In a recent piece accusing George Bush of associating with “far-right Christian political leaders,” the Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt asked his readers to imagine Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, meeting with a “motley left-wing contingent” including “radical civil-rights groups or civil-liberties types,” and then refusing to reveal what he told them. There would be an outcry, Hunt says. Yet, he argues, Bush did essentially the same thing when he met with “religious-right leaders” in San Antonio last October. “Just reverse the extremes,” Hunt says, and you’ll see that Bush is getting away with something.
The structure of Hunt’s argument is familiar and will probably be more familiar before the campaign season ends. It’s based on an implicit model of American politics, a variation of the old Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “vital center” notion, with its accompanying attack on “ideologues of left and right”–or “ILARs” as the Washington Post’s Jefferson Morley dubbed them in a memorable 1984 New Republic article. Like Schlesinger, Hunt portrays the center as intrinsically good, while today’s ILAR-equivalents–“extremists of left and right”–are intrinsically bad. Just associating with them raises doubts; actually forming political alliances with them is a definite no-no.
Hunt’s particular variation on the ILAR-bashing theme might be called the Symmetry Game. In the Symmetry Game, a pundit or campaign apparatchik charges that Candidate X has done something intimate with his side’s “extremes” that Candidate Y has refrained from doing with his side’s extremes. Thus, Hunt says that while President Clinton was known for his ability to “convince diverse elements he was on their side, his coalitions didn’t include comparable radicals on the left. Mr. Bush’s does,” since his backers include Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, et al. Bush has committed the sin of asymmetry; he has allied with Extremists of the Right while his main opponent has avoided alliances with Extremists of the Left. (“Just reverse the extremes.”)
There are several things to note about the Symmetry Game. First is the spuriousness of condemning extremes simply because they are extreme. What’s so terrible about “radical … civil-liberties types,” anyway? Is the middle always better? (It’s an “extreme right” position to argue that Roe vs. Wade was wrong to find abortion rights in the Constitution–it’s also, I think, the correct position. It’s an “extreme left” position to claim the government should be employer of last resort. Ditto.) It’s even more specious to assume that the two extremes are, by some strange Newtonian law, symmetrically troublesome.
In the end, Hunt doesn’t even really buy his own argument. Because, as he has to admit, Al Gore has met with an “extreme” figure on the left: Gore met privately with the Rev. Al Sharpton, whom Hunt describes as “a New York African-American given to demagoguery and anti-Semitic outbursts.” And Gore somehow failed to publish a transcript of his Sharpton chat –perhaps for reasons similar to Bush’s reasons for not disclosing what he said to “far-right Christian political leaders.”
Ah, but the left is different, Hunt argues. “The difference is that the right-wing camp has more political clout.” So it’s not symmetrical after all! We can’t just “reverse the extremes.” But if it’s not symmetrical, then maybe Bush’s departures from symmetry can be excused. If, for example, one difference between the “extreme left” and the “extreme right” is that the extreme left is tiny while the “religious right” makes up a large chunk of the American electorate–i.e., it “has more political clout”–then maybe that helps to explain why Bush has tried to include the “right-wing camp” in his coalition, while Clinton was able to ignore those nasty “radicals on the left.” (Note also that this asymmetry makes the ILAR game a good bargain for Democrats: By evenhandedly condemning both “extremes” they tarnish a large bloc of right-wing Republicans while sacrificing a far smaller group of radical-left types.)
Maybe there should be some ground rules for Hunt-style attempts to discredit a candidate by associating him or her with “extremes.” One place to start might be an informal ban on the Symmetry Game (“your guy did something with his extremists that my guy didn’t do with his extremists”). Under this rule, it will still be perfectly fair to ask whether Bush has secretly promised Pat Robertson–or anyone else–something undesirable. But the argument hinges entirely on how undesirable the something is, and whether there’s any reason to think it was actually promised. (Hunt flatly says Bush “is assuring the religious right he’ll be with them on … Supreme Court appointments, abortion, or gay rights,” but he offers no evidence of such assurances.) The weight of the accusation depends on the substance of the promise, not on whether it’s made to “extremists”–I can think of some scary promises Gore might make to utterly respectable unions and lobbyists–or whether it violates a seemingly neutral, but bogus, principle of symmetrical anti-ILARism.
Let the sins of every far-right preacher and far-left activist be judged individually. Extremists are people too!
The Thyroid Thing: On Hardball, on June 27, Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and defender of all Bushes, was asked by Chris Matthews why President Bush lost “touch” with the country toward the end of his term. Noonan’s answer, in relevant part:
NOONAN: He was a person who I always think was more affected by physical illness, by the–what was the sickness he had? The…
MATTHEWS: Fibrillation. Auto–articular fibrillation or whatever.
NOONAN: Yeah, not just the heart thing … but the–the thyroid thing also. … I think that left him tired and a little detached. That’s what I always think was part of the story in ‘92.
Isn’t it news that Peggy Noonan thinks Bush’s performance as president was degraded by his thyroid problem? When a Bush biographer comes to the same conclusion, it will be.