Think of this book as a letter to three friends: one a liberal, one a moderate, one a conservative. It is a letter that tries to explain the strange and very disturbing turn American politics have taken over the last four years.
At times, it’s an angry letter. It reflects irritation and disappointment with both President Bush and the Democratic Party. At other times, it is, or at least tries to be, a reflective letter. It’s an attempt to understand what has happened to us. In particular, why are American politics now so bitterly polarized? Why did Bush refuse to take full advantage of the opportunity he had to unite the country? Why have Democrats, too often, been such a feeble opposition? And why has revenge become such a consuming force in our political life?
Since letters to friends should never be wholly negative, this one also tries to offer some hope that there are ways out of the mess in which we find ourselves.
My three friends might well take different things from what I write. The liberal friend will certainly share my frustrations with Bush. For many liberals—and a great many who are moderate—the sense of alienation, estrangement, and anger inspired by this president is unlike anything they have experienced in their political lifetimes. Okay, perhaps some still hold Richard Nixon in lower esteem—although personally, I think you can make a case for Nixon in this context. I’ve run into the most dedicated Nixon haters who now find themselves even more apoplectic about George W.
The line that may have captured this liberal alienation best came from my staunchly progressive friend Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect. He began an article on Bush with this sentence: “I miss Ronald Reagan.” That is not a sentence Harold, or anyone of his views, ever expected to write. I understand what he was saying.
But I’d also want my liberal friend to join with me in reflecting on how things came to this point and, in particular, on how those on our side of the fence have failed. I won’t dwell on this too much here because the Democrats’ flaws are the subject of the third chapter of this book, and a recurring theme. Democrats and many on the left seem to be in a state of perpetual identity crisis. Nothing seems to thrill Democrats more than interminable conversations over who they are and what their party is. By contrast, the Bush administration and the Republican Party always seem to know where they stand. At the very least, they usually present themselves that way. The irony is that because Republicans are so certain about whom and what they represent, they are better able to compromise when necessary—or, as is more often the case, to spruce up their public image with such flourishes as “compassionate conservatism.”
Democrats, on the other hand, suffer in two ways from their chronically unresolved arguments over whether to “move to the left” or “move to the center.” The endless public repetition of such tactical arguments makes Democrats look like opportunists. If they were principled, why would they worry so much about positioning? But—talk about the worst of both worlds—by creating this sense of opportunism, of being a party that is never quite sure what it stands for, Democrats actually limit their capacity to seize opportunities. Their identity crisis creates among their core supporters a sense that the party can’t be counted on. Republicans are sure of their “base” and can thus maneuver to reach out to the broader electorate as voting day draws closer. Democrats have to reassure their own base—over and over and over. The result is that Democrats always seem to be trying to nail down one special interest group or another. Secure in their base, Republicans can play their interest group politics quietly, out of public view.
The question I would pose to my liberal friend is: If Bush is as dumb as so many of his opponents claim, exactly what does that make us? Addressing what’s dysfunctional among Democrats and liberals is one of the central purposes of this book. Why did it take the Democrats so long to stand up and fight back?
My moderate friend is, I’m sure, deeply frustrated with the polarization of American politics and the plain nastiness of what left and right, Republicans and Democrats, regularly say about each other. As a newspaper columnist, I am blessed by hearing often from my readers, especially in e-mail. Many readers are very kind and say warm things—sometimes even when they disagree with me. But my moderate friend’s fears are confirmed by the fact that three of the most common forms of e-mail I have received over the last couple of years are: (1) sharp attacks on any criticisms of the president as unpatriotic, liberal, anti-American “spew,” to pick the interesting word used by one of my correspondents; (2) enthusiastic praise for the very same columns from readers who consider Bush vile, opportunistic, right-wing, etc.; and (3) modest praise mixed with criticism from those who think I should hit Bush even harder for being a liar, a cheat, an election thief, a militarist—and worse. Yes, e-mailers to columnists tend to hold stronger views than most people. Still, the e-mail is getting angrier—on both sides.
