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A Brief History Lesson for the Young Democratic Whippersnappers on the Other Side of the Generation Gap

Ryan Grim strikes us as another one of those wild-eyed liberals looking to take over the Democrat party, and the sort of revisionist young whippersnapper who still calls President Ronald Reagan “a C-list actor,” but we think his op-ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post correctly identifies the current fissure among the Democrats as a generation gap.
So far as we can tell Grim is a bit too young remember the late ’60s and early ’70s when the hippies and the hard hats were fighting it out on the streets and “generation gap” was a familiar part of the political lexicon, but he’s familiar enough with Reagan’s landslide victories and the Republican party’s ascendancy in the ’80s to understand why some Democrats are still spooked by it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and front-running Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are all aged enough to remember how President Richard Nixon a landslide over the hippie favorite Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern in ’72 despite an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. They remember that the carefully centrist President Jimmy Carter won office in ’76 only because of the Watergate scandal, but was decisively ousted four years later by Reagan, who won a record 49 states in his reelection bid.
They also well remember how many of their longstanding congressional colleagues were voted out along the way. Such liberal lions as McGovern and Sen. Frank Church and Birch Bayh and the most senior Sen. Warren Magnuson from the New Deal era were voted out during the ’70s, and the likes of wild-eyed conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich were voted in. Reagan won a third term of sorts when his Vice President George H.W. Bush, and any Democrat old enough to remember that still shudders at the thought. President Bill Clinton ended the Republicans’ 12-year White House reign in 92′ and won reelection in ’96, but he ran as a centrist and won by mere pluralities with considerable help from nutcase third-party populist candidate Ross Perot peeling off conservative votes. In ’94 the Republicans even took the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control, a result of Clinton offending the public with such divisive ideas as allowing gays to serve in the military and the government taking a greater role in the health care system, but Clinton won reelection mostly because he and Gingrich had come up with a rare balanced budget and revived the Reagan economic expansion after a short and mild recession.
Republican President George W. Bush succeeded Clinton with a plurality and razor-then electoral majority and then won reelection with a slight majority of the popular, which drove all the Democrats crazy, even though the increasingly wild-eyed conservatives in the Republican party found both Bushes far too centrist for their tastes. President Barack Obama succeeded the second Bush and then easily won reelection, which drove all the Republicans crazy even if the younger of the increasingly wild-eyed Democrats now consider Obama far too centrist for their tastes. All of which explains why such liberal but seasoned septuagenarians as Pelosi and Schumer and Biden are reluctant to veer too far left of the center.
Much younger and less experienced and better-looking and more wild-eyed Democrats as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker now have considerable sway in the Democratic party, and although the aging self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and ripened Massachusetts Sen. Warren are on their side Grim seems correct in surmising that a generation gap will be the story of the Democrats’ upcoming presidential primaries. Grim apparently believes that youthful idealism and its resulting recklessness will eventually overwhelm old age’s hard-earned experience and its resulting caution, and he seems to wish for it, and although we hope he’s wrong we worry he might be right.
At this point in our late middle age we must admit, however begrudgingly, that a lot has changed since Nixon won a landslide reelection but lost a popular culture back in ’72, and that things have changed far even more rapidly ever since. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” that allowed homosexuals to serve in the military so long as they remained closeted cost Clinton the House back in ’94, but it seems quaint in this age of constitutionally guaranteed same-sex marriage. The government intrusion into health care that Clinton’s wife proposed was less ambitious than what Obama wound up getting passed, and lately it polls well, and the Republicans couldn’t come with any alternative they could pass even when they held the White House and both chambers of Congress, so the crazy ideas that these young Democrats are proposing will have some appeal to a significant portion of the population. “Socialism” is no longer the damning term of opprobrium that it was during most of our lives, although it still should be, as far as we’re still concerned, and will probably get a lot more votes than Eugene Debs ever did back in a more sensible era of America.
