Ephemerides (December 2002)
December 31, 2002
'Tis the season for prognostications. Psychics and pundits and persons in between try to take the surprise out of the future, rarely with any success. Barring a genuine gift of clairvoyance, which would be stymied if any sizeable audience believed in and acted on its revelations, all that a would-be forecaster can do is make wild guesses ("The Pope will announce his engagement to Britney Spears"; "President Bush will convert to Islam"; "Terrorists will blow up the Taj Mahal") or state the obvious ("Terrorism will be a major concern"; "Democrats will look for ways to undercut President Bush's popularity"; "The media will report that homelessness is rising") or extrapolate present trends for another 12 months. The last method is certain to be wrong, since trends never go as they should, but it is at least gives the reader an indication of how accurately the futurologist sees the present. Somebody who tells us that moderate Moslem organizations will take the lead in fighting terrorists has not been paying attention.
Here are my own guesses for the coming year, based mostly on extrapolation. Twelve months from now, you can reread this page -- I promise not to delete or alter it -- and chuckle at how widely I missed the mark.
The war. Hardly anybody expected, at this time last year, that 2002 would be a year of sitzkrieg, but perhaps that was foreseeable. From the first days after 9/11, George W. Bush showed himself to be a cautious commander-in-chief, unwilling to move until sure of quick and overwhelming victory, the exact opposite of the "cowboy" caricature promulgated by lefties. That is a sensible stance for the leader of an immensely powerful country with extraordinarily fragile morale. We could have invaded Iraq last winter, using a scratch force and a shaky logistical base, and the odds are heavy that Saddam Hussein's regime would have collapsed at the first glint of Marine bayonets. Still, there was a non-negligible chance of failure, and the President reckoned that the effect of failure would have been disastrous: home front divisions reminiscent of the Vietnam era and seriously strained relations with the European Union. Therefore, he chose to spend a year gathering superfluous international backing and building up as invincible a attacking army as possible. All that remains now is to select the casus belli. A significant possibility is that Saddam's inner circle will try to save themselves by murdering their chief, a development that would lead to months of turmoil, as the U.S. strove to figure out who could and could not be trusted in a fast-changing successor government.
Whatever the details of the change of regime, we must not forget that Iraq is only another step along the road to burning out the terrorist nests. After that will come campaigns, largely diplomatic but conducted under the aegis of a formidable base in Iraq, to pressurize countries like Iran, Syria and Saudi-controlled Arabia (in that order, I suspect) into eliminating terrorist havens. The conflict will be the least conventional in our nation's history, and we will be tempted to let it fade away without victory. Countering that temptation is the fact that, much as we may wish to forget our enemies, they are not likely to forget us. If we grow complacent, another 9/11 will, alas, wake us up.
Sitzkrieg has two sides. If America has moved slowly and deliberately during the past year, the terrorists have found it difficult to move at all. Though the media give him no credit for it, John Ashcroft deserves unstinting praise for the absence of any serious post-9/11 attack on American soil. No anti-terrorism expert foresaw that the worst harm that al-Qaeda would be able to inflict would be a free lance sniper operation in the D.C. suburbs. Nor have the terrorists, leaving aside the special case of Israel, enjoyed great success abroad. The Bali bombing was tragic but hardly a serious blow to Western interests.
Whoever now runs al-Qaeda (I think that we can safely assume that Osama bin Laden lies buried in a cave in Tora Bora) must regard another strike at the U.S. as his highest priority. Primary responsibility for thwarting him will soon pass from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Homeland Security, that is, from a crusader to a bureaucrat. Tom Ridge will be sensitive to the concerns of the ACLU, CAIR et al., which makes me pessimistic about prospects for avoiding a second 9/11. Thanks to what the much-reviled Mr. Ashcroft has accomplished, any new attack will most likely be the handiwork of amateurs and less devastating than its predecessor, with casualties in the hundreds or dozens rather than thousands. My guess -- and this is merely a guess -- is that about half a dozen bombers will carry out murder-suicide assaults at widely separated shopping malls on a holiday weekend, probably late in the year, after a kinder, gentler approach to terrorism has had a chance to work. A chorus of liberals will instantly declare that the President has failed as war leader, after which they will advocate, in effect, reversion to the status quo ante 9/11.