How, this moderate friend might ask, has a fundamentally middle-of-the-road country gotten a politics characterized by so much meanness and division? Why do so many in politics have so little ability to understand or even hear each other across partisan lines? And why is sensible compromise now so devalued in politics, especially in Congress? I try to get at these questions here.
My moderate friend might also fairly ask me: Why have you gotten so angry? He might point out that back in 1991, in a book called Why Americans Hate Politics, I argued against polarization, and in favor of political civility and a new political center. Yes, indeed, I did write that “liberalism and conservatism are framing political issues as a series of false choices.” I insisted: “On issue after issue, there is a consensus on where the country should move or at least on what we should be talking about; liberalism and conservatism make it impossible for that consensus to express itself.”
He might point out that for a little over a decade, I have been arguing that a majority of Americans were seeking a politics that was moderate in spirit and progressive in its aspirations. That theme linked Why Americans Hate Politics with a later book, They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era.
It is the natural tendency of human beings to insist that they are being consistent with their earlier selves, and I am no exception. I still believe that Americans are, on the whole, moderate. They do not assign mythic status to either government or the economic market. They want the government to look out for their interests and to protect them from the market’s excesses. But they aspire to the wealth that the market can create. They are neither blue-nosed moralists nor indifferent to moral values. The prevailing American view was described well by the political philo-sopher William Galston, who says that many, perhaps most of us, are
“tolerant traditionalists.” In our pragmatic, sometimes inconsistent, but generally moral way, we Americans try to square our affection for tradition with an understanding that we are a diverse country and that changes in styles and moral codes are not always threatening. Tradition survives, after all, through a paradoxical process that combines a reverence for the old ways with an acceptance—sometimes qualified—of the new.
In the 1990s, the country was on a course to recognize that it was possible, even necessary, to achieve the sort of reconciliation I described in those earlier books. A market economy did seem to thrive alongside a rather active government. The rich could pay their fair share of taxes—and still get richer. The poor could be lifted from poverty if government did the right things and if unemployment dropped. The government could do things for citizens that the market would not do on its own in areas such as education, child care, after-school care, the environment, and worker safety.
Bill Clinton’s project was about achieving this balance, and in large part it worked. Unfortunately, Clinton had other well-known problems that played into the hands of his enemies and helped reignite the very sort of political polarization he was committed to ending.
I have some tough things to say here about Clinton and the ways in which he set back some of the hopes he inspired. But I also think that the roots of the polarization I describe can be traced in part to the ferocity of the campaign against Clinton and the ease with which Republicans challenged our basic institutions by seeking to settle their differences with Clinton through impeachment.
Even after Clinton was long gone, his opponents couldn’t let go, at least judging from the Web sites and talk radio shows and cable television. Their goal has been to discredit not just Clinton’s personal moral habits (wasn’t that done long ago?) but also his policy legacy, which is about more than Clinton himself. The hope is to bury the successes of the Clinton years beneath sex scandals and a pile of bad pardons and turn his time in office into a totally unusable past. This might be seen as the explicit purpose of yet another anti-Clinton work—conservative writers never seemed to tire of producing them—published in the fall of 2003 and entitled, appropriately, Legacy. Here is how its author, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, summarized Clinton’s political achievement: “By the end, Clinton had forged a kind of amoral majority, consisting of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, pro-abortion feminists, urban secularists, and a swath of straying husbands and wives with a personal interest in moral non-judgmentalism.” Now there’s an astonishing take on a country that elected Clinton twice. It misses entirely the moderate, mainstream coalition that Clinton, in fact, built.
Clinton’s ideological opponents did all they could to shift attention away from those Clinton policy successes that were a rebuke to their own agenda. They could not tolerate the fact that he raised taxes on the wealthy, and that all Americans—including the wealthy—then prospered. They couldn’t accept that moderation replaced Reaganism as the nation’s reigning political philosophy. They were still furious that Americans did not fall into line behind their impeachment drive. And so they committed themselves to a reeducation campaign that would continue until the last Clinton supporter died.