Which is a shame, especially given the currently wild-eyed state of the Republican party in the era of President Donald Trump. It’s not the admirably wild-eyed conservatism of the Republican party that opposed the New Deal programs President Franklin Roosevelt wrought during his party’s six-decades dominance of American politics, nor is it the centrist and internationalist Republicanism of President Dwight Eisenhower that ended that long reign. It’s not the small government and free markets conservatism of Republican nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost by a landslide in ’64. Trump has the same tough-talking anti-hippie and pro-law-and-order rhetoric that Nixon won with in ’68, but Nixon won reelection after establishing the Environmental Protection Agency that Trump rails against and abandoning the Gold Standard monetary policy that Trump’s Federal Reserve Board appointees want to reinstate, and Trump has made his disdain Republican nominee back to Reagan quite clear.
Despite a pretty good economy America is adding the same trillion or so to the national debt that Obama was racking up in the wake of a deep and long lasting recession, The Repubicans’ big tax cut bill went mainly to the rich while the poor are probably paying even more for Trump’s tariffs every time they go to Wal-Mart. As bad as Obama was Trump has done even more to buddy up to dictatorships while undermining our the post-World War II military and trading alliances that Eisenhower and both Republican and Democratic presidents wisely established. We also note that his promise of proposing such a wonderful health care policy that your head will spin has not yet been kept.
On the other hand, Trump has outraged those damned Democrats even more than Nixon or Reagan or either of the Bushes ever did, and the more wild-eyed Republicans seem satisfied with that. He’s threatened governmental retribution against the free press and promised to lock up his political opponents, enforced our border laws with extreme cruelty and questioned the legitimacy of any federal judges of Latino heritage, has kinder words for the leaders of Russia and North Korea than he can must for our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners, and is even coarser than Nixon ever was in his “twitter” denunciations of the damned hippies.
As much as the die-hard fans love it, it’s not at all the conservatism and Republican party we signed up with. With ur old-school sensibilities we’re free press absolutists, and we worry how that Third World “lock ’em up” stuff might play out if the damned Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress yet again. We have nothing against Latino citizens and legal immigrants, and rather enjoy their music and food and construction and road-paving efforts and occasional judicial opinions. We prefer our classically liberal democratic allies to the authoritarian populists popping up around the world, and by now we’re friends with a lot of dope-smoking hippies, and our hard=hat friends are also taking atoke  or two.
Which is not to say that we agree about anything with anyone on the left. Even the aged and relatively wised-up Democrats toward the center have always been too far left for our centrist tastes, and Grim’s favored youngsters strike us as at least as crazy as Trump.
There’s always some hope that the upcoming congressional impeachment investigations will result in some deus ex machina that delivers the Republican party some nominee other than Trump, and that the Democrats won’t go full-blown socialist. We can’t envision any scenario where the budget gets balanced, or any sort of budget actually gets passed and signed into law, or health care becomes universal and inexpensive, or all the ethnic and sexual groups learn to love another, but we hold out hope the center will hold and the republic will somehow persist.
When we were born Eisenhower had reconciled the Republicans with Social Security and most of the rest of Roosevelt’s New Deal,  and until recently the Democrats have only arguing about how much to tax the free markets that Goldwater and Reagan had championed, everyone more or less agreed on the post-war world order that Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Nixon had sustained, and for the most part it worked out well enough. At this point in our late middle age we believe the sole purpose of the Democratic party is to keep the damned Republicans from imposing their worst ideas on a great nation, and that the Republicans exist solely to save the country from the Democrats dumbest ideas.
For now both parties are seized by a wild-eyed youthful idealism, which we’ve noticed from our reading of history is the most destructive force on the planet, but old age and experience and its resulting caution still stand a fighting chance. We’ll probably wind up casting another futile protest vote on some write-in candidate, but hope the rest of the country chooses as wisely as possible, given the circumstances..