North Korea. It is too much to hope that North Korea's probable acquisition of atomic bombs under his nose will discredit Bill Clinton in the eyes of liberal commentators. It is a reasonable expectation that George W. Bush will clean up his predecessor's mess without massive loss of life, though I am not at all confident about how that can be done. Happily, the Clinton-era policymakers who are calling for another round of appeasement seem to be impressing only each other. Unhappily, the only way to dissuade Kim Jong Il from expanding his arsenal is to threaten, however delicately, to use nuclear weapons against him, and it is not clear that he is rational enough to be deterred.
If the President were a risk taker, I would expect him to launch strikes against North Korea's reactors, but he is unlikely to take the chance that Kim will respond with suicidal retaliation against Seoul or even Tokyo. Far more likely is a campaign of economic pressure aimed at sparking revolution in Pyongyang. If only there were a few historical instances where that kind of strategy worked. . . .
If, a year from now, several tens of thousands of Koreans lie dead in a nuclear holocaust, Bill Clinton will have his legacy. May he live to learn from it.
The Economy. The recession ended a year ago, but it isn't yet in anybody's interest to admit it. Liberals are desperate for an issue . . . any issue. Conservatives want to push tax cuts as a stimulus measure, which is the lazy man's alternative to promoting them on their intrinsic merits. Even without any new tax relief, 2003 will benefit from a new tranche of EGTRRA reductions, totalling two and a half times those that took effect in 2002.
The pretense that the economy is in trouble can be kept up for the moment, because employment is a lagging indicator and won't improve markedly for a few months. The lag may be longer than usual owing to recent increases in the minimum wage, the prospect of extended unemployment benefits and, ironically, improvements in productivity. In the short-to-medium run, however, companies will have to add jobs to meet growing demand, though Paul Krugman will continue to prophesy a double-dip recession, and the Democratic Presidential contenders will speak as if 2003 were a twin to 1933. Once liberaldom takes notice of the economy's strength, it will shift instantly to arguing that we can now afford higher taxes to ward off the ghostly dangers of future federal deficits. The constant of liberal argumentation has become the need to tax the public more heavily.
One area where the recovery will probably continue to be disappointing is the stock market. For reasons that I have discussed elsewhere, stock prices now must discount the impact of corporate "reforms" on the behavior of executives. There may be fewer dubious accounting practices in the future, but there will also be less risk-taking, less imagination and more immersion in unremunerative detail. Investors have reason to fear that the ideal CEO ten years from now will have the outlook of a civil service employee, and they will value equities accordingly.
Congress. The one thing that everybody knew a year ago was that Trent Lott could lose his leadership post only if Republicans lost more than the inevitable two or three Senate seats in 2002. Now we need a new set of conventional certainties. Possibilities already floated here and there include, "Bill Frist is too smart to be a successful Majority Leader", "Senate Republicans chafe at White House dictation" and "The only way that Republicans can escape the Lott legacy is to support affirmative action and the appointment of liberal judges". I don't believe any of them, but one or another will catch on.
The big question in Congress is simply whether Senate Democrats are angry and irrational enough to deploy filibusters as routine weapons against the Bush agenda. A large section of the Democratic Party will be urging the minority to block tax relief, judicial nominations, perhaps Senate organization itself. Should Senator Daschle and his colleagues succumb to that siren call, they can make life miserable for a wartime President, but they cannot cripple him unless they take the suicidal step of filibustering the military spending needed to maintain the war effort -- and there are not 41 suicidally inclined Democratic Senators.
The odds are that the Senate Democrats will bark a great deal but shy away from biting. My guess is that Harry Reid will succeed Tom Daschle as Minority Leader around the middle of the year (a last ditch Daschle ploy to get his Presidential campaign started) and will prove ineffective as a national spokesman, but not less effective than the hapless Nancy Pelosi, who will lead the House Democrats yet deeper into irrelevancy.
A paralyzed opposition will not, of course, be good news for the Republican majorities, who are quite capable of frustrating themselves with no outside help. I foresee timid tax cuts, a misguided prescription drug subsidy for senior citizens, too much domestic spending, too little follow-through on welfare reform, and inertia on civil rights and social issues. On the other hand, the Frist-DeLay team won't be quite so somnolent as Lott and Armey.
Presidential politics. The safest prediction of all is that the Democratic Presidential contest will be dominated by "Will Hillary run?" Unless George W. Bush suffers a pratfall or Senator Clinton's political smarts have been badly overestimated, the answer will be "no", no matter how loud calls from the Democratic faithful.