Ah, but revisiting anything about Clinton is so tiresome, my moderate friend would say, and my friend would be right. But the Clinton impeachment was only one example of the right’s willingness to use radical means to achieve allegedly conservative ends. The 2003 recall campaign against Gray Davis and the midterm redrawing of district lines in Texas to expand the Republican majority in the House were both exceptionally immoderate approaches to governance. And, yes, it is hard for many of us to forget the U.S. Supreme Court’s novel interpretation of the Constitution that abruptly halted recounts in Florida and put Bush into the White House in 2000.
My moderate friend may or may not agree with all of this. But these pages try to make the case that George W. Bush’s greatest failure was his refusal to take advantage of the broad national support that rallied around him on and after September 11, 2001. For a brief moment, the old partisanship disappeared. There was reconciliation in the face of a grave national challenge. I am convinced that had Bush adjusted to the new circumstances, he could have created a broad and sustainable Republican majority. Doing so required him to moderate his ideological proclivities—especially where large tax cuts for the wealthy were concerned—and reach out to the many Americans who, in the months immediately after 9/11, were ready to respond to his leadership. He had the opportunity to unite his own political base with the forces that had rallied to Senator John McCain in 2000, inspired by a spirit of patriotism and reform. Instead, Bush used 9/11 to win a congressional election, to push through more of his ideological agenda, and to wage war on Iraq. I would insist to my moderate friend that President Bush reaped the bitterness he sowed and that genuine moderation will only be possible if this latest version of aggressive conservatism is defeated.
And so to my conservative friend, who no doubt is already groaning. Many conservatives are genuinely mystified as to why Bush has inspired such antipathy among Democrats and on the left. They honestly believe that liberals have gone nuts. So my friend David Brooks wrote in the June 30, 2003, issue of The Weekly Standard in an article entitled: “Democrats Go Off the Cliff.”
“Across the country,” Brooks wrote, “Republicans and conservatives are asking each other the same basic question: Has the other side gone crazy? Have the Democrats totally flipped their lids? Because every day some Democrat seems to make a manic or totally over-the-top statement about George Bush, the Republican party, and the state of the nation today.
“The Democrats,” Brooks continued, “indeed look like they’re turning into a domestic version of the Palestinians—a group so enraged at their perceived oppressors, and so caught up in their own victimization, that they behave in ways that are patently not in their self-interest, and that are almost guaranteed to perpetuate their suffering.”
Democrats, he insisted, “are unhappy, tone deaf, and over the top.” His therapeutic conclusion was that “if you probe into the Democratic mind at the current moment, you sense that the rage, the passion, the fighting spirit are all fueled not only by opposition to Bush policies, but also by powerlessness.”
Another conservative friend, Peter Berkowitz, a brilliant professor at George Mason University, argued that liberals and Democrats had Bush entirely wrong, that Bush was in fact far more moderate and pragmatic than any of his opponents could ever admit. Berkowitz offered his views in an essay that appeared in The Boston Globe on August 10, 2003—the summer of 2003 seems to be when conservatives in large numbers began worrying about the sanity of liberals. He argued: “By maintaining high levels of domestic federal spending, intervening cautiously in the country’s continuing cultural conflicts, and waging a war to remove the threat posed by Saddam Hussein that was also consistent with the imperatives of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ Bush has governed in a manner that should not leave progressives foaming with rage.
“Bush’s conservatism,” Berkowitz continued, “is certainly less rigid and doctrinaire than that of Newt Gingrich and his minions, who swept to power in 1994 and, in a most unconservative spirit, sought to remake the federal government by drastically reducing its size. Bush seems to have more or less made his peace with a New Deal–style welfare state.”
Parts of this book are aimed at relieving the concern of smart conservatives such as Brooks and Berkowitz over the state of the liberal mind. I think they should at least be able to understand that there are good reasons for liberal and Democratic alienation and anger. Indeed, if conservatives as intelligent and open-minded as Brooks and Berkowitz cannot fathom why liberals are so angry, that itself is evidence of the collapse of communication across political lines.
