Tuesday, June 26, 2007


In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote. He would have won Florida’s electoral votes too, and become President of the United States, had he insisted on a recount for the entire state, not just a few heavily Democratic counties. He would have won by an even bigger margin had the party’s left wing mobilized more against George Bush and less against Ralph Nader. They succeeded in scaring away a lot of Nader supporters, but it isn’t clear how many “independents” they won over. In the end, Nader got only 2.74% of the popular vote. Nevertheless he got and continues to get hell from Democrats – because, but for his Florida votes, Gore would have won there even without a recount. The Democrats are starting up again. Next year, even more than in 2000 or 2004, the election is theirs to lose. It is hard to believe that they could lose, given what they’re up against. But it isn’t impossible; after all, they have knack for it. If they do lose, count on them to find a way again to blame any candidate, should there be one, who, like Nader, advances views that, now more than ever, accord with the voters’ about corporate globalization, “free” trade, imperialism and militarism. Threats of electoral defeat from within the mainstream corporate consensus are a different matter.

Take the case of Michael Bloomberg [See “Not in a New York Minute,” June 20.] The pundits are mostly saying that, were he to run an independent campaign, he’d probably harm the Republicans more than the Democrats. [See, for example, the “analysis” in The Wall Street Journal, June 21, p. A6, where this dubious conclusion rests on extrapolations from out of date polling data and from the fact that, like the current Republican frontrunner, Bloomberg is mayor of New York City and was, until a week ago, a Republican.] To be sure, Bloomberg has been a better mayor than Giuliani – it would be hard not to be! However, he’s also more “liberal” than his predecessor on social issues. Outside New York City, he’s best known for his support of gun control. It’s in the so-called blue states, especially New York, that positions like these are popular. It’s in the blue states too that there are the largest numbers of independent voters and, lets face it, the most acceptance of Jewish candidates. [How unfair it is that the other side gets the color red!]. These are among the reasons why I think the pundits who say that a Bloomberg run would help the Democratic candidate in 2008 are more than usually off base.

But, in all likelihood, Democrats need not worry. Although he has enough money to buy almost anything, Bloomberg is a long shot, even in New York, unless Wall Street falls in behind him. Why should they so long as they have Hillary? However, imagine this scenario: Democratic voters succeed in nominating the least Clintonite of the major contenders – John Edwards, presumably – and suppose Edwards runs a “populist” campaign that puts fear in the hearts of our malefactors of great wealth. Suppose too that the monied interests reject whichever bathetic Republican gets the nomination. [This is unlikely, but not impossible. So long as they help them line their pockets, captains of finance and industry have a high tolerance for buffoonery and incompetence – witness their support, even in 2004, for George W. Bush. But the current lot of candidates makes even the Bush boy look good.] Then, maybe, in some “blue” states Bloomberg would have a chance, after all.

Still, the movers and shakers of the lesser evil party are bothered more by Nader than by Bloomberg. Thus their nature shows. In 2000, Nader never had a chance of winning electoral votes. The hope of his supporters was just that he’d win enough votes, 5%, to make the Green Party eligible for federal funding in future elections; and also that he’d push Al Gore to the left. A candidate more progressive than any the Democrats can offer, whether it is Nader again or not, would have even less chance now in the lingering anything-but-Bush (or Bush clone) miasma that set in in 2004. But even for a more venturesome electorate, a “third party” candidate would probably have little effect. Our not so very democratic institutions make it all but impossible.

It has not been since 1968 that a third party candidate won any electoral votes. The last to do so was George Wallace, running as a segregationist. He got 46 electoral votes from southern states, along with 13.5% of the popular vote from all over the country. In 1992, Ross Perot got 18.9% of the total vote but nothing from the Electoral College; John Anderson in 1980 got 6.6% of the popular vote and, again, no electoral votes. We could debate forever whether these campaigns helped Republicans or Democrats more. But in Bloomberg’s case, there is little doubt. Were his campaign to catch on, his appeal, like Wallace’s would be regional: but the region, this time, would be the Northeast. Were entrenched elites in these states to switch their allegiance from the Republican candidate to someone more palatable, as they did in 2006 in the Senatorial election in Connecticut that Joe Lieberman won, Bloomberg just might win electoral votes somewhere – somewhere “blue” and likely otherwise to remain so. One would think that Democratic strategists would realize this. One would expect that they would be mobilizing now against Bloomberg, just as they would reflexively if it started to look like Nader was going to run again. So far, this has not happened. Are they just not strategizing well? No doubt, that’s part of it. But one cannot help thinking that there is also something more fundamental at work: that Clintonites, no matter how obsessed they are with winning, care even more about giving their paymasters their due.

Note: However deserving they were of contempt, we shouldn’t overestimate the influence of the Democratic “left” in quashing the Nader campaign in 2000. They did go after Nader big time, especially in “liberal” circles in swing states, and they are certainly responsible for scaring many voters away. But that doesn’t explain Nader’s 2.74 % of the popular vote as opposed to Ross Perot’s 18.9%. Neither does Perot’s “centrism,” though the punditocracy claimed and still claims that it did – just as they’ll argue that Bloomberg, should he run, has a chance because he too will run as a centrist. [This assumes that he can find an elusive (because imperceptible) mean between our “polarized” political parties (the ones that agree on everything fundamental to governance and differ only on how socially illiberal they are).] No. The main difference is that Perot got to debate Clinton and Bush on national television, while the Democratic leadership in 2000 succeeded in getting Nader shut out. How much healthier our political culture would now be had they failed!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fortress America

Notwithstanding widespread opposition to the Iraq War and to military ventures generally, most Democratic Party strategists believe that their party must appear “strong on defense.” They think that a contrary view has been fixed in our political culture since at least the 1972 elections, and that it has hurt the Democrats’ prospects. As late as the Watergate era, Richard Nixon could still get mileage out of linking the Democrats’ purported weakness on defense with “isolationism.” With more than a hint of irony, he accused Democrats of supporting the idea, formerly dear to an important component of the Republican electorate, that Fortress America could “ignore” the rest of the world. [Of course, in practice, isolationists identified the world with Europe; they had little difficulty accommodating to American imperialism elsewhere, especially in Latin America.] The conventional view, back then, was that isolationism had been proven definitively wrong by the Second World War; and that it was a dangerously irresponsible position to take in a nuclear age. Nixon’s scheme was to scare anti-war voters away from voting for George McGovern by linking McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War with isolationism – in contrast to Nixon’s own professed dedication to “peace with honor.” Today, with several additional imperialist decades under America’s collective belt, isolationism has become a non-issue, even at a rhetorical level. Nevertheless, Fortress America is back.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Truman administration contrived the major institutions of our national security state, they could and did stir up fears of Communism to help sell their plans. These fears were not concocted out of nothing; but they were, to put it mildly, overblown. The trick worked. The results were mixed. On the one hand, Truman and his successors set the world on a perilous path. Thanks to them, we live, to this day, with the prospect of perpetual war, hot or cold, and in fear of nuclear annihilation; to this day, the perils of empire threaten our basic liberties and our republican institutions. But there was also good that came of the fears they sowed. We got prosperity thanks to military Keynesianism; we got infrastructure improvements, we got vast sums of money for scientific research and education. In short, we got some of what social democracy brought to the “developed” countries we dominated. By the time Reagan became President in 1981, the Democrats had pretty much exhausted their ambitions to use the state for good. All that was left was the effort to be, or at least appear to be, strong on defense – epitomized by Michael Dukakis’s bathetic tank ride in his 1988 campaign against Bush the Father. Inexorably, Democrats acquiesced in the Reaganite view that “big government” is the problem. Thus, with the ascendance of the Clintonites in the 1990s, we got a (generally) kinder and gentler and certainly more competent version of the politics Bush and Cheney would later caricature. If Hillary Clinton becomes President, or if some other Clintonite does, we face the prospect of yet another implementation of the same political line. Needless to say, what we’d get from them would be better than what we now have or what we’d likely get with a Republican – anything would be! But it would not be fundamentally better or, for that matter, good at all.

