Monday, August 22, 2005

Against Sheehan's righteousness

Cindy Sheehan offers what looks like a magical elixir of righteousness for Democrats – an addictive and dangerous one. Addictive because she’s making Bush look bad; because for once the right is having a hard time sliming and dismissing a Bush critic; and because she’s voicing what a lot of people on the left have been thinking and feeling since 2002. They just haven’t had a truly resonant national spokesperson before now. Being a stay-the-course guy, John Kerry sure didn’t fit the bill.

It’s dangerous because it's all too reminiscent of the kind of brain-dead stuff we've been hearing from the other side for years.

Since before the whole Iraq mess began, the right has held a near-monopoly on emotion in the public sphere in the form of chest-thumping patriotic anger about 9/11. For a brief period that anger was a truly unifying national sentiment, but then Bush ... well, you know the rest. His politicization of 9/11 and the Iraq war has been both cynical and, well, sentimental to the core. Strip away all the arguments about WMD or terrorism or democracy and the whole Iraq war is just an emotional, gut-response by Bush&Co. They wanted to kick someone's butt, and Saddam was available. Their mastery of this post 9/11 psychological landscape – even in the face of their Keystone Kops performance in an actual war - has helped the GOP maintain its grip on power.

But politically speaking, do liberals really need or want to go head-to-head with Bush in a contest of righteous anger? As a short-term tactic, maybe it works because it does crystallize a lot of disquiet about Iraq. And as a genuine expression of grief it is entirely legitimate. But what does it really mean? Not much, Jonathan Chait argues:

The left seems to be embracing the notion of moral authority in part as a tactical response to the right. For years, conservatives have said or implied that if you criticize a war, you hate the soldiers. During the Clinton years, conservatives insisted that the president lacked "moral authority" to send troops into battle because he had avoided the draft as a youth or, later, because he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

So adopting veterans or their mourning parents as spokesmen is an understandable counter-tactic. It was a major part of the rationale behind John Kerry's candidacy. The trouble is, plenty of liberals have come to believe their own bleatings about moral authority. Liberal blogs are filled with attacks on "chicken hawk" conservatives who support the war but never served in the military. A recent story in the antiwar magazine Nation attacked my New Republic editor, Peter Beinart, a supporter of the Iraq war, for having "no national security experience," as if Nation editors routinely served in the Marine Corps.

The silliness of this argument is obvious. There are parents of dead soldiers on both sides. Conservatives have begun trotting out their own this week. What does this tell us about the virtues or flaws of the war? Nothing.

If liberals and Democrats want to call Bush to account for the shenanigans of the past few years, isn't the best course to be the grown-ups - the ones who see things as they are and offer powerful arguments to set them aright? This is not to discount emotion in politics, or even the occasional dose of Sheehan-style righteous anger, just to say that alone they won’t win the argument – and might end up losing a lot of votes.