Saturday, April 14. 2007
The Wichita Eagle published a piece today by Peter Baker of Washington Post on a Dick Cheney speech:
Cheney goes on to attack Nancy Pelosi, in case you're wondering how far out you have to be to look "hard-left" to Cheney. It also ends with a balancing quote from a Harry Reid spokesman: "It's interesting that the vice president would make a reference to the 1970s because, just like Nixon, President Bush is isolated and hunkered down in the White House while his administration is under investigation and top officials are withholding key evidence."
There's the usual bit of preaching to the choir in Cheney's speech, but it's significant because the 1972 election has long been held by the Democratic Party nomenklatura to have proven the disaster that awaits any form of left-deviationism in the Party's ranks. Cheney's speech reminds them that any stray step toward the left will be punished savagely -- pretty much the same message the DLC and their fellow travellers have beat to death since 1972.
On the other hand, I saw Scott McClellan on Bill Maher last night, pushing a carrot version of the same message: he argued that we went to war in 2003 with bipartisan support, and that the President needs continued bipartisan support to see the war through to a successful conclusion -- over and over, he argued that we just need to give it a little more time. He left unsaid the conclusion: the Democrats, in backing out of bipartisan war consensus, will assume responsibility for the war's failure. Few assertions could be more ridiculous, the the Republicans have been so successful at pushing their superficial talking points for so long that they've left the Democrats dazed and confused. One thing this goes to show is how useful it was that so many Democrats voted for the war; another is how little good it did them -- John Kerry being the prime example.
This general drift has been building up since it became obvious even to diehard insiders that the Republicans were going to have to find someone to blame their Iraq disaster on. For at least that long Democrats have been leering nervously, like Thanksgiving turkeys. But I have to wonder two things: 1) what did the 1972 election really mean? and 2) can the Republicans get away with mythologizing Iraq the way they did Vietnam?
One thing people forget about the 1972 presidential election is that it wasn't nearly as focused on Vietnam as it should have been. Toward the close of the campaign, McGovern focused almost exclusively on Watergate, which was in the news but hadn't sunk in yet. Early on, he focused on issues like a guaranteed annual income that never got much traction. He may have decided that the war wasn't the issue to campaign on because the votes on that issue could already be counted. In that I think he was wrong: while antiwar Democrats had no illusions about where Nixon stood, non-Democrats and those ambivalent about the war were more inclined to trust Nixon, who had, after all, actually reduced American ground forces and casualties while pursuing talks with North Vietnam aimed at something called "peace with honor." A real antiwar campaign would have exposed what Nixon had actually done in the war: expanding the war into Cambodia, intensifying the air war, using covert death squads, scrambling SAC bombers to bluff a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and pointing out the deceit of promising a plan to end the war in 1968 and the fact that he was stretching it out indefinitely.
There are many similarities between Nixon and Bush viz. their wars, but there are two differences that may be critical: 1) Bush started his war, whereas Nixon took over a war that was already seen to be a major failure, so Nixon was never blamed for a war of choice (even if he was blamed for choosing to perpetuate it); 2) both were still significantly engaged in war after four years, but Nixon had reduced our costs while aiming at a settlement, whereas Bush is more engaged, and more tied down, than ever. There are other differences: Nixon's domestic policies enjoyed broad bipartisan support, whereas Bush's have been starkly divisive. (In some ways that increases support for the war, inasmuch as people who support Bush for other reasons feel they have to defend his war to keep him in power.)
The historical context is also vastly different. Clearly, McGovern was beat by a backlash of some sort, but his opposition to the very unpopular Vietnam war was a minor piece of a backlash that was more potently fueled by race and sex. Nixon's strategy was to invent a "silent majority" firmly rooted in "middle America" -- a card which he played cannily to pick up virtually all of the 1968 George Wallace vote, a sum roughly equal to his margin over McGovern. Also working in Nixon's favor was a Democratic Party establishment threatened by McGovern's promotion of democracy within the party -- in effect, they hung their nominee out to dry, figuring it better to lose an election than lose the party. (Much the same thing happened in 1896: William Jennings Bryan was nominated and lost when Grover Cleveland's east coast backers shied away.)
The characterization of McGovern as a left-wing loony was something that came after the fact, by talking heads in both parties, each with an axe to grind. The Republican right saw Nixon's win as vindication of their own agenda; old school Democrats parlayed McGovern's loss into a lesson on what happens when the party abandons their own centrism. Both moved the political debate to the right, weakening whatever it was that Democrats used to stand for. Indeed, the Democratic split over Vietnam was a fissure of confusion that never really healed. It actually goes back to the sacking of Henry Wallace, which committed the Democratic Party to anti-communist liberalism with its corrosive lack of support for labor. The Cold War was also a class war. The Democrats squandered their advantage by purging their own base.
There are a couple of ways the 1968-72 Nixon elections pair up with the 2000-04 Bush elections. In both cases, the first was settled by a very narrow margin with the Republican candidate keeping much of his real agenda under wraps while the Democrats were divided or at least ambivalent about their guy -- in both cases a vice president following a mixed bag presidency. In both cases the second involved re-electing a sitting president in war time, and both played all the advantages of incumbency to the hilt. One difference is that where Nixon won big, Bush barely squeaked by. The reason for that may be that 1968-72 was the start of a realignment where the Republicans moved strongly into suburbia and the white South, whereas 2000-04 marks the end of that shift, unless we see more traditional Republicans leave the party.
But the more important difference is that the US is much weaker now than we were in 1968-74: the nation's economic clout has declined under deficits and debt, real standards of living have declined, our sense of equality and common commitment has diminished; standards of education have declined, while traditional arts and industries have faded. Even our vaunted military power is suspect, given how poorly we've fared against the scattered resistence of Afghanistan and Iraq. (Comparatively, Vietnam, which successfully repelled China as well as the US, was a much larger engagement, a level that today's US military cannot conceive of.) Moreover, Vietnam could be viewed as a marginal sideshow in a larger struggle, so failure there didn't force a reassessment of the whole anti-communist project. But Iraq is failing in a way that threatens to call into question our whole self-conception as the world's sole superpower.
Chalmers Johnson, in Nemesis, makes the point that the UK more/less voluntarily chose to give up its empire rather than lose its democracy. He doesn't bring up the Soviet Union, which made a similar decision to forsake empire in order to seek democracy. Bush has brought the US toward a similar point, where his determination to pursue empire is matched to his scheming to subvert democracy at home. He has pursued both projects to an unprecedented degree, but both seem destined to fail, not least because they are way beyond the level of competency his administration can muster. Bush has created a world where failure is a fact, not an option.
In order for Cheney's line to work we have to believe that the failure he seeks to avoid is worse than the failure we experience. As long as the Democrats buy that premise the administration gets to blunder on without serious opposition. But what happens when/if we back off and stop making matters worse? Any sign of improvement at that point starts to unravel the whole delusion. Sooner or later, some future administration will start to disengage from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from the entire Middle East, if for no better reason than because, like the UK 50-60 years ago, we can no longer justify the costs by our gains. When that happens we will finally find how little all that imperialism brought us.
Given the magnitude of Cheney's accomplishments, the lesson we should take from his speech is that we owe George McGovern, and for that matter what passes through Cheney's fevered mind as the "far-left platform," a reevaluation. The fact is that McGovern was right on Vietnam and on Watergate. And for that matter McGovern has written a little book on Iraq which offers a graceful exit strategy from a quagmire that so many well-placed minds find completely intractable.