In passing, Brooks acknowledges that some conservative may have gone just a bit nuts over Bill Clinton. “Now it is true,” he writes, “that you can find conservatives and Republicans who went berserk during the Clinton years, accusing the Clintons of multiple murders and obsessing over how Vince Foster’s body may or may not have been moved. And it is true that Michael Savage and Ann Coulter are still out there accusing the liberals of treason.” Note how Brooks, writing in a magazine that passionately advocated Clinton’s impeachment, tries to turn Clinton hatred into a marginal tendency by ascribing it to the conservative fringe.
Fortunately, Brooks goes on, conservatives found a sunny leader to put an end to all of this. “The Republicans had their own little bout of self-destructive, self-pitying powerlessness in the late 1990s,” Brooks wrote, “and were only rescued from it when George W. Bush emerged from Texas radiating equanimity.”
But of course no one took better advantage of Clinton hatred than Bush with his promises to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” He did not have to say whom he was talking about. The Bush White House kept up the barrage on Clinton, even accusing Clinton employees—falsely, as it turned out—of utterly wrecking the White House in January 2001, before the Bushies arrived.
And one of the most striking facts of post-9/11 America was the double standard that conservatives tried to impose. Whereas any attack on Bill Clinton was morally justified, any attack on George W. Bush was a sign of lunacy, a lack of patriotism, or the probability that the attacker was secretly French.
The Republicans’ effort to create a double standard concerning what can be acceptably criticized in a presidency—depending on whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat—is documented throughout this book. But consider, first, that attacks on Clinton during his presidency were not confined to marginal figures, as Brooks implies. It was James A. Baker III who said that Clinton “squandered American credibility and undermined our preeminence around the world.” It was Dick Cheney who called Clinton’s handling of Haiti an “abject national embarrassment.” It was Henry Kissinger who said Clinton’s administration “has not been able to distinguish between professorial concepts and foreign policy.” It was the current House majority leader Tom DeLay who insisted that “the president does not have the divine right of a king”—he was talking about Clinton—and accused the administration of providing the public with “the spin, the whole spin, and nothing but the spin.” And Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah simply called Clinton “a jerk.”
It is astonishing that Republicans should now be shocked that Democrats might finally decide to use comparably tough words to criticize a Republican president. Bush’s defenders do not even pause to notice that these attacks came only after many months during which Bush’s critics held their tongues and supported him in a crisis.
As for Berkowitz, he is certainly correct that Bush was careful to avoid Gingrichian language about government, a point explored in some detail in these pages. Bush, in fact, is as shrewd a politician as Clinton was. Like Clinton, Bush is acutely aware of the potential of divisive social issues to divide his coalition. That is why he speaks exactly as carefully on these questions as Berkowitz says he does.
But Berkowitz leaves out the other possibility: that Bush has launched the same assault on government as Gingrich did, but without Gingrich’s honesty or directness. Bush hopes that his policy of reducing government revenues and creating large deficits through tax cuts will achieve the same result Gingrich wanted, but over a longer period and indirectly. Bush learned from Gingrich that a direct assault would not work. But he wants to get to the same place Gingrich did.
My conservative friend might reply, paralleling David Brooks’s argument, that liberals are mad at Bush because he is effective. That’s true—and incomplete. They are angry at Bush because he is disguising his real intentions behind soothing rhetoric; because he says the war on terrorism is the highest priority of his administration—but not so high that he is willing to abandon some of his tax cuts to pay for it; because he calls for “sacrifice,” but not from his favored constituencies. They are angry because Bush used the national unity inspired by the attacks of 9/11 on behalf of exactly the same ideological agenda he was pushing before the attacks happened and to gain partisan advantage in an election. They are angry because Bush wanted to go to war against Saddam Hussein but didn’t emphasize up front his real reasons for fighting and never admitted the potentially large costs of the enterprise.
My conservative friend will, I fear, be persuaded by very little of this. But I am assuming that my friend cares about the national interest and knows that political polarization can have highly unconservative results. So I am hoping that, in a quiet moment, this friend would consider whether the future of conservatism is best served by a strategy of indirection. Is it truly conservative to pursue budget policies that lock in deficits for future generations, requiring those who come after us to pay the bill for current political gains? Is it conservative to pursue big government policies abroad and small government tax policies at home? Is it conservative to exacerbate political tensions that undercut national resolve in the face of threats from abroad? Is it conservative to push political institutions to their limits through impeachments, recalls, the abrupt redrawing of political boundaries, and attempts to give a strong political tilt to the nation’s judiciary?
