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7/29/2004

Drivel from Will

George Will's column in today's Post is so laughably incoherent on its face that it doesn't deserve a lengthy response. But I'm up, and my brain is functioning at 25% capacity, and that is more than enough to make fun of Will.

Today's column is an exercise in schizophrenia.  The first half is dedicated to dismissing the differences between the parties, the second half atributes this to ideological polarization. 

When John Kerry speaks tonight he may promise, again, to cut corporate taxes and increase the size of the military by 40,000 people. Both ideas are sensible -- and tactical. They are supposed to blunt Republican charges that he stands on one side of a vast ideological chasm separating the parties. Democrats make similar, and similarly silly, charges about this election as the hinge on which American and world history will turn.
He wants to cut corporate taxes while closing corporate tax loopholes. I don't think the tax reductions are necessary, but as a revenue neutral change, it is still worth supporting. He wants to increase the size of the military because its current obligations have overstretched it, with the gaps filled by unaccountable private military firms and activated reservists. It is good, responsible policy. That is the greatest ideological gap separating Democrats from Republicans - one thinks government can be made to work for the people, one thinks government can be made to fatten friends' bottom lines.
What is strange about politics today is not just that it is so passionate -- particularly on the part of Democrats unhinged by their loathing of George W. Bush -- but that the passions seem displaced. They are not merely disproportionate to the parties' policy differences; they seem almost unrelated to those differences.

Would Democrats loathe Bush much less if Sept. 11 and the Iraq war had never happened? The depth of their loathing of him after the Florida unpleasantness but before his inauguration suggests otherwise. And Republicans relishing -- the verb fits -- their fear of Kerry cannot have missed the fact that, like most political careerists whose compass is caution, he actually represents a remarkably unremarkable response to Bush's policies.
There are huge policy differences between the parties, on issue ranging from environmental protection to international obligations. The policy differences alone are enough for passion. But again, Will misses the point. George Bush is not a good president, he is not and has not been up to the task. Republicans think government is something to be destroyed or taken advantage of. They treat it like a rental car. What Will mistakes for caution in Kerry is concern for good governance and good policy. He really just doesn't understand the importance of competence- he has spent too much time in the trenches of the conservative movement.
Like Bush, Kerry says that success in Iraq is necessary, and he defines success as Bush does: Iraq secure, prosperous and democratic. The drama of a Kerry presidency would not be in his attempts to enlist "the world" in helping to achieve that but in his reaction to his failure to do so.
In fact, the whole world defines success in Iraq this way. The question is who has the resolve to try to make it happen. Does anyone doubt that Bush would pull all the troops out of Iraq tomorrow if it helped in November? He has planned the entire operation around an electoral marketing scheme, everything from the "roll out" of the war to the ramping up of the WMD-intelligence commission.

Kerry stands a chance of forming an international coalition. The world wants success in Iraq, and Kerry's election will provide an opportunity for them to make good on that wish. 
Kerry says he would not rule out preemptive military action, but Bush probably exhausted presidential ability to take such action by doing so against a nation that lacked the attribute that could justify it -- possession of weapons of mass destruction by a regime likely to use them. Yes, the world is better off because Bush rid Iraq of the regime that filled the mass graves, but he does not argue that human rights horrors justify preemptive war.
Mr. Will should look up the difference between preventive and preemptive. Preemptive war may still be justifiable, just not on uncertain evidence stovepiped to eager politicians from more eager defectors. Preventive war is not justifiable, just as it wasn't prior to the invasion of Iraq. Kerry wouldn't sell a preventive war as preemptive.

