My inaugural 1968 subscription to the then newly minted New York Magazine, co-founded by Clay Felker (accessible intelligent content) and Milton Glaser (crisp design) has long run out. Thanks to Frank Rich’s move, I ‘ve renewed. I mostly read online, but a hard copy (albeit belated) does arrive in my mailbox. What struck me with the first delivery was its appearance. No not the design (still distinctive), but the sheer physical weight. NY, at 128 pages, brims with ads, a sign of health that contrasts with, for example, Newsweek’s emaciated visage of terminal illness. But that’s a digression. What prompted this writing — yes, I know it’s been a long time — were three thoughtful pieces written by Rich, David Frum and Jonathan Chait.
The first, What Killed JFK written close to the 48th assassination anniversary, compares the challenges facing the Kennedy and Obama presidencies, most notably the mindless hatred aimed at both men, the first Roman Catholic and the first African American to sit in the Oval Office. Given my intense interest in both men, Rich brought back a variety of vivid memories. JFK was my first presidential vote (in those days you really did have to be 21); Obama, in so many ways a fulfillment of my civil rights dreams. David Frum, W’s former economic speech writer whose critical independent thinking drives some fellow Republicans to distraction writes, When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality? Not surprisingly, his words ring true to many of us outsiders. But it is written in a voice of an insider who views his party’s presidential primary with both dismay and despair. On the flip side, Chait (previously of The New Republic) poses the question, When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable? I urge you to read all three.
My father always said, anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem it’s the problem of anti-Semites. Of course, anti-Semitism, as he knew better than most, hugely affected Jews. Likewise the state of the GOP isn’t my problem even though it definitely impacts upon all of our lives. But the state of liberals, my liberals, is something about which I should have great concern. I do. It is my problem. So, of the three pieces, the one that I hit home most was Jonathan Chait’s.
In sum, the implied question that he poses is why do liberals (read also Democrats) seem to have such a strong, and he argues consistent, (my words) death wish? Liberals, he contends, are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied. We’re all familiar with the ongoing grousing about what Barak Obama hasn’t done and about who he is, or more accurately who he isn’t. Chait’s point is that the same griping has occurred with each and every Democratic President, back (though to a lesser extent) to the mythical FDR. It certainly plagued his successor Harry Truman, but equally Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and of course Clinton. A quote he cites from Bob Herbert sums it up: The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread. Ring a current bell?
We use our successful Democrats as whipping boys (we have yet to include girls) while the Republicans venerate theirs. Conservatives, Chait says, are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man…they remained consistently loyal to Nixon and Reagan. We even turn on our near presidents. Who can forget the grousing about Al Gore who won a half-hearted popular vote and whose manner and wardrobe seemed to matter more than the substance of his speeches and positions. In fact, while irate over the Supreme Court’s anointment, many liberals thought that in the end there wasn’t that much difference between Bush and Gore. Moreover, someone who sat in the White House with less than a popular mandate wouldn’t have much power, much less the ability to do great damage. We all know how that went.
Perhaps what struck me most about the Chait piece was how very little has changed since FDR took, and then held, the White House through 3 plus terms. Again to quote from the article, in 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, ‘They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.’ Well one of the reasons for that is that we seem to be much better talkers than doers — I’m mad as hell and simply will sit this election out or vote my conscience for some sure loser just to protest and make myself feel better. Another reason of course is that deep down we know that the mover into the conservative camp is in fact doing no such thing.
If for example, Obama is such a closet retrograde, why are Republicans trying so hard to repeal The Affordable Healthcare Act or to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray because they think the Consumer Protection Agency established under Dodd/Frank is too powerful? Neither of these pieces of legislation represents purist perfection, but let’s not pretend that such perfection ever existed in our or any other democracy or that we have really lost touch with the reality of compromise for which we are all somewhat responsible.
Tugwell, one of the brain truster architects of the New Deal, was frustrated by his fellow liberals and their lack of action. While the Republicans rallied around the Tea Party and caused a shift of power in the mid-term elections, Democrats and liberals have yet to figure out exactly what to do, if anything, with Occupy. Support has been, at best, tepid. Of course, no one knows how enduring the Tea Party will be, something that might give one pause about any such protest, regardless of ideology. Also, while the Occupy or 99% phenomenon seems to be focused on issues that concern us generally, there remains something amorphous about it. Sitting in flimsy tents with no well-articulated timetable or set of specific objectives, certainly not consistent ones, may well stand as a metaphor for the problem. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the protestors — they clearly are doing something profound and hope inspiring — but of liberals inability to get their collective act together.
Part of the problem is what I’ve discussed in other posts. We seem averse to the effective marketing of our ideas, unable to create powerful image-laden slogans. Tea Party, however it may be misused, harkens back to a mythical event in the American story. It stands for both protest of the mind and the body. Occupy embodies no such positive imagery. The word connotes blocking, even blocking progress which is the last thing those sitting in tents around the country want. Moreover, occupy is word with decidedly negative non-liberal geopolitical connotations: for example, occupation of the West Bank. Just to underscore the poverty of our speech, this movement’s identity is the creation of a Canadian journalist. Not to knock our northern neighbors, but can’t we even find words to articulate our own frustrations or issues? Just to be fair 99% has some potential. Let's see if it can sustain, which means be taken up by mainstream liberals.
Okay, fellow liberals (or for that matter fellow Americans), as Bill Clinton would say, I feel your pain and frustration with where we are and more specifically with the fact that Barak Obama has not lived up to our perception of him. Get over it! Look at the group that David Frum presents in his piece and who are playing before our eyes every day and understand that our complacency might put one of them in the White House. Sure hold Obama’s feet to the fire if you want, but watch out for what you might wish or do in not seeing to it that he has a second term. There are short-term reasons for that, many of which can already be seen in the campaign rhetoric on both sides. But I’ll give just two words to think about for the long term: Roberts and Alito. Whatever George Bush did to our reputation and our economy, whatever misbegotten military adventures, all pale in comparison to the long-term impact of appointing young hardline right ideologues to the Court. Whoever sits in the White House between 2012 and 2016 is likely to shape our future in his appointments. The stakes are enormous — can’t be overstated.
Just as Newt is the challenger of the moment, the idea of a third party is the new talk of the moment. Have you noticed that its primary proponents are a mega millionaire coffee mogul and a less wealthy but still millionaire journalist/author? 99%, right. They probably believe in what they’re proposing (or implying) and are both decent people with whom I often (but not always) agree. That said, I sense a little promotional hype — one is using his brand as a platform and the other hawking yet another new best seller. I won’t even mention that billionaire mayor of my former but still beloved city. Perhaps we do need a third party, but if you’re serious, start talking it up on November 7, 2012 with four years to prepare for a viable chance, not to mention for proper thoughtful vetting.
Liberals, it’s time to get reasonable, to shed our overstated disappointments. Time to get over it and whip up our enthusiasm. Our future and welfare may, and probably does, depend on it.