July 29, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 11, 2000, issue of National Review.
President Clinton, so often praised for leading politics in a "New Democrat" direction, no longer has much use for the Democratic party. In his convention speech, he was content to put the "me" in "messiah" and leave it there. As viewers saw him walk through the tunnels underneath the Staples Center like a drunken Shriner looking for the men's room, the convention's producers flashed across the bottom of the TV screen various statistics 22 million new jobs created, record homeownership, etc. that could be associated with his presidency. Not since Elvis Presley leapt on stage in a karate gi to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting" has there been a more self-indulgent entrance.
But now that Clinton's leaving, it's becoming clear that the retreads managed to wait him out and that the real test of Al Gore's leadership will be whether he can stand up to the Democratic party Bill Clinton manhandled for eight years. Judging from the convention, he's got his work cut out for him.
The clearest sign was Tuesday evening, unofficially called "liberal night" (though, in reality, every night was liberal night), owing to the fact that so many dashboard saints of the asinine Left were featured. Delegates got their red meat or whatever the acceptable term on the left is these days. Kate Michelman, who believes life begins when the mother gives her baby a name, or perhaps car keys, denounced the extremism of George W. Bush. Jackson spoke out of TV's prime time, but, as he told reporters, "Whenever I speak, it's prime time."
As expected, Jackson busted some rhymes, condemning what he called the "inclusion illusion" of the GOP convention in Philadelphia and bragging about the L.A. convention as the "real deal." "There are one thousand union workers here. One thousand African Americans. One thousand Latinos and Asian Americans. As many women as men."
Of course, what Jackson left out while reading the recipe for this ethnic cocktail was that the Democratic National Committee enforces one of the most absolutist quota regimes in America. For example, the DNC strongly "recommends" that large state delegations be composed of 50 percent women, 26 percent Latinos, 16 percent blacks, 9 percent Asian-Pacific islanders, 10 percent homosexuals (half lesbians, half gay men), etc. It was this sort of quota-mongering that got Mamie Cunningham kicked out of the Mississippi delegation. A former "Freedom Democrat" barred from the 1964 delegation because of her race, she was barred from the 2000 one because there were two more women among Mississippi's delegates than the quota permitted. (At the last minute, another woman volunteered to give up her place to Cunningham.)
This quota silliness is dictated by the "McGovern rules" that Jesse Jackson helped impose on the Democrats in 1972. Asked about these "reforms," McGovern himself once said that he opened the doors to the Democratic party and "20 million people walked out." Perhaps this explains why the Democrats have managed to earn more than 50 percent of the vote only once in the last 35 years. (In 1976, Carter received 50.06 percent.) At the presidential level, the Democratic party is, simply, a rump party.
Bill Clinton used Reagan-Democrat rhetoric to become the first Democratic president to be elected to two terms in more than half a century. It seemed at least possible that he had helped his party break the curse; but the true test comes now. After watching the long-toothed liberal monsters cavorting around Los Angeles like Hieronymus Bosch figures, one finds it hard to believe that Gore can pull off the same trick.
The lefties have already gotten to Joe Lieberman. When the senator head of the Democratic Leadership Council was tapped for the vice presidency, he was an exemplary New Democrat. He explicitly rejected quotas, and supported Social Security privatization, Medicare reform, and school vouchers. The dinosaurs, led by Maxine Waters, rebelled and within ten days Lieberman had renounced his old beliefs and sworn fealty to the old ways like a victim of medieval rack torture.
The Democrats are clearly less enamored of "new ideas" than we had been led to believe which is interesting in light of all the liberal taunts about the GOP's supposed unhealthy obsession with Reagan.
Still, if the Republicans are behind the times, the L.A. Democrats might as well have dressed in bearskins and used stone knives (and I think some of them did). After all, Reagan nostalgia attaches mostly to timeless themes, such as limited government, deregulation, and equal opportunity (as opposed to equal results).