— Bud Norman

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Sen. John McCain, RIP

Over the past many decades we had several serious disagreements with Arizona Sen. John McCain, as did just about anyone of any political viewpoint who was paying attention to the news, but we always disagreed with all due respect to the man, as did any fair-minded and well-mannered person of any political viewpoint. McCain died on Saturday at the age of 81 after a courageous fight against brain cancer, and we worry that an age of rough and tumble yet duly respectful American politics might pass with him.
McCain always laughingly admitted that he didn’t earn much respect at the United States Naval Academy, where he was a legendarily mischievous midshipman and finished sixth-from-last in his class, but after that his military career was distinguished by strength and skill and physical courage and patriotic selflessness as extraordinary as anything in America’s horrible and glorious history of war. He’d only gone to Annapolis because his dad and granddad were both four-star Navy admirals with impressive war records, and several other ancestors had served with similar distinction, and the rebellious youth didn’t plan to make a career of the Navy, but he’d been inculcated with a sense of duty to God and family and country that required him to play some small part during his deployment. Although a deadly and unpopular was being in waged in Vietnam, McCain signed up for and then easily passed the Navy’s rigorous fighter pilot training program, and thus volunteered for combat duty in the worst of it.
He was top gun enough to return from 22 risky combat missions, including one very-near miss, but on the 23rd try he was shot down in enemy territory, where his gruesomely broken body was quickly captured by enemy troops, who immediately added several more serious injuries at they dragged him away. For the next five-and-a-half years he survived routine torture at the “Hanoi Hilton” — the most notorious prisoner-of-war camp since the Confederacy’s Andersonville prison — and made only the most meaningless concessions. At first the torture was worse than usual because the captors were aware that McCain’s father was commanding America’s Pacific Fleet, but the North Vietnamese then thought they might gain some political advantage and demoralize his fellows by offering him early release because of his family ties, and no fair-minded American of any political viewpoint can deny that McCain earned everlasting respect by signing up for a few more years of torture rather than hand the enemy a propaganda victory and his leave his men behind and betray everything he ever believed about God and family and country.
The undeniably tough old cuss somehow survived it all, and wound up limping out of a post-war Air Force plane to a brass-band-and-red-carpet hero’s welcome on a landing strip in his home state of Arizona in the good old United States of America. He finished out his Naval obligations in a series of desk jobs as he more or less recuperated from his injuries, and then he naturally went into politics. McCain’s gruesome yet undeniably all-American heroism made him a natural candidate for a House of Representative seat, but after all those years in a bamboo cage he could also articulate a persuasive case for the vigorous foreign policy and limited domestic government that was the Republican fashion of the time, and he soon demonstrated an unsurprising knack for getting by and getting things done with unpleasant but necessary compromises.
After a couple of easy House elections in oh-so-Republican Arizona, McCain succeeded the then-quintessentially conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater in the Senate, and after that he both earned respect and caused serious disagreements with just about anyone of any political viewpoint. He voted with the ever-evolving Republican caucus on most fiscal matters, and was as hawkish as any of them on matters of national defense, but he also seemed to take a mischievous delight in bucking his party on certain of his party’s ever-evolving stands. Sometimes it was some long forgotten continuing budget resolution or another, on other occasions the border-state Senator with lots of Latino Republican voters was bucking the base on on the simmering matter of immigration, and our free speech sensibilities strongly disagreed with his awful McCain-Fiengold Act.
Way back in the long-forgotten headlines of the late-’80s McCain was one of the “Keating Five” Democratic and Republican Senators who were caught up in a corruption scandal involving donations from a shady savings-and-loans finagler right before the savings-and-loan meltdowns of ’89, and although he was largely exonerated by the subsequent investigations McCain repented by joining left-wing Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold in coming up with some campaign finance rules that we considered an affront to free speech. That was one reason we opted for Texas Gov. George W. Bush over McCain in the ’00 Republican primary, along with the fact that Bush had been a pretty good chief executive of a large and largely Latino state, and seemed less leery of dangerous and unpopular wars. Thus Bush made his case and we cast our vote with all due respect to McCain.
