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The New Liberal Guilt

Why the news from Iraq poses a moral dilemma for Bush-bashing Democrats.

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Conservatives coined the phrase liberal guilt some years ago to apply to—okay, make sport of—the liberal inclination toward pity for the lower classes and society’s marginal (and sometimes worse) figures. As in: Enough with liberal guilt; let’s just lock ’em up and throw away the key! It was, as we know, rather effective.

Today there is a new liberal guilt afoot, propelled into the ether not so much by conservative rhetoric as by the liberal conscience itself. It has to do, not surprisingly, with George W. Bush, and it plays out something like this: Democrats burn to see Bush lose next year’s election more than they’ve desired any electoral outcome in decades. That being the case, a certain amount of cheering for bad news is to be embraced. It’s an age-old political tradition.

But today there’s a glaring moral catch: Bad news is likely to take the form of the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, as it does daily. And who can cheer for that?

No one can, and no one does. And yet, let’s be honest: Where is the anti-Bush Democrat who doesn’t guiltily sneak a nervous glance at the latest poll numbers to make sure, with an approving harrumph, that the problems in Iraq are reflecting badly on the incumbent? The moral dilemma here is clear, and vexing. A Dow Jones slump is one thing; one can quietly chortle over that without ever being tapped on the shoulder by one’s pesky conscience. But loss of life and catastrophic policy failure with potential consequences reaching deep into the future are, you know, serious things.

Happily, there is a guilt-free interpretation. First of all, hoping that Bush will pay the ultimate political price for the problems in Iraq is a legitimate partisan yearning. But it’s also, it can be argued, a legitimate moral one: After all, he started the nastiness. He suited up to declare victory just as, it turns out, the war’s second phase was beginning. And then he foolishly—incredibly, actually—said “Bring ’em on” when questioned about the attacks on U.S. soldiers back in July. So maybe it’s not liberals’ consciences that should be guilty here.


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