WINDS OF CHANGE: Politics After Sept. 11

Thursday, July 18, 2002

The war on terrorism has created unique ideological challenges for both ends of the American political spectrum. Does the left, long opposed to the exercise of U.S. military power, risk irrelevance by opposing the war on terror? How does the libertarian wing of the right, long opposed to big government, respond to its expanding role in protecting our security? How has President Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism affected his chances for reelection in 2004?

Recorded on Thursday, July 18, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: libertarians on the Right and old-fashioned doves on the Left--both casualties of the war on terror?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M.Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: politics since September 11th. Ever since the terrorist attack, the war on terrorism has so dominated our national life, that it's bound to have some effect on our national politics. President Bush saw his approval rating soar after the attack and they've remained high ever since. What does that mean for the Republicans who support him and the Democrats who oppose him? What does it mean for his own prospects for re-election in 2004? Then there's the question of the Left and the Right. The American Left instinctively dislikes seeing the United States use its power abroad. By opposing the war on terrorism, will the Left make itself irrelevant? On the Right, libertarians are suspicious of the growth of government here at home. How will they respond to the expanding role of government in providing us with security? Joining us, three guests, Nelson Polsby is professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist and author and Newt Gingrich is the former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Title: Politics As Usual?

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, The Economist Magazine: "September 11th reminded Americans that contrary to academic orthodoxy on the primacy of race, gender, sexuality and the rest of it, the bonds that unite Americans are stronger than the differences that divide them. But in terms of partisan politics, September 11th left America where it was on September 10th: deadlocked." Can it be that the events of September 11th have truly had no effect on American politics?

Nelson Polsby: I think I agree with The Economist. What they were referring to in the first half of the quote is something that occurs whenever there's a challenge attributable to foreign stimulus of some sort, namely a rally around the flag. Virtually all democratic nations get them. Britain had one for the Falklands War, for example. And we got a rally around the flag, which the second part of the quote was, is not necessarily going to disturb some of the fundamental ways in which we organize ourselves politically. And that's true, too.

Newt Gingrich: I think it partly depends on what happens to Bush's popularity over the next couple of years. The way in which he responded to September 11th, the degree in which he emerged as the national leader and people rallied to him, has given him the longest stretch of very high support of any President that I know of and far more than Roosevelt got out of the December 7th and far more than his Dad got out of Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Do you want to hear the numbers?

Newt Gingrich: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Before September 11th, job approval rating for George W. Bush, 51%. After September 11th his ratings soar as high as 90% and for months it remains in the 70s and 80s. As we shoot this show, it's dipped down into the high 60s, but for months it remained in the 70s and 80s.

Newt Gingrich: And the question is whether or not part of what that does for younger Americans is begin to create a relationship with Bush and with the Bush team. The relative approval of Powell, which is even higher than Bush and the approval of Rumsfeld, which has to be the highest in history for a Secretary of Defense. If that continues to happen, you then begin to get a much broader, younger Republican Party over time and that would have an effect, just as FDR in the Thirties.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Newt Gingrich: Really changed the nature of the Democratic Party and the nature of American politics in ways that weren't predictive in 1932.

Christopher Hitchens: What The Economistsays is true almost by definition. I think because the September 11th events were real events. Most people think of politics as a series of rather pseudo-events. This is a real one and it's both a domestic and a foreign policy event, a very highly concentrated one.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: So the effect it has in that respect isn't to be wondered at, at all. But that it would leave the rest of politics somewhat untouched, of allegiance untouched, is also not all that surprising because there wasn't much division of opinion about September the 11th. And most people's reaction was the same as that of the President or if you like his reaction was the same as that of most people. So, it's not to be wondered at that the pre-existing differences on say something like healthcare aren't much affected. Why would they be? But you're not making the distinction, it seems to me, between an approval rating, a rather fatuous measurement that's taken every now and then of how people feel about the chief executive and voting intention. As far as I know these are not at all perfectly correlated.