But what goes around comes around. Even if the struggle against Bush and Cheney ends with nothing better than a Clintonite restoration, might there not still be a silver lining -- in the shape of a more affirmative state? Unlike a decade ago, it is not out of the question. In this regard, it may be significant that, of all our dead Presidents, Harry S. Truman has become an object of affection in Clintonite circles. They have even launched a “Truman National Security Project.” It represents itself as “strong, smart, [and] and principled.” [Somehow they left out “modest.”] “Principled” gives cause for worry. It suggests that the emphasis on “strength” is not there just for opportunism’s sake. It is also worrisome that the neo-Trumanites -- much like the party’s “liberal” leader, Howard Dean – have no trouble with any of Clinton’s own brutal military ventures or with his “humanitarian interventions” or deadly sanctions. They even support Bush’s on-going war of revenge in Afghanistan. The neo-Trumanites didn’t have trouble either with the Iraq War until it went obviously sour. Their saving grace is just that they’re not encumbered with Bush’s Oedipal obsessions, and are therefore able to let the Iraq War, if not Iraq itself, go. In short, their focus on “strength” is, in all likelihood, more than just posturing – however tempting that may be for them, especially should their standard bearer be from “the weaker (i.e. more reasonable and caring) sex.” The neo-Trumanites may actually believe what they say.

The Truman National Security Project’s advisory board runs the Clintonite gamut from William Perry (Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, and formerly Secretary of Defense) to John Podesta (formerly chief of staff and now head of the “liberal” Center for American Progress). Other luminaries include Gregory Craig (of Williams and Connolly), Kurt Campbell (from the Center for Strategic and International Studies), Leslie Gelb (of New York Times fame and lately of the Council on Foreign Relations), William Marshall (President of the Progressive Policy Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council’s favorite think-tank), Anne-Marie Slaughter of the Woodrow Wilson School and Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State and notorious defender of Clinton’s Iraq sanctions and Yugoslavian bombing campaigns). Another Albright Group principal, Wendy Sherman, is also on the board. In short, the neo-Trumanite wing of the Democratic Party is comprised of eminences from the Old Regime, awaiting a Restoration that will re-empower them or their acolytes.

Predictably, the Truman Project emphasizes toughness, especially in women. But there is a whiff of nostalgia too for the social democratic spirit of the Cold War liberalism Truman helped shape. The first Clinton presidency famously updated the fiscal conservatism of the Eisenhower administration; would the next be a tad more progressive, taking up where the Fair Deal ran aground?

It is not impossible. Truman may be their object of affection, but the neo-Trumanites are closer in spirit to the arch Cold War liberal Scoop Jackson, the former Senator from Washington State. Jackson was an especially ardent proponent of making the world safe for American corporations (he was said to be the Senator from Boeing) and for Israel. The neo-cons who left the party altogether in the 70s and 80s were, in effect, Jackson’s bastard children. Today’s neo-Trumanites are his legitimate heirs. Significantly, most neo-cons never much liked free market theology with its anti-welfare state biases, though they had no problem accommodating to it. For the neo-Trumanites, social progress is even less of a problem. If classical Clintonism morphs into a neo-Trumanite (Scoop Jackson) mode, perhaps it will also move beyond Bill Clinton’s dedication to completing “the Reagan Revolution.” Maybe, amidst all the harm it does, it may also do some good, just as Truman’s Cold War liberalism did.

Truman realized that, in his time and place, a frightened populace was indispensable for getting anything positive done. But fear is a two-edged sword. Anti-Communism made the Fair Deal possible, but it was anti-Communist fear mongering – with the Korean War abroad and McCarthyism at home -- that did the Fair Deal in. This time around, there is no Communism to fear. Except perhaps for a handful of true believers in “the axis of evil,” everyone today understands that no state or bloc of states threatens the United States. But there is political Islam – jihadism. Thus there is a new kind of perpetual phony war to concoct and exploit. Truman famously proclaimed the need for a bipartisan foreign policy. With Iraq out of the picture, a new bipartisanism – aimed at fighting political Islam -- could be forged. Republicans have already gotten a lot out of the Global War on Terror; it has been the basis of Bush’s entire presidency, and of Rudy Giuliani’s – and increasingly Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s – candidacies. Democratic voters who know better than their party’s leaders should be mightily concerned that, with the partial exception of John Edwards, none of the major Democratic candidates has a problem with the War on Terror. [See “The Real War on Terror, “ June 12.] What the leading candidates object to is only the incompetent and misguided way the Bush administration has implemented it. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton is the most explicit in pressing this view. With her prospects for the nomination depending on her coming around, she finally turned against the Iraq War – but only in order to redeploy America’s military assets elsewhere, the better to fight the Global War on Terror. One can almost hear Madeleine Albright declaring the continuing militarization of American society – and the murder and mayhem it causes -- “a price worth paying.”

Still, as in the original Cold War, won’t some good come of it too? It’s not likely. Communism provided a vision of social progress. New Deal and Fair Deal liberalism, along with LBJ’s Great Society – like post-World War I Social Democracy -- offered an alternative path to a similar destination. The good consequences of Cold War liberalism stem largely from the character of the purported enemy, and the need to compete with it -- not just militarily but also socially, politically and economically. In marked contrast, political Islam offers no vision of social progress. Like other untrammeled expressions of Abrahamic religiosity – Jewish and Christian too – it is a reactionary phenomenon. [To be sure, with the partial and (hopefully) temporary eclipse of secular Left movements in the Islamic world, jihadism is also an expression of anti-imperialist resistance. But political Islam is an anti-imperialism of fools.] It is far from clear that a renewal of affirmative state policies in the United States or anywhere else would counter political Islam’s appeal. Perhaps the neo-Trumanites do have genuinely ameliorative intentions. But if they do, their reforming impulses are far more tenuously connected to their “security” policies than was the case for their counterparts in the Truman era.

