At the very end of Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine feature about Gary Hart that could be titled “Hart-less: The Original Bimbo Eruption,” there’s a short passage that puts on full display the irrepressible presumption of liberalism—or perhaps it’s another example of Bush Derangement Syndrome. Here’s how the piece ends:
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee [Hart] said.
“Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” [Gary] Hart said ruefully. This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”
Note first that Bai thinks is it virtually incontestable that Hart would have beaten George H.W. Bush in 1988—a nice additional kick to the backside of the hapless Michael Dukakis. Yes, Dukakis was a dismal candidate, but it is far from certain that Bush wouldn’t have beaten Gary Hart just as soundly. Most academic political scientists, and just about every election model, will point to the overwhelming structural advantages (especially a good economy and a popular incumbent) that Bush had on his side. And that’s before you get to Hart’s essential goofiness that Mondale used to trip him up in 1984. It is not clear to me that Dukakis was in fact actually inferior as a candidate to a prospective Hart the Chaste.
Second, notice the presumption that any other president other than George W. Bush would not have gone to war against Iraq after 9/11. Easy to say after the fact, just as the JFK Industrial Complex has labored mightily without a shred of credible evidence to say JFK would have avoided Vietnam had he lived. Al Gore was known as one of the Iraq hawks in the Clinton White House, and it is easily conceivable that he would have been just as aggressive as Bush after 9/11. But for liberals with perfect hindsight, their guys simply can’t make any mistakes.
Bai is right that had the first Bush not been elected, George W. would not have been elected in 2000. But ponder what Bai had to skip over to get to this precious chain of causation that kept us out of Iraq. What about the first Gulf War (the one Gore voted for, remember)? Would a President Hart have led the U.S. into that conflict in 1991, as H.W. Bush did? Or would he have wrung his hands ineffectually like Obama today? A rather important question in this two-link chain of contingency Hart and Bai have constructed to feel good about themselves. Without Gulf War I, perhaps Gulf War II (and maybe 9/11) don’t happen. Bai didn’t think to ask any of this, because he is a high octane liberal for whom serious thinking is unnecessary.
This is a game anyone can play out as he likes. I rather like suggesting that Hart should feel guilty in just this way: For want of self-control, thousands died! Hot bodies for Hart; body bags for you! Hart lied, people died!
Or perhaps Bai might be invited to go down the road of wondering how different the Middle East might be today—and how many millions might be alive—if we’d had a president other than Jimmy Carter paying attention to Iran in 1977 and 1978. Nah—that would give him a headache.