Before the two Presidential candidates met face-to-face in last week’s debate, George Bush and the Republicans had managed, somehow, to turn John Kerry into a girly-man. True, Mr. Kerry made a number of mistakes which helped his enemies to besmirch him and destroy a decent man’s reputation. Even so, the Republicans’ tactic of portraying their Democratic opponents as politically effeminate weaklings who harbor secret sympathies for the other side is one the Grand Old Party has used repeatedly to win elections.
Michael Dukakis was thus demolished in 1988 by George Bush the elder, who could at least lay legitimate claim to being a World War II war hero. In 1972, George McGovern—whose record as a bomber pilot in the same war put Mr. Bush’s in the shadows—was also obliterated by a Republican campaign which made him out to be a soft-on-communism poltroon. That his opponent, Richard Nixon, never got within 2,000 miles of combat went largely unremarked, but that’s the way politics is conducted.
None of this is to say that the Republicans are guilty of ethical lapses, because no matter how many do-gooder committees, commissions and pompous TV roundtable discussions devote themselves to these matters, there are no ethics in politics, there is no high road, there are no standards other than what a politician can get away with.
So no blame attaches, but how did a man whom the Democrats thought, with his combat record, was a perfect champion to send against Mr. Bush get himself obliterated so quickly? Mr. Kerry made some understandable tactical mistakes. He was not told that nobody has ever won an election running on their résumé, and the overemphasis given to his war record simply supplied the Republicans with a better, clearer, higher target to shoot at. They would have shot anyway, of course, but how comes it that when they do—and they have for 150 years—they have so often been successful?
Although four of America’s five bloodiest wars were fought by Democratic administrations, the Republicans imply that Democrats are prone to nominate weak men with thin blood and a tendency to sympathize with the nation’s enemies. It’s one thing for the Republicans to keep making these accusations, but why do so many people agree with them?
In part, the times can make these attacks more or less plausible. The times made it appear to many that Woodrow Wilson was the appeaser Theodore Roosevelt said he was. After the Second World War, the Democrats, with their affinity toward civil liberties, racial justice, social welfare and economic planning, were easily made to look like the Communists, who said they stood for the same things. Less than 50 years ago, Republicans made it a Sunday sport to knock off Democratic politicians who shouted for racial justice. Even now, the smell lingers on. You’d be surprised at how many people to this day think that Democrats are crypto-collectivist-communists of one sort or another.
The Republican tactic cannot be used against every Democratic Presidential nominee. It couldn’t be used against John Kennedy—not only because he was a war hero of a sort and a glamourpuss, but also because he was a Roman Catholic, and in that era, Roman Catholics were ferocious anticommunists. It didn’t work against Lyndon Johnson, who was not a war hero of any sort but with his twang conveyed a genuine kind of graspy Americanism which made hobnobbing with the enemy implausible. The Republicans were so scared that the long-feared slave rebellion was on us that their bowels turned to water and they turned to Mr. Johnson to save the country from all those angry African-Americans.
In a strange about-face, the Republicans accused Franklin Roosevelt of war-mongering, but the times worked against them. The primary enemy was fascism, and the Democrats were able to accuse the Republican Party—which is considered to be hard on crime, hard on rule-breakers, hard on people and soft on civil and personal liberties—as being equally soft on fascism.
Thanks to terrorism, Mr. Kerry cannot play that card—although George W. Bush’s incessant carrying-on about leadership and leaders is reminiscent of the devices of fascism, which also put emphasis on the leader as strong man. No other American Presidential politician comes to mind who has made such a big thing out of being the leader—a tactic, as readers of history will know, used by Der Führer. It succeeded for Hitler, who frightened the German public with the specter of Jews and Communists. In today’s America, terrorists, Muslims and Arabs may do as well for Mr. Bush in November.