Neo-Trumanites like the international institutions the Truman administration helped construct, including those that advanced international law and human rights. This is for the good, though all signs suggest that, to a degree their founders would have found troubling, they would use these institutions more to legitimate than to govern American activities throughout the world. However, like Truman, the neo-Trumanites are unequivocal proponents of military Keynesianism and “enlightened” foreign aid. Along with NATO, they regard the Marshall Plan as Truman’s greatest achievement, and intimate intentions to follow its example – though it is unclear how or even where. This is not the place to show how profoundly and disablingly ahistorical their thinking is. Anyone tempted by their arguments would be well advised to consult, among many other sources, Robert Brenner’s, The Economics of Global Turbulence (Verso, 2006). What worked more or less as intended half a century ago is not transferable to present conditions.

Like the Bush government, the neo-Trumanites also have faith in technological fixes for the insecurity that their commitment to the national security state makes inevitable. There is more to ponder in this facet of their thinking than just the implausibility of their position. In the July 2 edition of The Nation magazine, Naomi Wolff has a fascinating column on how, since 2001, the Israeli economy has flourished by becoming a “laboratory” for a “fortressed world”; developing security technologies that permit peoples who dominate other peoples to live a fairly undisturbed life despite a perpetual threat of terrorism, and while their governments pursue policies that increase the likelihood of terrorist blowback. This, more than a renewed welfare state, is the promise of neo-Trumanite Clintonism. The Cold War, in its own perverse way, fostered progress in the arts and sciences, and even in the arts of living securely and well. The never-ending War on Terror the Bush-Clintonite consensus envisions may, like Truman’s concoction, help enhance a distorted but nevertheless genuine prosperity. But its by-products are likely to be far less ameliorative than in the original version. What will come from them instead is a new Fortress America. The Clintonite hope is that, unlike the fortress of discredited and forgotten “isolationists,” the new version will not require withdrawal from lucrative “foreign entanglements.” If their expectations are fulfilled, corporate America will be free to pursue its predations while “the homeland” remains secure behind high-tech fortifications, contrived by the next generation of entrepreneurs whose imagination and technological prowess will keep the economy in an expansionist mode. Except for these entrepreneurs and their corporate and financial backers, this is hardly an attractive vision. It is not a credible one either. But if lesser evilism is the best we can do, it could be our future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Not in a New York Minute!

Approaching the summer solstice, Hillary Clinton is the leading POP (Party of Pusillanimity) candidate in next year’s primary elections, and Rudy Giuliani is leading in the GOP. Two New Yorkers – though, in Hillary’s case, not by birth, but by choice (of the national and state party leadership) and vaunting ambition. As if that weren’t enough, it is now more likely that, having opted out of the GOP (declaring himself an “independent”), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will run too. It’s not a prospect to be taken lightly. He bought his present office for some 70 plus million of his own money; that leaves him billions to spare on the Big Enchilada.

This is not the place to rehearse the case against the first two; I’ve done it in earlier postings and will doubtless have to do it again and again. Nor is this the place to make the obvious case for compulsory public funding of elections and related democracy enhancement measures, such as one finds in most liberal democracies. But Bloomberg’s possible “independent” candidacy does give occasion to reflect again on the semi-official party duopoly under which our political culture suffers.

In 1992, the Texas moneybag, H. Ross Perot, found it convenient to launch a Reform Party. Perhaps the New York moneybag will follow suit. He could call his the Plutocratic Party. Whether he does or not, the conventional wisdom has it that the electorate is fed up with “polarization” and is desperately seeking “centrists.” This is also not the place to explain again what nonsense this is. But given how little space there is between Democrats and Republicans, it is worth wondering what the “center” is supposed to be.

Perhaps a fine jeweler or careful surgeon could find a space between the Democrats and the Republicans. But that’s not Bloomberg’s strength; and, in any case, the media designation is clearly misleading. The point about Bloomberg, as about Perot before him, is that, by being self-financing, he’s unencumbered by those pesky constituencies that adulterate unimpeded rule by Wall Street. Unlike Republicans, including Giuliani, he has no need to pander to the religious Right. Unlike Democrats, including Clinton, he can keep as much distance as he likes from labor and other progressive constituencies, including ones he really can’t abide – like civil libertarians. Were our ruling classes not so wedded to maintaining a stifling duopoly, a Bloomberg candidacy could, as they say, have legs. He offers them something even the most Clintonized Democrats can’t. And, having let the lunatics control the asylum for so long, the Republicans will have a hard time breaking free from their “useful idiots,” even if Giuliani, the most socially “liberal” major candidate, somehow gets the nomination. If only Blumberg were a WASP, it would be a match made in heaven. But, even if he were, the duopoly is so entrenched that it is unlikely that any “independent” candidate could marshal the requisite support – especially from the corporate media who have become the arbiters of what is acceptable in our political culture and what is only tolerated. Still, it’s not impossible that Bloomberg will run; and not impossible that he will win. Money talks – and the Mayor has more than enough of it.

It’s too soon to catastrophize. Bloomberg may have squirreled away enough to buy even this most expensive of offices, but he is still more likely than not to keep his money rather than venture a large chunk of it on an unlikely quest. What is clear is that not one of these real or pretend New Yorkers is fit for office; not for a New York minute! What is clearer still is that a Clinton-Bloomberg-Giuliani race would be a perfect nightmare. It would also squander an opportunity of a kind that has not existed for many years – a chance to break free, even if only slightly, of Wall Street’s clutches. That’s why now is the time for Billionaires for Bloomberg to get into the act. Could there be a better time too to start up Monica Lewinsky Democratic Clubs and branches of Firefighters for Truth throughout the land!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hillary's Experience and Good Intentions

In the lead article in yesterday’s Salon.com, Walter Shapiro praises Hillary Clinton’s preparedness and competence, and then in an accompanying interview, he emphasizes her experience. Well, maybe she does prep well for campaign appearances. But experience? True, she has been a Senator for seven years. That’s a bit longer than her main rivals, but not nearly as long as some of the others. What has she accomplished in that post? No one could claim a great deal; certainly nothing that would give her an edge in the experience department. No, for Shapiro and others, her experience comes from have been First Lady. But since when is that a qualification? Nobody ever thought it was until now: not even in Eleanor Roosevelt’s case, not to mention Bess and Mamie, Jackie O, Lady Bird, Pat (recall JFK’s “we can’t stand pat”), Betty or Roslyn (two perfectly fine ladies), the Lady Gipper (who is said to have kept her actor husband from doing even more harm than he did) or, horror of horrors, Barb. Isn’t it telling that, with the Republican field of candidates so comically weak, no one suggests Laura? Yet somehow Hillary is different. Well, not that different. Like all the rest, she wasn’t any kind of official, not even an unelected one; just an official wife (doubtless more official than most).

