Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Conventional wisdom on parade

"You are living in 1969. Drugged-out hippies and scary black people are after you."

This is the kind of thing that self-respecting political junkies have a hard time overlooking. "This" being brought to you by that faithful channeler of press corps conventional wisdom, Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle, in Party leaders don't seem to care Clinton has taken the big states 04/23/08.

Now, credit where credit is due and all that: Lochhead does point out that winning the Democratic primary in a state is no predictor of whether that candidate will win that state against McCain in "the general", as everyone now seems to be calling the fall general election.

But I was struck by her giving space to a veteran Republican to spout Republican talking points, unchecked of course against any real-world events, in this section:

Jim Pinkerton, who worked in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, said Democrats "are making an eerie replay of 1972," when nominee George McGovern lost in a landslide to Republican Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War.

"They're convincing themselves that the youth vote will carry them, like McGovern was convinced the Baby Boomers and the 18-year-old vote were going to elect him," Pinkerton said. "Well, there were a lot more Lynyrd Skynyrd fans than James Taylor fans out there, and McGovern got clobbered, including by young people."
I'm struck in this election cycle more than ever about how deeply Republican activists seem to be stuck in the "culture war" assumptions of roughly 1968-1973.

And it was the 1972 election that was the first round under that particular set of "culture war" assumptions, when the minds of good Christian Republican white folks were haunted by the images of rioting Negroes, fornicating hippies and flag-burning draft-dodgers. Especially those disrespectful Negroes.

The Republicans did use the informal slogan accusing Democratic nominee George McGovern of being the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion", "acid" referring to the drug LSD. The basis for this litany? McGovern favored decriminalization of marijuana possession (which has since occurred to a large degree), offering amnesty to draft evaders after a peace treaty was concluded in the Vietnam War (which Jimmy Carter as President did) and leaving abortion as a matter for individual states' decision (now the "pro-life" position, though in 1972 it meant being against imposing any federal ban on abortion). Obviously, their attempts to turn Democrats into weirdo bogeymen in the voters' eyes have gained much in truth-value over the years.

But 2008 is a long way from 1972 in a lot of ways. Nixon had the kind of personality and approach to government that a Dick Cheney could and surely did admire. But he was a pragmatist in many ways and not nearly as driven by ideological or religious dogmas as our Dear Leader Bush or his nationalistic Vice President. In 1972, the country was emerging from the recession of 1971. Nixon had imposed wage and price controls to restrain inflation, which had emerged as a big concern at the time. (McGovern was against the controls; who was more "radical" on that issue?)

Nixon had also drastically reduced the number of American troops in Vietnam, which even war opponents approved so far as it went, and gave many people confidence that Nixon was extracting the country from the Vietnam War. Also, the Vietnam War in 1972 was increasingly unpopular, but not as unpopular as the Iraq War is today. Nixon's slogan of "peace with honor" had considerable resonance.

The scope of the Watergate scandal was not yet apparent, even though the national press corps wasn't in anything like the wrecked state of today's press.

Another huge element in that election was the fact that Nixon had made a high-profile trip to China to begin normalizing relations with China and had made huge progress in "detente" with the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the likes of Dick Cheney and those who today are known as "neoconservatives". There were rational reasons, much as any good Democrat hates to say it even today, that voters could think of Nixon as a "peace" candidate. It wasn't all marketing fluff. And he even trotted out Henry Kissinger in October to declare, "Peace is at hand" in the Vietnam War, based on the progress of the peace talks in Paris.

But, more than any association with hippie protesters or scary black people, McGovern was badly hurt by his initial pick of Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate. When it became public that Eagleton had been treated for severe depression using electroshock therapy, McGovern decided to drop him from the ticket, after rashly declaring when the controversy broke that he was behind Eagleton "one thousand percent". The replacement, Sargent Shriver, was a decent enough VP candidate. But the damage to McGovern's image as a capable decision-maker was done.

The highly competitive Democratic primary campaign in 1972 was also of a different quality than the one going on right now. Hubert Humphrey campaigned as a traditional hawkish liberal against McGovern, who was the preferred choice of the antiwar movement and party reformers. Comparisons to the Clinton-Obama contest would be largely superficial. Not to minimize the internal party stakes of today's contest. But the Humphrey-McGovern split divided the party along ideological and even generational grounds in a way that made it more likely that some traditional Democratic voters that would likely have supported Humphrey in the fall against Nixon would see Nixon as a reasonable alternative.

