The Long View 2002-08-29: What Kind of Nation

The little vignettes of early American politics John provides here are kind of charming. There is a sense in which we are still parochial in that kind of way, but I feel like it is fading fast.

John got his prediction about three-quarters right here. At least the first phase of the Second Iraq War was just as easy as John predicted. It was the second, Wilsonian phase that didn't go so well. Since hindsight is perfect, while there were occasions when John expressed his doubts about the modern Wilsonian approach of W to the Second Iraq War, overall he was still an advocate. He did nail the likely effect of a Democratic presidency though,

Another Democratic administration any time soon would be a catastrophe. There is little left of the Democratic Party these days but a Looters' League of liberal totalitarians. They would lose the terror war and envenom racial and gender politics to the point where the United States could face an existential crisis. Or worse.

The personal has become very political. At the least, John underestimated the power of the Deep State to prosecute the War on Terror in much the same way no matter who was elected. It might have been interesting had a Democrat President with stronger views been elected. We might have seen an actual power struggle over foreign policy.

John was an advocate of the view that the Republicans are the Stupid Party, and Democrats are the Evil Party. I have seen little in the last 15 years to dissuade me otherwise.

What Kind of Nation

 

 

Sometimes I despair of the Republican Party, if you can imagine such a thing. I just got another piece of GOP junk mail, over Trent Lott's signature. It was one of those fund-raising packages that come with a membership card, indeed a platinum membership card: "What makes the Platinum Card so prestigious is that only a very limited number were commissioned and only a select few chosen to receive it" (underlining in original). It would not be so bad if the insult to the reader's intelligence were limited to flattery. The problem is that the dumbness extends to what is shaping up to be the GOP's national platform:

 

 

"Now -- as we fight internationalism terrorism -- our challenge is clear: We must give President George W. Bush the support he urgently needs to do what's right for America by cutting taxes, reforming education, strengthening our energy supply, controlling unnecessary spending and bolstering our national economy."

This paragraph does not have the the "head for the lifeboats" item, a proposal for a balanced budget amendment, but it does suggest that the way to wage a global anti-terror war is to cut taxes. The budget is in deficit again. That is not particularly through the Republicans' fault, but it will be the Republicans' fault if the national debt is no smaller when the babyboomers start to retire. Further tax cuts are too stupid to discuss.

Some of the letter is beyond satire. Further on, there is an item Social Security Protection, which says: "We must protect social security for today's seniors and save it for younger workers by including voluntary personal accounts." It's possible that there won't be further large stock market losses between now and the Congressional elections but...oh, why bother to explain?

The maddening thing is that history is repeating itself so quickly. There is good reason to suppose that there will be another US-Iraq war in the near future and that it will go far more easily than most commentators forecast, just as happened during the administration of the first Bush. That Bush promptly lost the 1992 presidential election because he apparently had no agenda for what would have been his second term (except cutting capital-gains taxes, of course).

Peggy Noonan, his occasional speechwriter, described the state of the late Bush I White House in What I Saw at the Republican Revolution. She was called in on an emergency basis to put together what turned out to be the president's last State of the Union Address. It was a rousing speech, but the president had nothing to say. The only substantive proposals were the Bush tax fetish and something about the National Highway System. It did not even have much to say about foreign or military policy, beyond self-congratulation.

This is happening again, at a time when history is cutting us no slack. The Republicans have no domestic agenda, not even the negative one of cleansing the White House of Mr. Bill and Lady Macbeth. Another Democratic administration any time soon would be a catastrophe. There is little left of the Democratic Party these days but a Looters' League of liberal totalitarians. They would lose the terror war and envenom racial and gender politics to the point where the United States could face an existential crisis. Or worse.

 

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I can write purple prose like that in good conscience because I just finished a wonderful book, James F. Simon's What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. The author is a law professor at New York Law School, so the book treats largely of the successful attempt by Marshall to establish the supremacy of the federal government over the states and the Supreme Court's prerogative of constitutional judicial review. However, if you want to see otherwise sensible people shouting that the sky is about to fall, all you have to do is see is what the book says about the ferocious invective of the Adams Administration. In contrast, the disputes of the Clinton years were conducted with soft, fluffy snowballs.

Actually, quite a lot of the events of that period are topical now. There were the perfectly balanced electoral-college results of the election of 1800, which was settled in the House. There were several impeachment trials, most notably the of the rabidly Federalist Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase. (Vice President Aaron Burr presided, though he was under indictment in New York and New Jersey for murdering Alexander Hamilton.) The young federal union was almost disrupted by the Adams Administration's attempts to restrict civil liberties. Government in those days was almost a solid block of conflicts of interest. Did you know that Chief Justice Marshall not only wrote the Supreme Court's opinion in Marbury v. Madison, but he had also signed and sealed the judicial commissions the case was about? He had been Adams's Secretary of State, it seems.

In fact, the wonderful thing about all this was the small scale, almost like a Jane Austen novel (Marshall was a fan, by the way). A major political incident could arise because of the wording of a calling card. "Major," of course, is a relative term. The political world was a dozen newspapers in half-a-dozen cities. Everything happened at the pace of a walk. Even Adams's prosecutions were civilized affairs, though the few newspapers likened them to the French Terror (he pardoned some of the convicted himself, and his successor Jefferson pardoned the rest). No one wanted to use illegal force as an instrument of political change, except for Burr, and even Burr's punishment was no more than a gentleman's disgrace.

The amazing thing is how much of this political pastorale is still relevant to American politics today. I'll keep that in mind the next time I get another infuriating piece of junk mail.


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