The shape of the election is already clear; as was predicted here and elsewhere, the administration cannot and won’t run on its record. The economy is in shambles, the prospects are poor, the dollar is falling faster against gold than the Euro for the first time in several years, and so the Democrats are left with a campaign of mood and feelings rather than facts and policy. The Democrats have placed all their bets on what they represent as their superior empathy. They care, feel our pain, and as Bill Clinton said of Barack Obama, are “cool outside” but “burn inside.” All the stops were pulled out in support of this fable, which is in any case irrelevant, as the actual nature of the nominees is not of the slightest consequence, as long as they are sane and civilized, and may be assumed to possess adequate levels of integrity, intelligence, judgment, and courage to carry out their oaths.
Let us pause for a moment to record, in sadness and without hyperbole, that this is surely the most inane, fatuous, and deceptive basis on which a major party has sought the headship of the nation since the Log Cabin and Hard Cider election of William H. Harrison and John Tyler in 1840 (which was at least lively and entertaining). The Democrats tried to ignore slavery in 1852, and ran a “copperhead” defeatist campaign in 1864 with an inept general Lincoln had fired for indolence and insubordination (George B. McClellan), but at least they had a program of sorts. The Democrats’ campaigns for bimetallism in 1896 and 1900 were a child’s dosage of voodoo economics but they were arguable and the party had some other points that were sensible. The 1920s Republican espousal of isolationism, Prohibition, no regulation of stock-market credit, and drastic curtailment of immigration was bad policy that led to war, gangsterism, depression, and the massacre of would-have-been emigrants, but at least it was policy.
Despite smears, pandering, and skullduggery in most of the subsequent elections, there were generally statements of policy, however unfathomably swaddled in partisan flim-flam, and, as was mentioned here last week, every incumbent administration seeking re-election ran on its record, no matter how unrecognizably resculpted the record was. The Democrats emerged from North Carolina with what polls indicate was a modest bounce after a mighty hallelujah chorus in an echo chamber celebrating their human values. As I have taken issue with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in this space before, it is only just to record that she described the president’s remarks at his convention, crediting the people with what the government has done, as effectively laying his administration’s failings off on the country: “We are grateful to the president for deigning to point out our flaws and giving us another chance. . . . The buck stops with us.” It was all a little like when the East German puppet state maintained by Stalin’s Red Army declared in 1953 that it had “lost confidence in the people,” causing Communist sympathizer Bertolt Brecht to ask if it wished to “dissolve the people and elect another”?
Specialists in the history of these events can tell us which party was responsible for introducing the candidate’s spouse as surety for his character. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, after all, a political activist of many years, who had driven around in the early Twenties in a car modified to look like a teapot to dramatize the Teapot Dome scandals of the Harding administration and confounded the efforts of her first cousin, Theodore Roosevelt II, to become governor of New York, famously told the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1940 that “this is no ordinary time.” But she wasn’t commenting on her husband’s character, only on his (very unwise) choice for vice president, Henry Wallace, which rightly failed to enthuse the delegates. But this practice of spousal superhumanization of the last five conventions, I think, began with Hillary Clinton, levitated gratingly with Mrs. Lieberman in 2000 (“Let me tell you about my Joey”), and strove determinedly for the stratosphere with Teresa Heinz Kerry’s exposition of her Hegelian reconciliation of being an African Marxist with becoming a billionaire widow, before we soared, weightless, into the magic kingdom of the Obamas. For the Republicans, Elizabeth Dole somewhat let the side down with her “Can we talk?” of 1996, and Ann Romney last month was something of an issue herself and was attempting damage control for her husband and herself after the Democratic sniper squads had been blazing away for months, aided by the Romneys’ own bouts of foot-in-mouth disease. But Laura Bush and Cindy McCain deserve a special place in the pantheon of American political ladies with a superior sense of taste and self-control.