And having asked these questions, I’d invite my conservative friend to consider whether that most essential of conservative tasks—preserving the values, the institutions, and the security of our nation—is best carried out through the increasingly manipulative politics that now pass for conservatism.
Since I am asking politicians to place all their cards on the table, I should do the same. To begin with a question of tone: Temperamentally I’m moderate. I prefer a political world characterized more by hope than by anger. Civility and openness are virtues. I spend a lot of time with conservative friends who teach me a great deal, and a lot of what I’ve written about conservatism in the past has been respectful, occasionally even admiring. Even in this much more critical book, I argue that the recent successes of the Republican right are in significant part the result of smart and serious work over many years. A question that recurs over and over is: Where were we liberals and progressives? Why did it take us so long to understand what was happening? The sharper tone of this book is the result of a sense of crisis, an impatience with Bush’s use of security as a political weapon, and a reaction to the politics of revenge that began to take hold in the mid-1990s. This book began as an expression of frustration not with Bush but with the Democrats. It was astounding that Democrats had allowed so much of the initiative in politics to flow to the right and to the Republicans. Democrats seemed helpless, especially in the fall of 2002, before the brilliant if often shameless moves of Bush, Karl Rove, and their allies. Worse still, Democrats could not decide which fights to pick—and could not offer the country a clear direction.
But it was also true that Democrats were forced to deal with the radically new political circumstances created by 9/11. Democrats may have dealt with a difficult political situation badly, but it was a difficult political situation. As I argue in chapter 1, it was Bush, not the Democrats, who seemed to be floundering in the summer of 2001. Bush’s ideological overreaching was hurting him, as it would come to hurt him again later. Everything did change after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Democrats were astonished at the ways in which Bush used 9/11 for his own purposes, which is part of the reason why they floundered. Because our current politics cannot be understood apart from the terrorist moment, I spend some time describing how terrorism has altered the rhythms of American political life.
As I was writing, the logic of the political circumstances continued to play itself out. Bush’s use of terrorism for his own political ends created a backlash in the Democratic Party that, in retrospect, can be seen as inevitable. Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy took off in 2003 because he captured the frustration of his party over its failures to challenge Bush and its intense desire to fight back. He understood the dynamic earlier than his rivals did—though with time, the rest of the Democratic presidential field became ever more critical. Dean rose because he gave the Democratic Party the backbone transplant so many in its ranks felt it needed. He fell and was displaced by John Kerry because Democrats, eager to defeat Bush, decided that Kerry was better placed to win. Democrats in Congress who had suffered personally from the activities of the Bush electoral machine also came to be convinced that capitulation to Bush brought no rewards—though this did not stop those Democrats who helped give Bush his victory on the Medicare prescription drug bill in late 2003. And what had seemed obvious only to some—that the administration had offered shifting and not always candid rationales for going to war with Iraq—slowly became conventional wisdom in the country. The postwar period went far worse than Bush and his advisers had predicted. The weapons of mass destruction did not turn up. And while Saddam’s capture temporarily strengthened Bush’s hand—who could not applaud the apprehension of a genuinely evil thug?—it did not wipe away doubts about the administration’s prewar claims or postwar strategy. Indeed, not long after Saddam’s capture, David Kay, the U.S. weapons inspector, declared flatly that the prewar intelligence on the alleged threat from Saddam’s weapons had been wrong.
The result was the political polarization that is another theme of this book. I speak of a new politics of revenge fully aware that revenge is an old theme in public life. Coming from Massachusetts, where settling grudges sometimes seems one of the more honorable motives in politics, I know about payback. And revenge has played itself out before on the larger American stage. In the Jacksonian period, Democrats played the revenge card for years against the supposedly “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay that put John Quincy Adams—one of our most underrated historical figures, by the way—into the White House. The cycle of revenge was at work in politics after the Civil War when “waving the bloody shirt” was for decades a highly successful Republican tactic. We saw it again in the McCarthy era when some on the Republican right used charges of Communist sympathy against liberals to express their rage at the two-decade-long dominance of American politics by New Dealers.