Which is not to say that Leader Bush and Leader Hitler have much in common. Both are authoritarian and adore the military, but fascism has its roots in the European political dogmatics of a hundred years ago. The roots of Mr. Bush’s authoritarianism are vastly different. They are traceable to the beginnings of the Republican Party and to unspoken cultural definitions of what that party is and stands for in American life.
The association in the American mind of the G.O.P. and a powerful military date from the Republicans’ predecessor party, the Whigs, who picked military heros William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott as Presidential candidates. Unlike their Republican posterity, the Whigs had no special adoration for the military. They picked their candidates because, thinking like the politicians they were, they understood their best chance of winning was with a hero. As luck would have it, in Taylor they actually elected an outstanding President who, had he not died in office, might have saved the United States from its Civil War. With such a history, it ought to come as no surprise that the first Republican candidate was mistitled “the Conqueror of California,” John C. Fremont.
Thanks to the Civil War, the successor Republicans did fall in love with military glory—which also, not so coincidentally, helped them elect a basketful of Presidents. Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower arrived on the hustings with the glamorous aura of victory in battle about them. Unable to plausibly claim military distinction, Mr. Bush—viewed by many as a shirker in wartime—has come forth as the Strong Leader figure, with the emotional overtones associated with dictators.
The Democrats tried nominating generals too, notably George McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock, but the political culture does not believe in Democratic military heroes—as John Kerry is finding out, to his pain.
A Democrat cannot out-flag-wave a Republican any more than he can out-God one. Mr. Kerry is anything but convincing when, in self-defense against Mr. Bush, the champion of religion, he shows up with a Bible in hand. Democrats cannot wear their religion on their sleeves without looking awkward and embarrassing themselves. Republicans have no such problems. The Republicans established themselves as the party of piety early on and, after a century and a half in this religious nation, it is tacitly assumed in the political culture that when Republicans sing psalms, praise Jesus and go forth for family values, they are the champions of righteousness. When Democrats do it, they are hypocrites.
G.O.P. religiosity also goes back to the party’s beginnings. The school books tell us how those hymn-singing abolitionists started the party, elected Abraham Lincoln and freed the slaves, but history isn’t that simple. Those religious people who melded with the Whigs to form the Republican Party were partly abolitionists and partly nasty bigots by the modern standards of many. Republicans then and to a significant extent now hated and hate foreigners, especially Irish and Germans, and also all immigrants. Even as rich Republicans enjoy the underpaid labor of Mexican immigrants, they denounce them and demand something be done about the nation’s “porous borders.” In the early days, their hatred of Roman Catholics knew no bounds: In New Hampshire, they supported a law barring Catholics from holding public office and tried to get such legislation passed elsewhere. They were as unrelenting in demands for prayer and Protestant religious activities in schools then as they are now. The same Calvinist impulses that drive them to interfere in other people’s lives now by arresting them for marijuana drove their Republican forebears to foist the nightmare of Prohibition on the country. Either Christianity brings out the worst in the Republican Party, or the Republican Party brings out the worst in Christianity—but either way, they are mean sons of bitches when they get started.
In a God-sappy country, being the godly ones is a tremendous advantage to Republican politicians, and few have used it more or to greater effect than George W. Bush, who can’t open his mouth without uttering a blessing and invoking prayer. Whether or not the man means it is of no consequence. The long-embedded, fully ripened political culture impels millions to buy it without understanding why they do. Calling him a hypocrite or accusing him of being a reformed drunk gets Democrats nowhere and loses them the votes of the namby-pambies, the oh-dearie-mes who shrink from harsh words and homes truths simply stated.
So what does a girly-man do? Whatever he can. That might include going straight for the Strong Leader’s shins. Any brute can be a strong leader; strong leadership is not the same as good leadership or competent leadership. Churchill and Hitler were both strong leaders: the one we are thankful for, the other was a train wreck. Perhaps John Kerry can tell the masses that they do not want a strong leader—they want a wise one. Maybe that will get him some votes. When the Republicans have put the girly-man dress on you, gather your forces and rip it off as best you can.