Nelson Polsby: Oh, I agree.

Christopher Hitchens: I must say I'm rather somewhat of Mr. Gingrich's mind here. I mean, as someone who's quarreled with some left and liberal friends about interpretations of the war--

Peter Robinson: I want to come to that quarrel next.

Christopher Hitchens: I'll reserve it for that, but not this bit.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Christopher Hitchens: I'm rather surprised by the way in which people still go on about how the Florida election was stolen, how black voters were disenfranchised in Florida and so on. Really putting that very high on their grievance list still, particularly pegging it to Mr. Bush and not regarding him as a legitimate President at all, 9/11 or no 9/11. The extent to which you come across that around the country is remarkable to me.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens has introduced our next topic, the effect of 9/11 on the left.

Title: Manufacturing Dissent

Peter Robinson: Michael Walzer wrote a much commented-on piece in Dissent Magazine. He argued that the war in Afghanistan, I'll quote him now, "represented a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism. It was suddenly clear that the Taliban regime had been the biggest obstacle to any serious effort to address the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and it was the American war that removed that obstacle. It looked almost like a war of liberation. The Left needs to begin again." Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well I think that's understating it, actually. There were not just people on the left who didn't believe that. The self-evident fact, that it was the liberation of Afghanistan as well as the proper punishment of Al Qaeda and the Taliban policies. It wasn't that they didn't believe that, they thought it was an Imperialist intervention.

Peter Robinson: On our part.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Professor Noam Chomsky said it was a silent genocide. Disciplining the Afghans by being willing to see a couple of million of them die purposely. Have hunger inflicted on them to the point of death. Those who when 9/11 came up could only translate it in terms of Nicaragua or Vietnam or some past crime or misdemeanor of American foreign policy.

Peter Robinson: And the effects of 9/11…

Christopher Hitchens: Whereas, as Karl Marx so well put it in the opening of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, it's a bad sign when people attempting to learn a new language keep on translating it back into the one they already know.

Peter Robinson: So the Left has been marginalized by the events?

Nelson Polsby: Yeah, in respect to these events, sure.

Newt Gingrich: But I think you have to distinguish what you mean by "the Left." I mean to the degree that the Left is operational politically and people like Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, they are not only not marginalized, they could make a good case...

Nelson Polsby: Well, they're not the Left by this standard…

Newt Gingrich: Yeah, but frankly…

Peter Robinson: I mean, the interesting question is to what extent the far Left, the pure ideologues, the Noam Chomskys, have any effect, their thought trickles down to the practitioners on the left of the Democratic Party say. But go ahead.

Nelson Polsby: Well, do they? Well, does it?

Newt Gingrich: I don't think it does.

Peter Robinson: No importance in any event.

Nelson Polsby: Have Chomsky on the show, Peter. Let him edify you in person.

Newt Gingrich: No, I mean look, I think there's a nutty Left and a nutty Right. And because we're politically correct and all that stuff we don't say it that way. But the truth is, if you have any kind of common sense, there's a zone out here of isolationism, xenophobia on the Right and there's a zone out here of loathing America on the Left. They're both nuts. And that's probably why--you dismiss them, now lets talk about what matters. The practical Left was in one way strengthened by September 11th for two reasons. It gave it a war it could be totally for. So the practical Left could stand next to the President, waving an American flag. And in a sense it inoculated them against a whole range of attacks you would have had during the Cold War. And it's no accident that President Bush hugged Daschle immediately, Senate Majority Leader Daschle immediately after the big speech even though it might be a hug he regrets now. On the other hand…

Peter Robinson: It inoculated them against what line of attacks?

Newt Gingrich: Against the line of attack that they weren't strong in defense that they weren't…

Nelson Polsby: Unpatriotic.

Peter Robinson: The McGovern carry over.

Nelson Polsby: Unpatriotic.

Christopher Hitchens: It also gratified what must have been their gigantic sense of relief that it wasn't the Democrats in power when it happened.