Among the Democrats who do want to take on the President, I anticipate that Daschle, Gephardt and Dean will be all but out of contention by the end of the year. Senators Lieberman, Edwards and Kerry are the serious Democratic field. Which one is in the lead position at the end of 2003 will depend, I think, on whether Senator Lieberman can make himself tolerable to his party's intransigent Left without losing his moderate base. If he can't, the Democrats will pick either Kerry or Edwards but will know that they are selecting the next Walter Mondale.
On the Republican side, there will be much speculation about whether Dick Cheney wants to remain on the ticket. Barring another heart attack, he won't tell us until 2004, and what is said before then won't matter.
Religion. A looming uncertainty in the Christian world is the state of John Paul II's health. If he dies or (almost inconceivable but not impossible) abdicates during 2003, the secular media will paint the election of his successor as a veritable battle of Armageddon between noble modernists and Taliban-like reactionaries. Conservative candidates will be linked unsubtly to the American sex abuse scandals, while a parade of periti will instruct the world that the Roman Church can avoid extinction only by ordaining female priests, liberalizing its attitude toward homosexuality and taking a firm stand against American foreign policy. It will, in short, be a vicious display of left-wing bias and bigotry that will fail to sway the cardinals but may force the next Pope to think seriously about whether good relations with American and European secularism are either possible or desirable. I don't really anticipate a recrudescence of the spirit of Pio Nono, but it wouldn't astonish me.
Toward Islam, secularist commentators will be far less judgmental. The whole of Roman Catholicism is tainted by the covert activities of a small number of pedophile priests, but the House of Islam remains unspotted by the hatred that spews regularly from many of its most prestigious pulpits or by murders committed in the name of Allah. Maybe sensible Moslems who love God more than they resent Christianity and Judaism will one day realize that they do not benefit from solidarity with Islamofascism. When they do, I wonder whether the Western press will pay attention to them.
Liberalism and conservatism. We can learn much about the putrefaction of the corpse of the Western Left by its eagerness to embrace and excuse every enemy of America, however illiberal. The principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" has never seen more spectacular application than when ostensible enthusiasts for the rights of women, sexual deviates and minority cultures side with fundamentalist Moslem bigots against a generally tolerant West. The Chomskys and Pilgers and Fisks and Sontags, followed at a slight distance by the Pattens and Chretiens and Patty Murrays, see America, supposedly dominated by Christian mirror images of al-Qaeda, as the greatest of present evils. Many of them semi-consciously paraphrase one of Winston Churchill's famous dicta: "If George W. Bush added Hell to the Axis of Evil, I should certainly put in a good word for Satan at the U.N."
Most rank-and-file liberals do not, I hasten to emphasize, share such animosities. They signed onto the liberal agenda because they thought that the government could minimize economic misfortune through prudent regulation and secure world peace through kindness toward other lands, not because they regarded the entire American enterprise as incurably rooted in racism, sexism and Judaeo-Christian fanaticism.
There is room on the American political scene for a liberalism that sees national defense and the defeat of Islamofascism as priorities, but there is no easy way for the nascent movement to find leaders. No Democratic Presidential candidate is running as a "hawk", and no one imagines that a hawk would have a chance in the primaries. The most noteworthy standard bearer so far proposed for that tendency is -- Gary Hart!
On the Right side of the spectrum, the war has temporarily dampened, if not dissipated, conflicts over social and cultural issues. Because right-wing libertarians have been vocal backers of the war, mainstream conservatives are more willing to pay attention to their views in other areas. At the same time, the libertarians, whether they realize it or not, have been quietly making concessions to conservatism. If the current situation persists for a long time, the various right-wing tendencies will become mixed and matched in new patterns. That development lies, however, beyond the end of 2003.
In the shorter term, one of the happiest events for the Right is the self-exile of Patrick Buchanan and other soi-disant "paleoconservatives". Buchanan's new magazine is fast becoming indistinguishable from other idiotarian productions. If he or a protégé runs for President in 2004 or 2008, he will draw most of his votes, I suspect, from the Democratic rather than the Republican candidate.
The crystal ball. Now let me don the soothsayer's mantle and make ten specific predictions for the coming year:
Two Supreme Court vacancies will occur, and President Bush's nominees will be confirmed after Democrats back away from threatened filibusters.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq will begin in March and will depose Saddam Hussein within 48 hours.
