We may never reach a consensus on just what it was about George W. Bush that led so many millions of Americans to ignore his Administration’s dishonesty, incompetence, ideological fanaticism and corruption and vote for the guy. Early exit poll analysis put a premium on “moral values,” but that explanation evaporated with even rudimentary scrutiny. Clearly the most significant advantage Bush enjoyed came in the various national security categories, despite the fact that this is the area where the Bush Administration’s myriad failings, both personal and professional, ought to be most obvious.
Evidently, thirty years of attacks on liberals’ national security credentials have taken their toll. Given both his experience as a senator and his heroism during the Vietnam War, abroad and at home, John Kerry should have easily trumped Bush here, but he didn’t even come close. During the brief post-cold war/pre-“war on terror” interregnum, Bill Clinton could squeak past George H.W. Bush with a largely economic argument, but Osama bin Laden put an end to those days together with the Twin Towers. Unless liberals find a way to reverse this trend, they will forfeit election after election, notwithstanding the increasing extremism and irresponsibility of Bush & Co. in virtually every area of public policy.
We didn’t always have this problem. From FDR’s victory in 1932 through the election of 1968, liberals were viewed as “tougher” on national security than skinflint–frequently isolationist–conservatives, and the Democrats were the natural party of government. This does not mean they were always right; indeed, there is much in the conduct of US foreign policy under liberal leadership that turned out quite badly. (Nation readers hardly require a lesson in those misadventures.) The point is that, like it or not, the perception of “strength” is the sine qua non of American politics. As Bill Clinton famously observed, it is politically safer to be perceived to be “strong and wrong” rather than weak and right.
Not long ago at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a few hundred people came together to salute two liberals who played a crucial role in creating what historian Kevin Mattson terms a “fighting faith”–one that appealed to the main currents of American political discourse while simultaneously inspiring a sense of solidarity and common purpose among middle-class and poor Americans. At the age of 96 and 87 respectively, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have participated in as many of the great political and intellectual battles of postwar US history as any two men alive. Political comrades and intellectual allies, both men have pursued careers that, for a time, involved combining political combat and intellectual disputation. Remarkably–though it was not always apparent at the moment these disputes were taking place–neither has allowed the demands of politics to compromise his intellectual work. Nor, at the same time, have they held themselves to be above painful but necessary compromises that define political effectiveness.