Newt Gingrich: That's exactly right.

Christopher Hitchens: Can you imagine what that would have been like?

Nelson Polsby: I live, after all, in Berkeley, California.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Nelson Polsby: We have a two party system locally, both Democrats, one sane and one insane. And you've been asking us basically about the insane ones.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask a practical, political question. Is liberalism itself threatened by the very multiculturalism it advocates?

Title: Prepare To Be Assimilated

Peter Robinson: Listen to Melanie Phillips: "The question the multiculturists have to answer is this, are we a Western culture or are we to become something else? If the latter, who's making the decision to wipe out our national identity, because if we take in enough people who refuse to assimilate to Western values, this belief system will not survive. Liberalism," this is quite sweet, "liberalism will have disappeared up its own fundament."

Nelson Polsby: This is, this is... Newt's the historian. Remind you of the 1920s?

Newt Gingrich: Sure. Remind you of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s?

Nelson Polsby: Yeah.

Newt Gingrich: There's a long American tradition of saying, "Now that my relatives are here, can we close the door?

Peter Robinson: Sure.

Newt Gingrich: But I think there's a different thing, which Christopher has really put quite well…

Peter Robinson: All right.

Newt Gingrich: And that is, there is a desire by the Wahabi sect and to a lesser extent by the Ayatollahs, to impose a violent, dictatorial system based on a reactionary Islam. This is where the Taliban was a model of the future. I think what September 11th did in part is it drew a new distinction. That is our multi-ethnic base and our willingness to have wide ranges of belief within our system is predicated on the rule of law and a procedural fairness.

Nelson Polsby: That's right.

Newt Gingrich: And that we now have to face up to crushing once again for the third time, fourth if you want to count the First World War, certainly for the third time in the last century, crushing an opponent who is essentially fanatic, violent and prepared to kill people to get their way. Now in that sense, there will be a re-organization around most of the world between those who say "yeah, I'm happy if you're Muslim or if you're Christian or if you're Jewish or if you're Hindu or if you're non-believer, as long as you don't try to impose by violence what you're doing." And I think there'll be a substantial re-organization around that principle.

Peter Robinson: Let the record show that Nelson Polsby of Berkeley nodded his head throughout that brief disposition by former Republican Speaker Gingrich. You buy all of that?

Nelson Polsby: Pretty much, yeah.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Christopher.

Christopher Hitchens. You didn't quite go to your question about immigration.

Peter Robinson: Yes, all right.

Christopher Hitchens: Melanie Phillips, I thought rather a hysterical take on it. Well, most of the immigration to the United States is not from the countries that I know Melanie Phillips worries about mostly. She's worried that too many Muslims are immigrating to Western Europe.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: That's essentially not the American worry.

Newt Gingrich: We have increasingly in the last thirty years said that rights belong to everyone. Okay. If you believe that, and I frankly was talking about the Taliban three years ago, if you believe that, you can't really tolerate a Saudi society that clearly represses women, a Taliban society that clearly represses women. And then you do get into a collision because if a young girl is born into a Muslim family in France or in the United States, does she have the legal rights of an American citizen or does she only have the rights her father gives her? You may remember there was a case in St. Louis where she was beaten, a young girl was beaten to death by her father because she disobeyed him. And he was quite stunned to realize that we thought that was inappropriate reaction on his part. And in fact, it was a capital crime. So I do think in that sense, Muslims who are willing to exist within a tolerant society of procedural fairness in the rule of law are not a threat. Any group which is prepared to violate that contract by imposing its beliefs, including imposing them on its members, as opposed to having voluntary submission, I think is a real problem.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Nelson Polsby: The U.S. society has quite a good track record of assimilating immigrants and I believe that's going to prevail.

Peter Robinson: Onto the effect of September 11th on the Right.

Title: The Era of Small Government Is Over?

