirs by right. They elected a leadership that was slow, dull, and obtuse. Internal situations were allowed to fester into open scandal. No attention was paid to the requirements of the voters or the party membership. If a single worthwhile bill (e.g., an intelligent immigration bill) had been passed during the last year of GOP control, the Republicans would still be in charge. No such effort was made. The 2006 loss was what the GOP had coming. There are plenty of lessons in that loss; the question is whether they have been heeded.
Then we have the war. Lengthy wars have always been punished by the voters. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson were forced out of office due to wars over which they were perceived to have lost control. Bush avoided that fate in 2004, but the weight now appears to have fallen on his party. It's widely accepted that 2006 was punishment for Iraq, and that in 2008 the voters will reach for a heavier whip.
The GOP allowed itself to become entwined with the publicly despised amnesty bill. Granted that it was the President's bill, what sense was there in trying push it through twice, in such close cooperation with the Democrats? It achieved absolutely nothing other than giving Trent Lott an opportunity to make an ass of himself pontificating about the "will of the Senate". (Not that any power on earth can put a halt to that.)
And finally, there's Bush's continuing unpopularity. His ratings remain in the low 30s as if nailed there. If there's anything close to being an iron law of politics, it's that a party's popularity follows that of its leadership.
There it is. A pretty bleak-looking landscape, on the face of it. But a closer examination of these factors reveal reasons to believe that things are by no means as hopeless as they've been painted.
If the GOP of 2006 deserved its beating, today's Dems are if anything worse. They're not only corrupt, incompetent, and arrogant, they're energetic about it. They seem to be operating under the impression that they were elected to outdo the GOP at this kind of thing. There's not a single piece of ineptitude or corruption that they're not underlining, highlighting, and capitalizing with as much in the way of in-your-face theatricality as they can produce. Which in the case of people like Schumer, Pelosi, and Murtha is plenty. The Republicans have been lax in taking advantage of this, but maybe that's all to the good. There's such a thing as gilding the lily.
The sudden change in fortunes in Iraq has pulled the carpet out from under the Dems. It appears that their entire 2008 strategy was based on hammering the war effort, and that Gen. David Petraeus's success with the surge has caught them with no plan B. So we can gather from House Majority Whip James Clyburn's comments, a favorable report by Petraeus would be "a real big problem for us." To say the least. The Democratic response has been to put their hands over their ears and hold their breaths: witness Representative Nancy Boyda's tantrum over General Jack Keane's optimistic testimony, which amounted to "I won't listen and you can't make me."
It's difficult to see how the Dems can maneuver their way out of this. The best they can do is to hope things turn sour and validate their position as defeatists, a stance that has its own shortcomings. The Democrats may have won the netroots, only to lose everyone else.
The amnesty bill was a bipartisan botch. But two things must be kept in mind: the biggest senatorial name attached to that bill was "Kennedy", and the thing was finally put to sleep through the efforts of a group of junior Republicans. There are plenty of ways the Dems can be made to ache over their part in that fiasco, from Harry Reid, who had the gall to reintroduce the bill after it was clear that the nation at large had rejected it, on down.
And there's something odd about Bush's unpopularity - it doesn't seem to have much of an effect. Perhaps because he ignores it, and perhaps also because it is to a large extent artificial, the product of seven straight years of media and Democratic effort. If you asked the sixty-odd percent majority what antagonizes them most about Bush, the majority probably would simply shrug and say, "Well, everybody says the same thing..." No particulars, no real grievances. Bush's unpopularity may be strictly situational, fated to change when circumstances do. In any case, he's not running in 2008. It would be best for the GOP to act as if this is not a factor at all.
So much for rational reasons. There's nothing unusual about any of these. They've been encountered before, and are the material of everyday political business. Methods of handling them are not a mystery. But that's not all there is to it in this election cycle. The irrational is playing just as large a role, as it always does when the Clintons are involved.
The Clintons, as we all know, are untouchable. Nothing can get at them. Scandals, payoffs, corruption, the odd intern - everything bounces off. Anything they want simply falls into their hands. And anyone who stands against them... Well, there're some things we don't talk about.