As things turned out President George W. Bush wound up signing that awful McCain-Feingold Act, and the Supreme Court eventually wound up overturning the worst of it in that Citizens United decisions the left is is still squealing about, and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left the Republicans embroiled in a couple of unpopular wars. Bush nevertheless narrowly re-election against decorated combat veteran but defeatist Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and McCain vigorously campaigned for the Republican. After that the Iraq War become an even less popular slog, and McCain once again bucked the party by advocating a more vigorous effort rather than a retreat. When Bush followed the advice with a so-called “surge” the American casualties fell by more than 90 percent, McCain was vindicated and wound up winning the Republican nomination for the presidency.
McCain might have had a chance if the economy had kept going as well the war, but about a month before the election the stock markets melted down as a result of some long-forgotten subprime mortgage regulations from the long-forgotten administration of President Bill Clinton, and America was plunged into a deep recession. After eight years of constant media griping about Bush any Republican faced a hard race against a such charming and charismatic Democratic nominee as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose African heritage promised an improbable chance at national racial redemption that even McCain’s heroic war record could not trump. By the end McCain knew he was fighting another losing war, and he accepted his faith with a sense of honor to God and family and country.
Even by 2008 the the ever-evolving base of the Republican party wasn’t fully on board with McCain’s old-fashioned Republicanism, and he steadfastly refused to go along with their partisan fever for rather than his principles. When his Republican rally-goers denounced Obama as an “Arab” and anti-American scoundrel, McCain insisted that Obama was merely a decent American family guy with some crazy liberal ideas, and we think it was at that very point when the ever-evolving base of the Republican party abandoned him. McCain was frequently critical of Obama, and as far as we’re concerned he was completely vindicated in his criticism of Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, but at that point the base of the Republican party regarded anything less than complete vilification of Obama as insufficient.
Way back in ’12 the Republicans wound up nominating the even more old-fashioned Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whose dad had been a centrist Republican governor and one-time presidential contender, but the ever-evolving Republican base was even less enthused and Obama cruised to reelection. After another four years of Obama’s odious administration the ever-evolving base of the Republican party had decided that such fair-minded and well-mannered candidates as McCain and Romney weren’t up to the fight against those damned Democrats, no matter how heroic their war records, and they wound up choosing President Donald Trump.
Say what you want about both Bush and Obama, and their bitter political fights with McCain, the candidates of all parties paid due respect to the man they opposed. By the late summer and early fall of ’16, Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency despite sneering on videotape that MccCain was “only a hero because he was captured. I hate to tell ya’, but I like a guy who didn’t get captured,” and another audio recording about grabbing women by their private parts,” and mockeries of people’s looks and physical disabilities, and boldly proclaiming a new style of presidential politics. So far it’s working better politically than the more polite practices of McCain and Romney, at least for now, although we still wish either of them had beaten Obama, and we still expect it to work out badly in the end.
In all of his obituaries McCain is getting far more praise than he did back when he challenged the media darling Obama, and almost as much as he did when challenged the media pariah Bush, but the right media have been less muted, and so far Trump has only briefly “tweeted” his prayers and respect for McCain’s family, and although the flags have been lowered to half-mast there’s no official presidential statement about it. Trump had family-doctor-attested bone spurs that prevented him from serving in Vietnam, even if they didn’t prevent him from playing golf and tennis and chasing casual sexual encounters in New York City’s swankier nightclubs while McCain was being tortured inside a bamboo cage, and being such a self-proclaimed tough guy Trump can’t recant his infamous slur that McCain was “only a hero because he got caught.”