Now the cycle of revenge engulfs us again. It creates a politics in which each side depends for victory more on mobilizing its loyalists than on persuading the uncommitted. The military metaphor, “rallying the troops,” is appropriate to a moment when the rules of war seem to have supplanted the more restrictive (and, one might say, more civilized) habits of a less polarized political time. So divided are we along party and ideological lines that there is even disagreement as to when this cycle of war started. Conservatives often trace it back to the battle over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court or, in the case of die-hards, to the Democrats’ use of the Watergate scandal to drive Richard Nixon from the White House. Democrats point back to the Clinton Wars, to Nixon’s own brutal form of politics, or even to McCarthy, as the starting point.
What can be agreed upon is that there has been no peace—except in that brief interlude after 9/11—since Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president in January 1993. A significant portion of the Republican Party never accepted Clinton’s 43 percent victory margin as granting him legitimacy. These Republicans insisted that Clinton had simply pulled the wool over the public’s eyes as to who he really was and what he really stood for. They made it their business to discredit him through investigations and one highly personal charge after another. They sent the country into the crisis created by impeachment, even though the voters in 1998 rebuked the Republicans and signaled their distaste for the whole enterprise. The angriest voices were amplified through their access to conservative foundation money and through the rise of new conservative and right-wing media outlets—talk radio, first of all, and later cable television, especially the Fox News network, which in turn influenced the other cable news stations.
To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Democratic counter-rage began to build during the Clinton impeachment, but it could never reach full force because so many Democrats were themselves embarrassed by the Lewinsky scandal. It was far easier to attack Clinton’s critics than to defend the president’s behavior. Many Democrats—including perhaps especially those who had placed the most hope in Clinton—were furious that he threw away an opportunity to transform politics and the nation on a relationship with a White House intern.
Still, Democrats were primarily angry at Republicans, and their rage was purified in the battle over Florida in 2000. Here, no sex scandal muffled their fury over Republican efforts to block recounts after an election in which so many in the core Democratic constituencies—notably African-Americans and the elderly—had seen their votes cast aside because of irregularities. Even if the Republicans had not caused the irregularities (though many Democrats were suspicious), surely Democrats were owed a fair count of their own vote. But with a ruthlessness that stunned even partisan Democrats, Republicans tried to stop all hand-recounts. And after saying that voters, not lawyers, should decide the elections, the Bush campaign went to court over and over. It was the perfect denouement that a 5-to-4 ideological majority on the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to Bush. Many of the most important skirmishes in the politics of revenge had been organized around battles over the judiciary. The decision of independent counsel Kenneth Starr to expand his probe into Clinton’s sex life seemed, to Democrats at least, a misuse of the judicial process for partisan purposes. Now, all the decent drapery was ripped off, all the illusions were shattered. Five Supreme Court justices behaved not as remote, fair-minded jurists but like political bosses plunking shamelessly for their party’s guy—a president who, in turn, would pack the courts with people just like them. So, at least, it seemed to many Democrats.
Yet if the country was polarized, it was a peculiar kind of polarization. The campaigns of Bush and Gore in 2000 both paid tribute to the moderate tenor of American politics. Bush tried to blur any differences with the Democrats on such popular issues as prescription drug benefits under Medicare and a patient’s bill of rights. He insisted that his tax cuts would keep the surplus intact. Al Gore used populist themes, but they were carefully chosen. His targets were oil companies, drug companies, polluters, and HMOs—roughly speaking, the least popular corporate entities in the United States. Gore’s was a carefully calibrated populism beneath which lay a theme of continuity: why should any voter want to disturb the prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years? Yet Gore’s own anger over the Clinton scandal and how it affected his candidacy made it impossible for Gore to take full advantage of the administration’s successes.
Copyright 2004 by E.J. Dionne. Printed by permission of Simon & Schsuter, Inc.