September 23, 2005,
"Cheer up,” advised Philander Johnson, “The worst is yet to come.” That pretty much sums up my mood of late.
It’s not so much that I don’t like politics anymore; it’s just that it’s become such a hard slog.
This Is No FunFor example, while I’m still hopeful about the end result, the need to devour each day’s newspaper accounts from Iraq has become a grinding, depressing, affair and promises to be for quite a while. For a moment, before Katrina and the Roberts hearings it seemed we were about to have an energizing argument over whether we should withdraw from Iraq or not, but that seems to have subsided for now. Perhaps if Cindy Sheehan hadn’t turned into the sort of woman storekeepers bribe with a few dollars to move down the block, that debate might have taken place. The North Korea thing can anyone come up with a more reliable and accurate description than “thing” for what’s going on there? promises to be complicated and hard to debate joyously for years to come.
By the way, here’s the upshot: We may or may not have made an okay deal on paper with a barbaric regime which is definitionally, politically, psychologically, metaphysically, and in all other ways animal and vegetable incapable of honoring paper deals reliably. Gone is the highly oxygenated moral clarity of the Axis of Evil. In its place we have the cloying atmosphere of memoranda of understanding, back-channels, and the “spirit of compromise.”
On the home front, while I obviously think much of the criticism of George W. Bush from the Left often amounts to a form of paranoid delirium heard from muttering autodidact vagrants at the public library, slow-poisoned monarchs, and two thirds of the contributors to the Huffington Post, I have to concede that as you move closer to the center the criticisms have enough heft of fact to them to make defending Bush less fun. And even if you win these arguments, they tend to be pretty small victories.
Sure: Bush’s response to Katrina wasn’t racist, and not nearly so incompetent as it seemed at first, but it was still far less than sufficiently competent and it was indisputably politically disastrous. As we look to the future, what are we supposed to say? Hell no his overspending isn’t irresponsibly lavish! His overspending is simply responsibly lavish! The porkbusters fight is fun now, but not since early cave men tried to train grizzly bears to give them tongue-baths has a project seemed more obviously doomed to end in disappointment. Expecting Congress of either party to give back pork which has already been approved and passed into law is like expecting crack whores to give refunds days after services have been rendered.
Worse, while I would love to be proven wrong, I can’t help but think the chances of all the fun domestic stuff Bush was working on tax reform, Social Security reform will now be sacrificed in order to make sure every street corner in New Orleans is outfitted with a soft ice-cream machine and an ergonomic moving sidewalk.
Which, in all honesty, would be pretty cool.
Only in the area of Supreme Court nominees can we be sure that this presidency is a source for the sort of gleeful ideological blood sport that makes one excited to turn on the news.
But even here, the opening round failed to live up to the hype. Folks like me had been playing the role of Don King for months, promising the fight of the century only to find that John Roberts was Mike Tyson and the entire Democratic wing of the Senate Judiciary Committee (and I use the term in its most catholic sense so as to include Arlen Specter) were the cumulative equivalent of one of those obscure doughy bouncers King threw in the ring to keep the pay-per-view green rolling-in. Instead of the image of Biden, Schumer, and Feinstein pummeling Roberts up against the ropes on C-SPAN to the sound of Brian Lamb shouting “Only in America!” we got the sort of submissive urinating you usually find when poodles are put in a pit bull’s cage.
Welcome to the Republican EraFor want of a better analogy, I think we’re in the middle of an arms-control moment. Ronald Reagan’s term began with all sorts of exciting arguments about the “evil empire” and ended with an endless stream of tedious disagreements about the MX missile versus the Minuteman or something like that. These were important and serious arguments but duller than a monk’s pate. Why just yesterday I found myself arguing about John McCain’s stance on entitlement reform. Who needs Ambien when you’ve got these sorts of battles to occupy your time?
I fear this is the basic problem that comes with having your party in the majority. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there that the Republicans are doomed. The voters don’t trust them, they’re spending money like Teresa Heinz at a French mall. Bush this, Bush that, Bush the other thing. But I think the truth is more depressing. I think the Republicans will run things for a generation. Sure, there might be some upsets, some shake-ups, a Democratic president here or there. But ultimately I think we’re still in the beginning phase of a Republican era. As countless commentators have noted before, Bill Clinton was liberalism’s Eisenhower. Ike confirmed the New Deal’s bipartisan status, Clinton confirmed the Reagan Revolution’s bipartisan status.
If you listened to the Democrats fight John Roberts this month, it’s impossible not to conclude the Democrats are a runt party and will remain one for a while. The gravitational pull of their base makes it all but impossible for them to attain escape velocity from Planet Permanent Minority. Senator Feinstein actually said she won’t vote for Roberts in no small part because she’s not sure what kind of father and husband he is. Does this woman know or care what an unbelievable SOB Oliver Wendell Holmes was? Joe Biden who by personal acclamation is the smartest man in his party, ultimately resorted to debating Roberts by flashing his teeth at the nominee like a semaphore signal. If you study the video of his meandering soliloquies you’ll discover that while he was ostensibly opining on the inadequacy of the “umpire” metaphor, he was in fact delivering a coded dental message “I CANNOT STOP TALKING. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WILL SOMEONE STOP ME?”
Meanwhile, Arlen Specter, the man who voted Glenfiddich during the Clinton impeachment, seemed to be the only questioner who laid a glove on Roberts. This perennial moderate Republican toothache, with all that silly “super-duper” precedent stuff included, was a better Democrat than the Democrats. He might as well have been Gene Wilder with Pat Leahy as Young Frankenstein (there is a resemblance, you know?) reenacting “Putting on the Ritz.” Specter could sing how Roberts looks like Gary Cooper and Leahy could chime in every now and then with a flinty Vermont “Super-Duper.” (Come let's mix with Kennedys & Rockefellers/get their kicks as penumbra-fellas…)
In short our moderate Republicans are the responsible Democrats. The real Democrats are just back-up singers for guys like Specter and McCain (they let Lieberman do an occasional solo). This is what happens to majority parties (remember the “Boll Weevil Democrats”?). They become the locus of all politics while the runt party sits like a highwayman, hoping to pounce on the weak stragglers every now and then. And, the GOP as a governing party is becoming bloated, self-absorbed, and lazy. Democrats think this means the GOP will lose control of Congress. I don’t see it. When the Democrats ran the show, their congressmen lived high on the hog for 40 years, lamenting that the only thing you can’t buy with free stamps or kited checks are hookers (I suspect AbScam was really just a way to get loose cash to get around this obstacle).
In other words, my real fear is that this is as good as it gets. Conservatives may have to look forward to years of incremental victories, less-than-incremental setbacks, cronyism, hypocrisy, rent-seeking, and the sort of pragmatic compromise which inevitably grinds down intellectual joy and entrepreneurialism. This isn’t because Republicans are worse than Democrats (by any historical measure Democrats have been vastly more corrupt than Republicans though Republicans are better at getting caught). It’s because that’s the nature of the beast.
Running things is better than the alternative, but some days that just doesn’t feel like it’s good enough.