At such a sad time and such a low moment in political disourse we hate to take a swipe at Trump, but McCain made clear that he would be honored to have both Bush and Obama speak at his funeral and would not appreciate Trump’s presence at all, and we can’t say we disagree with this final request. At the end of a horrific and heroic and admittedly imperfect life, the best of which he attributed to his years of getting by and getting things done in the public service, we pay due respect to McCain and his dying nostalgia for a more rough and tumble yet duly respectful era of American politics.

— Bud Norman

Phyllis Schlafly, RIP

Iconic conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly died on Monday at the age of 92, and upon hearing the news we couldn’t help fishing our old “Stop ERA” button out of the button jar and reminiscing about her glory days. The button has been kept mostly out of the light for the past many decades and is still a bright stop sign shade of red, but so much has been changed since we last wore it that it sometimes seems from a different world, and we can’t help wondering what such an endearing old anachronism as Schlafly might have made of it.
She first became involved in conservative politics as a supporter of the old school Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft before we were even born, became a noted anti-communist spokeswoman afterwards, and by the time we tuned into our first presidential election in ’64 her book-length pro-Barry Goldwater essay “A Choice Not an Echo” was selling millions of copies and making her an acknowledged leader of the supposedly sexist right. It wasn’t until the Equal Rights Amendment debate of the ’70s that she became a household name, though, and that was when we started paying attention.
The amendment was first proposed back in the Jazz Age of the ’20s, with the support of all the upper class lady folk and the flappers, but the women working in the sweatshops and on the farms felt they needed some sex-specific workplace regulations that the amendment’s language seemed to proscribe, introducing the internecine class warfare that has afflicted the feminist movement ever since, and after that it pretty much faded away. Early into the rockin’ 70s the simply stated idea that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” came roaring back, though, and for a long while it seemed pretty much an inevitability. By then it was hard to argue with the basic idea of equal rights for women, so in ’72 the ERA passed both chambers of Congress and was passed on to the states for ratification, with the backing of the platforms of both major parties and such conservative stalwarts as Ronald Reagan, and by 1977 it had been ratified by 35 of the necessary 38 states, including our very own Kansas.
By ’75 or ’76 or so, though, people were beginning to wonder what sort of peculiar policies “The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation,” which was the briefly worded second article of the amendment, and to worry what craziness the courts might find even in that short and deceptively simple and seemingly benign first article, and what sorts of devils there might be in the details of that basic idea of equal rights for women. The young folks of today might find it quaint, but there were even worries that the ERA might ultimately result women being drafted into the military and creepy guys hanging around the women’s restrooms and showers. Quainter yet, the progressives of the day scoffed at the very idea they would ever suggest such foolishness, with all that women-in-combat stuff widely reviled by a feminist movement reviled by anything militarist and a young feminist and future Supreme Court Justice named Ruth Bader Ginsburg was writing an op-ed insisting that “Separate places to disrobe, sleep, perform personal bodily functions are permitted, in some case cases required, by regard for individual privacy. Individual privacy, a right of constitutional dimension, is appropriately harmonized with the equality principle. But the the ‘potty issue’ is likely to remain one of those ultimate questions never pressed to the final solution.”
As we well recall, it made for a contentious debate. Aside from all those thorny policy questions, there was also an ongoing cultural war about the broader implications of the feminist movement. The feminists frankly claimed that adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution would simultaneously ratify their most radical notions, and of course there was a backlash to that, and in all the ensuing controversy no one was more controversial than Schlafly. She became the old-fashionedly dignified face of the anti-ERA cause by pressing the conservative case against introducing language into the constitution that could lead into all sorts of consequences, and by pushing back against the more questionable assumptions of that already overreaching feminist movement. Needless to say, she was much beloved and much reviled.