Peter Robinson: Francis Fukuyama, "September 11th was a reminder to Americans of why government exists." Note this well, Speaker Gingrich. "And why it has to tax citizens and spend money to promote collective interests." The great free market revolution that began with the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at the close of the 1970s has finally reached its point of reversal." Newt?

Newt Gingrich: First of all, Fukuyama is the perfect example of the ability of people to have amnesia. Having written a book that said we're at the end of history because there's no competition for the West, he has now rendered another grand and totally stupid judgment. Okay, I can't say it too strongly, because again it's nonsense. Every conservative--Ronald Reagan was for a strong defense. Ronald Reagan was for a strong government when needed. Margaret Thatcher was for a government strong enough to defeat the Coal Miners Union, which was a very strong union…

Peter Robinson: And to recapture the Falklands.

Newt Gingrich: I am a constitutionalist. I want a sound dollar, a strong but limited government, an effective central authority. We fought a civil war over this and so when people come in and say "Oh my God, you're for lower taxes, don't you know we need government?" That's not what they mean. The weakest government I've helped create when we balanced the budget, was a trillion seven hundred billion dollars a year. Now I used to say to people, "this is not tiny, I mean a trillion seven hundred billion is a big government."

Peter Robinson: Practical politics. President Bush has increased spending on the military dramatically. Biggest year to year increase since Ronald Reagan, but he's also increased spending on education, hugely, signed a farm subsidy bill, huge increase in farm subsidies. So, he's increased the role of government…

Christopher Hitchens: Steel tariffs.

Peter Robinson: Steel tariffs. He's increased the role of government in security, federalizing airport security, but also in the economy. Steel tariffs, lumber tariffs. Now giving speeches arguing for increased oversight and regulation of corporations and so forth. So the question is, is George W. Bush a new fangled, big government conservative or just an old-fashioned limited government Ronald Reagan - Newt Gingrich conservative who's in a tight spot, because the Democrats are opposing his every move in Congress and has to make these kinds of compromises?

Christopher Hitchens: Is Bush improvising his politics as he goes along? I would say 'yes.' I don't think he's ever given any evidence of having any very strong libertarian convictions before, though, nothing to betray.

Peter Robinson: He's not a Ronald Reagan. He's not a Newt Gingrich. He doesn't mind spending a little more here and there.

Newt Gingrich: But I think that's too…

Peter Robinson: The problem is that his statements on this stuff tend to be definitive. Nelson sits there and nods. Go ahead Newt.

Newt Gingrich: Well, I just think that's a complete misnomer of how Bush operates. Bush is both simultaneously. Bush is tactically an accomodationist and he tries to cut deals. In that sense, FDR would be proud of him. He is strategically like FDR and Reagan. Remember this is the guy who last year got a trillion three hundred billion dollar tax cut through. This is a guy who believes in a personal social security savings account.

Peter Robinson: The first look of displeasure to cross Professor Polsby's face.

Newt Gingrich: Okay, but he believes in a …

Nelson Polsby: But you've got to pay for these things that he wants to subsidize.

Newt Gingrich: Right. This is a guy who wants a trillion, who wants a personal social security savings account, which I suspect has to wait until the markets go back up. But if you look at his larger statements of where he's going, he's actually moving towards much more of a Reagan - FDR kind of polarization. If you look at his daily behavior, he's more FDR than Reagan. That is, he maneuvers every day, there's enormous complexity, you can find 17 places in which he contradicts himself, but he is consistently nudging the system in his direction. I mean they are debating homeland security agency now in many ways, on his terms. They are debating a bigger defense budget, on his terms.

Peter Robinson: Fair statement, Professor?

Nelson Polsby: The homeland security thing is a bit of a red herring in my opinion. It simply means that everybody in Washington thinks there's a crisis. A crisis is defined as an occasion where everybody thinks something must be done. So, they're rearranging the boxes. Heedless, I may say, of transaction costs.