This raises the question of how well she did the one time when, at her spouse’s behest, she actually did act in a semi-official capacity. In interviews publicizing the imminent release of his movie “Sicko,” Michael Moore, conceding that Hillary is now as much or more in the pocket of the health industry as anyone in Congress, claims that her heart is (or was) in the right place -- and that the problem in 1993 was that she was too nice and therefore didn’t take on the big insurance companies. To these and similar emanations from those who are still grasping at straws in the hope of supporting a female candidate, all I can say is – “huh?” Hillary Care was all about serving mighty corporations. It was a pure expression of Clintonism (see “Combat Clintonism!”, April 27). The reason it failed was hardly that its proponents were too nice for their own good. It failed because the mighty corporations the Clintons favored turned out to be not mighty enough when lesser beneficiaries of the status quo ganged up on the Clintons – and not loyal enough to their faithful servants when it became clear that they didn’t have to settle for nearly a full loaf, since they could get the whole thing.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

What the Horse Race Shows

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll is out. The good news, for the lesser evil party is that 52% of Americans now say that they want a Democrat to be President, while only 31% want a Republican. The bad news is that Clinton’s numbers are up since April – from 36% to 39% -- while both Obama’s and Edwards’ are down. Obama fell from 31% to 25%, and Edwards from 20% to 15%. The “expert” view is that Clinton got a bounce from the two debates – because she seemed more “presidential” than expected, and because she gets high marks for competence and experience. Of course, it is far too early to make predictions based on these numbers. At this point, only party stalwarts and political junkies are even paying attention. But there is already reason to fear a repeat of the run up to the 2004 primaries when Democratic stalwarts and political junkies outsmarted themselves. Being for “anything but Bush” and putting competence first, they gave the nomination to John Kerry. Of course, this time around, the reasons to be for “anything but Bush” – or anything Bush-like – and the need for competence have increased exponentially. So has awareness of the Bush government’s failures. But these are hardly reasons to persist in the old losing strategy.

On the other hand, there are analyses that suggest that most of Clinton’s lead over Obama comes from Democratic women, and that women who describe themselves as “independents” hate Hillary with almost as much passion as Republican men. If this fact penetrates into the thinking of the pundit wannabes who got the nomination for Kerry, perhaps the trend will change. One can only hope so. For there is no doubt that it will be better for the country and the world if the Democrats’ candidate has more than just competence to offer, and more than a Clintonite Restoration. Only powerful popular movements can change policy fundamentally, and then only when conditions are right, but having a government that can be brought along -- as in the New Deal or, to a lesser extent, the Fair Deal and Great Society -- can help. John Edwards is not there yet, but he’s the only major candidate so far – indeed, the only Democrat since Jesse Jackson in 1988 --who has shown any inkling of promise. Chris Dodd has taken some good positions, but he’s ensconced in the second tier; Dennis Kucinich has taken far better positions, but he has no chance at all. Among the plausible candidates, Obama’s views remain a mystery. Clinton’s are well known. Notwithstanding some of her recent remarks on trade (see “Hooray for Hillary? Hooray for Us!, June 13), it is safe to assume that there is no space whatever between her and her husband. She’ll say what she must to get the nomination, but she remains the Queen of Clintonism. Since she shows no sign of self-destructing, let’s hope that her rivals rise to the occasion.

The approval rating for George Bush is now down to 29%, his lowest ever. His disapproval rating is 66%! But the approval rating for Congress is even lower than for Bush – it’s just 23% -- and only 41% of Americans think their representatives “deserve reelection.” Those numbers are similar to what the polls showed before the 2006 election. As the Wall Street Journal reports, this is bad news for Democrats or at least for Democratic incumbents.

Thus it is clear that, for now, Pelosiism is doing poorly, while classical Clintonism is still doing fine. [I define and discuss these concepts in “Combat Clintonism!” (April 27) and “Pelosiism: the Highest Form of Clintonism” (May 28).] A Pelosiite will talk left and act right – for example, by nominally opposing Bush’s wars and then funding (and therefore supporting) them. A classic Clintonite will just shamelessly screw you over – so long as you’re not a major donor or a pillar of global capitalism – while charming your pants off (sometimes literally) and “feeling your pain.” For as long as there have been Clintonites, there have been Pelosiites too – think, for example, of those “advocates” of universal health insurance, like the “maverick” Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who somehow always found reasons not to back even such timid proposals as Paul Wellstone’s, while effectively supporting the Clintons’ plan – helping to set the cause of universal health care back a generation. But it is only now – with an electorate fed up with Bush but wary of corporate globalism and other Clintonite obsessions -- that Pelosiism is in the ascendant. If not combated effectively, it could lead the Democrats to defeat.

It probably won’t, though, because Bush continues to do the Democrats’ work for them, and because, on the Republican side, the situation is so dismal that the mediocre and famously lazy former Senator and “Law and Order” actor, Fred Thompson, has jumped into second place, at 20%, without even formally declaring his candidacy! Rudy Guiliani is still in first place, but falling – from 33% to 29%. As his character and record as New York mayor become more widely known, his numbers are sure to fall further. Bush and Cheney squeezed all they could out of 9/11; there isn’t much left for Rudy. [Imagine too how easy it would be to organize Firefighters for Truth!]. Next, the godly family man and world-class flip-flopper, Mitt Romney, is tied, despite his money, with the “maverick” war monger John McCain at 14% -- a slight gain for Romney, a big drop for McCain. Since Romney, a Mormon, isn’t quite Kosher enough for the religious Right, there’s also Mike Huckabee at a whopping 3%, up from 2%, and the guy who’s the matter with Kansas, Sam Brownback; his numbers are even lower. Where did they find these losers! Clearly, the stars are lining up for the Democrats. The main fear, therefore, is not that the Democrats will lose – they won’t, no matter how much contempt they earn -- but that, with their victory, everyone else will lose.

We voters can mitigate that eventuality. We pushed John Edwards to the center-left [see “Bravo for Edwards (Sort of),” May 3] or at least made it possible for him to situate himself there. If he doesn’t turn back, there may actually be a serious candidate beyond the Clintonite fold – for the first time in twenty years. We can certainly change the political climate enough to bring alternatives to Clintonism in from the margins. We have done a lot already in shifting the framework of discussion into more constructive territory. We can do more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hooray for Hillary?? Hooray for Us!!

Free trade ideologues are in a tizzy because, last weekend, Hillary Clinton announced that she’d oppose Bush’s proposed free trade agreement with South Korea. This morning’s editorial in the Washington Post (June 13) is typical: it accuses her of failing “a test of leadership on trade,” comparing her unfavorably to her husband. Could it be that the Clintonite consensus is coming apart: that concern for old-fashioned workers’ rights and environmental concerns is finally trumping servility to corporate greed? Not likely. More likely, she was only doing what Clintons do best: pandering. According to news reports, her remarks were favorably received at a union gathering in Michigan. Let’s hope that unions stay wary. But let’s also revel, briefly, in a small victory. That the high priestess of Clintonism (see “Combat Clintonism!”, April 27) would feel compelled to come out against a free trade agreement is a sign that the call for a saner trade policy, one that really does “put people first” (as Bill Clinton said he would in 1992, just days before assuming the presidency), is again being heard over the din of academic and media free trade drivel.

John Edwards, by the way, announced opposition to the Korean free trade agreement last spring, as part of a comprehensive and estimable, though much too “moderate,” trade policy. Barack Obama is still thinking about it (along with almost everything else).

