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Down and Out in American Politics

Editor's journal

No, wait-hear me out. He is attractive in the same way Ronald Reagan was in 1980. His straight talk is the preferred voice of most Americans; his backyard barbecue manner evokes the place where most citizens imagine themselves happiest and safest: outside, in nature, on land they own, a property fenced in and well groomed. It's summertime. Friends are sharing a joke and the kids are playing and laughing nearby. When Reagan declared that it was "morning in America"-on the heels of war, recession and an energy crisis-suddenly, it was, just by virtue of his having said so. In the same singular way, Bush has now more or less declared it to be summer in America, while praying that no one will notice it's January. You have to admire that kind of willpower, if only in a doomed-polar-explorer kind of way.

This Summer in Winter issue, it turns out, is the ideal context in which to consider Dubya's sunny hope and renewed popularity. He embodies his nation's determination to pursue happiness-whether reasonably, blindly, humbly or to the exclusion of others' happiness. Bush carries a chip on his shoulder that everyone recognizes, and many appreciate. It's the same chip America has always carried: a willingness to pick a fight. "Don't mess with Texas." "Don't tread on me." "Live free or die."

Back in 2000, I was a Canadian Nader supporter (big surprise) living in the American Midwest. I despised Al Gore's saccharine speechmaking, and I was sick of the whole vendetta against Clinton, even though it was clear he was wrong. I couldn't vote, but I wanted to send a message that I was sick and tired of the Democratic Party not living up to its ideals. Like many Naderites, my support was idealistic and future-focused, blind to the realpolitik of the next four years. I assumed that power would remain in Democratic hands-or that Republican hands would be no different. My deepest wish was "No more politics as usual." When Nader said there was no difference between Gore and Bush-or Bore and Gush, as they were nicknamed at the time-I believed him.

How wrong I was. Bush and Gore were immensely different. Every headline for the past four years has reminded me of my wrong-headedness, of how America's direction since 2000 has been determined largely by a leader's personality, not by a party's policies. It is for this reason that getting inside Bush's brain is so important; the fate of the United States, if not the world, depends on it.

George W. Bush is a reckoner, someone who drives things to a head. He is a dramatic figure: not because he is a great leader, but because he creates confrontational talk about military action and going to war. He is unafraid. Most people, if they sat in the White House and had the same economic and military power he has at his fingertips, would be similarly unafraid. Most people, though, would not bully friends and allies with their newfound might, nor would they expect "compliance" on every issue. In a way, Bush is a millennialist, on a crusade to prove that his vision of the world is the right one.

More than any politician I've listened to, Bush speaks in the future tense. He loves pointing listeners toward the happy tomorrow. It's always "we're going to": we're going to right wrongs, smoke out terrorists, go to Mars, keep the nation safe by blowing missiles out of the sky. He likes it when his opponents challenge his vision or get nitpicky about things such as "facts." And like some fifty-year-old Alfred E. Newman, he enjoys taking everything personally, even as he says with a surly half-sneer, "What, me worry?" He is at his defensive best and his most characteristically Texan when attacked. It lets him respond with moral overtones: "I make no apologies for my actions." He's the sympathetic underdog, the man with the plan, he's got the right stuff, and opponents are just flies on a cow's back. Why do I have to argue with you? I don't have to argue with you. It's a haughty attitude that loses debates, but wins elections.

The fact is, Bush behaves more like a medieval European demagogue than a democratically elected representative of the people. He speaks about his nation's stance in the world as if policy were his alone to make, and opposition irrelevant. There is no distinction in his mind between his right arm and the country's actions. In political science, this is called a monarchy.

Now is winter made inglorious summer by this son of Bush. Sigh.

Looking back, I can't help but think Howard Dean was exactly what the doctor ordered. Dean did not care to mince words. He had a very clear vision of what ails the country, and of how to fix it-in both practical and verbal terms. And he still does. Ironically, it was the internal self-questioning within the Democrats' nomination process that pegged Dean as unelectable. It was winter 2004 and the party was running scared: Bush seemed all but unbeatable, and Dean's unafraid and confrontational style-so unlike his tepid main competitors-made him look like an unseasoned political outsider. In this context, Democrats made their decision. Their lack of confidence translated into a lack of vision.

Dean would have given the President and his smug cavaliers a verbal lashing the likes of which Bush, for one, has probably never received in his plush life. Dean might have lost, but democracy itself would have been served. And the Democratic Party might have moved beyond its hollow quest to regain the liberal righteousness of the sixties. Right now, liberals have little going for them besides the consolations of philosophy. Their party's failure of nerve lost them the election, and they once again failed to advance the long-term need for an entirely new vision of a liberal America, one with real bite. Something more to build on than politics as usual.

Ah, there's that old idealism creeping in again. The wish for a great liberal hope.

Maybe the Democrats' failure will lead to a new vigour in American liberalism. But I don't see it being easy for liberals. They are entering a period where their Candide-like assumptions of the past half-century-that America and the world are getting progressively better and more tolerant, that American activity in the world has been generally positive-are being exposed as wishful fictions. There are many such wishful fictions, on all sides, but long-term, I don't see how the United States is going to become more liberal. Quite the opposite.

After all, it's summer in America! From the backyard BBQ vantage, the rest of the world seems so alien, its people so incomprehensible. Do I have to think about them, as the Democrats keep insisting I do? Politics should run itself. The good life should run itself. The reassurance of a familiar soul in office is proof enough that nothing needs worrying about. Turn the meat. It's almost done.


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