Nixon's first term was also when the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" went into full swing, deliberately appealing to white segregationists, the "white backlash" vote as it was often called then. This was an important factor at work to pull conservative, traditional Democratic white voters into the Republican column.

Not to run this into the ground, but the degree of market segmentation that is applied today in designing political campaigns is qualitatively different that what was used then. Because candidates today are far more able to target small slivers of the electorate, it's more likely that they will pursue Rovian 51% campaign strategies. While Nixon in 1972 was out to build a mandate for himself. Much of his mandate evaporated with the massive "Christmas bombing" campaign against North Vietnam soon after his re-election. Nixon backed off the "peace is at hand" proposal at the negotiation table and clearly intended to pursue an intensified conventional war in Vietnam. That move was highly unpopular with the public and in Congress, which forced him to quickly back off that approach and sign the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973.

I'm relating all this here because many Republicans, like a young Karl Rove who was working for Nixon's re-election in 1972, processed those events as being an ideological victory over the dang hippies, "hippies" in their minds including also those very scary black people. And they passed that "culture war" sense of politics on to younger Republicans who hadn't even been born in 1972.

So when Jim Pinkerton says he sees this Presidential election as "an eerie replay of 1972", he's just saying that he's a typical "culture war" Republican. They see every Presidential election as a replay of their highly-ideological view of "1972".

Was James ("Fire and Rain") Taylor less popular in 1972 than Lynyrd ("Sweet Home Alabama") Skynyrd? The "Southern rock" band probably sold more records that year. But I'll bet the folk singer had more people who counted themselves as fans.

Pinkerton, holding on to his 1972 "culture war" mentality and applying it to 2008, gives a good picture of the Republican strategy at the present against Obama:

Pinkerton said Republicans will mine such issues as Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers, a former member of the radical Weather Underground group.

"That item alone will be a rich vein of discovery for some eager-beaver Republican opposition researcher," he said. "Oh, and then we'll get on to the Rev. Wright and his life and times, and Indonesia, and his further sociological thoughts on the white working class."
Every time I hear people mention Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground - the Maverick himself went on about Ayers in his This Week interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC Sunday - it reminds me of a Law and Order episode from several years ago. Sam Waterson's character, prosecutor Jack McCoy, was prosecuting a case that was (obviously if unofficially) based on a Weather Underground case in which a female member who had been evading the law for years was discovered to be living as a prosperous suburban housewife. Jack, normally a hard-nosed prosecutor, was unusually ambivalent about prosecuting her for a decades-old bank robbery in which a security guard was killed. He was aware of the complex tangle of motivations at work in the political moment in which it occurred.

When the woman is convicted, they close by talking about her being eligible for parole in 2010 or whenever. Jack says (quoting from memory), "Maybe by then the '60s will be over."

Can the spirit of Richard Nixon help us defeat the mind-controlling space aliens?

Sensible thought, but wrong. For our conservative "culture warriors", they're still reliving "the 60s" as it exists in their minds. Obviously, as we saw in the Social Security fight in 2005, the Republicans would still like to roll back most of the New Deal. But it seems to me that their world view has been more enduringly shaped by their fevered reaction to "the 60s" than by even the New Deal. For some of them, apparently, "the 60s" will never be over.

The problem with these "culture war" attacks on the Democrats is that, given the eager cooperation and even initiation of such attacks by our badly broken "press corps", they create all sorts of uncertainties and suspicions and fears about the Democratic candidate which the Republicans can then exploit with their media-endorsed images of the Republican candidate as the tough, patriotic man of principle. It's not so much that independent voters actually buy the attacks as such. Can anyone really believe Barack Obama is part an a super-secret Muslim Weather Underground terrorist group? But unless they are adequately countered, they have an effect nevertheless, as the Swift Boat Liars for Bush group in 2004 did.

Finally, that "can anyone really believe..." question is probably giving some people too much credit. I was at a party in San Francisco just this week where I was talking some respectable businessman who said in all apparent seriousness that university faculties at Ivy League schools are dominated by Communists. This guy may be quite successful in his business (or maybe not, I don't really know). But he's just plain out of touch with reality in some large portion of his thinking as a citizen about political matters.

Next time that happens to me, I think I'll counter by insisting that, no, those faculties are really dominated by gray space aliens with big eyes who control them through brain implants.

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"It is the logic of our times
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