Sidney Blumenthal has written for The New Republic, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and most recently served as Washington editor to Salon.com and as a contributor to The Guardian. He is one of America’s foremost political commentators, and also has a noteworthy track-record of political engagement. He served as an assistant and senior advisor to President Bill Clinton and is currently a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton. He was also executive producer for the Oscar Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. Blumenthal has just published a collection of essays entitled The Strange Death of Republican America. I put six questions to him on the subject of his current book.
1. You have modeled your book, at least to a degree, on George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, the 1935 classic of modern political historiography that linked the demise of the Liberal Party to dramatic external changes–the political ascendancy of trade unionism, the civil war in Ireland, and so forth. But there’s a difference, isn’t there? When Dangerfield wrote the Liberal Party really was on the verge of extinction. But today you’re effectively forecasting doom for the Republicans. Not only do the Republicans cling to power in the Executive Branch, they have arguably succeeded in a sweeping reallocation of power from the other branches to the Executive. And they have greatly consolidated their control of the Judicial branch. Only in the legislature have the Democrats staged a comeback, and even there the margins are narrow and they rest on a single election in 2006. Admittedly George W. Bush has emerged as the most unpopular president of modern times, but America has developed a very stable two-party system, and part of that stability comes from a party’s rejection of its failed leaders. In the 2008 presidential race, the Republicans rejected the two candidates who positioned themselves as Bush’s heirs (Romney and Giuliani) in favor of John McCain, the man who was Bush’s nemesis in 2000. Don’t the signs point to an internal realignment within the G.O.P. that positions the party to hold on to the only part of the government that seems to matter, the Executive? Doesn’t that make your prognosis premature?
My book’s title was inspired by Dangerfield’s cogent history of the Liberal Party. Though published in 1935, it covered the period from the end of the Boer War to the beginning of World War I. We now regard that era as a time of illusion: the Liberals’ belief in an upward spiral of progress armored their blithe indifference to the social forces being unleashed within England. If the Liberals suffered from arrogance it was stoked not by fierce fires but rather by deeply settled complacency. Their inability to recognize and respond to changing realities, despite their assumption of progress, led to their undoing. The contrast between the fall from grace of the English Liberals under Edwardian beneficence and the American Republicans under Bush malfeasance could not be starker. It is the difference between inertia and volatility. The Liberals did not envision the inferno that lay ahead in world war while the Republicans would not acknowledge the inferno they created after the fact.
As I have reported and analyzed in The Strange Death of Republican America and my preceding volume on the Bush presidency, How Bush Rules–taken together offering a contemporaneous historical record–Bush pursued the radicalization of Republicanism to its limits. Politically, he has succeeded in discrediting the conservative Republican project. His popularity is the lowest (and most extended) for a president in modern times and the party brand has been contaminated. Bush’s consequences make it impossible for a Republican successor to embrace his legacy.
John McCain’s emergence is testimony to the shattering of Bush’s presidency. Without the fracturing of conservatism, McCain would never have become the Republican nominee. It is not an accident, as the Marxists might say, that McCain was Bush’s rival in 2000, a bitterly fought contest that resulted in wounds that are still fresh to McCain. Regardless of McCain’s need to consolidate and conciliate the Republican base–and despite some Democrats’ insistence that McCain is little more than a party line reactionary–he remains an utterly singular figure in the individualistic tradition of Goldwater but lacking Goldwater’s early (at least) extremism. Ironically, at the end of the current Republican era, McCain is the last important Republican whose career stretches back to the Reagan period–and even to the Nixon years as an icon of the Vietnam War. McCain represents continuity and a break with it. His reliance on neoconservatives for foreign policy advice is his most important connection to the Bush legacy.
For McCain to win in the Electoral College, of course, he would have to reassemble the Republican coalition. But he might well have greater appeal and put into play states that dropped out of the G.O.P. alliance under George W. Bush, from New Jersey to California. If McCain did so the result would not be a restoration of Reaganism, but the basis of a post-Bush Republicanism.
2. Of course, before their rapid collapse, the Liberals could lay claim to being the “natural party of government” in Britain. If we had to look for a “natural party of government” in the United States, it seems that the post-World War II choice would have to fall to the Republicans. They have held the Executive Branch over the long haul, and while espousing a “small government” viewpoint at least since Goldwater, they have actually made the Executive stronger and larger than ever before. Conversely, the Democrats have through this period been the “natural party of legislature,” since they have by-and-large controlled it. Isn’t there a disconnect between Democratic Party notions about the role of government and the party’s own historical experience? Most Democrats continue to hold to notions of a powerful Executive Branch formed in the Kennedy-Johnson era, and they seem willing accomplices to the dismantling of Congressional power and authority, even though it would appear to run contrary to the long term interests of the Democrats. Today there is a broad consensus in the country that the allocation of powers has tilted dangerously in favor of the Executive, yet adjustment of this imbalance hardly seems to figure as an issue. Have the Democrats failed to protect their natural power base?
