Friday, July 14, 2006

A Short History of Modern Political Madness

Liberals hate President George W. Bush. And I don’t just mean they would prefer to have someone else in office, I mean the kind of mind-burning, acid-laced venom that doesn’t just approach the limits of madness, but jumps the barrier and plunges deep into the obscene dimensions of psychosis. From a personal perspective it can be quite unsettling to see an otherwise thoughtful and engaging individual devolve into a slogan-chanting paranoid in mere seconds after the name of the President is invoked. It’s like something from “The Exorcist”. It should be understood that strong emotions have played a role in American Politics since its beginning, especially on the national stage, but the present condition is far more pervasive and serious in its ramifications. The 2006 and 2008 elections will likely be the meanest and dirtiest in memory. This is because of two key trends; the sharp increase in post-election partisanship, and the terminal decline in political power of the Democratic Party.

Richard Nixon is not commonly thought of as a noble and idealistic man, yet he personally averted a constitutional crisis in 1960 by accepting the clearly flawed outcome of the Presidential election. I say “clearly flawed”, because even then it was apparent that the battleground states of Illinois and Texas were all marred by what can charitably be called an irregular process which favored Kennedy. The fifty-one electoral votes of those two states made all the difference in the election, and there is no doubt that whether he could have won those states, Nixon certainly could have damaged the credentials of the Kennedy Administration by pressing his case. At the very least there were significant grounds for recounts in those states. I mention this incident for three reasons – first, times were different then, and Nixon understood, as later challengers failed to perceive, that even if he could somehow have won those states and the election, such a win would never be seen as anything but a dishonorable grab. Next, because Democrats were in firm control of the political machinery in Illinois and Texas, there was no real chance, even with the evidence at hand, that the decision could be reversed. And finally, Nixon understood that he still had a political future, and what he did now would set the stage for his own Administration. In retrospect, Nixon preemptively removed most challenges to his own victory in 1968.

Unfortunately, there was lingering bitterness from the election. Many Republicans believed that JFK was in no way as qualified to lead as Nixon, and so the consensus that after the election, the President should be supported unless clearly wrong, was no longer possible. JFK is so elevated in the common mind today, that many people do not realize that he was often at odds with Congress and the Press of his day. Jack Kennedy’s charm allowed him to make use of television for key addresses and so on, but the day to day newspaper reporting was not so sure a territory.

Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater was the last time a Democrat soundly thumped a Republican in a landslide, and the reason is there is you look for it. First, LBJ was not reluctant at all to use dirty tricks, best demonstrated by the infamous “Daisy” commercial which, while it only ran once, came to illustrate the false insinuation that a Goldwater Administration would mean nuclear war. While effective in the short term, such tactics leave an aftertaste most people wish to avoid. Next, LBJ ran in 1964 basically on the theme of continuing the JFK legacy; with Kennedy dead less than a year before, there was a natural lingering sympathy for his Vice-President to “carry on” his work, even though we now know that Johnson and Kennedy hated each other bitterly and held sharp difference of opinion on many issues. At the time, however, Johnson was able to bring all Democrats together, and while he polarized the election by demonizing Goldwater, since the nation was strongly Democrat in allegiance and spirit in 1964, such polarization worked to Johnson’s gain.

That could not hold, and it fell apart quickly. First of course was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson actually signed shortly into his term in 1965. It was not simply the Act, however, so much as the way in which Johnson attempted to dictate terms to the Southern states, which alienated the President from a significant portion of his party. Next, of course, was Vietnam – Johnson’s political decisions on that issue were uniformly bad, from supporting a regime known to be corrupt by any standard, to increasing troop numbers without the necessary logistics to support them, to interfering with campaign operations in order to tie politics to war to diplomacy. And then there was the “Great Society”, Johnson’s absurd belief that you could end Poverty, Racism, and Social Injustice if you threw enough money at the problem. LBJ lost both the moderate Democrats and the Conservative Democrats by 1967, and when he declared he would not run for re-election, it was a tacit admission that he knew he could not win another term. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Johnson still held a potent weapon in his hand – petulance – and he used it to jab at various Democrat candidates until the nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was chosen, at which time LBJ delivered a lukewarm endorsement and sulked in the Oval Office until the Inauguration of his successor, Richard Nixon. So it was that in 1968 the Democrats created a new Factionalism in party politics, with sharp distinctions between the ends of their party spectrum, and both ends played against the center. Democrats continued to enjoy success in Congressional elections, but they had created a compound fracture in their national leadership. If Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated, perhaps the Democrats would have seen fit to address their condition from a position of power and authority, but with the loss to Nixon, the Democrats fell to a condition of each faction presuming it alone held the key to success.

