One of my consistent criticisms of the Bush Administration on its post-9/11 responses to the world has been that they were seeking momentary domestic political advantage with potentially explosive and self-defeating rhetorical, symbolic and institutional moves. Adopting messianic postures on the spread of democratization and liberalism around the world while exempting themselves from the standards they were trying to promote. Arguing for the rule of law while looking the other way at lawlessness under their own watch.
Or egging on the proposition that Islam or Arabs in generic are the wellspring of terrorism, or similarly, diffusing responsibility for 9/11 from al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and any other potential target of U.S. ire within the Middle East. Xenophobia is a pretty dangerous fire to be stoking with subtle Karl-Rovian gestures and winks, and this week it turned around and burned the Bush Administration pretty seriously with the flap over port management.
President Bush is right that anybody who bothers to look at the details of the deal could hardly be disturbed by it: almost all of the popular and political reaction is coming from somewhere far away from the specifics. But that’s what happens when you play fast and loose with the facts, skew the intelligence, play bait-and-switch with policy, bury the mechanisms of decision-making and treat public knowledge in a democracy as a form of security risk.
The only aspect of this whole flap that genuinely annoys me is the response of leading Democrats. A few of them are just doing the politicas-as-usual service to their own constituencies, largely the Teamsters.
Most of them are managing to demonstrate how accurate the claim that the party has no prevailing ideas or underlying views really is. The only conviction the Democrats have is, “Wait until the Republicans make a mistake, and exploit it by saying whatever is most likely to expediently increase the discomfort of the Republicans”. Sometimes you could see a real politics, a driving idea, potentially emerge from such a seed. If the Democrats wanted to react to scandals that result from Republican dominance of the political system, from arrogance, then they could go beyond just saying, “The Republicans are sleazemasters” to driving hard and consistently for a systematic reform movement that aims at the structure of federal governance, the management of elections and districting, and so on. That doesn’t have to be Al Gore level boring technocratic, either: imagine a statement of reform principles roughly as catchy and transmissable as Gingrich’s “Contract With America”. Instead, the party just briefly comes to life during the news cycle of a story like the Abramoff scandal and then goes back to sleep.
So now this time they’ve awoken to join in the xenophobic panic, which absolutely doesn’t lead anywhere in the long-term, at least not anywhere that the Democrats want to go (I hope). I don’t know why it is so hard for the Democrats to transit from whatever doubtlessly legitimate and useful discussions they’re having on a daily basis to some kind of sustained national momentum, but the fault evidently lies significantly within the party and its leadership, not in developments outside their control.