A popular uprising in Iran will depose the mullahs and lead to the adoption of a new, mostly secular constitution.
Kim Jong Il will die under mysterious circumstances. The communist junta that replaces him will negotiate another food-for-no-nukes deal.
Fidel Castro will die, but Cuba will still be officially communist as of the end of the year. Multiple PBS documentaries on the late dictator will discredit the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum.
Gerhard Schröder's government will collapse in Germany, and conservatives will win a huge majority in the subsequent elections.
President Bush will announce a major manned space exploration initiative and will be denounced by Democrats.com for placing the future of the universe in jeopardy.
President Bush's approval rating in the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 2003 will be 65 percent or higher.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average will close between 9,500 and 10,000 on December 31, 2003.
No more than two of the preceding predictions will prove wholly accurate.
December 26, 2002
The way in which the Left closes ranks around its own, regardless of how outrageously or stupidly they behave, verges on being admirable, in the same way the one grudgingly admires the mafia's loyalty to the code of omerta. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) might seem to have strayed well beyond the pale of respectable discourse when she compared Osama bin Laden's charitable activities favorably to those of the United States government. To her hometown Seattle Times, however, it is Senator Murray's critics who are being unreasonable, "silly" in fact.
To grasp how "silly" it is to think ill of Washington State's senior solon, let us replay what she told a high school audience a few days before Christmas, as transcribed by the Vancouver Columbian:
Osama bin Laden has been very, very effective being we've got to ask, why is this man so popular around the world?
Why are people so supportive of him in many countries? He has been in many countries that are riddled with poverty.
People don't have phones, no sewers, no roads, no schools, no health care, no facilities just to make sure their daily lives are OK.
He's been out in these countries for decades building roads, building schools, building infrastructure, building day care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. It made their lives better.
We have not done that. We haven't been out in many of these countries helping them build infrastructure.
How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that rather than just being the people who are going to bomb in Iraq and go to Afghanistan?
The Senator's thesis consists of three points: first, that Osama bin Laden has "for decades" been doing good works around the world; second, that those benefactions are the source of his popularity; and, third, that the United States has not been doing anything comparable.
In the face of criticism, Senator Murray has not backed down on a single point, though she now insists that she also favors bringing this philanthropist to justice. The Times editorialist declares, "Fact is, Murray's information about bin Laden is right. The Associated Press quoted a bin Laden expert saying the senator's comments were 'a generalization, but mostly accurate'." Those who express revulsion at kind words for a master terrorist are guilty of "gasbaggery".
The AP did indeed quote Michael Swetnam, a respected counter-terrorism expert, as saying that bin Laden has engaged in some charitable activities, though not necessarily out of disinterested benevolence:
Since about 1988, bin Laden, believed [sic -- he boasts about it, and AP still isn't convinced of his guilt] to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, has been on a mission to build schools, roads and even homes for widows of those killed in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Swetnam said.
"Mostly he did underwrite--and so did many Arab charities--several fundamentalist Muslim schools throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan that teach a very, very fundamentalist, right-wing version of Islam that preaches hatred for the West," Swetnam said.
So the major recipients of bin Laden's bounty have been propaganda organs for his demented ideology, not the hospitals and day-care centers (why would mothers in a Ladenite society, compulsorily confined to their homes, need to avail themselves of day care?) of Senator Murray's fantasy.
But let us give bin Laden as much credit as possible for public works. Is it rational to say that they are the reason for his undoubted popularity in certain corners of the Islamic world? The great surge in his popular standing came directly after September 11, 2001. What happened on that day? Did Osama break ground for a birth control clinic in Kabul or make an especially generous contribution to a women's health care project in Karachi? No, he is a "hero" to Islamofascists because, and only because, his organization murdered 3,000 Americans. He would be just as loudly acclaimed in those precincts had he never subsidized a single madrassa.
Finally, the United States has spent billions of dollars since the end of World War II on aid to impoverished Third World countries. Senator Murray may think that our subventions are inadequate, but they dwarf anything that Osama bin Laden has done or could do. The answer to "How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that?" is that we did help them and reaped precious little gratitude.
The world view of Senator Murray and those who rally behind her is so bizarre that one wonders whether they live in an alternate reality. The Times is right to see gasbaggery at work, but the gas and the bags are the Senator's and its own.
