The Long View 2002-10-02: Wellstone's Wake

It really is the conventional wisdom even now that lower turnout helps Republicans, but who now remembers that 2002 saw increased turnout in the midterms and a huge Republican victory?

This was an occasion where John praised President George W. Bush for at least having some ideas of how to govern, although he didn't seem to think much of these ideas, except that W. did seem to take national security seriously.

John was on record encouraging the Republicans to adopt some kind of universal health insurance as a party platform. Over time, I came to see that he had a point. John thought healthcare was a public good, not a public right, which makes a major difference. Good health isn't something owed to you by others, which is a right. Good health is good, and we are all better off if the health of our fellow citizens is better, but how you frame it makes a major difference.

John's point-of-view was that offering public healthcare as a "right" was a frequent trick of the despotic regimes of the world in the twentieth century to claim that they offered many "rights" to their subjects that Western democracies could not or did not. The fact that many of their people were in fact in poor health wasn't the point. After all, who could fault them for their poverty.

The point here is that political rights do not truly depend upon wealth, or at least they shouldn't. If you are going to have a trial, the right to not incriminate yourself or the right to confront your accuser can simply be part of the standard procedure. All of the pieces are already in place, you simply have to do it. Healthcare isn't like this. You need an incredible infrastructure of equipment and trained personnel to make it happen, along with a distribution network for the supplies needed. If the truck broke down, do you lose your rights?

The most obvious rejoinder to this argument would be that the rich have greater relative access to their political rights than the poor. This is correct, although one should keep in mind that access to rights in modern societies is also available to the clever and hard-working, and being rich has become very strongly correlated with those things in the modern world.

The affirmative response would be the cultures that have developed political rights in the modern sense also developed the traits that are most effective at producing economic growth. These cultures were not always the richest or the most powerful, it simply happens that the political rights developed in the same place that produced the greatest wealth, over a very long period of time. Compound interest tends to add up, if you have a culture that can avoid the economic crises that destroy savings.

Finally, while the Simpsons remain incredibly popular, the data we have is that the series was at its best in the 1990s, so John's dyspeptic comment has some empirical vindication.

Wellstone's Wake

 

To tell you the truth, I was not greatly offended by the pre-election memorial service for the late Senator Wellstone of Minnesota. That was the one that turned into a political rally at which Republican dignitaries were booed, including Wellstone's colleagues from the Senate. The family was actually being tactful when they asked that Vice President Dick Cheney not attend. Paul Wellstone had his merits, among which was a fierce-but-fair partisan temper. A wake that consisted of a rally of 20,000 Democratic activists would have been just what he wanted.

The problem was that it was not what the voters in Minnesota wanted. Had the memorial service been held three weeks before the election instead of just one, the odor of rancor would have dissipated, and the candidacy of senator-emeritus Walter Mondale would certainly have benefited from the boost that the event gave to the morale of the faithful. As it was, people voted on the basis of their exposure to real politics, rather than to the smooth marketing of a normal campaign. The irony, as more commentators than I have noted, is that the memorial rally not only won the election for the Republican, Norm Coleman, it also lost the Democrats control of the US Senate.

 

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Does this really tell us anything about the state of the Democratic Party? Some people made merry at the Democrats' expense, pointing out that both of the emergency replacement candidates for Senate races in 2002 were old, very old, war horses. The short answer may be that, although Mondale lost, Frank Lautenberg won in New Jersey, beating the invincibly obscure Republican, Douglas Forrester. (As we say in New Jersey, Forrester is such a bad campaigner he could not even get indicted in this state.) Personally, I think that it is something of an asset to a party to have a supply of old geezers in the freezer, in case something goes wrong. Real morbidity is when you nominate the geezer in the first instance, as the Republicans did with Bob Dole in 1996.

The problem with the Democratic Party is that it is getting, well, wistful. We see this in the alternative universe to which so many Democrats have retreated, the NBC show The West Wing. In last night's episode, President Josiah Bartlet humiliated his stupid Republican opponent with the Southwestern accent, racking up huge gains in Congress amidst subplots about the difficulties of voter registration. Probably, when the episode was written, the producers expected that it would mark the beginning of a reconvergence of their alternative universe with the real world; hardly anyone expected the Republicans to do as well as they did last Tuesday. As it was, the show was an instance of instant nostalgia

Christian Slater put in his first appearance, by the way, as a naval officer assigned to the White House. He joins Lily Tomlin, who is now President Bartlet's lovable dragon-lady secretary. When Mr. Rogers becomes Secretary of State, we will know that the time has come for NBC to find a replacement.

