PETER BEINART'S '50S REVIVAL. I'm not going to attempt a detailed response to Peter Beinart's "argument for a new liberalism," the cover story (sub. req.) in this week's New Republic. But you should read it. I have some fundamental disagreements with Beinart's analysis, but his essay is subtle and complex, and he has answers for all of my disagreements, even if I find those answers inadequate.
A bit of background: for TNR to prescribe a new path for the Democratic Party is itself significant. For many years the magazine, a longtime voice of liberalism, railed against what editor-in-chief/part owner Marty Peretz saw as the excesses of liberalism - especially affirmative action, welfare, and a contemptible instinct for coddling Palestinian terrorists. (I strongly disagree with TNR's stance on affirmative action, which I think is a vital tool for building a decent society.)
TNR's vision was largely fulfilled by the 1992 election of a centrist Democrat, Bill Clinton, as president, but it faltered when Peretz's friend Al Gore lost (well, not lost, but you know what I mean) to George W. Bush in 2000. In a sense, Beinart's essay is a return to the New Republic of the pre-Clinton years, in that he is attempting to redefine liberalism as something less liberal than prevails in Democratic circles today.
Beinart's main argument is that the Democratic Party has to start taking totalitarian Islam seriously, just as the Democratic Party of Harry Truman took communism seriously in the late 1940s and '50s. And just as the Democrats of a half-century ago cast out squishes like Henry Wallace, so should the Democrats of today distance themselves from Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, which Beinart sees as profoundly unserious about terrorism - even to the point of opposing our entirely justified war in Afghanistan.
There are some problems with this. For one thing, there is some internal incoherence to Beinart's argument. At one point, for instance, Beinart writes, "The three candidates who made winning the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their campaigns - Joseph Lieberman, Bob Graham, and Wesley Clark - each failed to capture the imagination of liberal activists eager for a positive agenda only in the domestic sphere." Yet he fails to point out that among Clark's most prominent backers was Moore - not to mention the great political philosopher Madonna, whose politics, I assume, spring from the Moore/MoveOn wing of the party.
For another, Beinart acknowledges, yet gives insufficient emphasis to, the reality that the Bush administration essentially hijacked the struggle against terrorism by launching an unjustified war in Iraq. This tragic error is now the overarching foreign-policy issue. And it does little good to argue that Iraq is actually a diversion from the battle against terrorism when Bush has done such a good job of convincing the public that it is at the heart of the war on terrorism. In the past election, it didn't help that John Kerry had voted in favor of the war - even though Beinart thinks that was the right thing to do.
So tied up is Beinart in visions of Truman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and John Kennedy that at one point he actually argues that Democrats should blast Bush's deficit spending because it's made it harder to increase military spending, rhetoric that would echo Kennedy's 1960 campaign.
To be sure, there was a certain muddled quality to Kerry's message. For the most part, though, I think the Democrats are right where Beinart thinks they ought to be. For the party to win, it needs to sharpen its message about why the war in Iraq is wrong. For Democrats to argue that they would be tougher than the Republicans but more competent calls to mind an old Truman line: "If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time."
JESUS CHRIST! This non-ecumenical message is brought to you by the fine folks at Clear Channel, the Texas-based chain that owns more than 1000 radio stations, that contributes big-time to George W. Bush, and that yanked the Dixie Chicks off its country stations after they had the gall to criticize the Great Leader.
And, oh yeah, it's giving us "progressive radio" in Boston.