December 21, 2002
South Korea's election of a second consecutive "pro-sunshine" (i. e., pro-appeasement of Kim Jong Il) President is a discouraging event that may lead many Americans to wonder why we bother spending money and military resources defending people who seem not to want our help. President-elect Roh ran about as anti-American a campaign as German Chancellor Schröder, and his brand of pacifism looks like the wave of South Korea's future: A heavy majority of voters under age 50 cast their ballots for him, overcoming the opposition's overwhelming advantage among those with personal experience of North Korean "brotherhood".
Unhappily, the South Korean choice reflects a form of rational calculation. Koreans are confident that, no matter what happens, the United States will guard them against conquest by the North. Appeasement is thus risk-free and carries the hope, however slight, of facilitating trade deals, family reunifications and other desirable effects. Firmness, by contrast, runs the risk, however small, that a desperate, irrational North Korean regime will collapse messily, perhaps slinging a few nuclear weapons to mete out punishment to its infinite ocean of perceived enemies.
From a broader perspective, the sunshine policy is foolish, for it gives succor to a government that actively promotes terror and may someday succeed in furnishing nukes to al-Qaeda or other enemies of civilization. Moreover, the longer the Kim dynasty endures, the longer the people of North Korea will suffer and the more dangerous and destructive will be the inevitable revolution.
The drawbacks of South Korea's policy are most serious, however, for countries other than South Korea, and the gap between President Roh's parochial interests and those of the rest of the world may well widen as the War on Terror goes on.
This conundrum is not one of those that has an easy answer. Had Bill Clinton not negligently smoothed the path to a North Korean nuclear capability, Kim Jong Il would today be a minor nuisance, but we cannot go back in time to undo Clinton's misjudgement. (We can, on the other hand, cover him with the lavish obloquy that he deserves. In the future, "William Jefferson Clinton" should be as much a byword for dishonesty and folly as "Benedict Arnold" is for treason.) All that remains, I fear, is to muddle through, to knock off the movements through which Kim hopes to make mischief and watch for chances to hasten his downfall.
We also must learn, as the world's foremost guardian against barbarism, not to covet gratitude. Such service, as the great Russian historian Klyuchevsky wrote, "is everywhere thankless and soon forgotten, especially where it has been efficiently carried out. The more alert the guard, the sounder the slumbers of the guarded, and the less disposed the sleepers to value the sacrifices that have been made for their repose."
Nonetheless, protecting the sleepers, from the Rohs of South Korea to the feckless anti-war protesters in our own land, is America's burden and glory. May they slumber in peace.
December 17, 2002
Remember the Council on Foreign Relations . . . the Trilateral Commission . . . the Bilderburgers? If you've paid any attention to the thankfully evanescing Bircher Right, you'll recognize those components of the "invisible government" that, according to the more febrile brand of right-wingers, hatches incessant secret plots against American liberty.
Liberals used to laugh at those Bircher fantasies. Now they hatch conspiratorial fantasies of their own. Former economist Paul Krugman has discovered the Council for National Policy, a group so secretive that it doesn't even have a Web site. In the course of a column claiming that "prominent Republicans have a soft spot for theocracy" and that "much" of the Bush Administration's policy is "driven by a hard-line fundamentalist agenda", Mr. Krugman tracks down the source of fundamentalist influence:
And the influence of the religious right spreads much further. The Internet commentator Atrios [an anonymous left-wing blogger, whom some have ID'ed as Bob Shrum or Sid Blumenthal, though he's probably just a loudmouthed perpetual grad student], who played a key role in bringing Mr. Lott's past to light, now urges us to look into the secretive Council for National Policy. This blandly named organization was founded by Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels, and is in effect a fundamentalist pressure group. As of 1998 the organization's membership contained many leading Congressional figures in the Republican Party, though none of the party's neoconservative intellectuals.
George W. Bush gave a closed-door speech to the council in 1999, after which the religious right in effect endorsed his candidacy. Accounts vary about what he promised, and the organization has refused to release the tape. But it's notable that he appointed John Ashcroft as attorney general; Mr. Ashcroft gives every appearance of placing his biblical worldview above secular concerns about due process.
Sounds pretty sinister, doesn't it? Guys like John Stormer and Gary Allen used to regale us with all of the Democratic officeholders who made secret speeches to, and were taking their orders from, the Trilateral Commission. For fuller insight into Mr. Krugman's suspicions, one can look at the "Council for National Policy Unofficial Information Page", which tells us that -
Clothed in secrecy since its founding in 1981, the Council for National Policy is a virtual who's who of the Hard Right. Its membership comprises the Right's Washington operatives and politicians, its financiers, and its hard-core religious arm.
