The Way of the Whigs
Michael Ubaldi, November 8, 2004.
— Geraldine Ferraro to Neil Cavuto, shortly after December 13, 2000
Even the end of John Kerry's presidential bid was nuanced. The Lazy Susan campaign twirled one or two last revolutions hunting for a missed opportunity, a hidden advocate for victory; it found none and only then came to a dead halt. The Massachusetts senator accepted defeat — but only after numerical calculations of Ohio's popular vote made political calculations moot. And he publicly conceded — but only after not quite conceding, waiting over twelve hours and then postponing his speech twice.
Some on the right celebrated November 3, 2004 the way we hear throngs celebrated November 11, 1918: jubilantly, headily, almost uncontrollably. The grudge match was over, the trenches could empty; the settlement a reasonable one at first glance that yet would, in a short time, reveal to all how unbalanced victory truly was and how heavy a price the loser would pay for years to come. The online gaggle at National Review seemed the most ecstatic. Stalwarts like John Derbyshire, Jay Nordlinger and Jim Geraghty led posting contributors at the Corner in congratulating the president, the Republican Party and, last but not least, John Kerry for what they felt was a sincere, endearing and dignified concession speech.
I did not agree with the last sentiment, my low opinion of Senator Kerry not likely to change after a single speech given by a man at his weakest hour. One of the champagne-swigging rightists' not-very-rhetorical questions included, "Why didn't we see this John Kerry in the campaign?" Well, because the real one was occupied with focusing his family fortune, the muster of his political party, a collaborative Washington press corps, and two coasts'-worth of intellectual and cultural elites to demonize a sitting president and demoralize a country; all to win the presidency. The John Kerry who never once sacrificed national unity for tactical politics was actually a senator named Joe Lieberman, whom the Democratic Party dumped on the curb like last week's newspaper.
Jay Nordlinger, usually sharper than a paring knife, marveled at Kerry's sudden antiphon of support for Iraq's democratization. "He didn't have to," Nordlinger beamed, "the election was over." But election's end was in fact the very reason for Kerry's coming home. If a presidential election is a contest of policy, personality and vision with no Honorable Mention, President Bush won and took all, his and his party's majority endorsement from Americans as indisputable as unanimity. In an age of popularized egalitarianism, sometimes we need to take a closer look at the obvious to understand it: in this case, losing means losing. On November 2nd, John Kerry was a challenger. One day later, he was a loser with a rejected proposal — a very impolitic place to be. Bothersome to the ear one last time, perhaps, one still expects the loser to be appropriately stubborn in his last hurrah, at least in principle — not a different man with a different message, such as the other guy's. When a nation or cause is abruptly and soundly defeated, there are those who pick up the flag and don the uniform of the victor's. Allegience falls second to survival for these men, and we rightly call them opportunists. John Kerry did not transcend on November 3rd. He played to form.
In the first couple of days after the election, another question heard in pundits' circles was of John Kerry's future. Having won the nomination in early 2004 and, at least ostensibly, led the Democratic Party for eight months, would he return to the United States Senate and take up fallback as Senate Minority Leader?
Of course not. John Kerry's not a leader. Never was one. Whatever he does, it will be whatever is necessary to stay afloat, and nothing more.
John Kerry, connecting to his viscerally anti-American, anti-liberation leftist party base, balanced his nominally pro-war rhetoric with mantras that can only be described as bigoted, blinkered and mean-spirited. The widest publication went to the senator's harangue of how fire stations were being closed in Brooklyn while they were opening in Baghdad, as if the federal government were charged not with sustaining the Union through defense and foreign stabilization but in fact precluding state and local authorities to plunk down capital improvements galore. If only Harry Truman had spent his time on the Brooklyn Airlift, and not those ingrate Germans! John Kerry was artful in telling us he thought Iraqis were a waste of our time, but the meaning was always the same: America was better off publicly feeling sorry for the oppressed than physically inconveniencing itself with them, becoming an exemplar of cynical metropolitan intellect that sees the world like a tastefully ironic, poetic murder of Kitty Genovese before going back to sleep. There'll always be bad men, goes the chic, so why bother at all, even with the ones who control entire countries and cultures? Isolationism, of course, is not new to American discourse; there is a curious party reversal to be found matching John Kerry and George W. Bush against Robert A. Taft and Harry Truman. But on a deeper level, the left's revulsion to American assertion isn't isolationist; it's adversarial, an elaborate revision of history that presents America as incompetent or, worse, malevolent, a separate reality whose vinculum to our own is the Vietnam War.
