Wednesday, November 26, 2008

no excuses for liberals?

From Bret Stephens in the WSJ, an essay short on cynicism and political creative thinking.

Stephens is correct in a sense. But politicians are quite good at coming up with new-and-improved excuses. And since we don't pay much attention, we're pretty good at falling for them. For Obama and the Dems, they can always blame more stuff on Bush (and our perception of him)-- and this, with considerable justification. This can work at least in the short-term-- and despite the irony that they're looking to duplicate many of his primary policies.

Will that be enough? Je ne sais pas.

In any case, Stephens offers a compelling critique of (his take on) the liberal view of American political history over the last 70 years-- and why it probably won't matter whether the Dems are blamed are not.

...we're at yet another No Excuses moment in American politics. Specifically: a liberal No Excuses moment. With the election of Barack Obama and huge Democratic majorities in Congress, liberals must now practice something other than the politics of nostalgia and what-if.

This is a politics that has been in the making since at least 1968, though its real origins probably go back to 1944 and the first great liberal what-if: What if an ailing FDR had died nine months earlier, and been succeeded by the great progressive icon and polymath (and original moonbeam), then Vice President Henry Wallace?

In that case, perhaps, desegregation would have happened sooner, universal health care would be with us today, and the "century of fear" that Wallace predicted as the outcome of the Truman Doctrine would have been avoided by means of a more conciliatory policy toward the Soviet Union.

From that moment on, the liberal what-ifs multiply in dizzying profusion. What if John F. Kennedy had dodged the bullet in Dallas and lived to get the U.S. out of Vietnam before it fully got into it? What if Robert F. Kennedy had dodged the bullet in L.A. five years later? What if Jimmy Carter hadn't been so earnest, truthful and unlucky? What if Ronald Reagan hadn't proved such an adept political mythmaker? What if Donna Rice hadn't been pictured on Gary Hart's lap? What if Willie Horton hadn't been given a furlough? What if Bill Clinton hadn't squandered his political gifts with cheap trysts? What if Bush v. Gore had gone 5-4 the other way? What if 9/11 hadn't intervened to give the Bush administration its mandate for another bout of the politics of fear? What if John Kerry hadn't been sandbagged by Osama bin Laden's last-minute video intervention?

This liberal narrative of its own near-misses, bad luck and tragic interventions of fate is supplemented by a parallel liberal tale of unbridled conservative malevolence. Republicans may be the stupid party, but they've been fortunate in their evil political geniuses -- Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove -- all of whom have succeeded in bamboozling the public into voting against its own economic interests.

As for conservative electoral successes, these are explained almost entirely as a function of political dirty tricks (cf. "October Surprise") jingoism (Star Wars, Grenada et al.) and racism ("Southern strategy"). "The legacy of slavery, America's original sin, is the reason we're the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee health care to our citizens," writes Nobel laureate Paul Krugman in "The Conscience of a Liberal."...

The upshot of all this has been an amazing lack of introspection among the frequently wronged, but never wrong, liberal American hard core. Politically, this hasn't yielded such great results: The number of Americans who self-identify as liberals continues to fall, to 21% in 2008 from 22% in 2004, according to CNN. (The number of self-identified conservatives held steady at 34%.) Then again, without that hard core Mr. Obama's primary triumphs would never have been possible.

Now the long wait is over, and the liberal ship has come in. In Mr. Obama, liberals have a president who seems to have stepped out of the last episodes of the West Wing. He has the Congress in his left pocket, the news media in his right pocket (or is it the other way around?), and he floats on a tide of unprecedented international enthusiasm. The Republican Party has no obvious standard-bearer, as it did in Ronald Reagan after Gerald Ford's defeat in 1976. It could well spend the next four years, or eight, tearing itself to pieces.

Instead, the only things that stand in Mr. Obama's path are what Marxists like to call "objective factors": the financial crisis, the mess in Detroit, the disposing of Guantanamo detainees, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian hostility, Chinese assertiveness, maybe the disintegration of Pakistan.

Mr. Obama will get, and deserves, a period of political grace. Let's say a year. After that, it will become increasingly difficult to attribute whatever mistakes he makes to the legacy of his predecessor. American liberalism, such as it is, is finally being put to the test that fate has denied it these last many decades. Succeed or fail, this time there can be no excuses.


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