February 8, 2020

The Democrats’ Unserious Week

The fiasco in Iowa, the foolishness at the State of the Union — do they realize how bad they look?

Democrats, when they’re feeling alarmed or mischievous, will often say that Ronald Reagan would not recognize the current Republican Party. I usually respond that John F. Kennedy would not recognize the current Democratic Party, and would never succeed in it.

Both men represented different political eras but it’s forgotten that they were contemporaries, of the same generation, Reagan born in 1911 and JFK in 1917. They grew up in the same America in different circumstances, one rich, one poor, but with a shared national culture. By the 1950s, when JFK was established in the political system and Reagan readying to enter it, bodacious America had settled into its own dignity. It had a role in the world and needed to act the part. Both men valued certain public behaviors and the maintenance of a public face. It involved composure, coolness, a certain elegance and self-mastery. They felt they had to show competence and professionalism. They knew they were passing through history at an elevated level, and part of their job was to hold high its ways and traditions.

Their way is gone, maybe forever. Democrats blame this on Donald Trump, and in the area of historical consciousness he is, truly, a hopeless cause. But this week Democrats joined him in the pit.

Do they understand what a disaster this was for them? If Mr. Trump wins re-election, if in fact it isn’t close, it will be traceable to this first week in February.

Iowa made them look the one way a great party cannot afford to look: unserious. The lack of professionalism, the incompetence is the kind of thing that not only shocks a party but shadows it. They can’t run a tiny caucus in a tiny state but they want us to believe they can reinvent American health care? Monday night when the returns were supposed to be coming in, it was like the debut of ObamaCare when the website went down.

Iowa, which for almost half a century has had a special mystique, has lost it. It will never be first-in-the-nation again. The candidates, who worked so hard for so long, were denied their victory moment. Did the movers, operatives and networkers who were behind the app and the technology have any consciousness of what they were changing, of the history they were changing, if they failed? The professionals were detached from their own voters, and not invested enough to give them a functioning primary.

You know what Iowa really tells us? Anything can happen now — anything. Because rigor in politics is waning, the old disciplines are not holding, old responsibilities are being thrown off. It was a failure of competence by people who were just passing through and burnishing their personal brands.

What a disaster.

And what happened a day later in the House was just as bad.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi shattered tradition, making faces, muttering, shaking her head as the president delivered his State of the Union address. At the end she famously stood, tore the speech up and threw down the pieces.

“But he didn’t shake her hand.” So what? Her great calling card is she’s the sane one.

She introduced him rudely, without the usual encomiums. Oh, snap.

The classy lady was not classy. She forgot she has a higher responsibility than to her base, but — yes, how corny — to her country, the institution, the young who are watching and just getting a sense of how to behave in the world.

If she was compelled to show symbolic fealty to the “resistance” she should have taken it outside the chamber. That place is where Daniel Webster debated; she occupies the chair of Henry Clay and “Mr. Sam.”

And she set a template: Now in the future all House Speakers who face presidents from the opposing party at the State of the Union will have to be rude fools.

Remember those videos that used to be all over the internet, with members of the Korean congress punching each other in the face on the floor of the legislature? Man, we used to laugh. Now in the future that can be us.

This is how a great lady becomes just another hack.

Some progressive members refused to attend, or walked out during the speech — one said, without irony, that she was “triggered.” Those who came slouched angrily in their seats, looking down, refusing to rise for all the heroes in the balcony. Why do they think that is a good look?

Those who didn’t come were unprofessional, but it was also a practical failure. They abandoned the field and let the Congress of the United States look like one big, cheering, unified bastion of boisterous Republicans, with a few grim women dressed in white in the corner. That’s what you want America to see?

The speech itself was shrewd and its political targeting astute. There were the usual boasts: “The unemployment rate is the lowest in half a century” — but they had force in the aggregate. The policy that was emphasized (opportunity zones, expanded vocational education, neonatal research combined with a call to ban late-term abortions, expanded child credits) combined with the heroes in the balcony (a Border Patrol agent, a kid trying to get into a charter school, the brother of a victim of crime) was powerful and rich in inference.

More than ever, more showily, this was an aligning of the GOP, in persons and symbols, with “outsiders” — with those without officially sanctioned cultural cachet, with the minority, the regular, the working class. It was plain people versus fancy people — that is, versus snooty liberals and progressives who talk a good game about the little guy but don’t seem to like him much; who in their anger and sarcasm, in their constant censoriousness and characterological lack of courtesy, have managed to both punch above their political weight and make a poor impression on the national mind.

This was the president putting the Republican Party on the side of the nobodies of all colors as opposed to the somebodies. (Van Jones on CNN had it exactly right: Trump is going for black and Hispanic men, and the Democrats are foolish not to see it.) This is a realignment I have supported and a repositioning I have called for and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t please me to see it represented so effectively, and I very much regret that the president is a bad man and half mad because if he weren’t I’d be cheering.

Yes it was bread and circuses, and yes it was like a reality TV show. There should be a word for “I know I’m being manipulated but I am moved anyway.” We need that word because it is the essence of our entire media/entertainment/political culture. But if you weren’t moved by the mother of the baby born prematurely and the 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman there’s something wrong with you, and in your attempts to maintain a fair minded detachment you’ve become distanced from your fellow humans.

Republicans in the Reagan era used to say, and think, that we were the Main Street party, not the Wall Street one. In the three decades since, small-town America has fallen apart and Main Street disappeared into broken up, lonely, ex-urban places. Mr. Trump is saying he’s for the people who live there, in Main Street’s diaspora.

Whatever happens with him, that is the party’s future. Whatever happens with the Democrats they cannot afford another week like this.

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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