The Election Post-mortem
Even I have come to the point of thinking that presuming an Obama victory will not hex it happening. Most pundits reached that same conclusion some weeks ago. David Brooks, the weekend before last, offered his postmortem of what went wrong with Republican politics. Taking the high road, as always, he distinguished three ideological strands fighting for the allegiances of the American people. There were the Liberals, who now dominate the Democratic Party, who believe that government is the institution that will most of the time solve most social problems. Then there are the Burke Conservatives who, according to Brooks, dominated the Republican Revolution. They believe in the slow organic evolution of society and in the importance of the market system (although, I might add, neither Brooks nor any other contemporary can resolve the conflict between these two strands of social thought, even if Adam Smith himself did, believing that the economic mentality was just one moral sentiment among many.) Then there is the third strand in American politics: the cultural Conservatives, who are, in fact, a know-nothing party that panders to the uneducated and the xenophobic. Needless to say, Brooks likes the second alternative and wishes the Republicans would restore themselves to being the party of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan.
I demur. The lesson to be learnt not only from the present debacle but also the era of Republican rule that commenced in 1980 and was foreshadowed by the Goldwater candidacy of 1964 is not that you have to stick to your ideals and your grand vision of history but that you have to field candidates who have the intelligence as well as the personalities to do the job. If you do so, you will accomplish more of your goals than if you elect people who are clearly unequipped for high office, which includes, to my mind, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, not to speak of the current laughing stocks, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. The Republicans have managed to put at least one of the incompetent ilk on the presidential ballot in virtually every election since 1964. Nixon, you remember, chose Agnew and George H. W. Bush, more competent than Nixon, while not at all evil, nevertheless chose Dan Quale. (Jerry Ford stands out as an exception by having chosen Bob Dole, who would have been no disgrace had he become President.) It is all a long way from when the Republicans backed Teddy Roosevelt for re-election and then, after their defeat in 1912, chose the professorial Charles Evans Hughes to face off against the reelection run of the over professorial Woodrow Wilson.
It is, of course, impossible to prove what history would have been like if it had taken a different direction. What can be said though, is that the intellectual limitations of the Republican candidates played a part in the failure of Republican rule to move the nation forward. The Republican Presidents could not but cast the discussion of American aims in a very narrow way, so that they come across, from the vantage point of the end of their era, as smug rather than focused. They would have accomplished much more in the way of serving their own principles if their rhetoric and judgment had been up to the task. Because, think about it, look how little damage the era of Republican rule has done to the fabric of America, however much it may seem, at the moment, that the nation is going to hell in a hurry.
Goldwater, as no one cares to remember, was an amiable lightweight who took on Republican ideology as a set of clichés rather than as something that could withstand analysis and show itself to be an internally coherent system, even if its axioms were different than the prevailing liberal point of view that Buckley and his friends criticized. For his part, Nixon was smart enough to play both the politics of political destruction the politics of self-righteousness for all they were worth and so put himself in a position to carry out the Conservative agenda of the post-Great Society period. He provided for the desegregration of the schools only after all white academies had been established and demographics had taken care of the rest of the dream of integrated schools. He established the EPA so as to shift the turf from under those who wanted for there, finally, in 1970, to be a full employment act, an idea that may once again take on life in an Obama Administration. Environmentalism, he realized, is the movement everybody can believe in because it demands sacrifices of no one and so is no threat to the political and social order. Nixon also pursued a vigorous and Conservative foreign policy whose main objective was to isolate the Soviet Union, which meant creating an opening to China. And, most of all, he believed in harassing your enemies, rather than, as Jack Kennedy put it, holding them close. That betrayed a narrowness of mind, an illiberality of soul, that cast a shadow over everything else.
Oh, if Reagan had been as aware as Nixon of what you can accomplish through legislative and diplomatic slights of hand. Rather than railing against Welfare Queens, he could have recast welfare as a jobs program of the sort Clinton wanted, and gotten that accomplished. Rather than talk about Evil Empires, he could have stabilized Gorbachev. That might have eased the problem of what to do about the former Soviet “-stans” in Central Asia, a problem that lingers on today, as well as help integrate Russia into Europe rather than leave it hanging out there to freeze or molder, depending on whether oil prices go up or down. And most of all, an adroit Reagan would not have traded weapons for hostages, and so put most of his capable and very loyal foreign policy establishment on the block.
A George W. Bush who had been capable of cleaving to his compassionate conservatism might have left behind him a more lasting and positive impression than the one left behind by, let us say, Bill Clinton, whose many accomplishments turned to ashes as soon as he was out of office. W. could have gone after genuine education reform, not just co-opted Ted Kennedy to support standards in exchange for financing, the first delivered but not the second, and so we are pretty much left where we started, with schools no longer able even to fake meeting the standards set for them. W. could have gotten national legislation through that would have made social services available to those who might be counseled out of getting abortions, and so set the scene for a reversal of Roe v. Wade. He could have gotten a green revolution going because that would have been good for business and not just the environment. Why are all the good Conservative initiatives left for the Democrats? Why was it that Clinton was the one who put an end to welfare as it was known? Newt Gingrich’s Party was not one of new ideas; it had just decided to offer “new ideas” as a slogan.
The answer to all these questions is the same. The incompetent presidents are just too bleary eyed, too concerned with words and not with the meanings of words, to be able to see how to accomplish their ends and truly turn this into a Conservative country. They would rather quarrel than rule because they cannot believe that their program can in fact be accomplished. So W. leaves office with nothing much done on abortion; nothing much done on education except to set us all back to square one; and nothing much done about the axis of evil, what with North Korea and Iran pursing their nuclear programs, and Iraq settling back into being the contentious state it has been ever since it was created, an Iraq not even particularly friendly to the United States, in spite of all we have done to and for it.
That is why it will be relatively easy for Obama to overcome must of the W. initiatives. A few Supreme Court choices; a bit of legislation on backing green industries; a bit of reregulation, and we are back in 1996, except with a Black president. The question then becomes whether Obama can create and carry out a program of his own, one that addresses the lack of working class jobs, the need for mass transit, the problems of housing, that are the result of an economy that is increasingly based on service and knowledge industries, a matter that has gone on ever since the computer revolution began and one which even smart Democrats like Clinton were not able to engage, though Clinton’s advisors spoke a good deal about what was happening to transform the American economy. The Democratic candidates from McGovern on have been smart and responsible and close to the center, whatever the reputations of some as other than technocrats, the ever flailing Kerry the only possible exception to this rule. We will see if Obama is the smartest of the lot and can find a way to phrase and deliver.