The illiberality of a liberal

I haven’t bothered reading Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan, and I doubt I’ll get around to it anytime soon. Not that Reagan’s presidency doesn’t interest me, but I find Wilentz a singularly irritating writer. I’ve come across about three articles by Wilentz in the last couple of months, and I’ve read them out of perverse fascination. As far as I can tell, he’s written the same article several times, and no one seems to mind paying for it. The latest one, from Newsweek, is titled “A Liberal’s Lament,” and it certainly is useful for what it reveals. In short, we learn why so many Democratic “regulars” found the seemingly benign Obama so threatening.

These stories all cover the same ground; indeed, they read more or less the same. Democrats, we learn, were responsible for Everything Good Ever. Sidney Blumenthal, in his memoir of the Clinton years, posited that great “progressive presidents” were the source of everything good in America, and Wilentz subscribes to the same queasy hero-worship syndrome. Bill Clinton, we learn, “infuriated the left” with a bunch of policies that Wilentz thinks were No Big Deal. Then “the left” vengefully terminated Al Gore’s chances at the presidency with “Ralph Nader’s nihilism.” Then, of course, George W. Bush came along, and you can make up your own article from here. Then things got worse: Barack Obama showed up. 

Obama drives Wilentz to distraction. For one thing, he dashed Hillary Clinton’s chances at the White House, and Wilentz hero-worships the Clintons. Worse, Obama simply isn’t a team player. He’s no fun. He’s derided the Washington establishment which Wilentz apparently regards as sacred. He’s stirred up the rabble with all his unhelpful chatter about “hope.” Wilentz tries to justify his critique by reminding us of Obama’s dodgy friends in Chicago — no matter that Obama is associated with no misdeed; the mere suggestion of wrongdoing suffices for Wilentz as easily as it does for Hannity. Suffice to say, no fan of Harry S. Truman should go around chastizing politicians for their associations with crooked machines. 

Behind Wilentz’s historian’s mask — of reasonableness, detachedness, “objectivity” so-called — lies a good deal of plain outrage. Outrage at the fact that this clearly unworthy man is about to become a Democratic President, a personage S.W. is accustomed to regard with a most sanctimonious and forgiving eye. Clearly he can’t go on doing that if a fellow like Obama gets into office, though just why remains a mystery until just about the end of the article. As an expression of New Democrat despair, Wilentz’s article speaks for themselves, but I can’t resist quoting:

Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama’s blackness is the rationale for making him president.

Note “the rationale.” “The.” Not the more ordinary “a.” Wilentz has just let us know that he can think of no other reason why this man should be allowed to be president. (Wilentz is also a critic of the Democratic Party’s post-’68 electoral reforms; such reforms, in his view, prevented Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination.)

For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government.

Note Wilentz’s eagerness to distance himself from “the left” — which apparently doesn’t include himself or the Clintons. As far as I can tell, what he really means is “bloggers.” 

During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. 

This would be unremarkable coming from a conservative critic, but it can’t help but sound bizarre coming from a professed “liberal” and “life-long Democrat.” Why should a liberal scowl at a liberal politician actually voting along liberal lines? Is that something to shrink from in the name of “bipartisanship”? Or is Wilentz’s complaint that Obama should “present himself” as an unapologetic liberal and cry up the virtues of the party? One wonders.

Most unforgivably of all, Obama fails to be a Real Man. Where Obama most decidedly fails to be a Real Man is in what Wilentz terms “the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy.” He reminds Wilentz, in fact, of Jimmy Carter, whom Washington types invariably regard as the worst president ever. “An outsider and a decidedly non-imperial anti-politician,” Wilentz calls Carter — not a real Democrat, in other words. Just like Obama. 

Carter’s real failing in the eyes of Wilentz and his ilk was his utter failure to be a Cold War Democrat. With the Cold War, by all evidence, fading and retreating, Carter had the temerity to act as if a Democratic President had any business not starting a war. Obama, too, falls short in the warmonger sweepstakes: 

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama’s immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.” Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics.

Note that last sentence — “beyond how thoroughly (Obama) had thought through the situation.” For “beyond,” we can read “forget.” Like every other amateur warmonger — the reprehensible Robert Kagan comes to mind — Wilentz regards the actual facts of the Russia/Georgia confrontation as secondary. What matters is the need for America — and its potential president — to appear “strong.” For Wilentz, like Blumenthal, America is its presidents. Should the president ever appear less than a he-man, the entire country risks losing face. Faced with the prospect of a non-warmonger in the White House, Wilentz dares to hint that he just might prefer John McCain.


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