A friend of mine recently made a prediction. He said that at some point in time during the next year or so, the senior Senate Democrats running for president — Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton (um, did I leave any out? Does it matter?) — are going to create their own “Sister Souljah Moment” with Cindy Sheehan and the anti-war movement, in order to improve the image of the Democratic Party as competent and rational in red states that, with a few thousand votes swinging the other way, could become blue states.
I added a caveat: they’re going to do it in such a way that they look like they aren’t doing to it.
And my friend replied: if there’s anyone who could pull that off, it’s Bill Clinton.
You may or may not remember Sister Souljah. She is a rap singer and political activist (and sometime member of Public Enemy) who said, sometime after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” She probably said a lot of other, equally nasty things too.
In response, Clinton (who took as many photos in front of oceans of uniformed police officers as possible during the 1992 race, leaving me with a very queasy feeling) took Souljah to task for the comment (and by extension, the entire radical/racialist left wing of his party), noting that had the words black and white been reversed, “you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”
It was a fairly cheap and cost-free way for Clinton to buy points with increasingly Republican-leaning, suburban white America, while acknowledging another essential point: fans of Public Enemy and political rap either aren’t going to vote anyway or will vote for Democrats regardless. Who else could they vote for? Alan Keyes?
The anti-war base of the Democratic Party is in a similar bind. Where else can it go? Who else can it vote for? Most anti-war Democrats still believe in the power of government, in its essential role to help the “unfortunate” and to regulate evil capital. They are simply not going to up and vote for a Republican, even if he is an opponent of the Iraq occupation, because most grass-roots Republicans have a slightly different idea of what government is for. Even if they haven’t sold out to the Chamber-of-Commerce crowd calling for subsidies and contracts for business (which is unlikely anymore, given that even the GOP has concluded that economic activity is only possible with state involvement and intervention), most Republicans don’t buy the Liberal/Social Democrat notion of who the helpless are and what needs to be done to assist them.
But anti-war Democrats also have several other fundamental problems. The first is with themselves. If I hear “illegal war” one more time, I will scream. The argument assumes that war is only “legal” — and therefore moral, I suppose — if the United Nations Security Council signs off on it. It is likely this is only a rhetorical argument, and that even if the UN had blessed and kissed the Anglo-American invasion (it did give its blessing to the occupation as a fait accompli, or “fact on the ground”), many of these same people would be opposed to the war anyway.
It also weakens their position if, in the future, some different president manages to get the Security Council to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on some future war to topple, save and remake some faraway society. Their instinct is to oppose war, you can see it in their eyes and upon their faces. But with the UN Seal of Approval, how can they oppose it?
Better would be to take a principled position — there is no “lawful” when it comes to war. Period.
They’ll also have to, some of them, wonder about their commitment to government. At least they’ll have to ask themselves: is supporting good liberal candidates who have the “right” position on health care, education and taxation worth putting up with warmongering? Aside from Russ Feingold, you really don’t have any options — you get all of government, with its bombing and misery, or nothing. I don’t expect many to do much, but I hope that some will at least ask the question.
The bigger problem, however, that anti-war Democrats have (and will continue to have) is with their leadership. Simply put, the Hillary Clintons and Joe Bidens of the party are still committed to US global dominance and US world management. They are still attracted to war, nation building and the “liberal” imperialism it all implies. While government policy has been an elite pastime for more than 100 years, foreign policy especially is something that you and I are not expected to have any opinions about, save that our gummint is always right whoever it is allies with and whoever it wages war upon. As members of this country’s clueless and arrogant elite, those senior Democrats believe themselves enlightened enough and obligated to rule the world, and entitled to tax us into penury in order to accomplish that goal. They are not neo-conservatives; that word gets tossed around almost to the point of meaninglessness these days. They are old-fashioned believers in enlightened American empire, the secular inheritors of Muscular Christianity’s call to use the state to create the kind of world Jesus could, in good conscience, return to.
Now, I don’t think Jesus figures much in Biden’s or Clinton’s calculations. They just want a “well-managed world.” Oh, and they think they’re just the people to manage it.
This is why anti-war opinion doesn’t really matter, not really. Because what Americans really want from their government is irrelevant to begin with. (This is the duh-mocracy we want to give as a gift to the world!) And this is why, when the time comes, these senior Democrats will risk the wrath of much of their base by trashing Cindy Sheehan and the anti-war movement. Doing so serves every political interest imaginable. They want to preserve war, for whatever reason, as a policy option. And (the thinking probably goes), such an act would “play well in Peoria,” where good, wholesome red-staters may fear the Democratic Party’s lack of backbone when it comes to “defending the country.”
Personally, I think that’s yesterday’s problem, one Democrats ought not worry too much about. Al Qaeda, to be honest, is a significantly smaller threat than 100 Red Army divisions glowering across the Iron Curtain and 1,000 Soviet nuclear missiles. Revolutionary Islam clearly poses no existential threat to American society or Western Civilization. Team Bush knows this, too, else they would not be so busy handing out important executive branch posts to clueless “yes men” whose most important qualifications is that they understand how the Bush family does business.
But senior Democrats fear a repeat of the 1980s, and so will likely do anything to prove they are strong and willing to bomb anyone or invade anywhere to prove that point. If it means kicking Cindy Sheehan to the curb (it’s not like they’re actually being nice to her or anything), well, I bet they’re already working on it and waiting for just the right moment. It is just a matter of time.
I hope you’re ready for it, Cindy. And hope all of you anti-war Democrats are ready for it too.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.