George W. Truman

Unpopular presidents fighting unpopular wars.
By Hans Moleman
 
The sight is a pathetic one.  An embattled president moves into a second term that quickly turns into an uninterrupted downhill slide: poll approval sinking to the low 30s; his own party members distancing themselves at every opportunity; his political capital now consumed by a once-popular war that became a hopeless quagmire with no end in sight; a war in which he persists, determined to stay the course despite the political cost, refusing to abandon the valiant allies who took his commitment seriously.

George W. Bush?  Oh yeah, him too.  But we were discussing Harry Truman, weren’t we?
Differences?  Of course.  Truman’s poll numbers were not just because of the war.  They also reflected disgust with corruption scandals, concerns about the economy, and other problems.  But then as now, an unpopular war was the wellspring of public disapproval of the administration.
Actually, the most obvious difference is that we know the outcome of Truman’s quagmire, the war the appeasers and realists thought we shouldn’t fight for the allies that were too weak or corrupt or dictatorial to be worth defending. 
And the nay-sayers of both wings, appeasers of the left and isolationists of the right (and rightist appeasers and leftist isolationists, though fewer of each than we see nowadays)—all of these were there from the start, knowing in advance the futility of a land war in Asia, the hopelessness of trying to impose Western-style democracy on a people who had never known freedom and who didn’t have the culture for it.
But they were wrong and he was right.  In retrospect, we can see that Harry’s war preserved a chance for the Korean people (half of them, at least) to pursue freedom and democracy from an imperfect beginning.  It gave us history’s clearest side-by-side controlled experiment comparing the effects of totalitarianism and free democracy.  Same people, same history, language, and culture.  The only difference is that one of the petri dishes was protected by the United States Army, while the other by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Harry’s quagmire turned into the Cold War’s first critical stand for freedom, and the first reverse (even though only a partial one) for tyranny.  Thirty-three thousand American soldiers paid the ultimate price for it.  Harry Truman paid only a political price—the price of near-universal disfavor, with job approval numbers dipping to 23 percent.  And he was willing to pay it.

Then, a funny thing happened. A few years after he had returned home and stored his grips in the attic, Truman was “reconsidered.”  As South Korea got the hang of democracy and gradually grew more stable and prosperous, and the North degenerated into a nightmarish hellhole bad enough to embarrass dictators everywhere, history took another look at Harry.

His stubbornness and determination no longer seemed so rude and close-minded. They began to look like strength of character.  His loyalty to his subordinates could now be seen for what it really was: a reflection of his loyalty to his commitments.

Viewed down the dusty halls of history, Truman’s solitude at the end became the measure of the man.  Plummeting poll numbers bothered him, but they never made him doubt his core beliefs or retreat from his commitments.

Some presidents are better politicians than others, and some are politicians first, last, and always.  Those of the latter sort approach all decisions, even the most serious, with an eye on the polls. Those who don’t are still likely to be called political hacks by their opponents. The conventional wisdom rarely makes the distinction.

But sometimes history gives it a re-think, and somehow sorts it all out.  

Despite the endless shelves of books devoted to professional hatred of George W. Bush, the ultimate history books are yet to be written.  You never know what they might say.  History gets the last laugh.

—Hans Moleman is a National Education Association employee and lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

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Dangerous Consistency

Unfortunately, John Kerry is no flip-flopper on defense.
By Hans Moleman

The Republican campaign’s portrayal of John Kerry as a flip-flopper disturbs me. I don’t buy it. I think he is all too consistent—especially on national defense.

If you subtract one vote—the October 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq—Kerry’s foreign-policy/national-security record looks depressingly consistent. He has always pursued what Churchill called (referring to British appeasement under Neville Chamberlain) a “vacillating pacifism,” but without the vacillation. In 1991, he voted against the coalition-fought global-tested Gulf War. For decades he consistently opposed weapons system after weapons system, in “merchant-of-death” rhetoric straight out of the 1930s. He consistently espoused the soft-power idealism of one who thinks his own country’s disarmament would serve as a good example for the world’s dictators and terrorists. And he has based his presidential campaign on the proposition that we ought to have given Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt.
How else to explain him? If he’s not a pacifistic appeaser, what the heck is he?
Two alternative explanations are possible.
Kerry may be just another “partisan opportunist” whose policy is determined by simple party interest. If a Democratic president does it, this Kerry supports it. If a Republican does the same thing, this Kerry opposes it (especially if the Dem gave it lip service while the Republican put it into action—think Clinton vs. Bush on Iraqi regime change). In other words, a MoveOn.org type of Democrat: committed to no principle but “Democrats good, Republicans bad.” (You may remember MoveOn.org as the folks who began with the proposition that sexual activities were no big deal (Clinton), and then moved on to campaign against a gubernatorial candidate—Schwarzenegger—for his sexual activities.)
Or Kerry may be a “leader” who is led by polls and focus groups. In this scenario, he was just listening to his pollsters in October 2002. They (and the whole party leadership) thought that Bush’s Iraq policy was popular, so they climbed aboard. (Lest anyone forget, part of the “rush to war” was the Senate Democrats’ desire to go on record on the popular side of this issue before the 2002 congressional elections—not that it helped them much.) ************************************************************** 

For wobbling pro-defense Democrats, the question remains: Which is the real John Kerry? Which Kerry might become president?

