The Right’s Last Hurrah
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Let us begin by acknowledging that none of this year’s candidates for the two top offices in the land is actually evil — not in the Dick Cheney sense. Still, one might have wished for better from John McCain, who after a career on the independent margins of his party has turned to the Dark Side and now follows the lead of the very people who destroyed him with push polls and nasty rumors in 2000. One can only wish they had failed then as they must fail now.
The last eight years might have been very different if the carpetbagger from Arizona had beaten the carpetbagger from Texas in the millenial primaries and squeaked into the presidency in his stead. McCain might have listened to Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft about the inadvisability of slouching toward Baghdad before the job in Afghanistan was complete. One can dream; as a 2008 presidential candidate he yet waves the bloody shirt of potential defeat in Iraq.
Indeed, although McCain continues to ride his maverick status, his campaign sounds increasingly like standard GOPMO. As he tumbles in the polls — now averaging six to nine points behind his opponent nationwide — the McCain machine resorts more and more to trash talk and character assassination, recently in the desperate attempt to link Obama to former Weatherman William Ayres, on the basis of their separate connection to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
First, even in his circa 1970 heyday with comrade Bernardine Dohrn, the Weather Underground were not terrorists but saboteurs, a distinction the nation chooses not to make in the era of the War on Terror and the Patriot Act. Terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh targeted civilians, seeking to take as many lives as possible. The Weather Underground targeted buildings, mainly Selective Service and university offices associated with military research.
Despite their often violent rhetoric, the Weather Underground apologized for the one life they accidentally took at the University of Wisconsin. Other than that, they accidentally killed only themselves. On the other hand, John McCain spent the Vietnam War as part of a militant organization that not only bombed buildings but civilian populations, acts in which he personally participated.
Ayres, like Dohrn, eventually turned himself in, went through the criminal justice system, and was officially rehabilitated. Both now live the lives of responsible citizens and public servants. McCain likewise ended up in prison and paid even more harshly for his actions. He too eventually rehabilitated himself, returning to Vietnam and working to normalize relations between that country and ours, over the vehement protests of his fellow Republicans and with the lasting gratitude of the Vietnamese.
But the historical record is in fact beside the point. Barack Obama was a child of nine or ten when all this happened, and not even living in the United States, let alone part of a Weather Underground cell. Suggesting that Obama is somehow a terrorist is scurrilous, scandalous, and dangerous. In particular, sending out Sarah Palin to dangle such red meat before the red-state base invites a violent response. More than one meth freak with guns has already been caught stalking Obama. Whipping up the brownshirt mob that already believes Obama is a Muslim quisling serving Osama is at best irresponsible, at worst sinister, as it calls up other echoes of the Sixties and the death of hope.
Viewed more broadly, this ploy of the McCain campaign seems yet another in a long line of Hail Mary passes that have characterized its post-primary run for the presidency. McCain has made much over the years of his maverick status, but his maneuvers in the past several weeks have made him seem erratic, even whimsical. Most prominent among these was his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. As a brazen attempt to snatch both the women’s vote and the redneck vote in one swoop, the selection initially seemed incredibly clever, too clever, jumping-the-shark clever.
For a time during and after the GOP convention, the crowd that embraced Obama was dismayed, even depressed, to the sneers and jeers of the right. McCain alone had not been able to appeal to the really stupid voters who form the core of the Republican base. Sarah Palin would draw those voters out of their holes in the woodwork. The 29 percent who still believe W. has done a splendid job would swallow their doubts about McCain and come out for the gun-totin’ pro-pregnancy cheerleader from Wasilla, and the U.S. would continue its smug decline.
Of course, Palin has not faced smooth sailin’ (wink). Her increasingly obvious unfitness for the White House has sent independents bailin’ and conservatives quailin’. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, admires her “just folks” appeal but doubts she has the experience and wisdom to lead. Even that wouldn’t be a problem, he says, “if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years.” Like Bush, Palin compensates for her cluelessness “with brashness and excessive decisiveness.” And he concludes, “democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.”
Writing for National Review Online, Kathleen Parker finds Palin cheery, folksy, and “Out of Her League.” Even as a conservative, she openly recognizes with the rest of us that when Palin talks in public, she “filibusters. She repeats words, filling space with deadwood. Cut the verbiage and there’s not much content there.” Parker advises that Palin do the campaign a favor by bowing out, citing the family responsibilities of all those babies. By the way, having dared to speak truth on a conservative website, Parker was appalled to find herself the target of death threats.
However, as Palin winks the economy sinks, and this fact now bears on the election far more than her ninnihood. Those of us who once looked forward to a comfortable retirement can compensate for our shrunken mutual funds with a degree of Schadenfreude. If capitalism were to implode, it could not have done so at a more opportune moment. Now it is not just about Obama’s inexperience or McCain’s eccentricity.
Suddenly we confront a plebiscite on the entire philosophy that has driven American society since the end of the Seventies, the philosophy that Reagan brought to power and that has dominated our political economics ever since. It didn’t take a prophet to predict that the profit motive was an insufficient foundation for an entire system of civilization. Some of us have been saying so for decades.
It took the terrifying daring of a clutch of fanatics to fly passenger jets into the Twin Towers. But it took the unbridled and enduring greed of our kleptocracy to cripple the twin pillars of our government and our economy. As observed here in an earlier column, the many disasters of the Bush administration — from the botched occupation of Iraq to the bungled aftermath of Katrina to (fill in the blank) — have been inevitable results of Reagan-style conservatism and the notion that that government is best which governs not at all.
As culture critic Thomas Frank spells out in his latest book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, the hollowing out of our public polis was a massive crime committed with malice aforethought by a generation of crazed if competent ideologues. What the radicals of the Sixties, William Ayres among them, could not accomplish — to wit, the overthrow of the American government — the radicals of the Eighties, from Grover Norquist to Karl Rove, have performed in spades. As Frank states, “The chief consequence of the conservatives’ unrelenting faith in the badness of government is . . . bad government” (139).
The scariest conclusion Frank reaches, however, is that it may be too late to put it all back together again. The nation we inherited in the mid-twentieth century was a flawed one, which is why the revolutions of the Sixties had to happen, but at least it was “a place where blue-collar workers owned boats and suburban homes, where government seemed at least interested in fairness, and where art and learning were respected as much as accumulation. The wreckage of that America lies all around us today. Conservatives pushed its pillars apart and sent it crashing to the ground” (274). That society was the result of a public-private, left-right consensus that began with the Depression of the 1930s and that was painstakingly maintained over the subsequent decades.
Now we all live, metaphorically speaking, in the Ninth Ward. Given that Bush’s last act as president will be to shovel another $700 billion from the treasury into the black hole of Wall Street, just in time to be minted into golden parachutes, his successor will have virtually nothing left with which to assure the nation’s health and security, let alone address our other problems. If McCain and Palin are really the mavericks they claim to be, they can prove it between now and the election by standing in opposition to the philosophy that has bankrupted us-the philosophy that still dominates their party.
It is time for government to do what it is supposed to: oversee the public’s welfare. It is time for our economy to do what an economy should: lift all boats, not just the yachts. As Thomas Frank concludes, it will take more than voting for a new dispensation to undo the devastation of the last eight years and the consequences, intended and unintended, of the last generation’s mutant conservatism. It will mean constantly lobbying our elected officials as citizens in competition with the lobbyists who now run Washington.
Vote, but verify.