Since the beginning of the Republican ascendancy, with the downfall of Lyndon Johnson and resurrection of Richard Nixon, the Democratic Party has held power for longer periods in the Congress than the White House. Whatever the flaws and errors of the Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the congressional Democrats enormously intensified their difficulties. The congressional party in effect waged war on the executive, constantly asserting narrow interests over national agendas and demonstrating contempt for the damage it inflicted on the political standing of the president. In dealing with Carter, Congressional Democrats displayed that they had learned almost nothing from the Nixon landslide of 1972 and the gathering advantages of the Republicans, perhaps because it was followed so swiftly by the Watergate scandal overthrowing him. By 1979, the congressional Democrats considered Carter the enemy. Senator Edward Kennedy’s candidacy was really mounted by the congressional Democrats against an incumbent president of their own party. After all, they reasoned, wouldn’t the congressional party always hold power even if the president were to lose? And wouldn’t the congressional party be even more influential operating with a Republican president? That very condescension greeted Bill Clinton when he arrived in Washington in 1993. Certainly, he made many mistakes during his first two years in offices, but the self-destructive parochialism of the congressional party is not given its due in the wreckage of his universal health care initiative and the rest of his program or in the subsequent political disaster. The election of the first Republican Congress in 40 years was as much a reaction against the arrogance of congressional Democratic power as it was to the turmoil fostered by an ambitious Democratic president who could not control the whirlwind.
Have the congressional Democrats learned the lessons of the recent past or do they resemble the Bourbons who famously learned nothing and forgot nothing? There are currently no leaders in the Congress who have worked constructively and consistently even for the period of one session as a majority party with a strong Democratic president. The Carter years and the Clinton years of 1995-96 were crucibles of fractious, oblivious and self-destructive impulses. Many in the congressional party still harbor resentments over Clinton’s political survival and his thriving presidency after they lost in the 1994 debacle. Among the most significant challenges for a new Democratic president would be managing the congressional Democrats. Many of them would prefer a Democratic president whom they could steer as their vessel, more like a prime minister than a president. Some quietly would believe they could coexist comfortably with a Republican president.
3. A lot of your book focuses on Karl Rove, whom you consider the author of a catastrophic Republican strategy, which is pushing the party towards extinction. But Rove continues to win accolades in the press, and was accepted immediately on his departure from the White House as a leading pundit–indeed, the Telegraph just ranked him No. 1 in its ranking of the most influential political pundits (you didn’t make the list, which is what you get for writing for the Guardian). Rove seems unusually flustered these days, but he continues to be viewed as the grand master of Republican strategists. How do you explain this?
I look forward to Karl Rove’s commentaries on Fox News and tune into Fox specifically to hear what he has to say. Unlike most pundits on TV, he understands his subject. Together with Michael Barone, who by far has offered the most intelligent and knowledgeable analysis throughout the 2008 campaign, they are the two best analysts on television. However, as Bush’s “architect” of an enduring political realignment, Rove was more an adroit tactician than a masterful strategist. As I’ve written in my book, he believed that he could replicate the Republican dominance that he achieved in Texas on a national level. Operating on slim majorities (or none, to begin with in 2000), he used the tragedy of September 11 as the justification for a mandate that was never there and was not provided for in the narrow victory in 2004. Rove’s misguided effort to launch Bush’s second term with a wedge opening to privatization of Social Security was quickly exposed for the political foolishness that it was. Did Rove, a touted student of history, not pay any attention to Reagan’s deal-making over Social Security? Of course, in the Plame affair–“Wilson’s wife is fair game”–Rove’s actions were traitorous, even if he escaped indictment for perjury. His manipulation of the U.S. attorneys for partisan purposes, part of his overarching scheme to forge a one-party state, was at best abusive. In the meantime, amidst the vast wasteland of blustery talking heads, he’s one of the few bright spots.
4. In your analysis of the transformation of the electorate that brought the Democrats victory in 2006, you focus on the youth vote and note its sharp trajectory into the Democratic camp. Do you consider this to be a stable pillar on which to build a new Democratic majority? Young voters are not only less inclined to actually vote than other age groups, they are also famously fickle in their political attitudes. Isn’t it in fact only natural that a carefree college student will embrace liberal attitudes from which a later white-collar worker with a mortgage and children may turn?