The Hard Right utilizes the CNP's three-times-a-year secret meetings to plan its strategy for implementing the radical right agenda. It is here that the organizers and activists meet with the financial backers who put up the money to carry out their agenda.
The site has a handy, though slightly dated, press release, which visitors are urged to distribute to their local newspapers as a warning against the CNP's nefarious machinations.
Very interestingly, the "fundamentalist" CNP is a target of the Christian conspiratorialist outfit "Watch Unto Prayer", which calls it part of an "anti-Christ network [that] has infiltrated the Church with a hidden agenda of subverting the true faith and converting believers to their false religious system". The organization's "report" on the CNP is little more than gibberish, but it does seem to be on the same side as Paul Krugman and Atrios. As Mr. Krugman slides faster and faster into the Loony Left, such company is fitting and proper for him.
December 15, 2002
No more Gore? Does that mean that the 2004 Presidential election will be bloodless?
Certainly, if the former Vice President intended to go on as he has begun, a race with him in it would have been full of bloody-minded recriminations over the Stolen Election of 2000, spiced with denunciations of the Crimes of the Filthy Rich. Since Mr. Gore would inevitably have started out as the front runner, the left-wing themes that he has been pushing for the past several months could scarcely have avoided a prominent place in the Democratic primary campaign.
From the Republicans' point of view, that would have been just fine. Karl Rove will not have to draw very heavily on his political skills against an opposition either led by a figure from the McGovernite Left or bitterly divided by the defeat of such a figure in the primaries.
Now the picture is abruptly different. None of the likely group of serious contenders for the Democratic nomination has the image of a left-wing firebrand. Senator Lieberman, who I anticipate will become the anointed front runner, is moderate by his party's standards. Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt are capable of looking sober and sensible, even when saying, as Mr. Daschle in particular often does, preposterous things. Senator Edwards has been able to win election in a conservative Southern state. Senator Kerry has his endlessly reiterated service in Vietnam. Governor Dean is a genuine lefty, but no one has ever heard of him outside of Vermont. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would inspire the Left, will almost certainly stay out of the fray.
The morning line (subject to rapid change, of course) is that the Democrats will race toward the center and that President Bush will face an opponent who insists that he, too, wants to win the War on Terror and promote economic freedom -- just in a more effective and compassionate manner.
Thus Al Gore, the newfound champion of the Left, appears to be surrendering the commanding heights of his party to the me-too faction. It is as if Barry Goldwater had decided in the fall of 1963 that he was content to let the Republican Presidential nomination be disputed between Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. Why would Mr. Gore take such a step?
It is possible, of course, that he merely thought long and hard about the slings and arrows of running for office and wanted no more of them. His withdrawal statement did not sound that note, however. It had the ring of tactical retreat rather than withdrawal from public life.
My guess is that Mr. Gore has weighed the prospects for 2004 as sedulously as he can and has reached the conclusion that no Democrat has a chance of winning or a very good chance of escaping crushing defeat, of Dukakis, if not McGovern/Mondale, proportions. It will do him and his cause no good if he is cast in the loser's role.
What's more, an appalling Democratic loss will discredit the effectiveness of both the moderate positions taken by the party's standard bearer and the Clinton/McAuliffe apparatus that will run campaign operations. Party activists will draw the morals that (i) moving to the center is a losing tactic, (ii) Bill Clinton and his minions (including, through guilt by relationship, Senator Mrs. Clinton) are a lot less competent than they boast, and (iii) Al Gore is their shining hope for 2008.
Maybe everybody should have bought Al and Tipper's book. Months on the best seller list might have persuaded them to pursue their budding careers as fiction writers and permanently leave the rest of us alone. Well, at least we shall have a respite.
December 13, 2002
Ordinarily I loathe the phrase, "You just don't get it", which is usually synonymous for "My position is so politically correct that I don't have to support it with rational argument." Still, after reading Senator Lott's fourth try at an apology, I am compelled to say, he just doesn't get it.