The Watergate scandal was a godsend for the Democrats, and completely destroyed the measure of the 1972 Presidential Election. Democrats made a serious mistake in that oversight, for while they were savvy enough to avoid presenting someone like George McGovern, a typical liberal Senator, in 1976, choosing instead the much more amiable southern Governor Carter, they failed to understand the reasons for McGovern’s disastrous campaign. In addition, because the Republicans seemed in absolute disarray, the Democrats saw no need to address the concerns from those not in power in their own party. Four years later, this backfired as the “Reagan Democrats” helped change the nation’s course.

Like Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan is held in such high esteem by most Americans that people do not easily remember how viciously he was pilloried in the press. Democrats were furious that despite majorities in both chambers of Congress, they could not suppress the optimistic and persuasive “Great Communicator”. The seemingly natural manner in which Reagan spoke directly to the hearts and priorities of Americans stunned Democrats, who could only respond by choosing the opposite direction, best exemplified by the unimaginative and always-depressed Walter Mondale as the Democrat nominee for the White House in 1984. Mondale was thoroughly trounced, especially in the Electoral College, where he only carried his home state of Minnesota, though he did also manage to claim D.C.’s three electoral votes. Another way Reagan was like Kennedy, was that he was a natural for television, easily able to ignore juvenile barbs and jibes and show himself the better man. After losing with Carter and again with Mondale, the Democrats tried again in 1988 with the peculiar Michael Dukakis. Dukakis appeared ideal on paper; with the Cold War over in Liberal minds, it seemed only natural to turn to an economic expert, as the Democrats considered Dukakis.

I should note here that Democrats have increasingly trusted their nomination to someone they believe to be exceptionally intelligent. Stevenson was known to be an intellectual, Carter held a Doctorate in Nuclear Physics, and Mondale and Dukakis were considered experts in economics and social policy. Considering the actual track record in elections, this is a strange predilection, but it is a constant, and the image of academic superiority is likely to be a factor in the Democratic nomination for several campaigns to come.

The Democrats also understood something that Vice-President Bush did not; that the ‘Reagan Democrats’ had not necessarily become Republicans, or if they had it was a new enough loyalty that they might be turned back. As it happened, this belief proved correct for Democrats, but not in the 1988 Election, where Dukakis failed to appeal to Southerners and in the Heartland. Seeing the Republicans take the last three straight Presidential elections, and five of the last six, created a real fear in Democrat strategies: Had the GOP secured a permanent hold on one leg of the government? This fear created a partial soul-searching, which led directly to a win in the Presidential election, but which failed to consider the dangers in the Congressional balance.

Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, it must be understood that he proved a master of election strategy. While it should be understood that the media campaign against President Bush began independently of the Democrats’ moves, Clinton directed a unified campaign which drew broad Democrat support for its unity of a simple purpose – to get the White House back in Democrat hands. While other candidates announced their campaigns early, Clinton took his time to assemble a background and foundation of money and commitment. He had policy wonks, economic experts, and for the campaign both media experts and dirty tricks goons like James Carville and Craig Livingstone. Of course Clinton supporters would be quick to remind people of Lee Atwater’s work to get the first Bush elected President in 1988, and many others would explain that a key feature of LBJ’s 1964 landslide was muddying the reputation of his opponent. Certainly the theme of “nice guys finish last” was dominant in the Clinton camp of 1992, as the former Attorney General from Arkansas proved he remembered the old maxim – when you can’t argue the law or the facts, attack your opponent. This not only fueled Republican resentment, when Clinton successfully blew a small recession into a claim of economic negligence against President Bush and gained the lead in the summer before the election, but Clinton’s success led many leading Democrats to believe in the power of personal assault for political gain.

The harsh tactics of the Clinton campaign came back to hurt Clinton, however. When he began to roll out his initiatives after being elected, Clinton discovered he could not find bridges to the people in Congress he needed to reach – he had burned those bridges in the effort to win the election. And the public was less than happy with Clinton, even from the start – Bill Clinton’s “honeymoon” as President-elect was a lot like the start of Richard III’s reign. It seems telling that there were more assassination attempts against President Clinton than any President before him or since. I hardly support the acts of madmen, but it is troubling to count the sharp increase in actual attempts of violence against a President.

