What's the matter with conservatives? Why can't they relax and be happy? They have the White House, both houses of Congress, the majority of governorships and more money than God. They rule talk-radio and the TV political chat shows, and they get plenty of space in the papers; for all the talk about the liberal media, nine out of the fourteen most widely syndicated columnists are conservatives. Even the National Endowment for the Arts, that direct-mail bonanza of yore, is headed by a Republican now. Never mind whether conservatives deserve to run the country and dominate the discourse; the fact is, for the moment, they do.
What I want to know is, Why can't they just admit it, throw a big party and dance on the table with lampshades on their heads? Why are they always claiming to be excluded and silenced because most English professors are Democrats? Why must they re-prosecute Alger Hiss whenever Susan Sarandon gives a speech or Al Franken goes after Bill O'Reilly? If I were a conservative, I would think of those liberal professors spending their lives grading papers on The Scarlet Letter and I would pour myself a martini. I would pay Susan Sarandon to say soulful and sincere things about peace, I would hire Al Franken and sneak him on O'Reilly's show as a practical joke. And if some Democratic dinosaur lifted his head out of the Congressional tarpits to orate about the missing WMDs, or unemployment, or the two and a half million people who lost their health insurance this year, I'd nod my head sagely and let him rant on. Poor fellow. Saddam Hussein was his best friend, after Stalin died. No wonder he's upset.
For some reason right-wingers do not take this calm and broadminded view. Maybe they didn't get enough love in their childhoods, or maybe they're in more trouble than we know. In any case, they've taken to lecturing the opposition on manners whenever it shows signs of life. Ted Kennedy says the Iraq war was "a fraud made up in Texas" and Bush complains that he's "uncivil." "Not civil," Condoleezza Rice agrees, "not helpful." Well, excuuuse me! In National Review, Byron York obsesses about anti-Bush websites and the "one long bellow of rage" that is...MoveOn.org? David Brooks, the New York Times's new conservative Op-Ed columnist, mourns the passing of the culture wars, which were about ideas, and wrings his hands over the "vitriol" of the new "presidency wars," which are just about hating Bush as "illegitimate...ruthless, dishonest and corrupt." Exhibit A: Jonathan Chait's eloquent, shrewd and not at all vicious New Republic essay on why he hates President Bush (among other things, his triumph is an affront to meritocratic principles--well, it is!). Even Ann Coulter is worried that "the country is trapped in a political discourse that resembles professional wrestling." Gee, is this the same Ann Coulter who wrote that Timothy McVeigh should have driven his truck into the New York Times headquarters, whose bestselling polemic Treason argues that liberals are Commie-loving traitors who hate America? The Prozac must be working.
As Brooks, at least, acknowledges, the right is in a weak position when it claims to be shocked, shocked, shocked by liberal speech today. Remember when Newt Gingrich blamed Susan Smith's drowning her children on Democrats? ("How a mother can kill her two children, 14 months and 3 years, in hopes that her boyfriend would like her is just a sign of how sick the system is, and I think people want to change. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.") Never mind that Smith had been molested as a young girl by her stepfather, a South Carolina Republican Party activist with close ties to Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Remember when Gingrich called the Democratic Party "the enemy of normal Americans," and Dan Burton, chairman of the House Reform Committee, called President Clinton a "scumbag"? (Committee spokesperson Will Dwyer defended this epithet as "straight talk.") During the Clinton years you could turn on the TV and watch Jerry Falwell hawking videos "proving" that Vince Foster was murdered--a view promoted repeatedly by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and even entertained by Brooks's Times colleague William Safire. (And Foster's was only one of the many murders the President was supposed to have arranged.) You could hear Rush Limbaugh declare, "Bill Clinton may be the most effective practitioner of class warfare since Lenin"--Bill Clinton, the best friend Wall Street ever had!
Ancient history? It was only two years ago that Richard Lessner of the Family Research Council asked in a press release, "What do Saddam Hussein and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have in common?" Answer: "Neither man wants America to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Just this September, Tom DeLay accused Ted Kennedy of "extremist appeasement," charged that "national Democrat leaders this year have crossed a line and now fully embrace their hostile, isolationist extreme" and called opposition to the Miguel Estrada nomination "a political hate crime." (You'll notice--a small but telling point--DeLay continues the Gingrich-era intentionally rude substitution of "Democrat" for "Democratic.") Coulter's Treason sits on the bookshelves alongside right-wing ravings with titles like Bias, The No-Spin Zone and Useful Idiots (in which Mona Charen cites yours truly as "demonstrating the reliable theme of America-loathing that informs much leftist thinking" because I didn't want to fly the flag after 9/11). Very high-minded, very rational!
Well, they wanted state power, and thanks to the Supreme Court Five, they got it. But unfortunately, running the country turns out to be harder than it looked when Bill Clinton was killing off Hillary's lovers between Cabinet meetings. He made it seem so easy! Now, unemployment is way up, the government's awash in red ink, Iraq is a mess. So, everything has to be someone else's fault--mean liberals who really, really want to win in 2004, Osama-loving pranksters who forward e-mail jokes about the President's IQ, Bill and Hillary, still magically pulling the strings three years after leaving the White House, having thoughtfully arranged for 9/11 before they departed.
They can dish it out, but they sure can't take it.