In 1991, candidate Bill Clinton was asked how he would have voted on the resolution to go to war with Iraq. He replied that he would have voted for the resolution if the vote was going to be close, but thought that the opposition had the better arguments. This remarkable pronouncement set the stage for more than a decade of Democratic cynicism that culminated this year when Senate Democrats (with the exception of Paul Wellstone) decided to vote for another Gulf War resolution only if the vote in their Senate race was going to be close. In between these defining votes, we witnessed Al Gore changing his public position on whether we should go to war with Iraq, and whether regime change in 1991 would have been a good thing, on what at times seemed like a monthly basis.
To those of us who remember the bipartisan foreign policy of the first half of the Cold War and the passionate positions taken by Reaganites and McGovernites during the second half, this lack of seriousness over issues of war and peace seems like something new. It is as if the traditional rule for determining whether to send American troops into harm’s way – whether the national interest in doing so outweighs the cost in blood and treasure – no longer applies to Democratic politicians. Nor is this the only traditional rule that contemporary Democratic politicians feel entitled to abrogate. One could also cite immigration rules, the rules against perjury, the rules governing elections, and, in light of the Wellstone memorial rally, the rules of decorum.
In short, key Democratic leaders now regard issues and rules not as serious things in themselves, but as playthings to be manipulated almost without limit for political purposes. It is not so much that the Democrats try to hide the ball; most politicians do that. Rather, for the likes of Clinton and Gore, it is not clear that there is any ball to hide.
But why should this new form of cynicism appear just now, and why primarily among Democrats? I believe the answer to the first question lies in the modern (or actually the post-modern) intellectual climate. The essentially frivolous manner in which Clinton and Gore approach vital issues has clear parallels in current intellectual and academic thought. In the post-modern intellectual climate, “texts” (e.g., great literature, philosophy, and even laws and judicial opinions) are not valued in their own right, but rather exist to be appropriated by creative “scholars” for whatever purposes they see fit. Everything is up for grabs. The only limit on valid interpretation is the imagination, and political correctness quotient, of the interpreter. In this world, it becomes possible for politicians to ask what “the meaning of ‘is’ is.” And once that point is reached, it becomes possible to suggest that whether one should vote to go to war does not necessarily depend on who has the better arguments.
Why has this tendency surfaced largely among Democrats? One plausible answer is that Democrats are more closely linked than Republicans with academia, the true home of post-modernism. However, while Clinton and Gore undoubtedly have “breathed the air” of post-modernism, so too have many Republican politicians–it is all around us.
A better explanation is that necessity is the mother of invention. After 1964 and before 1992, the Democrats lost five of six presidential elections, including three landslides. Their positions had become so unpopular that the term “liberal” became an epithet of derision. The party’s options were to change its core beliefs or to disguise them. Opting largely for the latter alternative, it needed and found leaders who were particularly skillful in the art of deception.
But this deception could only be tried if the Democrats were confident of getting away with it. And only the Democrats could have that confidence. First, only Democrats could be confident that the overwhelmingly liberal media would, by-and-large, give them a pass. More fundamentally, only Democrats could be confident that their core constituencies would do so too.
The Democratic Party contains at least two core constituencies – African-Americans and feminists – whose leaders view rules as instruments of their oppression and barriers to their advancement. In fact, the centerpiece of much modern civil rights employment litigation is the attack on neutral rules that disproportionately exclude African Americans from a particular job. Examples include tests, educational requirements, and even the requirement that an employee not have been convicted of a crime. Similarly, what is the demand for affirmative action other than a demand that the normal rules for selecting employees based on merit be ignored to the extent that they interfere with desired outcomes? And the disregard of leading feminists for the basic rules of scholarship is apparent in the notoriously shoddy “feminist scholarship” that has been exposed by Christina Hoff Sommers and others.
The common thread here is something akin to cheating. No wonder these core groups, and the sophisticates who believe that rules exist only to be deconstructed, admired Clinton’s intellectual gyrations on key issues and now tolerate Gore’s less supple efforts.
By contrast, the Republican party is a “values” party, a party of churchgoers. While these constituents can be hypocrites in individual cases (as Hollywood endlessly reminds us), collectively the Republican constituencies are far less likely to tolerate cheating and dishonesty among their leaders. This, more than a lack of fortitude, may explain why a Gingrich, a Livingston, and even a Nixon will step aside, whereas a Clinton will hang tough. Fortunately, though, the Democrats may finally be paying a price for their “post-modernism.” If so, this may prove to be the most enduring benefit conferred by this year’s election.
Read more of Paul Mirengoff's comments at the Power Line web log at: www.powerline.blogspot.com.