Sunday, March 05, 2006

George Will on John Edwards

Two and half years before the next presidential election, George Will is worried enough about John Edward's chances to write a column about him. Or perhaps he's tired of all the scandals surrounding Bush and Congressional Republicans and wants something else to talk about. In any case, Will takes a few mild potshots at Edwards while reminding the country of his own conservative philosophy.

Will is skeptical of Edward's interest in poverty issues and tells us, "Most Americans seem to regard as the only searing economic injustice the violation of their constitutional right—surely it is in the Bill of rights somewhere—to cheap gasoline." Actually, most Americans are becoming increasingly aware of economic injustices being perpetrated in the halls of Congress by well-connected members—but, let's move on. Mr. Will, whose income clearly puts him in the .1% upper income group that Paul Krugman recently talked about, belongs to that economic elite in Washington power circles who have no clue about the lives of Americans across the nation. Edwards has said in other places that Americans who work hard and play by the rules are finding it much harder these days to make ends meet. The number of people in poverty is growing and the number of people in the middle class under economic stress and vulnerable to one major medical bill or loss of income by one family member runs in the scores of millions. Edwards understands this even if George Will does not.

Later, Will pontificates that poverty "results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores—punctuality, hygiene [!], industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc.—that are not developed in disorganized homes." My wife read the same quote and it took her back almost forty years when she was teaching in Milwaukee during a time of integration; she was at the door counting students entering the classroom after recess by touching them on the head while the principal was watching from down the hall and he later asked her if she was washing her hands afterwards. But the language Will uses is a throwback to the broad generalities of early 20th century racial, class and ethnic views (and even then there were people like my grandfather who said, "Judge the man, not the background"). I do not think it's unfair to point out that George W. Bush lacked some of those habits in his youth but unlike children who are not born to privilege, our president could always count on his parents and their friends to bail him out when he was young. And this is true of many other Americans from middle and upper middle class backgrounds who have received second and third and even fourth chances in their youth. But there are a growing number of children in America who are not receiving even a first chance.

Later in the column, Will goes on to say, "Edwards says one lesson of 2004 is that presidential elections 'are not issue-driven'; rather, they are character-driven and voters see issues as reflections of character. The issues 'show people who you are.' Perhaps."

Raising the character issue seems an odd thing for Will to do since Bush and other Republicans are failing on that issue at the moment. Clearly, Bush's Katrina moment and the efforts of his aides to hide all pictures of their boss and Abramoff together do not show Bush in a good light; in fact, the character issue seems a bit strange since Abu Ghraib and torture are now forever tied to Bush. For a brief moment, until the word 'perhaps' showed up, I thought just maybe Will was sending a message to other Republicans: yes, character is important.

Unfortunately, Will writes: "But the idea that the candidate's persona is primary and that issues are secondary is a mistake made by some Democrats who yearn for another John Kennedy." There's so much wrong with that sentence I hardly know where to begin. Persona? Like the pretense that Bush's image makers have pushed that he's a compassionate conservative (think Abu Ghraib and Katrina again, just to name two)? Edwards has already made clear his background in a mill town in North Carolina; he was not born to wealth nor has he embraced the all too frequent conservative habit of endless self-justification when wealth arrives. No, John Edwards has a memory. Actually, FDR, who was born to wealth, also had a memory; up until the 1920s, FDR was a good sort who was mildly progressive in the Teddey Roosevelt vein (but a Democrat). But when FDR contracted polio and lost use of his legs, he got a good look at the world as it really is, particularly in Warm Springs, Georgia; he knew his class all too well and began to understand what life was really like for many Americans. John Kennedy had a different learning curve and I'm not sure if we understand it yet but the Bay of Pigs taught him that he had to take charge and no one grew more than Kennedy in his first months as president; that growth was not about 'persona,' that was about character in the real sense.

John Edwards is a good man but I haven't made up my mind about him only because it's still too early for 2008 and there are other candidates I want to look at. But all day I've been thinking about Will's column. Back in the 1980s, George Will was the conservative liberals liked to read because he would give a readable interpretation of conservatism that was like a window into the other half of the country. But in the 1990s, things changed. If you'll pardon my sarcasm, Will started following in the intellectual footsteps of Rush Limbaugh and many of his columns were factually challenged. In recent years, Will's columns have become more of a mixed bag. He still rallies to the Republican cause but he seems more concerned that perhaps the conservative revolution is not only faltering from a long series of mistakes but possibly going too far; he'll write a column that makes a brave statement and then scuttles back to Republican games in the next column to reassert his mantle. In the end, George Will has the same problem as Bush: he cannot reconcile all his contradictions. And that may be the epitaph of the current Republican Party.


Blogger panopticonman said...

Nice column, Craig.

You're right that some of the seams are beginning to show on the Republican coalition, and that the scandals are beginning to have an effect on some formerly supportive members of the public -- Bush's approval ratings are bottoming out, for instance.

I fear that this will result in particularly vicious campaigning from right-wing candidates in the mid-terms to scare back into the fold the undecideds and moderates who are questioning the adiministration's competence.

Scare tactics and wedge issues are what they know and do best after all.

But anyway, that's all to come. In the meantime, have a nice vacation!

9:49 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

Thanks panopticonman.

I think the real key is whether Democrats can learn to marginalize the attack ads of Republicans. Something like, "Yeah, we've all heard that before. The current crop of Republicans who came to Washington under Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay are trying to tell you that the Democrats are no better. But think for a moment: who's calling for investigations? The Democrats. Who's doing their best to avoid investigations? The Republicans." All this stuff has to be tested on focus groups I suppose since most Democrats are interested in real issue rather than manipulative word games like the ones Karl Rove likes to play. We'll see if the Democrats get it together; people still don't understand how much more money the Republicans are spending on campaigning than Democrats; Republicans have cultivated the economic elite of this country for decades (or perhaps it's vice versa).

10:03 PM  
Anonymous i.m.small said...


I am so tired of "character,"
Some said Clinton´s was "bad"
As though a special insight they
Possessed surpassing God--

I thought he was perhaps a man
Most good, if fallible
To human foibles--but who knows,
My peers know souls so well:

Better than even God, let me
Reiterate (again),
As they may see in Putin´s soul
And see a heartfelt man;

Or they might find in Ariel
Sharon a "man of peace,"
Beyond the evidence upon
The table, friendly, nice.

Benefit of the doubt it seems
To any but our own
Is due; not for competing party
members, when it is known

So clearly how the soul is darkened,
"Issues of character"
Without corroborating deeds
To mark it, as it were.

8:24 AM  

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