Liberal nostalgia, however, presents a real problem, because it attaches itself to real-life programs that are antiquated. It's the difference between loving cars and refusing to accept that your old Studebaker can't get out of the driveway. Gore wouldn't even take the Democratic clunker in for an oil change. For example, when Social Security was introduced, there were 42 workers for every retiree and life expectancy was 61. By 2029, there will be two workers per retiree and life expectancy will soon hit 80, even without further medical breakthroughs. And yet Gore refuses to accept that FDR's old clunker simply isn't up to the task anymore. "I will never agree to raise the retirement age to 70 or threaten the promise of Social Security," he declared. All of his lines are about "defending" and "protecting" his favorite programs, by putting them in things like "iron-clad lockboxes," where they will remain invulnerable to reasonable and necessary reform. At the convention, Gore even broke with the "mend it, don't end it" affirmative-action formulation of Bill Clinton; he merely promised to "defend" affirmative action.
When asked on Meet the Press whether pregnant women on death row should be executed, Gore relied on party dogma, saying that the mother's "choice" should prevail. Within days, Congress unanimously rejected that position. On the stump, Gore shouts that he will "Never!" sign an anti-labor bill. He will "Never!" sign a bill abridging the right to abortion. He will "Never!" let anyone touch benefits for the elderly. He will "Never!" moderate his support of affirmative action, his position on school vouchers, etc. For a guy who promises "revolutionary change," isn't this an awful lot to yell "Never!" about?
To the extent that such promises are rooted in anything beyond cynical fear-mongering, rote pandering, and reactionary liberalism, they stem from the ossification of the Democratic mind. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, "Few things are as immutable as the addiction of political groups to the ideas by which they have won office." Liberals today are so married to their past successes that they see any alteration in the status quo as a crisis. When Florida governor Jeb Bush instituted a program that resulted in higher minority enrollment in colleges and universities, the black establishment staged a sit-in in his office and sang "We Shall Overcome." NAACP president Kweisi Mfume called the change the return of "Jim Crow." Civil-rights leaders compared Bush to George Wallace.
This entrenched pathology of denial manifested itself throughout the convention. New Democrats with new ideas suffered at the expense of Old Democrats with old ideas. Sen. Bill Bradley, who could bore the birds out of the trees, cemented his retread status by not merely giving a tired paleo-liberal speech, but the same tired paleo-liberal speech he's been giving for over a year. His remarks numbed the audience and pushed Harold Ford Jr., the ostensibly New Democrat keynoter, out of prime time. More tellingly, whenever Gore or Lieberman struck centrist chords citing welfare reform or the Gulf War you could almost hear crickets chirping in the Staples Center. But when pols promised to raise the minimum wage, or when Jesse Jackson suggested that the Republican yacht subsidy be spent on reparations for slavery, the crowd went wild.
Robert Nisbet once wrote that nostalgia "is, even at best, the rust of memory, often a disease." Well, the Staples Center might as well have been a petri dish for the nostalgia bug. It was easy to lose count, for example, of the speakers who mentioned that it was in L.A., 40 years ago, that JFK was nominated. The problem with nostalgic sentiment is that it disfigures and overwhelms reality, and that's why this deification of Kennedy is particularly ironic. JFK, not that successful a president in the first place, was significant largely because he was to the right of most Republicans on economics and foreign policy. His positions were well to the right of his eventual successor, Richard Nixon, who after all created the EPA and codified affirmative action. If the Democrats were truly "about the issues," one might expect them to distance themselves from an icon who would have been disgusted by their gooey liberalism, and to embrace Nixon, who made their favorite programs bipartisan. Indeed, during convention week, Gore Vidal (no less) sat on a panel of leftists and explained that JFK hated liberals but got along fine with conservatives. The audience, naturally, was flummoxed.
But don't tell Ted Kennedy any of this. If there is a patron saint of Democratic retreads, also-rans, woulda-couldas, and if-onlys, it is the irrepressible senior senator from Massachusetts. Perhaps his biggest applause line was, "I've been a Democrat all my life and I am proud of it" as if this were a sign of great fortitude and perseverance. And perhaps it is.
By all accounts, Al Gore needed to do two things at the Democratic convention. First, he needed to distance himself from "one of history's greatest presidents." Second, he had to make people like him in the process. It's too early to tell if he fully succeeded at either. (The most recent polls show him receiving almost exactly the same convention bounce that Bob Dole had in 1996, which evaporated entirely within a few weeks.) But if he did succeed in paddling away from the narcissistic island that is Bill Clinton, he may have done so only by getting pulled into the undertow of the Old Democratic Party. If that's the case, then Clinton's greatest legacy will have been to leave the Democratic Party exactly as he found it.