The Election of 1864

Advantage: Commander-in-chief.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The standing ovation for the chairman of the interim Iraqi Governing Council, the systematic refutation of all the tired canards — “unilateralism,” “preemption,” and “hubris” — praise and admiration for Afghans, the peroration about the historic times we are in and the promise to press on, all this was Trumanesque, delivered in Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address with spirit and without apology. Even Mr. Bush’s sterner maxims — “They declared war on the United States — and war is what they got” — were more majestic than haughty. No apologies, no going back, no regrets, no boasting.

In reaction, the tortured expressions of a Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton were testament to the strength of his message, and the accompanying fear that the president’s words could only have a powerful effect in reminding Americans that they should be proud of their sacrifice and idealism as they see the war and its aftermath through. All this was a sad contrast to this week’s senseless furor of Howard Dean, the weird convolutions of Wesley Clark, and the empty platitudes of John Kerry. We are learning that this bunch appears either frantic or puerile precisely because they still don’t grasp that by any historical standard the American military’s record in Afghanistan and Iraq has been phenomenal, and the Sisyphean task of implanting democracy amid autocracy the moral act of our age. All this Mr. Bush articulated more than well — and rightly so for without him it would all in fact have been impossible.

Unfortunately, the last half of the speech did not match the power of the stirring beginning. The details of American pathologies — from sexually transmitted diseases to the abuse of steroids by athletes — were better left for other occasions. And some of us are very worried about elements of the president’s domestic agenda — for example his proposed guest-worker program that by applying a veneer of legality to a vast web of illegality will only make things worse until we deal honestly and systematically with the moral, ethical, and political dimensions of illegal immigration that transcend labor and economics. In addition, tax-cut extensions, war, needed military investment, Middle East reconstruction, space exploration, domestic security, and prescription-drug entitlements do not add up, but result in rates of deficit spending that are unsustainable.

Yet the president realizes that his singular leadership in this deadly struggle is such that unease elsewhere with his budget and immigration initiatives must remain for most of us just that — unease. Where the president is great the opposition is pathetic; and where he is on weak ground, they are still weaker — as evidenced by the collective ankle biting of Dean, Clark, and Kerry and the responses of Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle.

After this startling week of contrasts, the election of 2004 is sizing up to be as pivotal to the security and future safety of the United States as that of 1864; and if things stay as they are, most Americans — and rightly so — will vote now for their incumbent commander-in-chief as they once did then.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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