Sunday, August 10, 2003
Should Dubya lead from the front in the Culture War? (A rebuttal to Rich Lowry's WaPo editorial)
I'm a fan of Rich Lowry and his writing, and agree with him far more often than not. But I respectfully disagree with the prescription he urges in the conclusion of his opinion piece in the Sunday Outlook section of today's Washington Post entitled "In the Culture War, President Keeps His Distance." In his wistful longing for Dubya to engage more directly on the hotbutton social issues currently being fought out in the Culture War's no-man's-land, Mr. Lowry is missing a very simple and preemptively important point — one that, fortunately, Dubya Rove & Co. not only "get," but live and breathe.
Lowry first begins with the familiar observation that "Bush is a polarizing figure in the culture war simply by virtue of who he is," and that
[h]e fires an implicit shot in the culture war every time he drops a syllable or hooks his thumbs, cowboy-style, in his jeans. This helps account for why he is so hated by elements of the left, as hated as Bill Clinton was by some conservatives. When he says "bring 'em on" of anti-American fighters in Iraq, his macho challenge makes his critics crazy.
This is, if anything, an understatement of the situation. For the people who comprise what's coming to be commonly called "the Angry Left," the debate on every political issue now begins with the question, "What position is Bush taking on this subject — whatever he's for, we're against, period." And anything else they say after that is just after-the-fact justification. For these folks, their seething and reflexive white-hot hatred of Dubya has altogether displaced their capacity for reason and judgment. That leaves what's left of the left in the Democratic Party — people like Joe Lieberman, for instance — frustrated and understandably fretsome.
The irony, of course, is that Dubya is not, and never has been, angry. Lowry correctly describes him as "a pacifist at heart" on the Culture War issues — abortion, gay marriage, racial preferences — whose "heartfelt sentiments" and fresh and personal "sense of redemption" give him "a kind of supercharged tolerance" on these issues: "For all his bellicosity abroad, Bush's message at home often is: Please, let's not fight."
And this leaves Lowry frustrated: "This is a loss for those of us who are conservatives. It means that, on important issues, a crucial player isn't fully engaged." It makes those who enthusiastically take up the cudgels on these fights feel unsupported, says Lowry, and worse, "the effect of Bush's accommodationist tendencies on these issues is to leave them to the courts." Lowry concludes by arguing, in effect, for the President to lead from the battle-front on these issues:
There's nothing wrong — nothing hateful — about open and passionate argument. Given the winning way his faith has influenced his political persona, President Bush is perfectly positioned to demonstrate this by example — that we can fight, but still love, that a "welcoming country" need not forfeit its right to govern itself.
Following this advice, however, would be perhaps the only thing that might put Howard Dean in the White House in January 2005.
Lowry does acknowledge — but only briefly — that in staying away from the front lines in these Culture War battles, the President is
reflecting not just his beliefs and his temperament — he fundamentally likes getting along with people — but an electoral strategy. Part of the point of compassionate conservatism is to avoid inflaming the other side, to keep the Democratic base relatively quiet in a kind of soothing voter suppression.
Well, yes. Except that with respect to most of "the Democratic base," it's not working and won't work. They won't be soothed, and any attempts to do so only further enrage them. They're going to be "the Angry Left" whether Dubya takes a poke at them through the cage bars with a stick or not.
Mr. Lowry, the "electoral strategy" isn't about the Angry Left. It's about not alienating any part of that particular slice of the electorate that voted twice for Ronald Reagan and for George H.W. Bush in 1988 — but then for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and for Al Gore in 2000.
We are each the product of our significant life experiences, and besides the personal redemption Dubya found through his religion, I believe that the other most profound experience in his pre-presidential life was watching his father's Presidency come to a crashing and premature end. He was inside, but on the fringes and largely unable to affect that catastrophe. But the pain and frustration he absorbed during it was, I believe, a large part of what fueled his resolve, his inner fire, to become a successful leader himself. It carried him through two Texas gubernatorial races and a historic, eyelash-close Presidential race, right up through September 10, 2001.
And the next morning, it was wholly displaced by an altogether different, more noble, and more powerful sense of mission and destiny as the Twin Towers collapsed into themselves in a storm of dust and incinerated innocents.
For George W. Bush, I believe, politics is not an end in and of itself, a career skill to be mastered and lived and breathed the way Bill Clinton or Tony Blair have done it. For Dubya, politics is — and always has been, and always will be — nothing more than a means. Getting elected in 2000 was just something that had to be done along the way toward exorcising the demons from November 1992.
But getting re-elected in 2004 is something that now has to be done to continue the mission that enveloped him on 9/11. Dubya doesn't care about staying President because he wants to be President, he cares about staying President so he can complete the process of transforming the world into a place where America is no longer vulnerable in the ways we were, when we were still innocent and when the towers stayed in the sky. And so this President will ruthlessly suppress any temptation to fight fights that are likely to interfere with that next means, that election in 2004 — because he is so intent on fulfilling the end-goals of the mission that suffused him to his core on 9/11.
It's possible that after November 2004, with a second term secured, Dubya might move up to the front lines of the Culture Wars. But frankly, I doubt it. I don't think he sees "making all Americans moral" as part of the mission, or even as something that can be accomplished by the direct and intentional leadership of any President. He has, and he can, and he will continue to affect the morality of his countrymen, and to an extent people elsewhere in the world, on the margins — by personal example, and by consistently working the systemic levers like judicial nominations that the Constitution puts into the hands of the Executive.
But he's not the Pope of America, nor even of "the conservative movement." He doesn't want to be, and I don't think he or any other President could or should be. Those who are the every-day combatants in the culture wars — while I applaud them — ought not expect a General Bush to race to the front lines on a white charger with sword drawn, to lead them in smiting the unrighteous. There's too much risk of that kind of leader getting shot off his horse. Dubya intends to stay in the saddle — leading all of his countrymen on other, less metaphorical battlegrounds — all the way through January 2009.
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