Christopher Hitchens: There was another an earlier dispute over homeland security, which would illuminate the Left-Right matter in a different way. Namely, the odd coalition that was formed in Washington to oppose at least some clauses of the so-called Patriot Act. As touching habeas corpus for example or undue electronic surveillance where you had…

Peter Robinson: I'll fill you in.

Christopher Hitchens: ACLU types plus Congressman Barr and Grover Norquist.

Peter Robinson: So, what should we make of the Left and the Right finding common cause over concerns about civil liberties?

Title: Fight the Power

Peter Robinson: So, Ashcroft proposes new police powers that include the authority to obtain private information about individuals, eavesdrop on conversations, monitor computer use, detain suspects without probable cause and all of those with diminished judicial oversight. And your pal Gore Vidal says, I quote, said on this program about three weeks ago; "due process doesn't seem to make much sense at all when you read Ashcroft's latest ukases to the American people." You have Gore Vidal making common cause with Grover Norquist. All right.

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, and Bob Barr…

Nelson Polsby: A pox on both of them!

Christopher Hitchens: That's happened a few times…

Peter Robinson: But that's a temporary alignment that doesn't portend anything permanent?

Christopher Hitchens: It will actually be on things like the war on drugs and alliances like that as well in the past between Left and Right libertarians, saying that this is much too an over mighty use of state power.

Peter Robinson: And does that mean anything or is it a fringe…

Nelson Polsby: No, I dare say…

Christopher Hitchens: The draft was the last time I think that there was such a…

Nelson Polsby: I dare say people closer to the middle will agree that Ashcroft probably shouldn't have those powers.

Peter Robinson: Should not have those powers?

Nelson Polsby: That's right.

Newt Gingrich: Well in fact they were weakened substantially through the administrations request.

Peter Robinson: And you're happy they were?

Newt Gingrich: Yes, I mean I think the state is always dangerous. You have to organize it to protect yourself but then you have to protect yourself from that which you've organized. And I think in that sense that there's sound reasons to be skeptical about giving the state too much power.

Peter Robinson: All right, I cannot conclude this program without finding at least one point of disagreement between Nelson Polsby and Newt Gingrich. This all astonishes me. In fact, if I don't find it I'm going to give the job to you and let you ask the last question.

Christopher Hitchens: Since we did take the opportunity to whale on some of the people on the Left who made fatuous remarks morally and politically, I think if we're talking about the Right we shouldn't exempt Messrs. Robertson and Falwell and the others who said that the disaster of the calamity of the crime of the 11th of September was a judgment on American secularism and godlessness…

Peter Robinson: Evangelical preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell…

Christopher Hitchens: I would have liked the President to say in round terms that that would not do. These guys are back on the Republican circuit now and often invited to represent the conservative point of view on chat shows.

Peter Robinson: Should the President himself have slapped them down?

Christopher Hitchens: Ostracism has not descended upon them.

Newt Gingrich: Oh, I think its reasonable for people to reject the idea that this was somehow punishment for our sins as a society and I have to say that I don't know that there are any Republicans who try to get them on the talk show circuit representing the conservative view point. I think there are talk shows that like to get them on the talk show circuit.

Peter Robinson: Last question. What will it take to break this political deadlock between the two parties?

Title: Fit To Be Tied

Peter Robinson: For years now, as we know, politics in the United States have been, in effect, tied. 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore both win 48% of the presidential vote. To find any difference at all you have to carry it out to a couple of decimal points and there are disagreements about that. And we've had three straight presidential elections and three straight house elections in which neither party has won more than 50% of the vote. The first time that pattern has asserted itself since the 1880s. In either the elections this November, mid-term elections or the presidential elections in 2004, are we going to see some way out of this tie and will it have anything to do with September 11th?

Nelson Polsby: I think the answer is probably not.

Peter Robinson: Can I ask why for the first time since the 1880s the country is tied like this?

Nelson Polsby: Well, that's where people's sentiments are. It's a free country. I don't see anything wrong with it.