With the defeat of John Kerry comes the end of the Vietnam War's relevance to politics. Because the failure of that war was not military but cultural — and that a difficult war would not necessarily erode national confidence — only by reproducing the conditions in which public sentiment buckled could defeatism succeed again. If Americans believed they couldn't lose, a historical example of failure would be useless. Vietnam, as anyone knows, was the left's template for American war, raised like a shade in a seance every time the military assembled en masse, but until this election never judged to be relegated to a position of either hallmark or exception. The Gulf War was far too short and shallow to be of any use, and while a shining example of the left's misjudgement, was over fast enough to be slipped under the rug and deemed a fluke. Afghanistan's liberation, while spectacular and encouraging in its own right, has not matched the required level of trial. Iraq, however, more like a modern engagement than anything America had experienced in thirty years, was perfect. Leftists, obsessed with failure, would easily jump over the growing success (which is now a proven success) of democracy in Afghanistan, so out Vietnam came.
They nominated a man who fought for America and then, upon returning, offered baseless testimony against American soldiers and their country's effort to the public record; an archetype for the disillusioned American. Senator Ted Kennedy said Iraq was Vietnam; former ambassador Richard Holbrooke called it worse than Vietnam. The media figured it was somewhere in between, but otherwise bad. A blizzard of analogies flew and settled in every crevice of media, culminating in a concentrated assault on the campaign and the commander-in-chief who was responsible for it.
The left, by every measure, suffered no shortage of motivation, resources, national access or effort. President Bush won the election anyway, increasing his margin of victory and party control of Washington since 2000.
A political movement based on relativism is a movement that is relentless, that twitches long after death; by no means should the right take for granted their smashing Republican victory. But history should reflect the symbolic — indeed, ironic — Democratic nomination and defeat of John Kerry. When Howard Dean rose to prominence in the Democratic primaries, many, including myself, considered him the living emblem of his party: he admitted to "leading with [his] heart, not [his] head," he was unabashedly opposed to removing Saddam Hussein, he was arrogantly secular and not at all patriotic. He reminded his competitors at a debate "the enemy here is George Bush, not each other," and presumably, with such a remarkable word choice from a very smart man, neither terrorists nor dictators.
And yet John Kerry, from our vantage point well-endowed with hindsight, seems the quintessential post-Kennedy Democrat — and in a sense, the last Democrat. Since its succumbing to leftists in 1968, the Democratic Party has been unable to successfully run candidates who openly reflect its relativist, America-phobic, socialist, collaborative-appeasement predelictions. Jimmy Carter, rather exposed with four nebbish years behind him, fell to Ronald Reagan as easily as did Walter Mondale and, in 1988, as Michael Dukakis did to George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton won in 1992 as a "New Democrat" and in 1996 as a chastened triangulator in theory and a centrist in practice, benefitting immensely in both years from a post-Cold War cultural compulsion to laissez-faire attitudes towards just about everything. After a very short ten years from 1991, America came under direct attack and the old rules of life returned. Elections approached and up stepped John Kerry, full of contradictions and parallels to the party that nominated him for president.
Kerry wore his medals from service like the party capitalized on the international legacies of John Kennedy, Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt: very carefully, never to actually endorse what these icons stood for, or admit that actions of recent decades had severed all meaningful ties (or tossed them over fences). Both praised a military for which they had a considerable history inconveniencing and denigrating; both fumed at charges of allergy to American prerogative but never seemed very interested over a period of twenty years in asserting it. On domestic matters, prevarication ruled. For tax hikes but not quite; for socializing medicine without socializing it; nodding to traditional cultural mores but awkwardly. The man, like the party, was a consummate act of treading water in a sea of denial — or guile, depending on your measure of charity. And with the weight of every leftist institution behind them; a period of war and uncertainty and fear, indeed, a perfect storm; John Kerry, the left and the Democrats lost the White House, pushed further from Congress.
Yet at the same time, the perilous dawdling over the last forty years or so will hardly make a dent in the upward procession of man's course, so embarrassingly inconsequential it is. Leftism, or relativism, at its basest is adolescence, the vain attempt to alter reality without improving one's circumstances or, worse, by devaluing someone else's. The worse of the Boomer left, calling themselves "liberals," have done much to take credit for American advances. They claim the flag of civil rights; of the societal evolution of the American woman; of individuals' and workers' protections. Return America to its normal course, argues the leftist Boomer, and you "turn back the clock," goes the stale phrase.
But it was the Boomers' parents — Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, victors over the Depression and the Second World War — who accomplished these things. Not a Boomer was eligible for Congress when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964; no, the Boomers gave us Jesse Jackson on one side and the Black Panthers on the other. The Greats created the outspoken and mindful woman; the Boomers gave us spiteful women and burning brassieres. Unions began long before the rights of a worker were subsumed in one-party politics.
