President of 8th Grade
Three Years After Sept. 11, Republicans Are Running Against 'Girlie-Men'
National Post, September 11, 2004
NEW YORK -- NEW YORK -- "To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the Republican National Convention and a small national television audience in Madison Square Garden, "I say: 'Don't be economic girlie men!'"
It was an iconic moment in a week when the Grand Old Party expertly positioned itself as the most likely to win a popularity contest in a junior high school locker room. The girlie-men Democrats were taunted for lacking "backbone," mocked as being too "sensitive" and "fainthearted," and lumped with the 200,000 misfit "nose-rings and tattoos" (in the words of one Illinois delegate) protesting outside.
This essentially schoolyard message -- often delivered by charismatic, manly optimists such as Schwarzenegger, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Arizona Senator John McCain -- had the impressive strategic effect of placing Democrats squarely on the defensive and making it seem as if they can't take a good-natured joke, even when they were merely correcting the most obvious ill-natured lies.
To cite one example, Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a septuagenarian Democrat who earned a coveted keynote address slot by denouncing his own party's weakness in the war on terror, said, "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending." In fact, Kerry said the opposite in his own convention speech of a month ago: "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security."
Yet commentators who pointed out this and other bald distortions by Miller were called pantywaist coastal bigots who didn't understand the superior steely resolve of the Jacksonian South.
"To quibble over whether Zell was right on this or that point, or as fair and balanced as the reporters of the Associated Press, or as evenhanded as Joe Klein," Michael Novak gushed in the conservative National Review, "is to miss the point when listening to a Baptist sermon, rendered by a Southern populist who relishes his heritage." (Apparently lies are okay from national politicians who support Bush and talk like preachers, bad from lefty filmmakers who attack Bush and talk like teachers.) "Zell Miller nailed the political correctness of the little liberal in the heart of all of us (driven into us by the monolithic liberal media of the last generation)."
That liberal media was just as much a target in New York as the Democratic Party itself, to say nothing of the traitorous French. (My favourite surreal moment of random Gallic-bashing came when an obscure Texas politician named Ted Poe stood up in front of the half-empty arena, and swore by gum, "Now is not the time to be a FRENCH REPUBLICAN." Regrettably, Poe didn't clarify whether he was in fact advocating a return of the Bourbon monarchy.)
I experienced a comical burst of locker-room invective when I mentioned on the convention Web site for the libertarian magazine Reason that the just-finished Zell Miller rant -- which, among other illiberal flourishes, spoke fondly of those glory days when "all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger" -- was "the most frightening political speech I had ever seen in my life" (meant in terms of what the country I love could become).
Commenters to Reason's Web site channelled my old 8th grade tormenter Kenny Hira, though far less effectively than he, calling me (surprise!) a "girlie-man," a "little baby," suggesting that I had my "arms wrapp[ed] around your knees, pissing in your little shorts," warning me to "figure out which side you are on," and so on. A half-dozen different people used some variation on the word "pussy."
Odd choices of words for people who are quick tell you that Democrats are not "adult" enough to be entrusted with foreign policy. But then, the Republicans worked hard all convention (and campaign season) to contrast Bush's iron resolve with that of European appeasers from 65 years ago, the almost non-existent Democratic opponents of the 2001 Afghanistan War, and by extension, John Kerry.
"George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip," Miller said, squeezing his claws together to nail the visual. "From John Kerry, they get a 'yes-no-maybe' bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends."
Schwarzenegger seconded the motion: "[Bush] knows you don't reason with terrorists. You defeat them."
A great point -- especially if Kerry or anyone near him was talking about "reasoning" with terrorists, or offering them a fresh bowl of mush. His position is more "nuanced," and against that rhetorical wall of sternness and accusatory innuendo any nuance can seem like retreat.
But there was a real elephant in Madison Square Garden, and I'm not talking about the Republicans' mascot. The phrase "I'm tougher than you," while a winning sentiment on the playground, is not, on its own, sufficient to fight and win a complicated, multi-front war against a shadowy, stateless enemy. Bush's toughness, though repeatedly declared by Republicans, was not enough to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and the senior leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; it didn't prevent an unforeseen and deteriorating post-war situation in Iraq; it didn't forestall massive and costly intelligence screw-ups, and it hasn't reformed the venal House of Saud in any noticeable way. An argument can even be made that the Bush's abrasive self-assurance in global affairs has in fact increased the cost in treasure and lives to American interventionism abroad.
Certainly, framing the issue is important, and John Kerry has not yet convinced Americans that he has a strong and appropriate basic plan going forward in the war on terror. But facts matter, too, and as the pro-war commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote this week, "the gap between the president's rhetoric -- which could have been crafted a year ago -- and the reality on the ground keeps growing."
It almost feels whiny and weak (or as Zell Miller would say, being "against, against, against") to point these things out. When Rudy Giuliani tells me, in an uproariously sympathetic speech, that Bush's leadership will trigger a new flowering of democracy in the Middle East and a subsequent drop-off in terror, of course I want to believe him. Who wouldn't?
But instead of telling us just how that might happen, especially in light of the past three years' worth of disappointments, the Bush Administration is simply trying to cancel out John Kerry as an adult option; to the point of having Vice-President Dick Cheney scare people with talk about how "if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mindset."
The intimation is clear: Girlie-men can't be trusted with war powers, and in fact don't truly understand the implications of what those 19 evil men did three years ago today.
This is where the logic of the Republicans' 8th-grade campaign finally begins to eat its own tail. For if half or more of us who went through that atrocious morning are being deemed, by our most powerful leaders, as too dumb to know what it meant, and too chicken to prevent it from happening again, the backlash could get personal. Some wounds are too deep to play politics with.