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Real War on Terror

John Edwards was right to call the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror a “bumper sticker.” In the short run, what will best protect the “homeland” is good intelligence and competent police work, joined with scrupulous care for individuals’ rights – not a phony “war” that makes the problem worse. No surprise, though, that most Democrats are loath to call Bush on his war without end. Ever cowardly and ever the bad strategists, they can’t help but go along (see “Not Just Bad Strategy, June 7). Even so, on this count as on so many others, it will be better (less bad) when the Democrats regain (or, rather, the Republicans forfeit) the Presidency. However short run solutions, even when competently administered, only treat the symptoms. By not confronting the real issues, Democrats are helping to foster a situation that really does threaten “homeland security” in perpetuity.

The danger today comes from “extremists” within the islamist fold. In the future, it could come from other sources. But we have the most to fear from the God-fearing, since people with God on their side are especially prone to fanaticism and sadistic brutality. Political Islam draws on the theocratic, intolerant and delusional cast of mind that all the Abrahamic religions – not just Islam but Christianity and Judaism too – foster and feed upon. This is why to make terrorists or worse of the godly it takes only the right conditions and determined political entrepreneurs. In the case at hand, we know who the entrepreneurs were; it was us. By supporting islamist movements, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel (in the case of Hamas), played and lost what Robert Dreyfuss calls “the devil’s game” – conjuring up religious zealotry in order, first, to fight Soviet Communism and, later, secular, nationalist movements that challenge American dominance. [See The Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (2006).] It didn’t help either that, while this bit of strategic wizardry was unfolding, the Soviet Union fell or that the secular movements the theocrats opposed began to implode. Neither did it help that, with American encouragement and support, the Israeli occupation of Palestine became more transparently brutal and unjust.

Against these and other causes of the terror threat, “homeland security” can only do so much. What are needed are policy changes that address the underlying problems. These problems are rectifiable. What the U.S. hath (partly) wrought, the U.S. can (partly) undo. Indeed, it is fairly obvious what must be done: first, stop the Iraq war and occupation; second insure a measure of justice for Palestine; and third, deal with the Middle East and central Asia, in ways that a republic like the one our founders established, not an empire, would. None of these changes are beyond the capacity of our fundamental economic or political institutions. But the last two, and maybe even the first, seem well beyond the capacity of the Democratic Party to initiate or sustain.

1) Ending the war and occupation is, at this point, the most tractable step. All the Democratic candidates are officially in favor. So too, nominally, are almost all Democratic legislators, notwithstanding the fact that many of them voted to fund (and therefore to support) the war. [I speculate on why it is so hard for them actually to end the war by not funding it in “Pelosiism: the Highest Form of Clintonism,” May 28.] As it becomes increasingly clear to the interests they serve, not just to the voters, that the time is past due for the U.S. to cut its losses, it is likely, if the Republicans lose the next election, that this root cause of the terror threat will subside.

[Note, though, that we could be deceiving ourselves, especially if a full-fledged Clintonite Restoration comes to pass. In contrast to the linguistically “challenged” Bush family, the Clintons are adept at using language deceitfully by speaking literal truths (as in, for example, “I did not have sex with that woman.”) [Evidently, a Yale education is not entirely a waste, as one might conclude by only focusing on the Bushes.] In the second debate (held in New Hampshire on June 3,) Hillary Clinton won applause by saying that her first act as President, should she win and should the war not yet be over, would be to “bring our troops home.” Yesterday, in an NPR commentary, Ted Koppel pointed out that she did NOT say that she’d bring ALL our troops home. He pointed out too that she is on record, as are many Democrats, for supporting the idea of leaving tens of thousands of troops garrisoned in or near Iraq, just as we do in Korea. This seems to be the favored position of the military too, and of course of the Republicans. As the primary campaigns unfold, Clinton and the other candidates too should be asked about this relentlessly, and not allowed to get away with applause lines.]

2) Fairness for Palestinians is more problematic for two overlapping reasons: first because Israel remains America best off-shore military asset in the Middle East and, as in Central America in the 1980s, for covert military-political operations elsewhere; and, second, because the Democrats are in the thrall of the (allegedly non-existent) Israel lobby. With suicide bombings and incipient civil war, the Palestinians do not do much to help their cause, and the U.S. media shamelessly propagandize on Israel’s side. Nevertheless, as the occupation grinds on, American public opinion is gradually turning against what is increasingly seen not as an embattled beacon of democracy in the Middle East but as an Apartheid state. However the weight of public opinion is of little consequence; what counts more is organization and fervor. The Israel lobby is powerful for the reason that the NRA is – not because most people agree with it, but because most gun control supporters care less about the issue than gun control opponents do. Anti-Castro Cubans are influential beyond their numbers for much the same reason. [In their case, it also helps that they are concentrated in key “battleground states” – Florida, especially, but also New Jersey.] Not one of the candidates so far, with the partial exception of Dennis Kucinich, who advocates contact with the “Israeli left,” has stood up to the Israel lobby even minimally. [Kucinich also sent a message of solidarity to the June 10 Washington demonstration organized by the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, though he did not appear in person. For showing even this much courage, he deserves credit and praise.] But Kucinich is a rare bird. It would take a geo-political sea change, reflected in ruling class opinion, for a plausible Democratic candidate to deviate from the Democratic Party’s Israel First policy. In this respect, Hillary Clinton’s position is especially egregious and Joe Biden’s is, if anything, worse. Richardson, Obama and even Edwards and Dodd are not much better.

3) Treating the Middle East and Central Asia in ways that accord with genuine (small-r) republican norms is, by far, the greatest challenge. The problem is not exactly that U.S. economic elites want to plunder Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil, though the prospect surely tempts them. It’s that they want their state to control oil and other strategic resources – the better to dominate friend and foe alike. The consensus view, in ruling circles, is that the United States must call the shots. It can no longer do so economically. But it can militarily. Even the neo-conservatives know that this situation cannot last forever; that in time, as America’s economic significance declines, so will its political influence. That’s why the neo-cons were intent on taking advantage of American dominance while there is still time to reshape the world – not by making it more “democratic,” as they famously claim, but by making it safer for U.S. and, of course, Israeli interests, as they understand them. This is a very dangerous stance. It makes a “soft landing” less likely as the inevitability of a much-diminished role for the United States on the world scene comes to pass. But the problem will only become salient in a still distant future. Not looking much beyond 2008, no Democrat even mentions it. So long as their masters remain oblivious, no American leader will. With or without a permanent garrison in Iraq, the U.S. will continue to dominate the oil producing regions of Asia militarily. So long as they do, blowback is inevitable; the danger for us will only grow worse.