But, troubled reign or not, Clinton was the Democrat’s President and they needed him, especially after the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 Midterm elections. Democrats failed to understand, much less accept, that the shift in demographics was leading to the change in House control, and so their tone became increasingly strident and bitter. After Clinton was re-elected in 1996, things on both sides only got worse. Republicans were angry that Clinton won another term, though the decision to nominate Robert Dole, who was as unappealing a candidate as Dukakis or Mondale had been in their turns. And Democrats were angry, because they had failed to retake the House. Back and forth the noise went, until in late 1998 a House Committee drafted an Impeachment inquiry against President Clinton. The question about Clinton’s conduct ripped the nation into partisan camps. Later that year, reflecting the overwhelming public mood, the House of Representatives impeached President Clinton by a vote of 228 to 206 on Article 1, Perjury, declined 205 for to 205 against on Article 2, Perjury, and impeach Clinton 221 to 212 on Article 3, Obstruction of Justice, but not on Article 4, Abuse of Power, which failed by a vote of 148 for, 285 against. The mood of the public proved fickle, however, so that the Senate felt a chill in the desire to actually convict Bill Clinton and remove him from office. In the actual Senate vote, Article 1 failed by a 45 convict, 55 acquit count, and Article 3 by a 50-50 split. One cannot help but wonder what effect the events might had on History, had Vice President Gore been made President on a Clinton conviction in the Senate. While the Democrats would have been even more furious, it would have allowed Gore to run as the incumbent, and completely free from any emotional connection to the Clinton Administration. In the actual case, of course, Al Gore had to decide whether to embrace or reject Bill Clinton and everything he would mean in the upcoming election. By this time Gore was sure he would be the Democrats’ nominee, and he was equally certain that Texas Governor George W. Bush would be the Republicans’ choice. Many on the Right were already talking about running Bush in order to ‘get revenge’ on Clinton’s tricks against the elder Bush.

The Impeachment of President Clinton became a strange phenomenon in 2000; no one wanted to talk about it. Small wonder – no one knew how the public felt about it. In the fall of 1998, the public was demanding Clinton’s head, but by mid-winter they felt sorry for Bubba. Would bringing up the Impeachment mean Republicans could remind the public that the Democrats had sullied the office? Or could Democrats bring up the Impeachment to show the Republicans as hateful and unstable? Or would the public be offended if Gore was linked to something he never did? Or would Gore look hypocritical for defending Clinton instead of demanding his party clean up their mess? It was very hard to say, so it became a silent factor, something everyone knew was an influence but never talked about.

Both sides found new reason to be furious with their opponent in 2000. Republicans were furious that Gore dropped a cheap-trick DUI allegation the weekend before the election, and that he withdrew his concession on the election night. Republicans were also furious that Gore’s campaign pulled every possible move to win, including working to disallow active-duty overseas servicemen’s votes and directly break the Florida State Constitution in order to manipulate a contrived recount. Democrats were furious that the Florida Secretary of State certified the election by the letter of the law, and that the Bush campaign went to the United States Supreme Court when the Florida Supreme Court went Gore’s way. By the time the decision was final, Democrats were bloodthirsty for revenge, and so began a long campaign of character assassination against Bush.

This is one reason why the Democrats cannot accept the meaning of 9/11. It’s not just that they would have to let go of hating President Bush in order to let him do his job, it’s also that National Security, an issue which has not been a Democrat strong suit since FDR was in office, would suddenly become the cornerstone of any Federal election and more, would bring security philosophy to the fore in the confirmation of any federal judge or SCOTUS nominee. It would fundamentally shift the course of American History, and worst of all, it would be in line with the demographic development of the United States, essentially guaranteeing continued wins by the Republicans as the candidates run their platforms now. ‘Death before dishonor’ goes the saying, and the Democrats apparently would rather see the nation in peril than their political position. Of course, they have learned from the last few years about how they speak and act, and so while Democrats are quick to agree that we are in a time of crisis, they are just as quick to point fingers at the elected officials, in a desperate attempt to use their own denial of reality in order to improve their election results.


Anonymous said...

DJ, seriously, write a book. this is great stuff. as a history and politics buff, i love how you are presenting today as a natural growth from where we were. keep up the awesome work


Anonymous said...


i will need more digestion, but really appreciate the work...

Anonymous said...

Carter not only does not have a doctorate in nuclear physics, he isn't really a "nukyular injuneer" despite his proclaiming himself to be.

He graduates with what I presume was a bachelor's degree from the Naval Academy and then served briefly on nuclear subs. This did not confer any more degrees on him.