The Summer of Our Discontent
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Throughout 2008 the occasional journalist has offered up retrospectives from forty years ago; 1968 is still remembered — by those old enough to remember — as a year of danger and discontent, when the fabric of this nation was not just unraveling but bursting into flame, like an American flag at a 1968 antiwar rally. Thus, this January and February called forth memories of the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese onslaught that taught us the light was nowhere near the end of the Vietnam War’s tunnel. The first week of April reminded us of the assassination of Martin Luther King; the first week of June the similar violent death of Bobby Kennedy. In between some recollected the days of May 1968, when the era of campus protest — and its violent suppression — was heralded with the actions at Columbia, mirrored in the student takeover of Paris that same month.
The horrors of 1968, of course, climaxed in the five-day police riot that enveloped the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August, a disaster that rightwing rabblerouser Rush Limbaugh wants recapitulated in Denver this year. In ’68 it was seen as the coup de grace against the liberal hegemony that had dominated American politics for a generation since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That November Richard Nixon was elected by a narrow margin, and elected again by landslide in 1972, giving us Watergate, seven more years of loss in Vietnam, and the OPEC oil embargo.
To be fair, on the plus side his regime also brought us Affirmative Action, the EPA, and small Japanese cars, albeit under outside pressure. It could be argued, however, that Nixon, who began his political career as a red-baiting congressman in the McCarthy era, paved the way for Reagan, who began his political career as a red-baiting B-movie actor in the McCarthy era. And Reagan begat George Bush the First who begat George Bush the Second and . . . we arrive back in the disaster-filled election year of 2008.
It must be said that the nature of the disasters have changed. We haven’t had assassinations and riots in the streets, although some of us who remember ’68 have held our breaths, and this year war is merely an issue, not the issue. Indeed, today’s cascade failures are dominated by the economic and the natural, though pointing to the politics of the generation past.
Back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged the one-term Jimmy Carter for the presidency, a joke circulated in Republican circles that asked: Why did Carter visit Mount St. Helens? Answer: Because it was the only disaster he hadn’t caused. I have waited in vain for the joke to be re-tooled for today’s sitting president. I was reminded of it again as Bush recently helicoptered with Governor Schwarzenegger over Northern California’s fire sites. The fires, which have been burning across the northern half of the state since the first day of summer, are now classified as the worst in the state’s history. Like the also record-breaking blazes in Southern California last October, these are harbingers of the worsening drought conditions across the state and the entire West.
Before the fires there were the massive floods in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri, and before the floods the killer tornados that swept Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. If any believer needed proof that God damns America, as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright alleged, these acts of God would provide it if not for the worse disasters elsewhere — namely, May’s typhoon in Burma and earthquake in China. For adherents of natural law, the force of the storms, floods, and holocausts cannot be definitively tied to global warming, but they fit the scientific predictions.
Again, to be fair — this isn’t Faux News, after all — President L. Duck is not directly responsible for these disasters. Climate change was on its way well before he seized the White House. However, he can be justly accused of having fiddled as the world burns: long denying global warming even existed (still de rigeur for mainline conservatives), refusing international efforts to control carbon emissions, assigning former oil and mining executives to head the government’s environmental agencies, giving them final edit on scientific reports, and so on.
Then of course there is the economy, trashed by high fuel prices and by shortsighted banking, lending, and real estate industries — truly a triumph of ideology, the culmination of the Reagan Revolution to make government ineffective and subject the ship of state to market forces. We have already discussed the economy elsewhere, however, as well as the Reagan legacy. And in this Year of Disaster many others are doing so.
Last but not least, the war goes on in Iraq, where things are not as bad as they were last year, and in Afghanistan, where they are steadily getting worse.
One has to wonder once again if part of the Bush agenda was to screw up the planet so badly that Christ had to return to set things straight. At this rate the Rapturous Right will get their Armageddon on schedule.
Which brings us at last to the presidential campaign of 2008.
Many election years have been pegged as turning points in American political history. We’ve already mentioned 1968 and 1980, among the more recent elections that represented substantial paradigm shifts, significant changing of the guards. We may be facing another. Or not.
We certainly have two of the least likely candidates we have ever seen. Who could seriously have imagined in 2004 that the perennially timid Democrats would dare to select a novice politician of mixed race with a Muslim name? During the primaries, in fact, Barack Obama’s biggest advantage was his novelty, which appealed especially to the young, the minority, and the otherwise disenchanted with politics-as-usual. While his catchwords — Hope, Change — may not delineate how he would govern or undo the devastation left by the Worst President Ever, they do appeal to potential voters who need inspiration more than details.