The prospects for putting the real terror threat to rest are therefore not good. It will help if the war ends; it will help if a Democrat like Edwards (Kucinich has no hope; and the others, probably including Obama, are hopeless) will stop the hype about a Global War on Terror. It will help too if “homeland security” is put in more competent hands, and if the rule of law is restored. But for the threat genuinely to subside, Israel must be forced to give up its occupation of Palestinian lands in favor of peace with justice, and the United States must set the temptations of empire aside. These are not impossible goals. If ours were a real democracy -- where opinions, not money, count – the necessary changes could be easily secured. But in this world of government of, by and for the Democratic and Republican parties and the interests they serve, they are almost impossible even to broach.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Readers of Robert Dallek’s new book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power will be struck by how, when it comes to cynically prolonging a war that is plainly lost – and, more generally, to a criminal mix of hypocrisy and delusion – Bush and Cheney don’t hold a candle. They will also be struck by how often Nixon sought relief from troubles at home with well-publicized travels abroad. This past week, George Bush resorted to that tactic too – in his own bumbling and farcical way. But not even our “liberal” media could hide how repugnant his government is to the peoples of Germany, France, Italy and the more enlightened quarters of the “new” Europe of Donald Rumsfeld’s demented imagination. However this morning’s news reports one exception in what is still the most benighted corner of the European continent: Albania. Our media are playing it for all it’s worth.

For their own cynical, hypocritical and delusory reasons (see “Not Just Bad Strategy,” June 7), the Democrats won’t impeach Bush, no matter what their voters want. Still less will they bring him and Cheney and the rest of their sorry crew to justice. Other governments, that arguably do have jurisdiction, are at least as cowardly and cynical (see “Are European Governments Even More Abject than Democrats?, May 18). But this morning’s news suggests a way out – a genuine win/win situation. EXILE THE BUSH BOY TO ALBANIA! The world can’t wait, we Americans can’t wait, and neither, evidently, can the Albanians. If only the Democrats would take up the cause, they’d be off the hook and well positioned to pick up votes everywhere -- even deep in the heart of Crawford, Texas. Who knows? If all goes better than we have any right to expect, perhaps before long the Clintons -- beloved bombers of Belgrade and champions of anti-Serbian ethnic cleansing -- will be welcome there too.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Not Just Bad Strategy

Why, despite a mandate to the contrary, do Democrats still support Bush’s wars – not in words, but in practice (by funding them)? The usual explanation is that it is to position themselves for the 2008 elections. The rejoinder one hears almost as often is that this is a strategic error because, on this issue, the electorate is ahead of the party’s leaders. Those who make this sensible, almost obvious, point do not always go the next step – pointing out that, to stop the war, building a movement is more important than electing Democrats. But the idea is finally sinking in as last winter’s elation gives way to this summer’s disillusion. Increasingly, anti-war voters realize that the efforts they spent unseating overt Bush supporters resulted only in their replacement by functional equivalents.

In a word, voters and some peace activists feel betrayed. This is the sense one gets, for example, from Cindy Sheehan’s much publicized Memorial Day “letter of resignation.” The response is understandable. But is it justified? I think not. I say this not to exonerate Democrats, but in order again to raise the question of the nature of the Democratic Party.

Yes, the leadership of the party and the majority of its House members and Senators are misguided and cowardly; yes, by electing more and better Democrats the situation would likely improve – somewhat. But, in the final analysis, Democrats now, as in the past, are kinder, gentler – and, of late, more competent – Republicans; nothing more. This is why despair now at their pusillanimity and strategic blindness is no more warranted than elation over their electoral victory was a few months ago. The Democrats are just being themselves. We should never expect anything good to come from them; only something less bad (see “Combat Clintonism!” April 27). That’s what we’re getting now – something less bad. If we want better, we need to transform the context in which our politics happens. Electing Democrats has very little to do with that.

No doubt some of what the leadership is now doing really just is “strategic.” Cozying up to the godly is an example (see “Faith-Based Democrats, June 5). This use of the “bully pulpit” is reprehensible on many levels but, in this case, the strategists may be right -- in the short run. Targeting their “message” (that is, their advertisements) to draw in soccer moms and NASCAR dads are examples too. But these are unusual cases because the positions involved have little or nothing to do with the exigencies of fund-raising. Usually, the two are intertwined. This is what explains, for example, the party’s abject servility to the Israel lobby, its “moderate” position(s) on health care and immigration, and its timidity in addressing environmental problems and almost everything else. That the party is in the thrall of its funders is understood and lamented by its “base.” But there is a deeper problem with the lesser evil party that gets overlooked, and that we must urgently confront.

That is that Democrats, like Republicans, are wedded to the regime. Bad strategizing and the need to pander to special interests explains a great deal. But it doesn’t explain why, for example, the party has grown mute and “bipartisan” on trade (John Edwards partly excepted) or why it won’t stop the Iraq War. To understand that, it is necessary to acknowledge, as few today do, that the Democrats’ first obligation is not to their funders, and certainly not to their voters, but to what we’d do well again to call the ruling class as a whole. Where there is a consensus at that level on the general course policy should take, the Democrats, like the Republicans, are there. This is how it has always been, except in a few watershed moments. It is how it is likely to be again in 2008 – even if the nominee is not an out and out Clintonite. [Among the “top tier” candidates, only John Edwards so far has shown any sign of breaking the mold.]

The Democrats’ goal, as much as the Republicans’, is to advance the neo-liberal economic policies at home and abroad that the ruling class wants. To this end, Democrats, no less than Republicans, promote corporate globalization and efforts to keep oil and other economically strategic resources under American control. Because this monumentally unwise and unjust system ultimately rests on force, Democrats, like Republicans, favor an overwhelmingly strong and universally feared military. Most Democrats know by now that the war in Iraq was a grave mistake, even in light of the objectives they and Republicans share. But they remain convinced that defeat in Iraq must be staved off if at all possible, no matter what the human cost. Their position is of a piece with that of their counterparts thirty years ago in the final, bloody stages of the war in Vietnam. Given the mood of the electorate today, candidates for President can hardly act on this conviction, though Joe Biden did. But the Congressional party can – and did, in significant numbers.

Had what passes for a Left in this country been more lucid about the “humanitarian interventions” of the 90s or about Clinton’s wars in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, the unity of the American political class would now be better understood throughout the electorate. Then perhaps the Democrats’ “betrayals” would surprise fewer voters. But, in the Clinton years and thereafter, the Left dropped the ball. It was Bush government ineptitude that brought Congress back under Democratic control, not Democratic strategizing – good or bad. Now perhaps Democratic betrayals will force more people finally to see through the miasma of our political culture -- to a clearer understanding of what needs to be done. The anti-War movement thirty years ago helped force a political class, united in its determination to win “peace with honor,” to accept that, for a while, the game was lost. We can and must do at least that much again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Faith Based Democrats

What "left" signifies is impossible to explain precisely, though the difference is well understood throughout the political culture. This is because an idealized left/right spectrum has been recognized, more or less explicitly, by nearly everyone for more than two hundred years – ever since the early days of the French Revolution, when the more radical members of the National Assembly seated themselves to the left of the speaker. Very generally, the Left is dedicated to continuing the Revolutionaries’ commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity (solidarity).” [For further elaboration, see the entry on “Left/Right/Center” in my POLITICAL KEYWORDS (Blackwell Publishers, 2007).] The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have quite different agendas. It is therefore unsurprising that, throughout their histories, they have militated against liberty, equality and fraternity; and that, in the main, they continue to do so. How, then, is a religious Left possible? This is a mystery that no one really understands. But the fact is beyond dispute: there are the Berrigans, liberation theologians, and countless other faith-based leaders and shock troops of the Left. The Sojourners, organizers of the discussion on politics and faith that aired last night on CNN with the three leading Democratic contenders for their party’s nomination for President, are among them.

