The Corner

1996 and All That

In response to Re: Reagan and Prejudice

The brilliant Sir Charles Cooke has written an un-brilliant post about John Boehner. I’m going to respond, because a) I know Charlie will like it and b) it’s the sort of thing that makes the Corner more interesting, perhaps.

In 1996, Boehner tried to persuade Justice Scalia to become Bob Dole’s running mate. Charlie says this “highlights how astonishingly poor Boehner’s political instincts are” — because Scalia was more valuable on the bench.

On the subject of political instincts: No one — no one — reaches the position of speaker of the House without very, very good political instincts. In fact, the speakers are the wiliest of the wily, politically.

Journalists always think they know more than politicians — than practitioners — about politics. I love what Chris Christie said to a group of reporters in New Hampshire: “You-all are the junior political analysts here. I do this for a living.”

Pundits, bloggers, tweeters, and commenters are always trying to tell politicians about politics. These are people who have never been elected dogcatcher, who have never tried to win a single vote. They just think they know better. Let them throw their hat in the ring and prove it.

As for 1996: We were trying to win the election. By “we,” I mean Republicans. We thought that Bill Clinton was very, very bad. When it came to the vice-presidential nomination, we were trying to think “outside the box.” There was a boomlet for Bill Bennett. There was a boomlet for Scalia.

We thought it was important that Dole beat Clinton. Today, the Right thinks that Dole is a moderate marshmallow. He is barely different from Fritz Mondale. He certainly can’t measure up to that conservative ideal, Donald J. Trump.

In truth, Dole was a rugged Cold Warrior and conservative who was born in Nowheresville, who got shot up in Italy, who struggled to rise from his hospital bed, who never regained the use of his right arm, who entered politics, who was on one national ticket, who became Senate majority leader, and who was on another national ticket. He was arguably the most important American politician of the second half of the 20th century, along with Hubert Humphrey, who did not make it to the presidency.

His understanding of America and the world — and of America’s place in the world — was much better than Clinton’s. Much. The Left hated his guts, and Dole earned that hatred. I think the Right may hate him more now, but it’s a screwy time.

Could Scalia have helped the ’96 ticket? He probably would have been better than Kemp proved. How much difference would it have made? How much good could Scalia have done in government (the executive branch, that is)? Could he have even run for president later? Was America inarguably better off having him write smooth, tart dissents from the bench? Being among the three in 6-3 decisions? Maybe.

But Dole-Scalia was not a stupid idea in 1996. We were trying to think of everything we could, to win. And if one man is indispensable on the Court, we are truly lost, as a country.

I’ll end where I think I began — with John Boehner. His political instincts were good enough to land him in the U.S. House. And eventually in the speaker’s chair. Sure, he fell, ultimately. But he swam with the sharks for a long time, leading the pack of them (swarm of them?), before being bitten.

Politics isn’t easy. And those who really know it — are those who are in it.


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