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Compelling Leaders in a Party Impaired by Assassins and Bores
The median age in the United States is 36. That means half the people in the country were born before 1972, and well over half didn't have their first memory until 1968. Add to that the very large proportion of the politically illiterate or the politically indifferent, and it's fair to say that less than a quarter of the population today can remember the last time the words "Democrats" and "leadership" could go together without triggering laughter or embarrassment.
That's what's made the past few months of primary campaigns and elections seem so foreign to many of us who'd gotten used to Democrats as shoot-me-now bores (Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis), impotents (Jimmy Carter, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid), suicidal smug-bombs (Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Al Gore) and, in every case, political cowards frightened of their own liberal shadow. Compared to that, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton look like liberalism's Holy Trinity resurrected.
We have Democratic leaders again. It took 40 years because, as standard histories have it, Democrats imploded in the late 1960s by supposedly taking liberalism too far. In a sense the standard histories are right. America's essentially conservative sensibilities turned reactionary as blacks got too free, women too equal, students too questioning and war protesters too effective. To the white male minority that had had its way since the founding of the Republic, the majority of the population wasn't supposed to take its rights so literally. Hence law-and-order-Nixon's victory in 1968 (before lawless-and-delusional-Nixon's unraveling in 1974). Hence the "Reagan Revolution" of 1980, that dyslexic homage to 1890s America and the re-flowering of capitalism without a human face.
By pretending to have been molded from Reagan's rib, Republican presidential hopefuls are inflating two myths: That Reagan was an improvement on 1960s leadership, and that Republicans took over with ideas in place of Democrats' bankruptcy. Faith-based history has its appeal. The reality is different. "The 1960s," the historian James MacGregor Burns wrote, "had produced a burst of political talent: John Kennedy, who by 1963 was positioning himself to provide strong detente [with the Soviets] and civil rights leadership; Lyndon Johnson, who brought 30 years of New Deal, Fair Deal and New Frontier promises to culmination; Martin Luther King, who taught blacks and whites how to be both militant and nonviolent; Robert Kennedy, probably the only leader of his generation who had the potential to have firmly united the black, peace, and women's movements with the Democratic party." Those leaders had ideas, discipline and admiration enough to ensure decades of liberal leadership. Instead, MacGregor Burns writes, "three of these leaders were killed; the other was politically disabled. Who would -- who could -- take their place?"
The Republican ascendancy was fill-in-the-blanks opportunism. Conservatism since 1980 has been an era of reaction and regression -- a dismantling of the American experiment as an ideal of egalitarian opportunity for most, of positive freedoms from want and insecurity for most, and a re-branding of America into the land of the opportunist, the selfish, the Gordon Gekko-admiring greedster. There is a void this time, not only of leadership but of humanity.
It's taken 40 years, but Democrats look not only incomparably more qualified than their opponents, but more compelling as leaders. They're talking about doing things that matter tangibly to most Americans' daily lives: reforming health care, ending the gerrymandering of the tax code as a subsidy to the rich, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, resuming federally supported stem-cell research, ending a war that should've never been started. Granted, Clinton and Edwards helped start the war as well as the warmongers in the other party. I have no doubt Obama, who can't wait to bomb Pakistan -- as U.S. missiles did last week, to the inexplicable silence of the American press -- would have cast his vote for the war had he been in the Senate then. But at least the Democrats are willing to look the catastrophe in the face and cut losses without falling for that "surge" lie (martial law and zilch political accomplishments aren't progress).
The Republicans' Iraq fix? Step up the bombing. Plus, the old ideological stand-bys of tax cuts, free markets, Reagan fetishism and immigrant-bashing, John McCain's fast-expiring civility on that count notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney takes God as a running mate, Mike Huckabee one-ups him by autographing Bibles, and the septuagenarian deifies his prisoner-of-war years in Vietnam as shamelessly as Rudy Giuliani did the Indian summer of his 9/11 mayoralty. No wonder Ron Paul looks presidential in comparison. The Democrats' knack for self-destruction remains stronger than the state of the Union. But regardless of what happens today, it's their race to lose. They know it. Republicans have no winners. But they have assassins, and 2004's Swiftboat slanders proved that lies can be as effective as bullets.
© 2008 News-Journal Corporation