Thomas Hobbes famously said that man in the “state of nature” faced a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It was the state, Hobbes thought, that beneficently intervened in that dour free-for-all and made civilized life possible.
Hobbes was probably right about that, but what would he have thought of the arrangements adopted by most affluent Western countries, in which the state has grown and grown, tumor-like, grinding down the initiative and independence of everything and everybody but its own encroaching bureaucracy?
I think I know. And I think I know what that canny philosopher would have thought of Bill Clinton’s long and mendacious speech at the DNC last night. “Nasty, brutish, and long,” is my guess.
I hesitated before using the word “mendacious.” I snorted with contempt when the Left greeted Paul Ryan’s speech with the charge that it was full of “lies” (or, as someone at Salon put it, “brazen lies.”) As I and many others have pointed out, a look at the “factcheckers” of Ryan’s speech not only showed that he hadn’t lied, but that he wasn’t even mistaken (which would have been a more charitable, if less Democratic way, of putting it): The $716 billion Obamacare pilfers from Medicare, the plant closing in Janesville — all that happened just the way Ryan said it did.
Bill Clinton’s speech was mendacious in a different way from the way Ryan’s speech was supposed to be (but wasn’t). It wasn’t wrong about this or that; it turned the world upside down. “He misses not much,” says Antonio, in The Tempest. “No,” says Sebastian, “he doth but mistake the truth totally.”
I know just how Sebastian felt. Bill Clinton is a consummate politician. One of his greatest virtues (as a politician, not as a man) is his utter lack of principle. As a human being, he is little more than an appetite on legs. But as a political creature, his instinct for self-preservation, combined with that lack of principle, made him stunningly effective. It’s pretty clear that Clinton’s opinions and sentiments are send-issue Left-liberal. But his thirst for political success made him eminently pragmatic; witness (to take just one example) his easy accommodation with Republican legislation on welfare reform. Clinton would doubtless have preferred to keep intact the Democrat-style big-government, keep-the-peasants-in-thrall-forever type of welfare program that had been bequeathed to the nation by LBJ. But Clinton could add as well as the Republcans could, and he recognized an economic trainwreck in the offing as clearly as anyone. He probably also understood the moral argument against welfare, outlined by folks like Charles Murray, i.e., that whatever its intentions it had turned out to be a program that did not abolish poverty but institutionalized it, with all the attendant pathologies that institutionalization entailed.
But that Bill Clinton — Bill Clinton the pragmatist, the man who let reality trump ideology — was nowhere to be seen last night. Instead, we had Clinton the party hack, according to whom Republicans were blue meanies out to hurt kids, seniors, the poor, anyone without a paid-up membership to an exclusive country club. President Obama, on the other hand, was the Messiah — the chap who inherited a mess (all of which was the fault of the Republicans) and who, besides singlehandedly throttling Osama bin Laden, had put the country back on the path to prosperity.
He said it with a straight face, too.
Do you remember the game “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” You could play a similar game with Clinton’s speech. It would be one of those never-ending games parents like when traveling to a remote ski area with seven youngsters in the back of the car. But I can nutshell it for you by mentioning the major reefs upon which the whole rhetorical edifice shipwrecks.
One: Republicans, in the form of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, are no blue meanies. Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at their personal lives, their conspicuous decency as human beings, their generosity to others and charitable giving. The effort to demonize these men would be laughable were it not so mean-spirited and misguided.
The second reef is Obama’s record. Clinton did a lot of heavy lifting to obscure, camouflage, evade, distract, paper-over, and otherwise minimize that hazard. But the facts are obdurate. Median household income has plunged nearly 5% since he took office. In a symbolically fitting occurrence, the national debt clock (which was not displayed on the wall of the DNC as it was in Tampa) clicked over to $16 trillion just as the Democrats were convening. President Obama has contributed more than $5 trillion of that in under four years. He came to office promising to cut the annual deficit in half by the end of this first term: it languishes at about $1.4 trillion. Give me $800 billion, he said, and I’ll have unemployment down to 5.6% by July 2012. The official number is 8.3% and so-called ”U6” unemployment is about 15%. Food prices have soared on his watch. As, of course, have energy prices: remember when he came to office attacking the coal industry and promising to make the cost of energy “skyrocket”? It has: gasoline cost an average of $1.85 a gallon when he came to office; it is flirting with $4.00 a gallon now.
And this leaves out of account the emotional weather promulgated by the Obama administration. He came to office promising a “post-partisan,” “post-racial” administration, but has their ever been a more rancorous, more divisive atmosphere in Washington? “Oh, that’s the fault of the blue meanie Republicans,” say the administration spokesmen, official and otherwise, but does anyone believe them?
Bill Clinton was the biggest of the Democrats’ big guns. If this is the best they can do (stayed tuned for BO’s oration tonight), then I stick by my prediction: the Democrats are not simply going to lose in November, it will be a rout of historic proportions.