Entering the McGovern Zone

There is a bracing animus in Peter Mulhern’s view of the Democratic criticism of the war: “Hit ’em again, harder.” Mulhern goes so far as to criticize the president’s attribution of sincerity to the Democrats in the speech at the Naval Academy this week:

How is it possible that purportedly patriotic American public officials can be sincere when they conspire to cut and run from our deadly enemies, to portray America as a weak and unreliable ally and to invite new attacks on our homeland? The President can’t have it both ways. If he is right about the dire consequences of preemptive withdrawal, he must be wrong about his opponents’ sincerity. When he concedes their sincerity he calls his own into question. The average listener hears him say that the Democrats are sincere and concludes that their policy prescriptions can’t be as outrageous as he says they are.

As it happens, the Democrats aren’t sincere. They aren’t anywhere in the vicinity of sincerity. When they call for withdrawal from Iraq, as Nancy Pelosi did again in a response to the President’s speech, they are damaging their country. As the President pointed out, this is obvious. No Democrat has even tried to argue that scheduling a withdrawal would not have the consequences the President outlined. We must conclude that the Democrats know they are working counter to America’s interests at the same time they present themselves as patriotic public servants. This is the antithesis of sincerity.

Mulhern recognizes that Bush’s attribution of sincerity to his opponents may be merely rhetorical, but suggests that it would take a speechwriter of Shakespearean brilliance to arouse indignation appropriate to the occasion:

Subtlety worked for Marc Antony but, he had history’s greatest speechwriter in his corner. Saying exactly what you mean in consistent, direct declarative sentences is a better approach, particularly if you have the verbal grace of George W. Bush.

Bush’s speech, however, was not particularly subtle; it suggested that his opponents are oblivious to the consequences of their recommendations. In the case of Nancy Pelosi, partisanship and stupidity may be sufficient to explain the obliviousness. In the case of John Kerry (see the rest of Mulhern’s column), partisanship and opportunism may be sufficient.

Mulhern seems to be saying that the president’s most effective — effective because true — case is that the Democrats’ critique of the war betrays the national interest of the United States. I think that the case that the Democratic critique of the war is unwise — the case that Bush made at the Naval Academy — should be supplemented with the argument that it is partisan rather than that it is, in essence, disloyal (“the Democrats know that they are working counter to America’s interests”). Mulhern persuasively argues that Bush should press the advantage opened for him by the Democrats’ critique:

The Democrat Party has just entered the McGovern Zone. The nation is at war against deadly enemies and the Democrats are going into an election committed to capitulation. They are gambling everything on failure in Iraq. If, in six months, successful elections have been held in Iraq and we have begun reducing our troop levels there, only a few hardcore nutjobs will still cling to the idea that Iraq is a hopeless quagmire. That idea is all the Democrats have to offer and when it dies the Democrat Party itself will be teetering on the edge of extinction.

After entering the McGovern Zone in 1972, however, the Democrats had a field day courtesy of Watergate in 1974. The recurring CIA leaks, pseudo-scandals and media hostility undermining the Bush administration are also reminiscent of the forces with which Nixon contended following his landslide reelection. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that the statesmanship of President Bush’s Naval Academy speech represents the best course for him to take and to persist in.

UPDATE: David Zincavage responds in “Entering the Nixon zone.”


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