Mush From the Wimps*

"Mush from the Wimp" refers to a famous journalistic gaffe — a headline placed atop a Boston Globe editorial about President Jimmy Carter's 1980 economic plan, which was supposed to be replaced with "All Must Share the Burden."

What made this episode funny and memorable was that the editorial was supposed to be an endorsement of Carter's plan. The accidental headline gave up the game. The Globe's editorial board didn't think the Carter plan was any good, but they felt compelled to instruct their poor readers to support it.

The public intuitively recognizes there is a gap today between what supporters of a politician or political party really think and the elaborate bows of fealty to political correctness that they make in public. In my opinion, it's the key reason why both Republican and Democratic approval ratings are so low right now. People don't sense that the parties and their standard-bearers are committed to the things they claim to stand for.

In this morning's New York Times, columnist David Brooks gives a clue as to why this gap has grown so large. (You'll have to either buy the paper, pay the Times for its TimesSelect service, or trust me, because I can't link to it.) Brooks suggests that if the legacy parties didn't exist, our politics would be divided between a party of "populist nationalism," (PN) and a party of "progressive globalism" (PG)

Per Brooks, the PNs stand for: America and Americans first; conservative social values; generous social welfare; universal health care; and closed borders. They are against the war in Iraq, for the wall to keep illegal aliens out, against outsourcing, and against gay marriage.

The PGs stand for: Free markets and free trade; liberal social values; an aggressive but multilateral interventionist policy in foreign affairs; reform of entitlements. They are for the war in Iraq, against continued oil dependence, for strong international institutions, against restrictive immigration policies, and for a woman's right to choose.

The PNs are suspicious of all elites: Government, corporate and cultural. The PGs are suspicious of populists who think they can create an America that is militarily, economically and culturally a fortress.

Brooks' realignment isn't so neat and tidy in the real world, but it has a ring of truth. If nothing else, it explains why all our politicians, from George W. Bush, to Hillary Clinton, to John Kerry, to John McCain, all sound like mushy wimps nowadays, as they try to straddle both the PG and PN camps.

I saw Al Gore on Larry King the other night. He was there to discuss his global warming documentary, but then Larry reminded him of the famous debate on his program, in which Gore defended NAFTA against Ross Perot — and did it so effectively that Perot was discredited and NAFTA was passed.

This trip down memory lane made Gore palpably nervous. Free trade, a PG issue, is highly controversial among Democrats now. Gore might want Democratic votes again someday, and the pro-free-trade contingent is a distinct minority. (Global warming is also a PG issue, but that's partly because no one's seen a price tag yet.)

But this kind of thing happens all the time. A couple of weeks ago, the Bush Administration was supposedly pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a classic PN issue–and an issue PGs tend to dismiss. The vote was timed to coincide with several primary elections, including California's. Everyone knew it was going to lose. Bush spoke up for it on his Saturday radio speech, which no one listens to.

And, according to Newsweek, Bush wasn't entirely sincere:

Though Bush himself has publicly embraced the amendment, he never seemed to care enough to press the matter. One of his old friends told NEWSWEEK that same-sex marriage barely registers on the president's moral radar. "I think it was purely political. I don't think he gives a s–t about it. He never talks about this stuff," said the friend, who requested anonymity to discuss his private conversations with Bush.

(snip)

Whatever Bush's motivation, his actions aren't likely to quiet his critics. (Southern Baptist leader Richard) Land says he's happy Bush is speaking out, but he'd like to see signs of real commitment to the issue. "We know what a full-court press looks like when we see one," Land says.

Bush needed anti-gay marriage voters to get elected in 2000 and 2004, and he'll need them again to maintain Republican congressional majorities in 2006. But, for Bush, the significance of a GOP majority is to maintain support for the war in Iraq.  This unpopular war draws most of its remaining support from PG's, who are acutely sensitive to the global consequences of failure in Iraq, not PN's, who believe secure borders are the key to winning the war on terror, not  planting democracy in faraway countries. It's an arbitrary–and perhaps temporary–thing that the pro-war and anti-gay-marriage constituencies are in the same political party.

Bush is a little more open about his PG position on illegal immigration. The press has identified a split in Bush's party between the globalists and the nationalists on that issue. The Democrats, however, are also split on illegal immigration. Democratic PGs recoil at the idea of a wall between America and Mexico, and the cultural intolerance that such a wall implies. But many key Democratic voters are PNs, especially labor union members and African Americans, who tend to be less tolerant of this flood of workers willing to work for low wages.

On the war, on immigration, on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, both parties oversee constituencies that are divided on the hottest issues. As the parties zig and zag to please these different interest groups, more and more Americans are just letting go of politics altogether, and pressing for their goals in places where they don't hear mush: Churches, union halls, the streets, talk radio–and the Internet.

Joe Trippi and others have pointed out that, because of the Internet, the barriers to creating new political organizations to replace the existing parties are falling. Trippi sees the evolution of a "unity" party that transcends partisanship. But that idea–a third party "above politics"–might even be too traditional (see Perot, and in 1980, John Anderson). The coming realignment might happen more quickly and dramatically than anyone predicts, and it might divide us even more.

*Revised, 6/15/06, 3:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m.

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