BuzzFlash Reader Commentary
September 28, 2002
With a Little Spine, the Democrats Can Turn Back The Bush Barbarians at the Gate
A BuzzFlash Reader Commentary by Paul Ryan
Although the Republicans will howl and yammer, using every tool at their disposal from outrage to scorn to jocularity (over how "irrelevant" the Dems have become), the bottom line is that Americans are suspicious that Bush is using the War on Terrorism for political advantage. There is no downside to pressing this line-of-reasoning. The Dems have swung with Bush's anti-terrorism program--they have responded to the 9/11 attacks in a bipartisan, unselfish way. The public knows that. The public also knows that if the GOP were the opposition party, the level of unity and singularity of purpose in the aftermath of the attacks would have been appreciably less--that these days, incivility and rhetorical excess emanates from the right side of the political spectrum.
The Dems have the moral capital to thwart the Bushies attempt to bamboozle the electorate into thinking there are significant differences in the war on terrorism or even that there are significant differences in the level of patriotism. Not only is it an obvious attempt to divert focus from other (economic, civic) matters over which there are serious divisions, but it is outrageous on the face of it. The electorate is not as one-dimensional as your run-of-the-mill talk show listener. It can put two and two together. President Bush has been treated with fairness and respect by his Democrat opponents and people know it.
It is telling that the White House says Bush has "unified the nation". That's a recurring theme and it is indicative of how Republicans need to get out more. The terrorist attack unified the nation, not President Bush, and since the Presidency is one of those encompassing national institutions, Bush was the political beneficiary of that unity. Obviously, there is a loud and syncopated constituency within the country that gets positively weak in the knees over the President, but among the silent majority, there is a vague suspicion that the Emperor has no clothes--a suspicion set aside out of respect for our obligations as citizens to unite around the civic body in times of crisis. But when the President and his minions attack the Dems for lacking the civic fitness to govern, everyone except the vocal right-wing minority understands that they have breached the faith. Those who snicker at Daschle's "melt-down" are not voting for the Dems anyhow.
There is a large stealth decisive body of voters out there who are open to the idea that Dems are not the moral equivalent of Saddam. If that idea is aggressively asserted this campaign season, the Republicans will be boxed in. Someone said that the GOP is like a junkyard dog--you have to be aggressive with it, that being accommodative is only interpreted as a sign of weakness. While that bodes ill for our democracy, today's Republican party has shown such a disregard for anything but power that one wonders at their capacity to function within a civil society, where disagreements are handled agreeably, without besmirching the character of those who happen to hold differing views. I think the silent majority has some serious reservations about the capacity of today's Republican party to do this. These are reservations that can be exploited at the polls--and in the process, de-fang Republican efforts to demarcate political differences along the moral lines of good vs. evil.
The only reason why Bush was close to Gore in 2000, as an example, was that swing voters figured it was better to vote for an idiot than a liar. If Gore had assaulted the Republicans for assaulting his character, refuting the charges one by one and turning the spotlight on Bush's character, staying with it until the issue went away or was neutralized by a focus upon Bush's own tendency to distort the truth, he would have won with 55-60% of the popular vote. Since they are on the wrong side of most issues, the only way Republicans can even compete with the Dems is through character assasination--and until those efforts are vigorously refuted, such as in Daschle's speech, the GOP will have strength beyond their numbers.
Which leads to my final thought: it is also telling that Zell Miller, in his speech defending President Bush's Homeland Defense initiative, mentioned anger on "radio talk shows" as a compelling factor to hurry-up and pass the bill in the manner the President wants it. I listen to that "hot medium" all the time (I have to drive 40 miles to work), and I know that the faux non-conformist, "politically incorrect" constituency engaged by talk radio derives its power from its syncopation, not its numbers. One hears the same callers, much less the same hosts, and their only power derives when they are all talking about the same thing at once. Coupled with Fox News and the Washington Times, and you have a pretty effective vehicle for infecting the activist base with the memes of the moment. That can create an appearance of a tidal wave of opinion when in fact, it is just the "politically incorrect" sector churning in perfect harmony with itself (it is an irony of American politics that its most intellectually conformist branch gets to refer to itself as "politically incorrect). Any non-conservative view is depicted by this sector as anti-conservative, which explains their sense that the media is "liberal."
When one thinks about it, there is an childish narcissism linked to the charge the media is "liberal." "You do not see things the way I do, therefore you must be against me." The mere fact that the media does not tap its toes to the beat laid down by the syncopated right makes it "liberal." Basically, non-conservative journalists are simply intimidated and brow-beaten into giving credence to views that owe nothing to objective standards. Right-wingers become the beneficiary of the relativism they claim to oppose. But in terms of power, the blowback that arises from this right-wing syncopation can appear more fearsome and compelling than it actually is. It is probably not within the Democrat party to create a force that counters this destructive blowback. Democrats are too diffused, and on a fundamental level, they believe in truth that can be discovered together by rational people of different minds. Rather, Democrats should ignore the blowback--there is nothing in there for Democrats anyhow--no love, no respect, no votes--and see their job as building the Democracy (as it was called in the early and mid 19th century).
It is in the Democratic party where serious minds, bound by the conviction that reality can be known and should be acted upon through peaceable and orderly discourse, can discuss the issues of the age. The Democrats should offer themselves, not as a party, but as a coalition, where people who are still committed to a civic vision can have a refuge from those who clutter up our body politic with slanders, character assaults, and always, a lurking subtext of violence. It requires a certain fearlessness, a capacity to scorn the part of the population that is comfortable with bullying and cheating to get their way. But towards that end, this week's speeches by Gore, Daschle, and Kennedy was a good start.
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