Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the test of a first-class mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously and not be paralyzed by them. For the 43rd president of the United States, the standard is a bit lower. George W. Bush holds two ideas: not opposing, not complementary, just two. The first is that taxes on the rich must in all instances be cut. The second is that Saddam Hussein, in all instances and by any means necessary, must be deposed.
Far from paralyzing him, these are the very ideas that animate Bush, that give purpose to his presidency. On the other hand, until recently, they have totally paralyzed the Democrats.
Up to the past week, campaign 2002 has been defined by the double silence of the Democrats. They’ve had things to say, but nothing about the two ideas — the only two ideas — kicking around in the president‘s head. Notwithstanding that these two ideas endanger the nation and the world.
Yes, the Democrats have a program, and a finer, more poll-tested array of policies is hard to find. They’re against privatizing Social Security; they favor more federal funds for schools; they want a real (that is, funded) prescription drug benefit. But virtually none of these can be funded unless Congress repeals a big chunk of the $1.7 trillion tax cut that it enacted at Bush‘s behest last year. Just repealing the cuts targeted to the wealthiest 5 percent would bring the cut down by close to a trillion bucks. But, because 12 Democratic senators actually voted for this Reaganomics Redux nonsense in the spring of 2001, and because talk of taxes makes Democratic consultants queasy, the Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader a Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) — have squelched all talk of reinventing government, even its most popular initiatives, by the applied use of tax revenues.
And so have things gone with Iraq, as well. As head honchos of their respective delegations, Daschle and Gephardt are personally charged with leading their party to victory in next month’s elections. As possible presidential hopefuls two years hence, they know that the only Democrats to make it onto the ticket at the ‘92 and ’96 conventions supported the Gulf War. Nor is there reason to discount their statements that they genuinely support the president on Iraq. But the net effect of all these calculations and convictions has been a coordinated effort — by them and their party — to say as little about Iraq as possible. California‘s own Dianne Feinstein (one of the many unlikely peaceniks to have emerged over the past couple of months) has complained to the Washington Post that party leaders were making it “very hard” for rank-and-file Democrats with concerns about the war to get any public hearing.
So the Democratic approach to campaign 2002 has been to try to wish away the two major issues confronting the nation. As a campaign strategy, such literal wishful thinking leaves a lot to be desired. As a way for Congress to discharge its duty to the American people, this silence has been an appalling abdication of responsibility.
So — and I confess to great surprise that I’m writing these words — thank God for Al Gore.
Big Al‘s speech last week at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club was important for four reasons. First, Gore raised most of the crucial objections to the war — its inflammatory potential in the already smoldering Middle East, its diversion of our focus away from al Qaeda. In particular, he discussed the implications of the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Arguably the single most pernicious policy to have been embraced by the federal government since the decline of segregation, pre-emptive war is little more than a permanent hunting license for our president — or any other nation‘s president — to fire off missiles against an enemy state without having to demonstrate that that state poses an imminent danger. “What this doctrine does,” Gore said, “is to destroy the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law, particularly in the matter of standards for the use of violence against each other. That concept would be displaced by the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the president of the United States.”
Second, Gore’s speech had the effect of giving Democrats permission to be Democrats again. Until Gore spoke, the chief center of opposition to Bush‘s Folly was still the realpolitik wing of the Republican Party (of late, Senators Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel) and the doughty but predictable 30 House progressives headed up by Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich. After Gore spoke, Democratic senators who‘d been opposing the war semi-audibly, like Feinstein, Michigan’s Carl Levin and Vermont‘s Patrick Leahy, found the media more willing to listen. Ted Kennedy delivered a powerful critique of the administration’s policy, as he had earlier of its loony tax cut, but Kennedy — precisely because he is America‘s premier liberal — cannot create the political space for Democrats to his right to move to their left. Gore, who is both a more ambiguous figure politically and the party’s standard bearer, can. And has.
Third, Gore revived the Democratic base, which palpably has been waiting for some national Democrat to say that this rush to war is a stupid and dangerous idea. A careful reading of a survey that Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg took for NPR last week makes clear that the dovish — or in this case, more realistic — part of the Democratic Party is significantly larger than its gung-ho quadrant. A sample of all voters were asked which of four kinds of congressional candidate they‘d support. Thirty-seven percent said they’d back a Republican who supported Bush‘s plan; 35 percent said they’d go with a Democrat who‘d vote no until allies were on board and the U.S. had a clear plan for postwar Iraq; 13 percent would support a Democrat favoring Bush’s proposal; and 5 percent favored a Republican who opposed W.‘s war because it distracted attention from bin Laden. Roughly speaking, this translates to a 35-to-13 percent preference for a Democratic dove over a Democratic hawk. And that’s without considering the fact that Democratic presidential primary voters tend to be more liberal than Democrats as a whole.
Which suggests that Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Hold-Your-Horses camp have not hurt themselves in the scramble for the 2004 nomination. To the contrary, the unwavering support that, say, Gephardt has given the Bush initiative may well undermine his backing among liberals, even among labor-liberals. (Times and labor leaders have changed since the AFL-CIO was the most unyielding hawk on Vietnam; there‘s a decent chance that some major union chiefs will announce opposition to the war before Congress votes next week.) Gore’s fourth accomplishment, then, is to have rescrambled some of the alignments already taking shape for the 2004 contest. Quite likely, to his own advantage.
Be that as it may, Gore‘s speech has drawn an interesting gaggle of critics: Republicans, of course, but also some liberals who find him a flawed messenger for such a noble cause, and Democratic consultants who see him prolonging a debate that can only help the GOP. “Is this going to enable the peace caucus in the House and the Senate?” one unnamed party strategist grumbled in The New York Times.
For those who have suspected that political hired guns don’t always get the big picture, the consultant‘s kvetch can serve as exhibits A through Z. Apparently, it is better to have a peace caucus within the majority party than a peace caucus that actually bestirs itself for peace. I don’t discount the immense importance of having a congressional majority (especially when the Bush boy occupies the White House), but if the price of obtaining that majority is that the peace caucus takes no position on the question of war and peace, that does tend to call into question the very purpose of politics.
As for liberals who doubt Gore‘s motives — that’s all well and good, too, but he did at least show the flag. For its part, the left has rendered itself so isolated and befuddled by its own opposition to the war in Afghanistan that it seems incapable of mounting any opposition now that a real war of empire is upon us. Last weekend‘s anti-war demonstration in the nation’s capital turned out all of 1,500 marchers, if that. Those who can‘t even show up when needed most are in no position to cavil when Al Gore — earth-toned warts and all — takes to the barricades.