Since the Democratic claim is empathy, feeling, good vibes, and warm humanity, it would have been discordant to turn the Democratic National Convention into a firebase targeted at all the real or magnified public-relations vulnerabilities of the Republican candidates. Seamus — the Romneys’ late dog, who has elicited more sympathy for his car-rooftop trip to Canada than any American quadruped since the great horse Ruffian broke his leg in a match race – was left, like Mrs. Romney’s bicoastal Cadillacs and liking for dressage, and the candidate’s $100,000 wagers, and the Democratic theory that Paul Ryan is the secret head of the Wisconsin Inquisition, to the Democrats’ media snipers. But that part of the empathy campaign that rests on the wobbly cornerstone of alleging a Republican campaign against women was much on display. Representative Deborah Wasserman Schultz tangled even with the usually credulous market-trailing liberal network CNN over her claim that Mitt Romney himself wrote a more restrictive abortion platform for his party than he had personally espoused.
The militant Democratic women have raised the banner of “reproductive rights” as if this were an umbrella that completely covered abortion. No one is advocating any rollback on contraception, though the inevitable Sandra Fluke (pronounced, providentially, to rhyme with “luck”) was among those inflicting themselves on the convention who tried to breathe life into that canard. The right to reproduce and the right to kill fetuses are not the same thing, and the discussion takes on a more complicated and strident character with Caroline Kennedy, who spoke to the convention waving her Catholicism around like an incense pot, as Nancy Pelosi does, while calling for abortion on demand at the taxpayers’ expense, as a matter of a reproductive right. In order to inflict rabbit punches on the Republicans, unqualified Democrats are mixing politics and theology and redefining rights to include the reverse of what the terminology implies. People have the right to reproduce or not, and those who are pro-choice and don’t think the state should have the right to impose childbirth on a woman who doesn’t want to have a child should not allow their position to be seized and misrepresented by those who are not pro-choice but pro-abortion, and who dismiss the rights of the unborn not as inferior to those of the mother, but as non-existent. As I have written here and elsewhere before, the Democrats are playing with fire getting this far into this issue, and allowing themselves to be led there by mindless fulminators and posturers.
The Democrats emerged from their convention with a lead of several points in most opinion polls, but it looks like a close election. In most close elections, e.g., 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000, the party leading at the outset does win, though in 1968 and 1976 it began with a very large lead. But it can also happen, as it did in 1980 (Reagan-Carter), that the trailing party wins the campaign and wins the argument. In 1980, the Republicans had to establish that Reagan was capable of being president and did so. Something of the same challenge faces the Republicans this year, with a much less formidable candidate than Reagan, but there is also the extreme vulnerability of the Obama record. Carter was fighting international economic trends too, but did not run large deficits; and while his foreign policy also had been largely unsuccessful, he had the undoubted success of the Camp David agreement.
Last week, Obama handed the Republicans a deadly weapon: “Experts agree,” he said, “that my program will reduce deficits by $4 trillion.” He meant in ten years, i.e., that his program would reduce deficits by $400 billion a year for ten years, leaving them at $1.1 trillion for ten years. About 70 percent of Treasury bond sales now are taken up in an essentially fraudulent process by the Treasury’s subsidiary, the Federal Reserve, purporting to buy them by the issuance of notes, as if this were distinguishable from the traditional, inflationary, printing of money. Even four more years of this will leave America with an almost worthless currency, and this fact is accessible to enough voters to win the election for the Republicans.
President Washington and Alexander Hamilton cleaned up the fiscal and monetary chaos after the Revolutionary War. President Grant restored the soundness of the currency after the issuance of “greenbacks” during the Civil War. President Truman radically shrank the deficit run up during World War II. This administration has no such excuse and no such record of defense of the integrity of the currency and the Treasury, and the public knows or darkly suspects that. There are other issues, such as the inane effort of this president to establish a $100 billion annual fund by the carbon-emitting advanced-economy countries for the benefit of poorer countries, led by China (by far the largest emitter) and including the world’s most heinous dictatorships. However exalted its sense of empathy, this administration is a sitting duck on what it has done, what it has failed to do, what it is trying to do, and how it is trying to distract the voters from noticing all of that. There was little reason to believe Mitt Romney could force battle at points where he could win, until he engaged Paul Ryan, America’s foremost authority on the fiscal crisis, as vice-presidential candidate. They have a bigger war chest than the Democrats and the better argument. They should win.