Is he John Kerry Chamberlain, the dyed-in-the-wool, principled pacifist appeaser? If so, there seems little reason to expect better results than the 1930s experiment.

Is he MoveOn.JohnKerry, the partisan opportunist? The problem is that such a role is possible only when you aren’t the one making the decisions. When you are in the captain’s seat, you can’t just oppose.

Some offer a hopeful theory here. Kerry the partisan opportunist would, once in power, blossom into a strong defender, as responsibility braces him to deal with the ugly realities he has ignored throughout his years of playing in the partisan sandbox. But this ever-so-hopeful “John-Boy-Kerry-grows-up” storyline ignores just how tepidly and ineffectively this war would be waged under a president whose heart isn’t in it.

But if this is the real Kerry—if there really is “no there there” at the core of his policy brain—then the Kerry in the White House is more likely to turn into…

…the focus-group president; the “leader” whose main concern is not giving his opponents any purchase on his popularity. In other words, John Kerry Clinton. Kosovo? Looks like we can get away with it, as long as it’s done from the air with no casualties. Rwandan genocide? Sorry, Tutsis, but the focus groups weren’t interested.

So which one is the real John Kerry? In part because I want to think well of the man, my money’s on Chamberlain. Better a principled pacifist than a partisan whose moral compass points only to D and R, or a politician happy to be blown about by the winds of public opinion.

But whatever the answer, America—and the world of which we find ourselves the temporary stewards—cannot run the risk of discovering it.

The other question, at least for Democrats, is this: How has our party fallen so low? From the world-shaking idealism of Wilson, to FDR’s commitment to freedom, to Truman’s grit and Kennedy’s call for the defense of freedom…to this. How?

“Hans Moleman” is a lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

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The Terrible Wrath of Zell

The cry of the Disgruntled Democrat.
By Hans Moleman
 
The commentators seemed universally baffled by Zell Miller’s speech at the Republican Convention. “He looked angry,” they couldn’t help noticing. “What was that about?” Red-faced and scowling, Zell delivered what several talking heads called a “jeremiad.” Wasn’t this a miscalculation? Wasn’t it too hot for a national TV audience? How could it possibly play in Peoria? Why did he do it?

They all missed the obvious explanation. Zell looked angry because he really was angry. And only a disgruntled Democrat could understand why.
Disgruntled Democrats have over time become an evergreen brand. Every few years, when the national party leadership takes another embarrassing lurch towards partisan pacifism, a new generation of Disgruntled Democrats is born. And they always come out angry.
As a card-carrying DD, let me explain this state of mind.
We are angry because the party we believed in has once again proven itself to be what its enemies had accused it of being: left-wing isolationists with an aversion to national defense or a robust military. A party that tends to “blame America first” (in the words of Jeane Kirkpatrick, herself a former DD) for every international problem. A party that believes all Americans must rally ’round the wartime flag, except when a Republican president is carrying that flag.
Once that dawns on you, your anger comes from two sources. You feel betrayed, let down by the party that always claimed to stand foursquare for national defense. You realize that your party is willing to sacrifice election after election, and with it your hopes for a progressive domestic agenda, to the pursuit of partisan cheap shots against a wartime Republican president.

But there is something else. You also feel like a sucker for being taken in by such a transparent con. It’s embarrassing. You were the one who told your friends after 9/11 (and after Desert Storm and Kosovo and…) that we Democrats had now put the Vietnam Syndrome behind us. Then it all happens again, when party leaders begin muttering “quagmire” after the third day in Afghanistan. Or screaming “fascism” over the Patriot Act. Or when they start playing politics with the homeland-security bill (Zell’s moment of truth).

And then you feel very much alone, like a Philip Nolan, man without a party. Or like a Joe Lieberman, a voice crying in the Democratic wilderness.

From time to time, that voice reaches a truly national audience, as it did on Zell’s big night. Those who haven’t felt what we feel have trouble hearing the message. But we get it. And there may be more of us than you’d think. (Or so I pray.)

As for the panning of his “jeremiad,” Zell doesn’t seem worried. He must know that Jeremiah got similar reviews in his time.

“Hans Moleman” is a lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

 

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DNC DéJà Vu

Democrats should learn from their 1864 predecessors.

By “Hans Moleman”
 

 

Another convention, another Democratic-party peace platform.
In August 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, the Democratic party adopted a platform that attacked the Republican incumbent for:

 

“four years of failure to restore the union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of military necessity or war power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired.”

