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Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 2002 / 3 Kislev, 5763

Martin Peretz

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How the Dems handed Bush the election | Right there on the Larry King show came Terry McAuliffe to tell the nation that "it was a good night for the Democrats." And, "aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?"

If this election was not quite the romp the Republicans are making it out to be, their victory was at least deep enough and wide enough for Democrats to puzzle. Of course, they are constitutionally unable to credit the rapport of George W. Bush with the vox populi as one reason for the outcome. But the fact is that, by campaigning so intensely, he made himself the issue. And whether this strategy was a result of polling or an expression of intuition, the results have to be seen as the president's victory. To the extent that this is the case, moreover, it is the defeat not only of the Democratic candidates individually but of the leadership collectively. If ours were a parliamentary system, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt would resign their posts as congressional chieftains and contemplate retiring to the sticks. True, Gephardt has indicated he'll step down. But the reason is to enable him to run for president, not any sense of responsibility.

I believe that the Democratic performance was so pathetic--losing big where the odds were even (Erskine Bowles, Jeanne Shaheen, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Shannon O'Brien), winning small where the odds were large (Jennifer Granholm, Gray Davis) --because neither the party itself, in so far as it has a self, nor the individual candidates ever faced the fact that the most serious underlying issues for the country are the internal and external threats to its security. In truth, these constitute one issue, not seamless, but certainly intertwined. The nation is in danger, and Democrats avert their eyes. In this circumstance, it hardly matters whether they are right on prescription drugs for the elderly.

The Democratic candidates--most affectingly Max Cleland in Georgia, most reflexively Fritz Mondale in Minnesota--put themselves in hock to the labor movement when they promised to support the insupportable: that a Homeland Security Department be unionized. This is tantamount to running the Air Force under a collective bargaining scheme. I am not aware of a single Democratic candidate who demurred from this mad orthodoxy.

On Iraq, enough Democrats actually supported the resolution without which the United States would have now been hobbled at the U.N. Security Council (confession: I don't believe that being hobbled at the U.N. would be such a catastrophe). But their support was a clear case of having been backed into their position by the administration, and Democrats are still averse to supporting an assault on Saddam Hussein. Hillary Clinton's fatuous excuse for supporting the Iraq resolution was that it made war against Iraq less likely.

But this all-too-clever rhetorical maneuvering on Iraq was nothing alongside the fact that the House Democratic whip, David Bonior, journeyed to Baghdad (with two Democratic colleagues in tow) for an audience with Saddam Hussein--one which evoked the craven pilgrimages of British appeasers of Hitler. Bonior's visit was not exactly a surprise to folks who've watched him over the years, as I have. But just as craven and damaging to Democrats was Gephardt's refusal to upbraid his partner in the House leadership. It wouldn't be surprising if some Americans began wondering how a person like Bonior could have risen so high in the Democratic ranks. It is not a stupid question.

As Democratic luck would have it, Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the height of the campaign. Suddenly, all the mortifying foreign policy images of the Carter presidency--not to mention double digit inflation and unemployment and interest rates--surfaced in the glow of Oslo, which had more than a tint of anti-Americanism. For a few days, it even seemed as though the election would become a contest between Jimmy Carter's view of the world and George Bush's. But that, frankly, is no contest at all: Bush wins hands down.

And, then, Paul Wellstone was killed in an airplane crash. The culture suddenly configured perhaps the single most ineffectual legislator in the Senate into a hero, and everybody, Republicans and Democrats, cooperated in the mawkish remake. To replace him in the election, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party turned to Fritz Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice president, which filled out the canvas. Already the nation had been exposed to an incomprehensible nostalgia among the elites for Carter's supine presidency. Now, the man who had been at his side--though, in truth, never fully with him--had been summoned to save the Senate for the Democrats. It didn't work.

There are economic issues with which the Democrats might have mounted a telling campaign against the Bush administration's attendants in Congress. But the opposition would have had to park their facile (but not phony) wedge issues--social security, prescription drugs, etc.--so that they might address the bigger question of the moral obligations of democratic capitalism to the wider American citizenry. Of course, this takes a larger vision than the Democrats apparently have. But more importantly, no amount of posturing on the economy would have addressed the question of whether the Democrats are willing to support the rough measures necessary to protect a nation in peril. In the end, the election was Bush's for the taking.

JWR contributor Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.


10/22/02: The Pride
09/09/02: With war against Saddam, Bush sends message to Arafat
05/30/02: Good fight
04/26/02: Of Poets and Murderers
04/12/02: Before there were 'Palestinians,' there was Arafat: The making of a 'statesman'
02/08/02: Foresight
10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2002, Martin Peretz