Adding to both the love and the hate was that Schlafly was an undeniably formidable force. All the women she’d inspired to Goldwater’s true blue brand of conservatism were famously described as “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” but she was harder to dismiss. The daughter of a failed businessman and a highly educated housewife, she entered Maryville College at 16 and left at 19 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a full scholarship to Radcliffe, where she earned a master’s degree in a year’s time. She worked at one of the earliest conservative think-tanks, wrote or edited 20 books, published an influential newsletter and spoke daily on more than 500 radio stations, was a regular commenter on the Columbia Broadcasting system in the ’70s and the Cable News Network in the ’80s, and always brought an old-school erudition and that old-fashionedly dignified face and a certain womanly bearing that the feminists could never quite match.
At the time Schlafly was somehow staving off any more ratifications and even getting several states to rescind while running out the clock on the Equal Rights Amendment, we were in high school and paying rapt attention. All the girls who inspired our romantic interest in those amorous days were of course avid proponents of the ERA, and then as now we were quite comfortable with their basic idea of equal rights for women, but we’ve never been able to help worrying about those devils that might be lurking in the details. We were also in favor of equal rights for all races, but had seen how that laudable idea had turned our schools in violence-ridden wastes of time, and those girls we pined for seemed to be doing well enough on their own, and the question of the draft and the “potty issue” didn’t seem something to be scoffed at. There was already a “separate but equal” precedent regarding public accommodations, with some judge or another out there eager to seize on it, and surely a law that conscripted people of one sex into combat duty but not another would violate an amendment with the plain language that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” and if it didn’t then what did it mean? Then as now we thought that having men use the men’s room and women use the women’s room was a sensible arrangement, and that sending only men off to war has had a similar social utility, and that in our society best efforts to “harmonize” such concerns with the “equality principle” the constitution ought to provide some wiggle room, which is why we wound wearing that “Stop ERA” button.
At the time we were less impressed with Schlafly’s more culturally conservative arguments for a more traditional notion of womanhood, being so very smitten with those self-fulfilled and enticingly assertive feminist girls, but after so many decades and so many changes we can’t say for sure that she was wrong about any of that. At this point we do feel vindicated for our long ago prediction that the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment wasn’t going to result in a dystopian future of barefoot pregnant women chained to stoves, and we’re pleased that all our former crushes have been free to make successes and failures of their lives, but we’ll lament seeing women being sent into combat and creepy men hanging around the ladies restrooms and showers, and we’ll continue to worry what further devils might yet be in the details of that basically sound idea of equal rights for all.
Schlafly stayed on the seen during the past controversial decades, and although we sometimes agree with her and sometimes didn’t we always had to give the opinions of such a formidable women due respect. Of course the left always hated her, and even in her more respectful obituaries there’s the old line about how she married a rich husband, and always taunted her feminist opponents by remarking how he “allowed” her to speak out, and offended the fundamental feminist principle of freedom of choice by choosing to embrace a traditional notion of womanhood. By the end of her long life the former Taft enthusiast and cultural traditionalist was embracing the candidacy of longtime Democrat and thrice-married Donald J. Trump more enthusiastically than we would have preferred, but we’ll forgive that final disagreement on the grounds that she was mostly against the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Not only is Clinton the latest devil in the details of that basically good idea about equality of the sexes, but she only got where she is due to her deal with a philandering husband, while Schlafly probably would have wound up just as prominent without help from her loving and loyal mate, and none of Schlafly’s critics will ever want to admit that.
Although she won the battle against the ERA, and scored a few other wins for conservatives since then, Schlafly seems to have lost the wars. Even the more conservative candidates in the Republican debates were endorsing the drafting of women last summer, the Republican nominee was critical of North Carolina’s attempts to retain the old restroom arrangements, and by now it’s a safe bet that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg won’t come riding to the rescue. The limited government notions of Goldwater seem hopelessly out of fashion in both parties, even if the isolationism of Taft seems to be making a comeback on the Republican side, and we can’t imagine that Schlafly died happy about it any of it. All the more reason we’re going to miss that formidable woman, and hope that she died happy with the personal life that her brave choices created.

— Bud Norman