The words “with all due respect” are among the most abused in our political discourse. Let me nevertheless say that “with all due respect” I think, as most left thinkers have, that there is something profoundly wrong headed, inauthentic and dangerous about theistic religiosity even when it appears in Left circles. I also think that the dangers are mitigated somewhat because most peoples’, and most politicians’, expressions of faith are more superficial than genuine, though they are no more authentic or rational on this account. [See “Snake Oil: Old and New,” June 3.] However I won’t press these points here because there is a more immediate problem posed by last night’s confessions of religiosity.

Last night’s performance was a response to a widespread misapprehension about why John Kerry lost in 2004. The idea, in short, is that the Democrats failed to connect with the deep religious convictions of the American electorate. It has become a tenet of contemporary Democratic Party thinking that this problem must be corrected before 2008; that the faithful must be won back from the Republicans.

There is a shred of truth in this. Whether or not Kerry would have won enough Electoral College votes to become President had the election been more in accord with (small-d) democratic norms is debatable. But he plainly lost the popular vote. In this regard, the conventional wisdom is probably right: Bush won because the Republicans succeeded in mobilizing church going social conservatives (more accurately, social reactionaries) put off by gay marriage and other facets of modern life. One might therefore expect the party leadership, opportunistic to its core, to mitigate the party’s ostensible social liberalism. But then they would lose not only their “base” but also the majority of so-called moderate voters, including Republicans put off by their party’s reactionary positions. Emphasizing the religiosity of its candidates is a second-best alternative. It is a way, conventional wisdom holds, to break down the divide between the red and the blue.

Of course, there is a better explanation for Kerry’s defeat than Karl Rove’s success in getting “values” voters to the polls Kerry lost because he didn’t offer a clear enough alternative to Bush’s imperialist foreign policy, to his wars, or to his corporate-friendly, plutocratic and anti-environmentalist domestic programs. What Kerry offered was competence, and the prospect that elite interests would no longer be represented by an arrogant, mindless buffoon. That should have been lesser evil enough for the vast majority of voters, given Bush’s and Cheney’s unfitness for office. But, to the detriment of all but the corporations for whom they work, it was not. Thus the social reactionaries Rove mobilized got the last word.

In contrast to most other liberal democracies, American Constitutional arrangements strictly separate Church and State. [Another issue that is poorly understood is how this situation affects religious attitudes. It is probably no accident that social norms in the rest of the developed world are, on the whole, more secular than in the United States.] For most of our history, politicians have respected the spirit, as well as the letter, of the clear intention of the founders. Certainly the most genuinely religious of recent Presidents, Jimmy Carter, did. As President, he was loath to speak of his faith or to allow it overtly to affect his conduct. But now the strategists and pundits are mobilized; pressure is on to cross the line. Fortunately, last night, no one did – at least not too shamelessly. There is a danger, however, with Republicans having the hand dealt them by George Bush, that their candidates will play the religious card – and that the Democrats’ better sense will not hold. A party still reeking of Clintonism (see “Combat Clintonism!,” April 27) does not easily give up the Republican Lite ghost!

In 2004, when it should have been plain to everyone that John Kerry was, by far, the lesser evil, the wise paid as little attention as they could to what he said or did, the better to keep up their resolve to vote against Bush in the only possibly effective way: by voting for the candidate of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity. In that spirit, I’ll be brief on what the candidates actually said. As remarked, none of the three were too God awful -- not even Hillary who, having gone to the School of Bill (or vice versa), never misses an opportunity to be opportunistic. Coming from a slightly more Low Church background (Southern Baptist versus United Methodist), Edwards was a little better than the others in steering the discussion towards the problem of poverty – in other words, in a Sojournerly direction. Obama, to his credit, was the most Carter-like. But it is hard to evince dignity while professing nonsense, even for someone as adept as he. Not great, but it could have been much worse.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get worse. There is enough to worry about here on earth without getting bogged down on pie in the sky. I suspect that even last night’s three god-fearing candidates would agree. But Republicans and pundits and twenty-four hour news channels hell bent on dumbing down public discourse – and , worst of all, Democratic Party strategists -- could force the focus of the coming electoral contest into the unwholesome terrain broached last night. The founders knew better. Do the leaders of the POP?

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Second Debate

The most reasonable and also most obvious remarks coming out of last night’s (June 3) debate were made by Dennis Kucinich: that the way to stop the war is to stop funding it NOW; and that the best and least expensive way to provide universal health insurance is to adopt a not-for-profit, single-payer plan. The most remarkable thing is that he was able to get a word in edgewise. The crack team of cartoon character pundits that CNN deployed to New Hampshire was determined to marginalize candidates they deemed marginal – Kucinich, above all. [Being colorful, Mike Gravel got more attention.] They largely succeeded. On the other hand, it could have been worse. Wolff Blitzer did at least force the candidates to answer the questions posed to them.

Also, news reports this morning accurately reflect the main “drama” of last night’s debate – that John Edwards (politely) castigated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for not “showing leadership” when Senate Democrats capitulated to Bush on war funding. [Edwards was less critical of Chris Dodd, as he should have been; the other Senatorial candidate, Joe Biden, didn’t even vote against funding the war himself.] Of course, what Edwards said was right, as far as it goes. The real problem is that Obama probably and Clinton certainly are Pelosiites – corporate neo-liberals, not shy of serving their masters by projecting American military power, who’ve adapted to the rising tide of anti-war sentiment brought on by more than six years of Bush administration incompetence. Pelosiites say one thing and do the other. For opportunistic reasons, if need be (as in the primary elections), they will even vote one way, and then facilitate the opposite outcome. [For a fuller account, see “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism,” entry for May 28.] The question is: when it comes down to it, is Edwards a Pelosiite too? His positions on trade and poverty – non-subjects in last night’s debate – suggest otherwise. On the other hand, the principal avatar of Clintonism – and therefore Pelosiism - today did say that, among all the Democratic candidates, there are only “minor shades of difference.” She might be right.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Snake Oil: Old and New

Conventional wisdom has it that, in 1960, candidate John Kennedy convinced prominent Protestant clerics that, though Catholic, he would never allow his religion to prevent him from executing his Constitutional duties. Thereafter, the story goes, the Presidency has been open to Catholics. The conventional wisdom now is that, with Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for President, a similar watershed moment is at hand for Mormons. Notwithstanding the fact that, since Kennedy, only one Roman Catholic, John Kerry, has been a major party candidate, it is true that Catholicism is no obstacle in the way of becoming President. It was probably also true before 1960. If Kennedy really did break down a barrier, it had more to do with his being Irish than Catholic. What about Mitt Romney and Mormonism?