The Senator seems to have formulated his problem as "proving that I'm not a segregationist". No one, however, seriously believes that he is, other than supercilious liberals who would be deaf to any conceivable denial. The fundamental reason why so many conservative Republicans have called for a new Republican leader in the Senate is that Mr. Lott's handling of the Thurmond birthday incident demonstrates that he doesn't have the stuff to pitch in the Big Leagues. During the next two years, Washington hardball is likely to be tougher than ever. Trent Lott may be a pleasant guy, well-liked by his colleagues and amiable on the stump, but he belongs with the utility infielders, not in a key position in the starting lineup.
Consider what happened at that now notorious birthday party. It was an invitation-only, all GOP affair, the friendliest possible audience for complimentary remarks about the truly remarkable J. Strom Thurmond. Senator Lott stands up to praise the guest of honor. Among other achievements, he recalls when then-Governor Thurmond sought higher office in 1948. "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it."
Laughter and applause. Isn't it nice that Mississippians are proud of good ole Strom?
And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
Gasps, followed by silence.
At this point, any mind with half the political savvy of a cupcake should be flashing GAFFE ALERT!!! while frantically switching to recovery mode. A major leaguer would segue to something along the lines of, "But what I most admire about Strom is that he didn't remain stuck in 1948. Like every other Southern politician those days, he was raised as a segregationist. But he broke with Jim Crow and inspired the next generation of Mississippians, young men like Trent Lott, to realize that America can only be strong when every person is judged, as a great civil rights leader once said, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character." Partisan zealots of the Paul Krugman breed would still call the whole performance "racism", but they toss around epithets the way nine-year-olds mouth swear words, without the faintest notion of what they are talking about. The rest of the world would ignore them, just as it ignores preadolescent obscenities.
Of course Senator Lott didn't think quickly enough to recover on the spot, nor even within a day or two. Now he has started on the apology treadmill, a contraption whose speed is set so that the faster the victim runs, the farther backward he goes. Every deed and word in the Senator's life will be scrutinized by the most excruciating standards of 21st Century political correctness and will inevitably be condemned. eady his opinions on desegregating fraternities 40 years ago are in the headlines. Soon we'll be regaled with every questionable joke that he has ever told in private, then with profiles of every racist to whom he has ever waved hello.
Senator Lott shouldn't be fired as Majority Leader because he is an unreconstructed segregationist (which he almost certainly isn't) but because he has been confronted with a test of his political skill and has failed miserably. It was in some ways a trivial sort of test. We should be glad that the issues at stake were not more important than a centenarian's reputation -- and hope that, when bigger tests come, Senate Republicans will have a different spokesman.
December 11, 2002
Having been distracted from my computer at the time when Senator Trent Lott was proclaiming his retroactive endorsement of Strom Thurmond's 1948 Presidential bid, I missed out on the first wave of reaction. If I had posted anything, it would have been about the same as what every other visible conservative said: Trent Lott surely is not a crypto-racist, but he is too tin-eared to be a high-profile leader of an anti-racist political party. That he has made similarly dumb statements before, as detailed by Robert A. George ("Vacant Lott"), aggravates the offense and makes it one that can't be passed over as a mere gaffe. I don't propose exiling him to the political wilderness along with David Duke and Pat Buchanan, but it is not too condign a punishment to select one of the other 50 Republican Senators as Majority Leader.
Having said that, I should like to deplore one of the side effects of the righteous indignation expressed against Senator Lott. In the swirl of controversy, the Dixiecrat movement has been reduced to a racist caricature. It was indeed racist, but it was not simply racist. Looking back, it can be seen as a harbinger of the evanescence of anti-black bigotry as the defining force in Southern life.
As evidence, I offer H. L. Mencken, whose last journalism covered the 1948 campaign. Three weeks after the election, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to read or write. Joseph C. Goulden has edited a small volume, Mencken's Last Campaign (Washington: New Republic Book Co., 1976), that collects Mencken's Baltimore Sun columns describing the race.
Mencken was a staunch opponent of segregation. The very last thing that he wrote for the Sun was "a fierce attack on Baltimore officials for arresting a group of blacks and whites who played tennis together in a city park, in violation of a city ordinance against integrated sports. Mencken railed at 'the spirit of the Georgia cracker surviving in the Maryland Free State and under official auspices. . . . It is high time such relics of Ku Kluxery be wiped out in Maryland.'" [Goulden, p. 21] That is hardly the spirit of the stereotyped Dixiecrat.
