BEATING GEORGE W. Bush in 2004 will be an uphill battle. While the campaign will require blood, toil, tears, and sweat, I think it's safe to say that it will not be successful if the opposition runs on the paranoia platform.
I loathe Bush like the next liberal, but I'm afraid I have to partially agree with the diagnosis of neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer, a former shrink, who earlier this month said he had identified a new psychological syndrome: Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), described as "the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidencynaythe very existence of George W. Bush."
Now there are a lot of conservatives out there who are trying to pathologize liberalismpeople who think, for example, that world-class economist Paul Krugman has somehow gone off his nut because in his column in The New York Times he consistently maintains that the Bush administration's policies are a menace. Krauthammer suggests Krugman is a BDS sufferer. He also tags Bill Moyers and Barbra Streisand, among others.
I disagree. Krugman, certainly, is one of the sanest men in the country. But I would also say this: Yes, there are those who occasionally become unhinged at the very idea of the Bush presidency, Mossback among them. A stolen election will do that. But there is also a comparable syndrome affecting those conservatives who froth like mad dogs at the idea that liberals themselves even exist. Author and commentator Ann Coulter is one case study. She believes that to be a liberal Democrat is to commit treason. And she worships the late red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose execrable career was a singular monument to paranoia. So perhaps Krauthammer should be looking for a less partisan affliction.
But what the Moyers, Coulters, Streisands, and Krugmans think doesn't really matter. Paranoid or not, delusional or not, they're pundits and activistspart of American politics' "odds and sods" brigade who support the troops but do no real fighting. In the land of free speech, they can afford to be paranoid and are sometimes even rewarded for it.
IT'S A DIFFERENT MATTER, though, when it comes to politicians. Paranoia does matter, and some liberals need to do a better job of either treating their paranoia or hiding it.
Krauthammer's column was aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who raised the suggestion that Bush might be trying to hide the fact that he was warned in advance about 9/11 by the Saudis. Dean's point was totally appropriate: The Bush administration is trying to withhold important information about who knew what leading up to 9/11. But it was wrong for Dean, a leading presidential contender, to voice a theory that, by his own admission, could not be proved. That's a role for the activists and commentators. A potential president has to be more careful: Go after Bush if you've got the goods. He might be the worst president in memory, but that's different from believing the worst in him. Dean's comments amount to a smear.
Dean has handed ammo to the Bushies with absolutely no benefit to himself or the party. Those who might believe in a 9/11 cover-up are already on his side. Validating paranoid theories with no evidence is a loser's gambit. This was dramatized effectively at Bush's post- Saddam-capture press conference on Monday, Dec. 15, when a member of the press raised Dean's allegation. Bush dismissed it as "absurd," but it also seemed beside the point in a moment of victory. Whatever you think about the war in Iraq, it's also hard to argue that capturing and trying Saddam Hussein is not a good thing, or that Bush doesn't genuinely believe he is trying to make America safer. Dean is already struggling for stature, and the 9/11 conspiracy suggestion makes him look small.
As if on cue, our own Jim McDermott entered the scene and stumbled in a way that underscores Krauthammer's BDS diagnosis. On Dave Ross' radio talk show on KIRO-AM, McDermott, the U.S. representative from Seattle, suggested that the timing of Hussein's arrest was political. "I'm sure they could have found him a long time ago if they wanted to," he claimed. McDermott went on to say that the capture of Saddam Hussein was some kind of preplanned Christmas gift that the Bush administration gave itself.
This is nuttier than a tin of Almond Roca, and it's the kind of blather that solidifies McDermott as a marginal congressional character whose greatest accomplishment is to provide fodder for Matt Drudge.
I DEFENDED MCDERMOTT in this column when he went to Baghdad before the war and called Bush a liar on national TV. McDermott later admitted that was a mistake. Not an error of factit's even clearer now that Bush lied about the reasons for going to warbut a political blunder. In the eyes of many, the timing and place of that comment hurt both McDermott and the antiwar movement.
McDermott later explained that he is frustrated with trying to operate in Bush's Washington and Tom DeLay's House of Representatives. I don't blame him. But if he can't stay positive, you have to wonder if one of America's rare, sure, liberal congressional seats should be left to a man who continues to undercut his credibility, and thereby the credibility of liberalism, with politically dumb crackpottery.
The Democrats would do well to take the advice of the paranoid yet politically effective Kennedy clan, who lived by the political saw, "Don't get mad, get even." Keep paranoia close to the vest and fight to win. To achieve victory in 2004, the Democrats are going to have to offer a positive alternative to the current regime. To do that, they need sanity on their side.