Needless to say, like the hapless J. Danforth Quayle, Mitt Romney is “no John Kennedy.” But leave aside the fact that his Mormonism is the least objectionable thing about him; and overlook the likelihood that his candidacy, though well-funded, will falter as Republicans, desperately seeking the Second Coming of the Gipper, flock to Fred Thompson; a man who, like their hero, is a mediocre actor with decent communication skills, reactionary politics, and enough worldliness not to embarrass wealthy Republicans who realize at last that Andover, Yale and the Harvard Business School have a lot to answer for. But it is worth thinking about why, back in 1968, Romney’s father, no less identified as a Mormon than his son, lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon -- not because of his Mormonism but because he said he’d been “brainwashed” about Vietnam. [The fact is that what George Romney said was a bit more nuanced than the conventional wisdom lets on; and no less “presidential” than the excuses Hillary Clinton – and even John Kerry and John Edwards – offer for their past support of the Iraq war.] Why is the Mormon Question more of a problem now than it was in the 1960s? Conventional wisdom has no answer.

I suspect that, in George Romney’s case, it was just assumed, in those (somewhat) saner times, that his Mormonism was an accident of birth that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It didn’t get in the way, after all, of his running American Motors and becoming extremely rich. Similarly, Kennedy’s Catholicism was not a problem because it was more or less understood that, as with other politicians, his religious affiliation, though indispensable, was largely superficial. For Kennedy, as for most well-educated Catholic males (and many females) of his generation in both Europe and North America, Church membership had few, if any, practical ramifications. For many Protestants and nearly all Jews, the situation was the same. How far backwards we have fallen!

A true Catholic would have been and would still be a problem, as would be a true believer in any of the other so-called Abrahamic religions. But Catholicism is especially worrisome. Throughout its history, the Church has seldom been a temporal power of consequence. But it has always been an eminently political organization. To this day, it meddles ceaselessly. It was worse in 1960. Then Christian Democratic parties, supported by the United States in conjunction with local elites, were a force to be reckoned with in Germany and Italy and in parts of Latin America. In historically Catholic countries, Catholicism was, by common consensus, a weapon in the struggle against Communism. The Cold War is over, but the Church still weighs in whenever it can – especially on “social” issues, like abortion. If it could, it would be an even more malign force – remember its efforts to keep contraception unavailable in Ireland and elsewhere (including the United States), and, of course, “Divorce, Italian Style”! No small wonder that, for thoughtful people, Catholicism was an issue in 1960. However, what neutralized concerns then was not, as conventional wisdom would have it, Kennedy’s courageous forthrightness; it was the unspoken realization that, at a deep level, it didn’t matter – because Kennedy, like everyone else worth taking seriously, including George Romney, was beyond the “self-imposed nonage” of true belief.

But that was then, and this is now. Today, right-wing evangelicals have become the main force in the Republican Party; for more than six years, they have had their man in the White House. Never ones to lead, Democrats have fallen over each other professing faith. [Witness Bill Clinton's shameless performance, last week, at the dedication of Billy Graham's library!] I confess that I find it hard to believe that they really believe what they say. If I’m right, perhaps we haven’t regressed quite so much from the Kennedy days. But appearances count too, even if they belie underlying realities. Mormonism may matter to Mitt. If so, there is more than the usual cause for concern. Like the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church has always had a significant theocratic streak. Utah and elsewhere where substantial numbers of Mormons live have been the worse for it. A Morman true believer in office would be worrisome; just as a believing, not just practicing, Catholic would.

The conventional view is that if Mormonism is a problem it is because the Mormons have weird and easily ridiculed beliefs. If Romney remains a serious contender, we can count on evangelical and mainstream Christians to drive the point home. But this is another case of the pot calling the kettle black. The question is why Mormon beliefs seem ridiculous while others, equally ridiculous, do not.

It should go without saying, though it unfortunately does not, that the most ridiculous belief of all is one that Mormons share with Jews, Christians and Muslims: that there is an omnipotent, omniscent, perfectly good Being, the creator and designer of the universe, who takes a personal interest in we humans here below. What we should be worrying about is that, according to polling data, roughly 90% of the population in this Land of the Free think that denying that contention is a disqualification for public office! In a better possible world, just the opposite would be the case.

However, in the conventional view, what is worrisome about Mormonism is not what it has in common with other Abrahamic religions, but what sets it apart. That would mostly be its age. Mormonism is the religion of nineteenth century American snake oil salesmen. The difference from Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that most of their snake oil salesmen lived so long ago, and influenced our culture so extensively, that we don’t notice how weird their snake oil is. The beliefs they installed have aged, not always gracefully, but for those that remain current, in ways that confer an aspect of “normalcy” that parvenu Mormon beliefs lack. To most Americans, Mormonism does seem weird. But from a God’s eye view, so to speak, it is no weirder than traditional Christianity, Judaism or Islam. As a rule of thumb, the older the religion, the more snake oil salesmen it has had and therefore the more weird beliefs it has accumulated. For sheer quantity, Mormonism can’t compete.

In other words, the problem is not the nature of the “revelation” upon which Mormonism rests, but its lateness. In recent decades, Mormons have made concerted efforts to “normalize” their faith. They long ago abandoned practices, like polygamy, that mainstream society finds offensive. They have even accommodated to the exigencies of race relations by purging their theology of overt racism and opening church offices to people of color. In short, they have done what Catholics and others have done before them – adapted to the modern world. Their beliefs are no less weird for the effort. But neither are they weirder than the vintage beliefs that seem “normal.”

The Democrats’ senior statesman, Jimmy Carter, recently became estranged from his party’s leadership because he dared argue for fairness for Palestinians. [See Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006).] The explanation, of course, is that Democrats are in the thrall of the Israel lobby; not that they believe that the divinity moonlighted as a real estate agent for his chosen people and therefore that their interests supersede all other concerns. [As I said in “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism” (May 28), leading Democrats didn’t get where they are by being stupid; that only works for Republicans.] What is worth noting, though, is that, throughout his book, Carter refers to the land Israelis and Palestinians share as a Holy Land that the Perfect Being gave to the Jews. No one finds this strange. Why then should it seem odd to so many that Mormons make similar claims for themselves and for a county in Missouri? Only because “ripeness is all.”

Should we then conclude that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is no more a problem than John Kennedy’s Catholic faith? This question, dear to the punditocracy, is wrongly put. Kennedy’s Catholicism wasn’t a problem. Perhaps the same would have been true of George Romney’s Mormonism. George Bush’s Protestantism is very definitely a problem, despite its mainstream ancestry. The reason why is plain: Bush really is a believer. Unless he’s a better actor than Reagan or Thompson ever were, he isn’t deceiving anybody, including himself, about the genuineness of his weird, ridiculous -- and obviously dangerous – beliefs. The jury is still out on Mitt.

Mormonism was a contrivance of mountebanks and snake oil salesmen. However its “sin” is not that it is ridiculous, though it is, but that it hasn’t had the benefit of thousands of years of “seasoning” – like Judaism, mainstream Christianity, and Islam. Otherwise, Mormonism is no more prepostrous than any of the other faiths we expect our candidates to endorse; as it stands today, it is probably no more dangerous either. That danger is not insignificant; but, as history has shown, so long as our institutions remain fundamentally secular, it is manageable. The far graver danger comes when people, especially people in power, Mormon or otherwise, truly believe the foolishness they profess.