This is still a pretty big admission from Will, that the "human rights" rationale for the war doesn't cut it.
The first crisis of the next presidential term probably will be Iran's approaching possession of nuclear weapons. Bush's policy already is Kerryesque: Ask "the world" to help. It is not working.
Bush's response has been to do nothing. His most recent action was to inflame the Iranian regime by absolving a group of anti-Iranian terrorists of wrongdoing. Kerry will probably form an international coalition, like the NK 94 group, that will resolve the situation. It will be unpleasant, but it will make us safer. Republicans will surely attack him for it.
Domestically, the parties differ primarily about the modalities for administering -- and expanding -- the welfare state. These are not trivial differences, but neither are they akin to those that existed in living memory when the parties differed about whether there should be a welfare state. Bush's interest in serious reforms of Social Security and Medicare has been relegated by his war preoccupations to a second term, for which they would be unsuited by his lame-duck status, even if Congress were not paralyzed by acrimony.
Republicans, perhaps the 1994 extremists aside, have never been serious about eliminating the welfare state. Bush had the chance to privatize social security, but squandered the transition costs dough on ill-designed tax cuts. His Medicare reform is a sick joke. Again, it gets back to seriousness and competence. Bush is serious about serving his donors and friends, Kerry is serious about serving the American people.  The ideology one takes in approaching government impacts one's ability to design policy.  Anti-government conservatives just don't think it matters, and it shows.  Democrats recognize that government is an obligation, a responsibility, something that needs serious commitment.
In 2000, six years after Republicans gained 52 House seats by promising, among much else, to abolish the Department of Education, candidate Bush promised to increase federal involvement in the quintessential state and local responsibility -- primary and secondary education. And he has delivered. In 2000, he, like Vice President Al Gore, promised to enrich, with a prescription drug benefit, the entitlement menu of the emblematic achievement of the Great Society, Medicare. And he has delivered. Neither Bush nor Kerry is illuminating about reducing the deficit, or about coping with something that will begin in the fourth year of the next presidential term -- the retirement of 77 million baby boomers.
NCLB is a boondoggle, another underfunded example of policy design run amuck. Bush realized it was a potent political issue and sought to defuse it, without ever caring whether he helped people or not. There are no signs that Bush ever intends to do anything to shore up Medicare, and Social Security is still relatively healthy.
So why the bitter sense, on both sides, of apocalypse soon if the other side prevails? Because at last we have the parties that intellectuals have long wanted.

Until now America has never had an almost complete congruence between ideological and party identities. A great sorting out has put almost all liberals in one party, conservatives in the other. Intellectuals, with their hankering for clarity and coherence, have long desired this condition. Europe has long had it. Now that Americans have it, their politics has become what it is.
The schizophrenia begins. Did Will mistakenly combine two unrelated columns? How does ideological polarization explain policy-congruence? Beats me. The anti-intellectualism is gratuitous, a reminder of how conservative caricatures are omnipresent, but nonsensical. Where has an intellectual ever called for greater ideological polarization?

He is, of course, also wrong on the sociology. There is no evidence that the Democratic Party has become more ideologically uniform. The Democratic Party has space for Lieberman and Sharpton, Dean and Moseley Braun. The RNC convention has space for Santorum and Scwarzenegger. Oh wait, Santorum won't be speaking.
The tone-setting activists of both parties exemplify an unpleasant product of modern government: the entitlement mentality. They believe not merely that their party deserves to govern because of the superior wisdom of its policies but that they are entitled to govern because of their moral and intellectual superiority.
This is supposed to bridge the schizophrenia? First, note again the invocation of conservative stereotypes about liberals. This piece is not bipartisan in its criticism, despite is superficial even-handedness. Conservatives think government social spending creates an "entitlement mentality," a reticence to grovel when we aren't tossed into debtor's prison.

Second, how does this relate to the belief that one's political party is morally and intellectually superior to the alternatives? What aspect of government has encouraged this insidious development? I would lay the blame for the moralization of politics squarely at the feet of conservative functionaries, who never miss an opportunity to accuse Democrats of godless heathenism, though it has a long tradition in America.  Our moralization can not compare to the conflagrations between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. 
Tonight Kerry speaks in the city where Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused a belief that much contemporary historiography, with its egalitarian bent, rejects -- that "there is properly no history; only biography." Historians may say history is made as much by the pepper trade or scullery maids as by presidents, but Kerry's biography matters greatly because presidents do. His biography suggests more banality than menace, although banality in high office can be its own kind of menace.
Complete incoherence and typical irrelevance. That historians say history is more than biography does not mean biography is not part of history. No historian would advise the erasure of people. Emerson happens to be wrong, but it is completely irrelevant.

The banality/meance line is too much. I give up. If Kerry's biography suggests banality, what does George W. Bush's suggest?

 

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