If recent elections, as we have been told, were swung by Soccer Moms and Nascar Dads, this year the demographic of opportunity is the euphemistically termed “Low Information Voter.” Big ideas appeal to them, and Obama could capture many with his promise of a new dispensation. Unfortunately, too many Low Information Voters still believe that Saddam Hussein ordered the jetliners into the World Trade Center and that his WMDs were conveyed to Syria and rest offshore in the Mediterranean, or believe that Barack Hussein Obama was in fact educated at a jihadist madrassa and that he didn’t wear a flag pin during the primaries because he hates America. Such Low Information Voters elect Low Information Presidents — like you know who. Serious studies show that Republicans actually benefit from stupidity.
Which leads us to the sad case of John McCain, the Low Information Candidate. McCain has been bruited as presidential material for more than a decade. A certified Vietnam Vet who spent his war imprisoned and tortured, he has touted his reputation of being a maverick and straight-talker, appealing to moderates and independents. He was pummeled by the Bush-Rove Mean Machine in 2000, the first of many Vietnam Vets to be spat upon by these chickenhawks. By the fall of 2007 he had been written off again, unable to ignite a significant following among the Republican base. But, in a triangular standoff reminiscent of the ending of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he was the last man standing when the evangelical voters decided they couldn’t vote for the Mormon Mitt Romney, and the rest of the party decided they didn’t want the evangelical Mike Huckabee.
There may be something to the theory that most Republicans expect to lose badly this year, as the polls suggest, and therefore this is the year McCain deserves his shot, that they believe the country is so fucked that no president can unfuck it in the next four years, giving them hope for 2012.
Objectively speaking, McCain is not the worst Republican in the bin. There are thousands who are worse. And despite the age jokes, his age invites us to look to a future where everyone will be expected to work well into their seventies. Now that he is the focus of attention, however, McCain looks truly pathetic. Although running on the thesis that he, with his military background and 22 years in the Senate, has the experience to take on the world, McCain started the general campaign by repeatedly confusing Shiite Islamists with the Sunni al-Qaeda, despite Joe Lieberman whispering corrections in his ear. Recently he warned about the jihadists massing on the border of Iraq and Pakistan, even though these nations are separated by Iran and Afghanistan. And while McCain echoes Bush’s insistence that our troops cannot be withdrawn from Iraq, Obama already thinks like a national leader, specifically the leader of Iraq, who also believes it’s time for a timetable. Now even the White House Office of Newspeak is talking about “aspirational time horizons.”
Even more embarrassing is McCain’s ignorance of his own experience, especially his Senate voting record. For example, following comments by his advisor Carly Fiorino about women’s inability to get birth control through health insurance, McCain was completely flummoxed when a woman reporter asked him why he had voted against a law that would have fixed the problem. He responded like a deer in headlights, if a deer could cover its face with its hands, and didn’t even remember the vote, let alone how he had voted. Yet more droll, he attacked Obama for missing a Senate vote on Iran’s missile launches, only to discover that he had missed that vote himself.
The GOP Machine has decided to go with the familiar in this campaign, trying to tar Obama not only with his inexperience, but with “elitism” and “flip-flopping.” As for the first charge, it has been pointed out that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had decades of Washington experience between them, and they still got us into this mess. As for the tired tarbrush of elitism — isn’t it time we have a president who actually knows something? Despite his name and his skin color — which is really not even black — Obama was raised by Kansans. You can’t get more Heartland than that.
Anyway, the elitism charge bounced right back at ’em when Phil Gramm, McCain’s economic advisor, accused Americans of creating a “mental recession” with all their “whining” about the economy. He would know, having been the Reagan era senator most responsible for deregulating the oil and banking industries and letting the free market have at us.
As for flip-flopping, Obama — after looking like the Great Liberal Hope in the primaries — has chagrined many would-be followers with his stands on the FISA bill that perpetuates Bush’s police state, as well as the Supreme Court decisions on gun control (against, like the Court) and the death penalty for rape (for, unlike the Court). If these are not strictly flip-flops — Obama maintains they are consistent with his record — they certainly don’t seem to reflect the Obama of Hope and Change. But given McCain’s altered positions on immigration reform, Bush’s tax cuts, and torture, he can beat Obama flip for flop.
Fundamentally, the old GOP mojo is a no-go this year. Between cable news and the internet, the lies and libels that always worked before get rapidly exposed, and the gaffes replayed.
In this Year of Disasters 2008, is it time to hope for a change?