Opportunity Knocks

Alan Brinkley's illuminating piece is right in concluding that the “only real option” for Democrats is to convert Republicans (and, presumably, independent voters) into Democrats. He sees years of hard labor before this can be accomplished. I am more optimistic. I think that the lethal Republican combination of hubris and incompetence will expedite matters, but only if the Democrats are prepared to step into the breach.

First, hubris. George Bush the Younger, perhaps in conscious or unconscious reaction to his father, does not dismiss “the vision thing.” He believes that the Almighty summoned him to high office, and he cherishes visions. Having won the popular vote in 2004 by more than 3 million, he is exposed to the temptation of overreaching. Colin Powell, who resigned on November 15, told the Financial Times that foreign policy in the second term will be aggressive. Already premonitory warnings and threats against Iran are eerily reminiscent of warnings and threats that preceded the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration's contempt for “old Europe,” for the United Nations, and for international institutions is hardly concealed. The attitude is “we can do anything -- all by ourselves.” Hubris reaches its climax in the neoconservative fantasy that the imposition of democracy on Iraq will lead to the democratization of the world of Islam.

As for incompetence, rarely have such high-flown visions been pursued with such gross negligence, mismanagement, and lack of foresight. The habits of mind of a faith-based presidency are theological and disdain practicalities. What Republicans call “values” may be popular in the Bible Belt, but they do not ensure success in Iraq. Meanwhile, blunders, misconceptions, delusions, and atrocities accumulate: the shift of priorities from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, from al-Qaeda to Iraq; no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq; no involvement by Iraq in the attacks of September 11; meager postwar planning; American troops received, contrary to predictions, not as liberators but as occupiers; too few troops on the ground; the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

The absence of accountability rewards incompetence. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt relieved the top officers in Hawaii from their posts. After the Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy relieved the top CIA officials who had advocated the idiotic operation. Surely Harvard Business School taught President Bush about accountability. Any senior official tolerating torture should have been fired. Any senior official who fell for the phony intelligence conveyed by Ahmad Chalabi should have been fired. But Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and their gang are still in power.

Bush is caught in a trap of his own construction. If we fight in Fallujah, we kill insurgents just to see young Muslims rushing to fill the breach. And if we abandon Fallujah, we cede large parts of Iraq to the insurgency. In the end we may cut and run, as we did in Vietnam about 40 years ago, but doing so would render ridiculous Bush's braggadocio about staying the course and making Iraq a democracy. The mess continues, and the mess deepens. After a time the American people, even the religious right, will tire of Iraq. I would judge this to be around the midterm elections of 2006. There is no guaranteed immunity for wartime presidents. The Korean War forced President Truman to withdraw in 1952. The Vietnam War forced President Johnson to withdraw in 1968.

The Republican combination of hubris and incompetence creates great opportunity for the Democrats. But are Democrats prepared to take advantage of the opportunity? This is where Brinkley's emphasis on infrastructure is vital. For the short run, we have a kind of built-in infrastructure ready for use: academia. The FDR and JFK administrations showed a unique interest in the systematic recruitment of academics. Perhaps a more useful model for a party out of power was the Finletter Group, set up in the 1950s to educate Adlai Stevenson and thereafter given party status as the Democratic Advisory Council by Paul Butler, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In the longer run, the problem is to deal with Ronald Reagan's excommunication of affirmative government. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said in his first inaugural address. “Government is the problem.” Reaganism rested on two propositions: that government was the root of evil and that, once government was “off the people's backs,” the free market would solve our problems.

Now it is evident that the free market does not provide health care for millions of our people, does not ensure full employment, does not protect the natural environment, does not improve our schools, does not clean up our inner cities, and does not stop global warming. The very character of these problems calls for a larger measure of public action. This is the intellectual and political challenge that Democratic brain trusters must meet.

Meanwhile, voters in red states, if they think hard about it, will perhaps see the Iraq War as a more urgent threat to the republic than same-sex marriage.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s new book is War and the American Presidency.

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