*From the February 11, 1991 issue of New York Magazine.
AND THE DEMOCRATS AT A LOSS
War changes everything, the seers say—or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it just intensifies everything. If there are to be “lessons” from the Persian Gulf—vast changes in the national character or confidence, as some have predicted—they won’t happen for a while. For now, the domestic political impact of the war is quite the opposite: Everything seems the same, only more so. George Bush digs deeper into his foreign-policy bunker, allergic to domestic concerns; the Democrats, hapless and divided, drift farther from the presidential mainstream. The partisan grammar is set in concrete. Republicans speak in simple sentences; Democrats, modify, qualify, add clauses and conditions.
“Our cause is just,” the president said in his State of the Union address. “Our cause is moral. Our cause is right.”
“The difference [between us and the president, before the war] was not in the goals, but in the means,” Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell replied after Bush spoke, as much of America switched channels, scoped the fridge, or walked the dog. “Whether force should be used immediately, or only as a last resort if other means failed.”
Once again, the Democrats had been left in the dust, forced to explain themselves, to defend nuances that were no longer relevant. Mitchell—like Sam Nunn and many other centrist Democrats—had been a turtledove during the congressional debate: A war might be justified, they posited, but should be approached slowly, giving economic sanctions time to work. This seemed credible, perhaps even good politics, for two months: from November 8, when the president doubled the troops in the gulf and transformed Desert Shield into an offensive operation, until January 9, when Jim Baker emerged from his meeting with Tariq Aziz looking slightly green, and announced there was no progress. The Iraqis weren’t interested in a deal.
In retrospect, the world turned at that moment. If Baker—who could find a foothold in a plate-glass cliff—couldn’t do business, then Saddam was truly intractable. He would have to be stopped. The Democrats’ temporizing and hairsplitting had assumed a more civilized opponent, a less dangerous world. Suddenly, their compound sentences—Sam Nunn’s scholarly nuances—seemed beside the point.
The president had been steadfast throughout, sometimes childishly so, but his initial assessment had proved right: Saddam was rapacious, insatiable. The Hitler analogy had been overwrought, but the references to European appeasement of Hitler were quite on target. Saddam’s cagey, amoral fierceness in the war’s first weeks—plus the astounding size of his arsenal—left little doubt that the Iraqi threat to the region was real and, if unchallenged, could only have grown; it would have had to be confronted sooner or later.
Bust was as good as he gets last week—at least, when he spoke about the war. There were no poses, no grasping for images, none of the desperate clumsiness that seems to overtake him when he has to deal with complex moral or political issues (or anything other than war, for that matter). Call it Bushido, after the ancient Japanese military code of chivalry, but the president’s martial self is quite a bit more attractive, and substantial, than the political fella who often seems a stranger in his own skin. Bush at war is humble, sober, certain; above all, he seems to understand, and respect, the gravity of the moment. He made scant effort to inspire, but emphasized—four times in his speech—“the hard work of freedom.” Ronald Reagan, by contrast, might have sent the nation careering to the barricades with tears and fury. This is far more admirable, given the grim possibilities ahead.
The president’s eloquent sobriety even carried over a bit into the domestic part of the program. But not much: His call to altruism (“If you’re not hungry, not lonely, not in trouble, seek out someone who is”) quickly gave way to the expected half-hearted laundry list of domestic-policy whimsies. The grammar shifted. Sentences compounded, wandered into jargon, became incomprehensible. He talked about “the innovative power of ‘states as laboratories’ ” as “a theme of this administration.” Assorted wonks may have recognized this as a reference to a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis and, more recently, to David Osborne’s book, Laboratories of Democracy, a celebration of anti-bureaucratic strategies. But the general public—and, perhaps, the president himself—had to wonder what on earth he was talking about.
Bush has difficulty dissembling: He really doesn’t care about such things—and the people know it. On the day of the State of the Union, an ABC-Washington Post poll showed Bush with the expected stratospheric levels of public support and yet with negative ratings on his handling of the economy.
This could be trouble if the war ends quickly and the public has time to reflect on all the things Bush hasn’t done as president. Several of the more incurably optimistic Democrats were floating a Churchill scenario last week: After saving Britain in World War II, Winston Churchill was tossed from office within months of V-E day (because of his unrelenting bellicosity, directed post-war against the Commies) by a public hungry for tranquility. Similarly, Bush may not win many votes as the Liberator of Kuwait if the economy doesn’t revive.
