Rush admits freely that he is as much an entertainer as an analyst of the events of the day; that his job is to get the highest ratings possible. That cannot be done with introspective analyses of the pros and cons of public policy. That is why the man shoots from the hip a good deal of the time.
That said, there is a line Rush has been employing in recent weeks that I think should be taken literally, even though on first hearing one might think it more a wisecrack than a serious proposition. Rush has been arguing that there would be no criticism from liberal Democrats of the way the war in Iraq is being handled if Bill Clinton were in office and doing exactly the same thing as the Bush administration no expressions of moral outrage over Iraqi civilian casualties, of the way Muslim prisoners have been treated by the American military, of the wiretapping of suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers in the United States.
This is a serious charge, one that cannot be answered by maintaining that Clinton would not have dealt with Saddam Hussein in the same manner as Bush. Limbaugh’s contention is that leading Democrats would have supported Clinton even if he did.
We expect political partisans to be partisan on certain issues. It is the nature of politics. Republicans argue that their elected representatives will be more efficient and frugal, less corrupt and less beholden to “special interests” than Democrats will be; Democrats disagree. They argue that their policies will help the “little guy” more than those of the Republicans. Republicans object to that. They will point out how wasteful those policies tend to be and how their “pro-growth” policies will create the jobs needed to help the poor. We expect give and take on these matters. No great moral issues are involved. People are entitled to their opinions on which party will get the job done best.
But what Limbaugh is saying about the Democrats’ criticism of the war in Iraq is in a different category. If it is true that leading Democrats would have supported an invasion of Iraq and looked the other way on interrogation techniques and the decision to wiretap suspected terrorists if a Democratic president were in office, we have reached a troubling point in our history. It would mean that their expressions of moral outrage are phony, a cynical exploitation of life-and-death events for political advantage.
One could argue that Rush is wrong about all this, of course. But to make that case you would have to argue that politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin would be on our television screens deploring the “lies” about weapons of mass destruction and interrogation techniques of the American military “reminiscent of the Nazis,” if Bill Clinton were in office. Well? Can anyone seriously propose that that would happen?
If we accept that Rush is right, we must ask ourselves if the Democrats who are leading the charge against the war in Iraq see their tactics as shrewd ploy in their effort to defeat the Republicans at the ballot box. Or if they are so caught up in the fervor of the moment that they actually believe they are crusading for high and immutable moral principles and that they would be just as mobilized to stop what is happening in Iraq even if John Kerry had been elected and was doing the same things as Bush. The answer matters. If there are people in public office and the media who are consciously maneuvering to portray what the US is doing in Iraq as a failure for no reason other than to bring about a political defeat for George Bush, they are deserving of contempt.
Can it be charged that Republicans and conservatives are no better in this regard? Sure. I suspect that a great many conservatives and leading Republicans who currently support our policies in Iraq would not be on board if Bill Clinton were president. My hunch is that they would be making the charge that Clinton was caught up in a bout of “Wilsonian interventionism” and engaged in an “effort to secure his place in history.” These were, you may remember, the charges against him by conservatives when he sent the troops to the Balkans.
What is my point? That the partisan political atmosphere of our era appears to be making it difficult for us to make sound judgments on public policy; that our suspicions about our political opponents have become so intense that we now have a difficult time in sincerely seeking the national interest; that a great number of Americans in political life can no longer serve as the loyal opposition to each other; that their primary goal is to destroy the other party.
The old World War II movies routinely featured a scene on a troop transport ship, where American soldiers from different backgrounds Southern farm boys and big city ethnics, Jews and Christians, mechanics and poets would develop an affection for each other that superceded these differences. They discovered that what they shared in common as Americans was more important than what made them distinct from each other.
Those scenes were idealized, of course, part of Hollywood’s attempt to serve the war effort. There were serious racial and ethnic tensions in the 1940s. But the melting pot scenes worked for American audiences back then because they were plausible. We could picture such camaraderie developing among a random group of Americans. Anyone want to write a version of them for a modern movie?
Who would buy a scene of body-pierced soldiers, who are convinced that Mumia Abu Jamal was framed and that Tookie Williams was innocent, sharing a pot of coffee with NASCAR fans who listen to Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly every night in civilian life? A scene of women soldiers covered with tattoos, who used to frequent the coffee houses in Haight-Ashbury before they were drafted, folding bandages with former cheerleaders for the college football teams? Soldiers who think George and Laura Bush the perfect American couple swapping cigarettes with a group convinced that Michael Moore caught the essence of what American is all about in Fahrenheit 911?
Our modern military does not have to deal with scenarios such as these because its all-volunteer status has made it very homogeneous very conservative and very Republican, to be precise. But that only highlights the fragmentation of the American national identity that we are talking about. It is a fragmentation that might one day present problems greater than the current inability to debate what we are doing in Iraq in an honest manner.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)