Christopher Hitchens: I think they do it on purpose to prevent any one party from becoming too big for its boots.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you can't…

Newt Gingrich: No, No, I think we're generally divided. I think if you look at the maps and you look at the patterns. People aren't voting tactically to get to stalemate. We have drifted into a period and I think it is very much like the 1880s and 1890s. I think it's a period of the massive…

Peter Robinson: All right.

Nelson Polsby: Very creative periods by the way.

Newt Gingrich: Yeah.

Nelson Polsby: Particularly the Nineties.

Newt Gingrich: And periods of massive technological change, huge economic change in which neither party had a good solution and people intuitively understood that. And I think people don't today see a set of answers that draw them and to come across. Either come across in a sense of going from not voting to voting, which was the great message of FDR or actually changing the side they're on, which is what happened in a large part in the 1890s.

Nelson Polsby: Much harder to do.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you a more…

Nelson Polsby: You have to wait for new people…

Christopher Hitchens: The non-voters are heard from a lot though you have to admit these days.

Newt Gingrich: No actually voting patterns keep declining. I mean half the country isn't engaged…

Nelson Polsby: Supposedly age eligible.

Newt Gingrich: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you a little, slightly different question. Two thousand election takes place and the New York Times publishes that now famous map county-by-county results. We have the red America heartland, which votes for Bush and the blue America, largely the coasts that votes for Al Gore. The coast is attacked. New York City is attacked on September 11th.

Nelson Polsby: It's a ridiculous map.

Peter Robinson: Why is that ridiculous, Nelson?

Nelson Polsby: Well, because the great local hero of the attack was a guy who wouldn't show up on the map, namely the Republican mayor.

Peter Robinson: Rudy Giuliani.

Nelson Polsby: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so let me ask you this, just a limited question about the effects of September 11th. Does Bush have any hope of carrying New York in 2004?

Christopher Hitchens: Not a prayer.

Peter Robinson: Not a prayer.

Nelson Polsby: I wouldn't bet on it, no.

Peter Robinson: Makes no difference.

Newt Gingrich: It makes a big difference. The odds right now, you'd have to say, are better than even that Bush will win a significant victory in 2004 in terms of his own re-election. That he will probably be somewhere in the 54 to 58 percent range.

Nelson Polsby: And he might not carry Congress. Just the way that Eisenhower did in 1956.

Newt Gingrich: That's right.

Peter Robinson: So the political effect is George Bush looks like a winner in 2004.

Nelson Polsby: No, you can't tell yet.

Newt Gingrich: Yeah. It's much too early.

Peter Robinson: What? You just said!

Newt Gingrich: No, I said…

Christopher Hitchens: We all get around a bit, do we not, here and there?

Peter Robinson: Yes, of course.

Christopher Hitchens: Have you met anyone who was a Democrat and says I'm now going to vote for Bush no matter what? I don't think you will have done. I certainly have not. I've never heard of any such person. I don't expect to run into any such person.

Newt Gingrich: But there are huge pools of voters who don't fit that description. There are people who casually voted for Gore who don't think of themselves as hardcore Democrats. There are young people haven't voted at all yet. There are people who didn't vote in the last election.

Peter Robinson: Last question, and your answers have to be brief. Give me a sentence, just one sentence on the practical political effects of September 11th if any, the "if any" is for you Nelson. Give me a sentence.

Nelson Polsby: Well, we rally around the flag. The question is, how fast does it decay? We don't know how fast it will decay and that's, of course, what makes all this imponderable.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, we have to hope the war is not the health of the state. A proper war on a matter of principle could contribute to the health of democracy.

Peter Robinson: Newt?

Newt Gingrich: We have to, we will be a far more foreign policy and globally engaged country than we would have imagined on September 10th and the complexities and challenges of managing that will take up far more of Washington's time than anyone could of imagined prior to September 10th.

Peter Robinson: Newt Gingrich, Nelson Polsby, Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.