 

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A more serious example of the Democratic disconnect was also offered around election day, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a strange column entitled "American Idol," Friedman describes the huge, enthusiastic reception that Bill Clinton received on his recent visit to Berlin. Friedman argues that America and Americans are not unpopular in Europe these days. Europeans continue to admire American optimism, as represented by the former president, even as they patronize it. Their dissatisfaction is confined to the grumpy old Republicans who happen to run the United States today. The Republicans, Friedman argues, are practicing just the sort of Realpolitik that the Europeans so recently outgrew, and which they therefore loathe. He implies that the way for America to endear itself to Europe is to wear a Clintonian face.

You don't have to be a Clinton-hater to suspect that there was something a little perverse about presenting Bill Clinton as the model American abroad, just as election returns were showing that the candidates lost for whom he had campaigned heavily. (Peggy Noonan called the effect "The Clinton Thud.") There really is a stratum of the Democratic Party that is best understood as a section of "transnational society" ("tranzies," for short) who will not be happy until there is some authority they can appeal to above the heads of the American voter. Such an attitude cannot be good for any democratic party (note lower case).

 

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And what of the Republicans? There has long been an assumption (which I sometimes shared) that Republicans do better when turnout is lower. That was not the case with the recent elections, however. Turnout last Tuesday was about 39%, up two points from the admittedly dismal 37% of 1998, the last midterm election. The higher turnout was largely the product of a few, highly contested races. The most important of these was the reelection campaign of the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. The Republicans won that race, as well as most of the other high-profile races around the country. This makes it hard to argue that the Republican gains were the result of public apathy.

There is no point in getting elected if you have no ideas about governing. The elder President Bush did not understand that, but his son George W. Bush does. One may like or dislike his agenda, but he does have one, and it is far from merely symbolic. The great merit of the current Administration is that it understands that the chief focus in this era must be national security. That said, though, the Administration also needs to be cured of the illusion that the whole of fiscal policy consists of tax relief, and that the whole of tax relief is lowering the capital-gains tax. A demand-side tax cut is in order. They should talk to Senator Corzine of New Jersey; I am sure he would be happy to talk to them.

The Republicans should also reconcile themselves to the fact that some form of universal health insurance is inevitable. It can be done well or badly. If it happens under a Democratic Administration, it will be a perpetual subsidy for the psychiatric industry and for Planned Parenthood. If the Republicans do it, it can be a manageable catastrophic-illness program that will remove much of the pressure on private insurers for higher premiums. The president has only to broach the matter to deprive the Democrats of 60% of their agenda.

Then there is the matter of election reform. Living as I do in a largely Democratic state, I am keenly aware that the Electoral College is a perverse incentive. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because, logically enough, he campaigned to win the electoral vote. This meant concentrating on lightly peopled states in the Midwest, while the Republican Party in states such as California and New Jersey were left to their own feeble devices. This neglect is hard to make up for during midterm elections. Even with the recent Republican successes, the campaigns that Republicans mounted in these voter-rich states were disheartening, to say the least.

I fully agree with the arguments against simply abolishing the Electoral College; imagine a very close race, and a national recount like the one in Florida in 2000. The solution, surely, is to tie the electoral votes to individual Congressional districts, and not to states. This preserves the many advantages of a winner-take-all system, while at the same time ensuring that the winner will have at least a plurality of the popular vote. We should fix this as soon as we can.

 

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There is one venerable institution that deserves to be retired before it disgraces itself further. Did you see The Simpsons last Sunday? That was their eagerly awaited Halloween show, delayed after the holiday itself because the FOX network carried the World Series the Sunday before. It was not worth the wait. The writers repeated old jokes and scenarios, particularly in the middle story, in which do-gooder Lisa once again disarms Springfield just before an armed threat appears. Then there was the last story, a take-off on H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau. That had nothing to do with Halloween. In fact, none of the stories did; only the wrap-around story even featured a ghost. This is inexcusable, since several very good supernatural thrillers have appeared in the last year or two. The show is choking on film-school sensibility.

Surely the time has come for a final TV movie?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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