Nonetheless, this despiser of White Supremacy planned to cast his vote for J. Strom Thurmond and was forced to fall back on Governor Dewey only when the States Rights' Party failed to qualify for the Maryland ballot. His column of August 1, 1948, explains this paradox:
The gallant Confederates who attempted a raid upon the late Democratic National Convention got a bad licking on the floor, but that licking did not dispose of them, nor even seriously punish them. What ails them now is a double handicap, both halves of it of southern origin. The first is to be found in the fact that when they got home all the worst frauds in the South rushed up to kiss them and have since hung about their necks. The second half springs out of the general northern assumption, unhappily well supported by recent history, that whatever originates in the South is half-idiotic, and hardly deserves to be heard.
Mencken himself, one might note, had done much to implant that assumption. This time, however, he saw a sharp glimmer of good sense in a Southern cause and made an effort to convey it to his readers.
The result today is that the Dixiecrat movement is getting a great deal less sober attention than it deserves. It looks, from across the Potomac and Ohio, like nothing more than a fresh pestilence of Longs, Bilbos, Tilmans, Bleases, Talmadges and Pappy O'Daniels. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort, whatever the excrescences that now burden it. It is fundamentally quite as serious in purpose, and quite as rational, as any other regional movement that has appeared in recent years, and some of its leaders are worthy of the highest respect. Certainly it would be absurd to dismiss such men as Governor J. Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, and former Governor Dan Moody, of Texas, as windbags of the common sort. They are men of intelligence and they are men of honor, and when they take to the bush it is safe to assume that they have a genuine grievance.
The regional grievance had its root, as Mencken saw it, in the vast expansion of federal power since 1933, a national grievance that he himself felt strongly. Thus he agreed with the basic principles of states' rights, while at the same time recognizing the dubious consistency of their newfound Southern advocates:
But the position of the intelligent southerners, as I have observed, is greatly weakened by the stupidity of the South as a whole. Having supported the New Deal violently for sixteen years, and profited enormously by its reckless looting of the North, including Maryland, it can't complain now that the North is preparing to give it a poisonous dose out of the same black bottle. It is not possible to play the idiot for years on end and then suddenly turn into Aristotle. It is not possible to wallow in the buncombe of Long, Bilbo, Pepper, Lister Hill, O'Daniel and the like until all the stomachs north of the Potomac begin to turn and then appeal to reason behind a façade of Thurmonds, Moodys and Harry Byrds.
From the point of view of 2002, the Dixiecrat campaign looks like a reactionary battle to preserve Jim Crow in all his ingloriousness, but, as Mencken's eyewitness account suggests, the leaders of the movement, Governor Thurmond above all, were taking the first steps away from their region's bleak past. For the first time, they appealed to higher principles than racism and tried to found their case on reasoned argument rather than raw emotion. As Mencken described a Thurmond campaign stop in Baltimore (October 2, 1948),
Governor Thurmond was not out to scare anyone. His business was persuasion, and he undertook it in a suave and gentle way. . . . [H]is voice is quite without the surges and hullabaloos that mark the speech of most other southern statesmen. He spoke exactly like a high-toned lawyer performing in court -- not before a jury, but before a court of appeals. He seldom rose above his middle register, and indulged himself in no gesture save an occasional stab with his right forefinger. . . . In brief, an elegant meeting -- soft in tone, with no hint of demagogy, and proceeding from end to end with the decorum of a well-bred dinner party.
That may not seem like much, but, to get from A to Zed, one must pass through B, and the Dixiecrat standard bearer was moving in the right direction. One should not exaggerate the extent of that progress. Governor Thurmond canceled a meeting with the Governor of the Virgin Islands upon learning that the man was a Negro, and the people who voted for him in Trent Lott's home state of Mississippi were revolting against the Democratic Party's proposed civil rights laws, not its New Deal. Still, this was the beginning of the path that led to the repudiation of segregation by most (sadly, not all) of the White South. The struggle for racial justice would have been a lot more difficult if the Dixiecrats had been simply a reprise of Gene Talmadge and Pitchfork Ben Tilman.
If Senator Lott had recalled some of this history and had commended the Thurmond Presidential campaign as an early, though small and ambiguous, glimmer of light, no one could reasonably have criticized him. Alas, he sounded like a man who has lived through half a century without picking up a single new idea, and his ignorance is likely to attract more opprobrium to a chapter in American politics that to this day "is getting a great deal less sober attention than it deserves".