The president’s domestic inhibitions aren’t merely impolitic; they’re near-pathological—how else does one explain the renewed call for a capital-gains-tax reduction? And what about the oft-delayed Bush energy policy, which always seems scheduled to be unveiled next month? “The very mention of ‘energy policy’ sends people around here running for the exits,” says an administration source. “It brings to mind Jimmy Carter—and boondoggles like coal gasification, and more bureaucrats, and more regs.”
It shouldn’t. The best, most efficient energy policy can be stated in a simple sentence: Those who use fossil fuels should pay the freight. If gas were more expensive—it costs $3 to $4 per gallon in most industrial countries—there would be tremendous market pressure for more efficient cars, alternative fuels, and perhaps even mass transit. A higher gas tax is philosophically unassailable—especially when combined with payroll-tax relief for workers to make it more progressive—but politically quite impossible.
“I love it when our guys say Bush should call for a gas tax,” said a Democratic congressman. “We won’t. The public hates it. We started with a 12-cent tax in last year’s budget deal, which isn’t much, and it was knocked down to 5. If you want to have an energy policy—which is really a euphemism for doing something about gasoline—you have to go through the back door and force the automakers to raise their mileage standards. You can pass that, but it isn’t exactly defensible in free-market terms.”
It’s only a short intellectual jog from mileage standards to subsidizing vaguely energy-related things, like coal gasification—or any number of sly dodges that special interests routinely weave into domestic legislation because they’re easy to pass. No wonder Bush hates this sort of stuff. Honest Democrats don’t have much stomach for it either, but legislating—as opposed to governing—is what they do, so they have to keep busy. Listen to the “specifics” of George Mitchell’s energy policy: “We need a new energy program which encourages conservation, promotes the use of alternative fuels, and reduces our dependence on foreign oil,” he said. Period.
Actually, Mitchell’s speech wasn’t bad as such thing go. He delivered the entangled dependent clauses that are at the heart of the Democratic message with juridical aplomb. It is significant, and depressing, that his most effective moments—and simplest sentences—came when he was describing the current economy: “We’re in a recession. More than a million Americans who had jobs last year are out of work today. Bankruptcies are rising. The banking system is in trouble….”
And so on: Democrats are great at bad news. Without a compelling program of their own, they’ve been rooting for a recession ever since Reagan. The gulf war raises the ante—bad news there may be their only chance at the White House in 1992.
Now, of course, no Democrat would admit this even to a spouse. But it is a subtext, especially on the desperate left wing of the party. Several days before Bush spoke, Democratic “wingers” organized themselves into a new splinter group: the Coalition for Democratic Values. The meeting was notable for the firepower present—Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt—and for a relentless string of speakers exhorting the crown to stop cutting ideological corners and “stand up for what we really believe.” It was also notable for the vast quantities of fudge produced on the subject of the war.
Every one of the speakers supported “our troops” in the Persian Gulf, of course. “But that’s not enough,” said Hyman Bookbinder, of the American Jewish Committee, during a question period. “We do our troops, and the truth, a disservice if we fail to mention…that this is a just war that must be won.”
A number of people in the audience groaned: “Noooo.”
Bookbinder added that it wouldn’t do much for morale if the troops were left to believe they had been shipped off “for an unjust, immoral purpose.”
But that’s exactly what many of those at the meeting though. Bookbinder was followed by a fellow named Tom Chorlton, who described himself as a member of the DC Statehood Party and the Gay & Lesbian Democrats of America. He mentioned that everyone had agreed that Democrats should distinguish themselves from the GOP on the issues: “This isn’t a Bush- lookalike contest,” he said. “I believe this war is being fought at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong reason. If we don’t say it, who the hell is going to?”
There was silence from the panel of liberal heavies. Finally, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa gave it a try: “A day of reckoning is coming. This war is going to have to be accounted for [by] those who led us into it.”
This was met by eerie acquiescence. No doubt the senator—a Vietnam-era veteran—hoped for the best in the Gulf, but it didn’t come out that way. He seemed to assume the worst. It was a vivid, if somewhat grisly, display of the cynicism about American purpose, competence, and morality that has become a staple for too many Democrats since Vietnam. Such congenital sourness must be a terrible burden—it’s a political death wish—and yet it is borne with a relish truly gruesome to behold.