Over the top? More than a little absurd? Agreed. But people act as if exactly that were nothing other than the absolute truth. The Clintons, in the eyes of their opponents, are living out a Stephen King novel in which they're enjoying the benefits of a pact made with the Prince of Air and Darkness many years ago (involving the sacrifice of a spare campaign worker), for an opportunity at unlimited power, with complete immunity until the awful terms of the bargain are at last worked out. (If my memory isn't playing foolish, childish tricks on me, King actually did put out a book not too dissimilar to this.)
Some element of primitivism always exists in the way a nation treats its leaders (consider Kennedy as the sacrificial king, Nixon as the public scapegoat), but in the Clinton's case, we're dealing with almost pure superstition. It's embodied in the way people talk about them, the way they're portrayed, the way their opponents react to them. (A few days ago, Lucianne.com featured a picture of Hillary smiling through a curtain with the caption "Be Very Afraid", the clearest representation of these fears that you'll find.)
Hillary has spoken. She wants the Oval Office, and no one will stand in her way. At the proper moment, Bill will stride forward, exert his demoniac charm on the voting public, and the presidency will drop into their hands like ripe fruit. And all those who defied them will look out some dank midnight to find Carville, eyes aglow behind his dark glasses, coming down the sidewalk at the head of the Legions of the Damned... (I'm starting to scare myself here!).
Well, anybody who truly believes the Clintons are untouchable needs to consult with a man named Kenneth Starr. Those who think Hillary always gets what she wants need to talk to Ira Magaziner about something called "health care." As for Bill's unfailing charm - there's no better authority than the man himself. Take a good look at Bill the Elder Statesman these days. All those Whoppers have been taking their toll. He's had his first heart operation. He's no longer the sleek stud of the public imagination. Time waits for no man, and it did not wait for Bill Clinton. It remains to be seen how much of that legendary personal magnetism remains.
Plenty of doubters exist in the Democratic camp. Not all of that 52% against Hillary is Republican. How else do we explain the phenomenon of Barack Obama? He hangs on despite manifest inexperience and flakiness for one reason alone: he's not Hillary Clinton. And when the nomination finally shakes down, are all those Obama fans going to Hillary? It's not likely.
As it stands, 2008 is in no one's bag. Once stripped of Hillary the Invincible, the Democrats really don't have all that much going for them. There's not an issue that doesn't threaten to blow up in their faces. They have saddled themselves with the ugly labels of defeatist and appeaser, labels that they will find very difficult to peel off. Their overconfidence is a sight to behold, their arrogance without precedent. Charles Schumer, the Democratic Mister Rogers, has suggested the Congress simply not confirm any more of the President's Supreme Court nominations.
The Dems have openly embraced gay rights, including overturning the Defense of Marriage act and allowing gays in the military. Last week, unhappy with the way a vote was going, Democrats in the House simply threw out the results and reopened the voting once they'd lined up a few more of their people, the kind of procedure common in countries run by people with names like Mugabe and Chavez.
Such behavior contains the seeds of its own correction. Retribution comes not from any particular effort, but simply because of the way the universe operates. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. At this moment the Democrats are as mad as any political party in this nation's history.
The Dems will overreach. The Republicans simply have to be ready. In the meantime, they need to pull the party together, and show a united front. Exert some discipline on flyover Machiavellis such as Domenici and Lugar. The young members are a valuable resource, lively, ambitious, and energetic. Use them. Make the Democrats pay for every last stand they take, be it approval of gay marriage or attacks on conservative judges. There's nothing new about any of this. The party knows how it's done. What remains is to do it.
As far as the presidency goes, the best candidate is the one least likely to be affected by Republican funk and least impressed by Hillary. That, like it or not, is Rudy Guiliani.
As for the punditocracy, what's needed is to keep in mind an idea expressed by William James, the brother of Henry James, who instead of devoting himself to intricate, exquisitely-written novels, worked out the concrete, no-nonsense philosophy of Pragmatism. In his book Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote of the "leap of faith": contemplate yourself trapped on a high mountain, facing a deep chasm, with no safe route back or around. Do you leap that chasm full of doubts and misgivings, or confidently, convinced you can get across in perfect safety?
The question answers itself. The next time you sit down to write about the coming debacle, to "transmit despair" as Camus put it, think twice. Think about that chasm, think about how you'd get across. Think about how a week is as long as a year in politics, and how we have more than a year to go. And think at last about how you may be taking the entire country across with you. Then make that leap.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editorof American Thinker