A date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party is Jan. 24, 1992.
That's the day Rickey Ray Rector was executed in Arkansas while Gov. Bill Clinton
stood by and did nothing.
On that day in Arkansas, the Democratic Party also died. Its body is still
with us, to be sure, but its heart and soul died 10 years ago.
Rickey Ray Rector, for those who would like to forget, shot and killed police
officer Bob Martin in Conway, Ark., in 1981. After firing on Martin, Rector shot
himself in the head. He botched the job, succeeding only in turning himself into
His brain was so wrecked that before going to the execution chamber, Rector
saved part of his last meal "for later."
Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992 when Rector was put to death.
Clinton ran as a Democrat. In those days, only 10 years ago, most Democrats opposed
capital punishment. It is safe to say that nearly all Democrats then were opposed
to executing retarded people, no matter how severe their crimes.
But Clinton remembered the downfall of one Michael Dukakis four years earlier.
Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, saw his presidential aspirations
go up in smoke partly because he was perceived to be soft on crime.
In politician-speak, and particularly Republican-speak, any public official
who doesn't have a brutish attitude toward society's losers is soft on crime.
In Dukakis' case, rapist-murderer Willie Horton was rather stupidly furloughed
from a Massachusetts prison, only to escape to Maryland to rape again. He was
caught and quickly became a political liability to Dukakis, who was castigated
in the 1988 Democrat primary by one Albert Gore Jr., another failed presidential
aspirant of recent fame.
Willie Horton went on to become a legend in dirty politics when the friends
of George H.W. Bush used him in campaign ads against Dukakis. As you'll recall,
the tactic was successful, so King George I had the opportunity over the next
four years to wreck the American economy, a job his son is now seeking to finish
while conquering the world in his spare time.
In any case, Bill Clinton was resolved in 1992 not to face a "soft on crime"
rap, so -- although he had it within his power to grant executive clemency --
he stood by and did nothing while an idiot was deliberately put to death in his
Clinton's success as a politician was not lost on other Democratic hopefuls,
nor on Democratic voters, so they followed his lead in abandoning all liberal
principles in favor of expediency.
Tired of losing to criminals like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, or amiable
clowns like Ronald Reagan, or ex-CIA chiefs like George H.W. Bush, the Democrats
decided that the only way to beat 'em was to join 'em.
So they did. In 1999, when Bill Clinton sent our frighteningly eager military
machine off to ravish Yugoslavia, nary a discouraging word was heard from the
Democrats. A few months earlier, ironically, Serbs in Belgrade had met and shared
memories with a few of the hundreds of shot-down American airmen they had rescued
during World War II.
There is no word on whether our old Serb friends survived the 1999 bombings,
but best estimates are that 3,000 Yugoslav civilians did not.
And the Democrats, not wanting to appear soft on tyrants, cheered Clinton's
war, which was billed as "a just war."
(They got it wrong. It wasn't a just war; it was just a war.)
Part of the reason Clinton was so roundly hated by conservatives was his knack
for stealing all their issues. He was so "hard" on crime that he appeared regularly
in photo ops with uniformed officers behind him as he proposed or signed legislation
narrowing civil liberties or expanding federal punishments.
Clinton didn't make up stories about ungrateful welfare recipients the way
Reagan did, but he did propose, as a candidate, that anyone deemed capable of
working be kicked off welfare after two years.
(Most liberals wouldn't object to that if it included the provisos that living-wage
jobs be available and the hapless welfare recipients be trained to fill them.)
In short, many of Clinton's views and policies were just a little to the right
of those once espoused by Barry Goldwater, who in his day was considered a right-wing
extremist. Now, he'd be a middle-of-the-roader.
So, in this election season, which ended last Tuesday with a magnificent victory
for the forces of darkness and a solid defeat for the Democrats, the Democrats
presented themselves as . . . nothing.
Instead of presenting a vision for the future, their strongest selling point
was that they were not as bad as the Republicans. In California, that worked.
Even though the Democratic candidate for governor was an abomination, the Republican
seemed worse, a man determined to lead us back into the Dark Ages, if we were
dumb enough to elect him.
But California was the exception, and elsewhere in the country the Democrats
came across as unconvincing mini-conservatives.
They deserved to lose. They didn't offer a choice. So they were defined by
their opponents, who zeroed in on the excesses of liberalism. The candidates themselves
rarely made a case for the finer points of liberalism.
This week, as the Democrats lick their wounds and try to regroup, it seems
they'll be trying to figure out how to be even more like their Republican conquerors.
This does not bode well for the republic. And, if you like, you can blame Clinton
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and iconoclast. His column appears
Mondays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2002 SF Gate