Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
One wonders what various foreign observers are thinking these days as they sort through our national politics via the world media, social or otherwise. Have they concluded, for example, based on our last two presidential elections, that we are now following the European model toward a socialistic form of government and/or a form of populist liberalism? It might look like that, but have we really "turned left," and is there any turning back for us?
However, before we address these questions, we have to acknowledge three powerful social influences long at work here, and note that they could, in and of themselves, either explain – or have had significant effect on – our political metamorphosis over the last twenty plus years.
First: The powerful influence of the "messengers" of American politics and political commentary – our media, and to a lessor extent our academia, simply cannot be ignored. The bottom line is that – at least since the end of WW II – these institutions have marched relentlessly to the left.
The march continues today, and operates as a defacto condition of employment, career success, and "relevance" in either sector – which practically guarantees that each successive generation of media/academia to be even more liberal than the last. And, with very few exceptions, there are not significant offsetting influences (on the right) in American media or academia – either in quality or quantity. In other words – and because they are mostly alone – the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Channel are more "legends in their own mind" than anything else. The left simply "rules" U.S. media and academics.
Second: Another huge influence has been the passing into irrelevancy of the "baby boomers," a huge population bulge fathered and mothered largely by our so–called "greatest generation" of the 1930's and 40's. We "Boomers" – thanks to the work ethic of our parents – have had it pretty good, but now are old political news, except that we are living longer and will be increasingly expensive to take care of.
Third: The dramatic end of the Cold War, a tremendous relief from 50 plus years of political and economic tension, gave way to a decade of giddy prosperity in the Nineties. Thank you, Ronald Reagan! That was a fun decade, but not at all realistic – as we learned when the various financial "bubbles" popped us back into reality.
So, assuming the discriminating foreign observer knows these things about us (like a modern day de Tocqueville) and is able (and willing) to look beyond our unrelenting lefty media, what would/could they see as really happening here – politically speaking – since the turn of the 21st century?
We should probably start by remembering that George Bush barely beat Al Gore in 2000, and Gore probably would have won (he did win the popular vote) had Bill Clinton not spent the second term of his presidency immersed in a sex/lies scandal that led to a historic vote for his impeachment in the House. In the end, Gore probably lost because of his reluctant – but tactically necessary – political connections to Clinton. Remember, that by 2000, we were all really sick of the Clinton soap opera . We even named it: "Clinton fatigue".
National security wise, during Clinton, we had some very serious setbacks: Both India and Pakistan "went nuclear," to our complete surprise, North Korea and Iran snookered us on their nuclear weapons programs, and several very nasty post Cold War border/ethnic/religious wars were fought in the former Yugoslavia.
And we had the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole and the Oklahoma City bombing, among many other terror attacks. Many believed we ignored these to our later peril.
However, many foreign (and domestic) political observers during the Clinton administration noted correctly that Clinton was really a "centrist" and definitely not an advocate of the "welfare state," even agreeing with Republicans to "end welfare as we know it." And, while a great many hard–core liberals were upset with Clinton for his political pragmatism and deal–making, they never allowed it to fragment the Democratic Party, whereas the Republicans have not been able to achieve that – or really any – degree of party discipline.
In fact, serious cracks in Republican and conservative unity had appeared much earlier: Specifically, during the George H.W. Bush Administration. Recall that a splinter Republican candidate, H. Ross Perot – on his own money – drained away 20 million potential Republican votes, spoiled the reelection of Bush and facilitated – by default – the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, even to Clinton's surprise. In other words, Clinton would not been president had it not been for Ross Perot! In more ways than one, the Republicans have "done it to themselves."
So, the truly objective foreign observer might see the erosion of the modern American Republican party as occurring in several distinct stages, none of which really involve the classic, "European style" liberal – conservative political dialogue. The "real causes" probably look more like this:
- Ross Perot's divisive/destructive effect on the Republican Party (one could argue that this influence continues in the personages of Ron and Rand Paul). In this respect, foreign observers might wonder why at least some "libertarian" views can't be incorporated into the Republican platform/philosophy without internally divisive consequences. The Democrats generally do not allow individual "issues" – even sharply defined ones – to divide their party in ways that cost them national elections (an exception was the "assault weapons ban" of 1994, which cost Democrats their House majority – and may cost them the Senate this time around).
- Realizing his stroke of electoral luck in 1992, the very clever "triangulation" politics of Bill Clinton worked to absorb and incorporate many more traditional Republican interests. As a result, a lot or Republicans were comfortable voting for Clinton's reelection in 1996.
- The serious failure of national security policies during the George W. Bush administration: This, insofar as our reaction to 9/11 was to invade Iraq, which could have been politically survivable for Republicans had our forces come home after Saddam was overthrown and the WMD issue was resolved. However, staying in Iraq, en masse, for several years thereafter – with a poorly defined "democracy" mission – was a huge mistake, costing thousands of lives and trillions of mostly borrowed dollars. And, it was also a killer politically – to the extent that any Democrat nominated in 2008 would have won because of it.
- However, in 2008, there was still "Clinton fatigue"; hence, we got Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton. The irony here is that it was also "Clinton fatigue" that beat Al Gore and elected George Bush in the first place!
- The persistence and proliferation of various conservative religious and "lifestyle" groups has increasingly alienated successive generations of "good Republicans". Most Americans – regardless of their party politics – have "evolved" socially and will continue to do so. Party politics really have no business being associated with these kinds of issues and maybe the Republicans will – finally – figure this out. If vocal "right to lifers" and "defense of marriage" advocates – just for example – continue to sharply politicize these issues and identify them primarily with the Republican Party, it can only further divide and minimize the GOP. Euros look at this and scratch their heads – these kinds of issues are simply not political in most of the modern world.
So, have we really "turned left" in our national politics? Or, have we simply reacted – predictably, I submit – to: 1) a combination and succession of Republican "disunities" (beginning with Ross Perot and now with vocal Tea Party like "issue politics"), 2) Presidential soap operas (i.e., Bill Clinton, whose "fatigue" affected the outcome of two subsequent presidential elections) and 3) the protracted and hugely expensive national security failures of George W. Bush?
Perhaps as important, most informed foreigners believe that America remains a center–right political country, where people still come because it truly is "the land of opportunity," where hard work usually results in the accumulation of personal and family wealth that the government can't take away.
This basic concept still speaks loudly to all demographics, domestic and foreign, and has also been a traditional message of the Republican party, provided it can articulate it through our predominately, and increasingly aggressive, liberal media. However, to "rise again" the Republicans must also learn to mitigate and absorb today's controversial "social issue politics", and to prevent them from further dividing their party. Can they do it? We'll know soon.
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