The younger generation, responding to Bush’s radicalism, is emerging as a liberal one. Its development may be part of a natural cycle as the children of a liberal generation, just as their parents were children of the New Deal generation. Bush has been the formative experience in their political education. Yet the idea that the entrance of a new generation of young people will suddenly transform American politics is by now among the oldest, most romantic and least persuasive notions of so-called “new politics.” Proposed in the aftermath of the 1968 election, many Democrats pinned their hopes on the youth vote. That generation, my own, was and still is the largest numerically and proportionally in American history. Rather than try to analyze the internal reasons why the Democratic Party had come apart in the late 1960s, theorists suggested that a new generation would rescue the Democrats as a political deus ex machina. In a 1971 book, Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s, Frederick G. Dutton, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy, wrote: “Voter turnout increases with education, affluence, political awareness and social influence, and those attributes are all demonstrably higher in the coming generation than in any other new voting group in history.” This idea was one of the key underlying assumptions of the George McGovern candidacy in 1972. (McGovern, alas, lost 49 states.) A 1970 book, The New Majority, by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, describing the Republican sources of power as the “unyoung, unpoor and unblack” proved more prescient.
Voters under 30 during this campaign year have had a greater impact within Democratic primaries in terms of numbers and influence than they will in the general election. The Pew poll of May 8 now shows a growing generation gap, though “modest by the standards of the 1960s.” Yet a majority of those over 50 years old, according to Pew, do not share younger voters’ view, for example, of Barack Obama as “inspiring” or even as “patriotic.”
The “new politics” promising a youth-led renaissance, the transcendence of partisanship and the withering away of social need through the greening of America ended in tears 35 years ago. It’s a dream that apparently defies its repeated deaths.
5. I submit that historians will look on the Bush presidency as something unique in American history for several reasons, but one will be the extraordinarily powerful role played by his highly secretive Vice President, Dick Cheney. In fact, hasn’t it been something of a shogunate, in which the president remains the titular chief of government and is showcased, but the reclusive Cheney has called the shots on the matters of interest to him–especially national security and defense matters? Most importantly, however, Cheney has shown that he can wield all these extraordinary powers and avoid accountability for them. How does a new president cope with the Cheney legacy of secret government? Won’t there be a strong inclination to take advantage of it?
While Cheney has been the prime mover of Bush’s imperial presidency, the legacy isn’t attached to the vice presidency as an institution. Cheney’s handiwork permeates the whole Bush Administration. Overcoming it will be the Herculean task of the next president. Cheney’s great strength was his intricate knowledge of, and experience in, the executive branch, beginning as deputy to Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon White House. Cheney has understood the importance of controlling the bureaucracy, intelligence, and the flow of information to the president, especially if he happens to be uninformed about how things work and relies on advisers. Unraveling Cheney’s work will require close knowledge of the executive and the most careful handling, given the traps that Cheney & Co. undoubtedly have laid for a successor.
6. You have written frequently about Bush’s “war on the professions,” and indeed the Administration’s struggle with lawyers, scientists, military officers is a theme that runs through many of the pieces in this book. Is it fair to say that the Administration succeeded in its war? Does this not point to an ineffective Congress and a lack of whistleblower protections? How does a new administration deal with this?
My last point applies here. Bush, Cheney, et al. sought to create an unaccountable and unfettered executive. In order to do that they kept the Congress under their heel (when Republican) and at bay (when Democratic), as well as exploiting and intimidating a craven and status-driven national press corps. Following the dictum that people are policy, Bush & Co. used the power of presidential appointment to fill the administration with more than loyal Republicans. Bush built a regime, not just an administration. For example, the appointments of Federalist Society lawyers from the commanding heights of the Department of Justice to counsel offices of every department and agency was intended to install cadres of a new ideological clerisy. Professional standards have been construed as mere instrumentalities of conscious “liberal’ ideology, a counterpoint and obstacle to power. Cherry-picking information to support a priori political conclusions has pervaded government methodology from intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to climate change.
Once again, a new government would have to have extensive understanding of the federal apparatus in order to reconstruct it. The Congress cannot do the job, even if it conducted the most far-reaching investigative hearings and maintained diligent oversight. Only a president can truly fix the executive branch. The Bush model of a president who casts himself as a big picture man, while dependent on advisers for working the actual machinery, inevitably leads to a president who would soon find himself in control of neither.