Monday, January 26, 2004

Stop Signs
Paul Krugman recently suggested that there are candidates in the Democratic race who understand the stakes in November (Dean and Clark) and those who don't (the rest of them). Art Brodsky echoes the point on TomPaine.com: "In this campaign as perhaps in no other, the papers and talking points are worthless and irrelevant. This election is about the raw exercise of power by the government and the ability of the Democrats to fight it." Can John Kerry, veteran member of the Democratic establishment, or John Edwards, the polite and sunny populist, fight on those terms? When Edwards talks about "two Americas," that's evidence that he has at least as some understanding of the stakes, but in a roundabout way--if two Americas have been built, then somebody in government must be responsible for seeing that they were built and making sure they are protected. But his prescriptions for changing this appear to be on the old-fashioned Democrat level--restrain lobbyists, encourage fairness, increase ecomomic opportunity; in other words, the very position-paper-based solutions Brodsky dismisses. As for Kerry, he's got position papers too, but his campaign seems based at the moment entirely on his perceived war-heroism and vague promises to "fight." If Democrats are counting on that to make him impervious to patriotism-based attack, they'd do best to remember two words: Max Cleland.

Since last summer, I've been saying that what this country needs in 2004 is a real choice between competing futures. But to make an informed choice, you've got to have an intelligent conversation about things you won't live to see. Only Dean and Clark seem serious about doing this. Dean has his "Common Sense for a New Century" and Clark his "100 Year Vision" --both of which go beyond position papers to discuss philosophy, and what kind of country we want this to be after we're gone.

But you gotta wonder if the electorate is ready to talk about the broad future--the long term, what our children and children's children would face--or if we're fixated by nature on the short term, the idea that terrorists might kill us tomorrow, or our taxes might go up next summer. (In my view, the rush to Kerry and Edwards is evidence that the electorate is not ready.) If the short term is our only focus, we'll never have the big conversation we need to have about the long term--and what Bush is all about is the long term, big dreams for dismantling government, installing empire, regulating morality, and unfettering corporations, in big, irrevocable terms. Bush is talking about another American Revolution, one from inside. The prophets of this revolution have been patient in waiting to make it happen, some since the days of Barry Goldwater. If their ideas aren't challenged and defeated with better ideas over the next four or eight years, they can simply wait out the Kerry or Edwards administration and start up again down the road. William F. Buckley once said that it is the responsibility of conservatives to stand athwart history and yell "Stop!" But that's really what Democrats have to do with recent history and what it portends about the long term. So, for all their vaunted electability, Kerry and Edwards, as currently constructed, won't shift the paradigm. And that means they might temporarily slow the country's rightward march to authoritarian corporatism if they were to be elected, but they wouldn't stop it.

Recommended reading: If you can stand one more analysis of the State of the Union address, read the one from James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly. Fallows, a former White House speechwriter and one of the star journalists working today, reprints the entire speech with copious annotations. Fallows found the Iraq portion of the speech more successful rhetorically, and at honestly addressing policy issues. But the domestic portion was less successful--mostly restating slogans and making promises with little talk of how the promises could possibly be fulfilled. Fallows also identifies a third part of the speech--rallying the conservative base, which was filled with coded religious language that resonates with fundies but sounds like platitudes to everybody else. This includes phrases such as "negative influence of the culture," "In grief we have found the grace to go on," "we sense that we live in a time set apart," and "We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years." Fallows finds the latter sentence especially effective: "The most secular part of his audience will barely notice this; the most religious part will see him speaking right to them." Indeed, the New York Times did not capitalize the word "His" in the phrase immediately following that sentence: "His purposes are just and true," but the official transcript from the White House did.

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