Like adolescents, what the Boomer establishment gave us, particularly those of us who grew up near its height, was a poor imitation of American ideals they'd seen and experienced but never took the time to understand. The whales, the rainforests, the ozone layer, the hungry in far-flung corners of the earth — all needed to be "saved," or helped, or felt deeply about in one way or the other. The imagined plight of whales caused Boomers to create a film about a future where an intergalactic Lincoln Log would drop out of hyperspace and into our planet's orbit, then consume men and earth in a terrible storm, all for the cardinal sin of pushing humpback whales into extinction; forcing 23rd-Century Baby Boomers to go back in time and slap the backs of 20th-Century Baby Boomers. The Voyage Home, indeed. Whether South American deforestation was or was not a good idea for South American nations had nothing to do with the encouragement of North American guilt for it. After a few years of panic, the leftist quack-science community conceded that the ozone "hole" over Antarctica might have been there all along — Planet Earth's own cowlick, not cataclysmic male pattern baldness. I've already written about the destitute at length but suffice to say, the cause of strife — dictatorship — never seemed to fit in a Boomer bumper sticker, or public service announcement, or classroom lesson.
Following with more maquettes, the Boomers tried nation-building — but without firm convictions for establishing democratic states. They tried to rewrite adages by blaming weapons for malice, victims for bullying. The United Nations went from a specific diplomatic medium with the Soviets to an experimentation in oligarchy, something that appeared to young leftists as unstained by popular electoral politics — but was actually just unaccountable. The results of this long, strange trip have been damaging, and in every aspect of tinkering, from welfare statism to government confiscation to sense and responsibility, rollback is underway or imminent.
Ironically, the generation who wanted to stay young will be rescued by the passed-down American ideals that stopped, briefly, in the hands of their parents. If the triumph of man were like John Cabot's spectacular voyage across the Atlantic, the American Boomer left's legacy would be trying to swim a lake less than half an hour after eating lunch.
That does not bode well for the left or the Democratic Party it controls. As more than one wise man has explained for years, a political party that relies on near-complete sympathy from news media will not survive without it. We saw the first sign of this in 1994, again in 2000 and 2002. Philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans could not have been made more clear than by this election's outcome. Leftists deride the unconverted as idiots — now that the election has gone to the GOP the evidence is in its greatest abundance. Rightists recognize leftists as misinformed or misguided but always within reach of reform; again, on splendid display post-election. The latter perspective has begot a method of persuasion, the former a rule of coercion. As November 2nd approached, President Bush and his party worked to bring uncommitted and civilly opposed voters to see things their way. Democrats simply told voters how stupid Republicans were.
Republicans won. The left, now telling Republicans how stupid voters are, shows such disdain for the right's favorite tactic of "peeling off" constituents for their own because it rejects the notion of opposition parties and differing ideals. Beware the misunderstanding of relativism as benign and happy-go-lucky: what can innocently come off as "I'm okay, you're okay" is instead an arbitrary, constant reordering of value, worth and morality based solely on the advancement of those who follow it. The right, on the other hand, understands that total consensus is impossible and, in a democratic system, inappropriate. America is a country meant for majority rule, and to the victors go the spoils.
When a political party has nothing more to offer than its sincere desire for power, it has run its course. When a cultural phenomenon is exposed as a variation on the oldest theme of service to self, it will fall to an apollonian reclamation. The Democratic Party and the American left have met these requirements simultaneously, and it is no surprise that both are foundering in according strides.
The Whig Party was John Quincy Adams' and Henry Clay's answer to Andrew Jackson, from start to finish comprised of myriad factions from across the country who were united in not much more than opposition to the day's Democrats. The first single Whig presidential candidacy was William Henry Harrison's, who won in 1840 but, as we all know, died after a month in office. His vice president, John Tyler, did not toe the fledgling party line and the Democrats regained the presidency in 1844. In 1848 Zachary Taylor took the White House for the Whigs again but the party, suffering from substantial political differences unchecked by stable party leadership, lost the 1852 presidential campaign with candidate Winfield Scott and the party was dissolved.
Turn to the modern Democratic Party: a handful of old Jacksonians are left to tussle with a majority of post-1968 collectivists and utopists while a morbid nihilist faction creeps into the ranks. Most national candidates must be bilingual, speaking the language of their ideology and the language of their constituents. The Democrats are at least three distinct parties stuffed into one, and only a shared fear of losing power through third and fourth party candidacies keeps the stitches tight. As minority status continues, dissatisfaction will only grow.
When a majority of Americans said "no, thank you," to John Kerry, they were refusing the Democratic Party and the left as well. Those denying that must review and admit how heavily invested they were in this past election — how much a part of the electoral decision they became. Democrats and the left may, in these first insufferable days of defeat, be giving not a thought to reformation, to ending a party that would be unrecognizable to its founders and icons and is quickly losing its 20th-Century advantages. Given direction of cultural winds, what they think tomorrow holds for their political future may be irrelevant.