Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Presidential Hatred and Politics: Andrew Sullivan has an interesting take on the pathology today. He thinks Bush hatred is peaking:
So the legitimate WMD issue has finally enabled them to vent more freely, to come out of the shell of restraint that patriotism and unpopularity once imposed upon them. That may also be true for many of us who were alarmed by the fiscal situation during the war but kept mum for similar reasons (although I was on the case for much of last year). We're venting now. But what that might also mean is that the anger might soon dissipate.
Like I said, interesting idea, but likely wrong. We know a couple of things about Bush hatred, especially when seen through the filter of Clinton hatred in the 90s:

1. It is totally unresponsive to reasoned argument. Whatever else it may be, it is not about issues; in it's own way, it's not even about partisanship, since it is removed from policy. Even when the GOP finally was able to "vent" over Clinton, it never seemed to help. Perhaps they found the wrong issues for venting (fellatio on the taxpayer dime, for example, ended up doing more to out hypocritical GOP philanderers than to weaken the president).

2. As the president seeks accomodation with the opposition (triangulation, as Dick Morris called it), the hatred increases, rather than decreasing. Thus can Clinton direct, for most of his two terms, a centrist -- perhaps even center-right -- agenda and still enrage the GOP stalwarts. The "victory" the GOP gained by winning its issues was viscerally undermined by the insult of seeing a president applauded for successfully co-opting a Republican issue; the GOP, in response, walked away from its popular agenda and took to dwelling in the weeds of self-consciously divisive cultural issues, scandal mongering, and viscious attack. Thus can Bush conduct a generous, centrist agenda and be thoroughly reviled (even before the war) as another evil Republican who's here to take away granny's monthly check to reward cronies.

From those points, I think it becomes clear that such a reaction is counterproductive. The GOP abandoned its public mandate and popular agenda soon after the '94 revolution, and became the party that defined itself as "not-Clinton" or "anti-Clinton." I think this fueled a renewal in the power of the religious right, since cultural wedge issues were the easiest club with which to smack Clinton. None of this was good for the GOP, and the 90s were almost entirely wasted.

Likewise, I think that the Bush hatred is destructive to the Democrats. Notice the clear lack of agena, the kneejerk oppositionism, the tone, and the themes this year; it all adds up to "not-Bush" or "anti-Bush." The difference (and I say this with a little sadness) is that the Republicans do not have a competent candidate who can take advantage of the Democrats' disarray, the way Clinton was able to take advantage of the GOP's. If the GOP had an incumbent president with the political skills of Ronald Reagan, this latest burst of pure anti-Bush frenzy would be the death rattle of a dinosaur party, beholden to too many narrow interests to be nimble, at least temporarily in financial dire straits by their own soft money ban, and increasingly a megaphone for voices that offend the mainstream of American culture. Part of the science of political war is being able to take advantage of your enemy's missteps. Karl Rove, for all his reputation as Lee Atwater's cold-blooded political step-brother, has yet to show any semblance of a plan to fend off what has been so far a self-indulgent, issueless Democratic campaign. What the hell will he do if the Democrats find some discipline coming out of Boston?

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