As the Bush era reaches its sordid finale, pundits and politicians are attempting to float any number of specious notions in order to try to put lipstick on this metaphorical pig of a presidency, as well as to constrict President-elect Obama’s room for maneuver. The most transparent of these was the laughable claim by New York Times pundit William Kristol that “We’ve won the [Iraq] war.” As Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room has sagely noted, Kristol’s statement makes sense only if one redefines “win” to mean “completely failed to produce any of the positive effects I previously insisted would be forthcoming, but avoided the very worst imaginable outcome.” The war, as Peter Galbraith demonstrates in his recent book Unintended Consequences, has increased the terrorist threat to the United States; strengthened our enemy, Iran, further endangering Israel; weakened friendly Arab regimes like Jordan; reduced American prestige everywhere; and failed in its fundamental aim to create a functioning democratic state in Iraq. It has done so, moreover, at a cost, according to the extremely conservative calculations of a recent Brookings Institution report, of roughly 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, 5 million displaced Iraqi refugees, 4,000 dead American soldiers, more than 30,000 wounded soldiers and more than $500 billion (though Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz more credibly puts the cost at $3 trillion).
The absurdity of Kristol’s campaign is self-evident. A more complicated dynamic, however, is at work in the insistent claim we hear from almost everywhere in the MSM that President Obama had better be careful about veering too far leftward because, after all, we live in a “center-right nation.”
The most eloquent and influential of these salvos came in the form of a pre-election cover story by Newsweek‘s editor, Jon Meacham, the author of a number of bestselling and well-respected biographical studies. Unfortunately, in this case, Meacham concocted a historical house of cards.
Meacham puts great stock in the fact that barely one in five Americans embraces the label “liberal” to describe themselves. But this is easily explained by the mountains of opprobrium that conservatives–working hand in glove with a cowed MSM–have heaped on “liberals” during the past three decades and the negative associations that have resulted. If you examine the actual policy positions of those Americans who eschew the liberal label, you’ll see that the vast majority of Americans, whatever they may call themselves, embrace the “liberal” position on virtually every significant issue. (Replace the word “liberal” with “progressive,” and you will nearly double the number of respondents who claim it.) And these numbers are growing as more and more young people demonstrate even greater liberal tendencies than their parents and grandparents in opinion surveys across the board.
Meacham points to a pattern of Democratic presidents tripped up by their liberal leanings, but his assessment of the putative causes of these failures is highly debatable, to say the least. While it is true that FDR’s party lost significant ground in the 1938 and 1942 midterm elections, these were short setbacks on the way to winning five straight presidential elections and nine of ten Congressional contests. (If this is Meacham’s idea of “overreach,” well, I think Obama would be willing to sign on the dotted line.) Moreover, FDR suffered politically from his misbegotten desire to return to a balanced budget. And he was never so successful, and never so unapologetically liberal, as in his 1936 re-election effort, when he spoke for the party of “militant liberalism”–one he later described as believing “in the duty of Government” to solve society’s problems, in opposition to those who placed faith in “individual initiative and private philanthropy” to “take care of all situations.”
Sure, as Meacham points out, “LBJ had only two years of great success before Vietnam.” But it’s rather a stretch to argue, following George W. Bush’s Vietnam-like Iraq misadventure, that Obama is likely to reprise either man’s catastrophic combination of arrogance and incompetence. (Besides, Vietnam was as much a conservative cause as a liberal one in Johnson’s early years.)
Similarly, Carter and Clinton had their early missteps, but to blame these on liberal overreach is to misread (and oversimplify) the complex causes and effects of historical contingency. Did the oil embargo, stagflation and exploding interest rates have something to do with Carter’s failure? And was Clinton’s anti-NRA crime bill–the proximate cause of the 1994 midterm election debacle–really so “liberal”? Massive majorities of Americans supported exactly those elements to which the gun fanatics objected: the outlawing of cop-killing bullets and semiautomatic machine guns.
Later on in his essay, Meacham switches the topic to argue that America is less liberal than most of Europe. This is undeniably true when comparing the electoral results of our political systems. But save for the fact of Americans’ far deeper attachment to their churches and mistrust of their government, many of the differences can be attributed to significant dysfunction in the practice of American democracy. Western Europe is filled with governments that do a far better job than ours when it comes to services and social and environmental security broadly defined. But these same countries also enjoy more responsive political systems that are at least partially based on proportional representation, ideologically coherent political parties and far less legal corruption resulting from private funding of public office.
John McCain’s alter ego, Mark Salter, predicted, “Over 60 percent of Americans considered Barack Obama to be a ‘liberal.’ Typically, a candidate is not going to win the presidency with those figures.”
I guess these labels aren’t what they used to be.