In other words, the war was a mistake. Our constitutional rights have suffered, and it costs too much. We should have tried diplomacy.
The party nominated a popular war hero to reassure voters. Public opinion seemed heavily antiwar, and Democratic prospects looked bright.
All this led Lincoln to reflect, gloomily,

“It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president elect, as to save the union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

Are we facing such a moment again? Would John Kerry’s election be grounded on such a successful example of disloyal opposition that neither he nor any successor will be able to wage war effectively?
A lot is at stake in this election. Can a 50-50 nation wage war? Can this postmodern, risk-averse, culture-war-riven country sustain any long-term military effort? How strong can America be when the opposition party refuses to be a loyal opposition? What can we all expect from a world in which the U.S. president fears to use U.S. power?
The party has learned something since 1864. The current platform offers little of substance on the war, preferring to treat it as a matter of personal choice on which we can agree to disagree. How such a war policy would work out in practice is anyone’s guess. There appears to be an awfully heavy reliance on the French cavalry (and other U.N. heavyweights) riding to our rescue.
If so, American power in the world would effectively be caged and neutered. For those who regard us as the greatest threat to world peace—Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Jimmy Carter, Kim Jong-Il—this will come as good news.
Now, this does not mean that anyone concerned about the credibility of U.S. power must automatically vote for the incumbent in wartime. But it means that the opposition bears a heavy burden, and the Democratic party (with a few Liebermanite exceptions) has so far borne it uncertainly. The credibility of U.S. power is very much an open question, and the burden of reassurance lies with John Kerry. So far, Kerry has not met that burden.
He certainly could have done so. He would only have had to demonstrate that he was unwilling to use the war as a political stick with which to beat the incumbent. He would have had to show some spark of Vandenbergism. (Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican senator of the ’30s and ’40s who set aside his strong partisanship and visceral dislike of Roosevelt in order to build a bipartisan front during WWII, and to maintain it during the Cold War). He put it this way:

To me, “bipartisan foreign policy” means a mutual effort, under our indispensable two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world…. In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.

Kerry had his best chance at a Vandenberg moment when the Senate voted on the $87 billion appropriation for war costs. He whiffed it.

There are about three months until the election. That’s fewer than 100 days for John Kerry to assure us that he doesn’t represent retreat from American power—that his election would not mean the retirement of the world’s only cop, and a free pass for the world’s most dangerous desperadoes.

Counting down.
“Hans Moleman” is a lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

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A Look to Your Left

Dictators and orthodoxy at the NEA convention.

By Hans Moleman
At the National Education Association convention last week, the liberal orthodoxy for the most part flowed in carefully directed channels. Resolutions and “new business items” condemning the war on terror and the occupation of Iraq were set aside without debate or votes, in a conscious and commendable effort to minimize anything that could distract from the unified anti-Bush (and incidentally pro-Kerry) event. In other words, the leadership kept the 9,000 delegates “on message” (as we all say nowadays).
The message was: “We hate Bush—for education reasons.”
The popularity of the message was reflected in the 86-percent delegate vote to endorse Kerry (though there was no more warmth for Kerry there than anywhere else.)
They did hear from one of the real NEA heartthrobs, Hillary Clinton (the other one was at a book-signing across town and couldn’t make it). She knocked them dead, of course, but she too steered away from foreign policy.
The only cracks in this impressive message wall came during two instances when everyone let their hair down and their real feelings out. The first was a special benefit showing of Michael Moore’s feature-length campaign commercial Fahrenheit 9/11. This embarrassing embrace of Hollywood’s number one Euro-pet anti-American produced a hate rally worthy of Orwell.
Another moment came in nostalgic mode, when Children’s Defense Fund founder and liberal icon Marian Wright Edelman was honored with a Friend of Education award. She responded with a gratifying sermon on the old time religion. Channeling the spirit of Sojourner Truth to blast the Bush (-Powell-Rice?) administration, she repeatedly brought the crowd to fever pitch. It was charming.

But one particularly interesting moment came with her bold declaration that Bush was failing the world by “supporting brutal, corrupt dictators.” In context, this got a nice slice of the rolling applause wave that continued throughout her remarks.

But I couldn’t help but wonder which dictators she had in mind.

The Taliban? No, Bush took them out already.

Saddam Hussein? No, the U.S. got him, too.

The mullahs of Iran? Kim Jong-Il? No, Bush regards them as “evil,” and they regard him as their main problem.

Qaddafi? No, he was one of the first to get the message.

Castro? I don’t think so.

So who?

Sadly, there was no time for Q&A, so Mrs. Edelman was not given a chance to elucidate.

What does it mean? Did an old 3×5 card left over from the Reagan years get mixed in with her current ones?

Or is it just that the time-tested “Awful America” lament hasn’t fully adjusted to the changed reality of the post-9/11 world?

Modern-day isolationists now cluster on the left rather than the right. For the first time, the Left doesn’t even bother to fake concern for the victims of fascism. The brutal dictators now fear nothing so much as the reelection of a Republican president.

Democrats haven’t fully internalized these new facts. We really don’t like to think about such things. That’s understandable.

Still, if a polite silence is going to be the tactic for dealing with international fascism, we need some message discipline: Silence means silence.

The party of FDR is long gone. The modern dictator finds nothing to fear in the prospects of Democratic-party victory at the polls.

We Democrats had better get used to it.

Hans Moleman is an National Education Association employee and lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

 

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