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The Left's Postwar Blues

Smiley Face, Happy, Baloon
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Optimism sells in American politics. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says it's commodity in short supply on the Left.

It's morning in America. Sort of.

The terror alert is back to a warm yellow. The endless winter is over and so is the war.

But the sun isn't shining on the Left side of America.

For opponents of the war, times are hard.

Even anti-ideological wafflers who could never decide whether they were for or against the war (that would be me) have to fight an unattractive impulse to keep looking for a vindicating black lining to this apparent silver cloud.
Thankfully, none of worst nightmares that could have come from what is for now seen as the liberation of Iraq materialized.

American troops were not gassed. Their casualties were light. Civilian casualties, always unforgivable to some, seem to be less than most forecast. There wasn't sustained door-to-door street fighting in Baghdad. The Arab street has not erupted in an epic anti-American riot. International alliances and institutions do not appear to be irreparably scarred. The Turks are not at war against the Kurds, North Korea hasn't invaded anyone and al Qaeda hasn't struck again.

With most of the shooting over, the "doom and gloom crowd" (to swipe a phrase from Bush the Elder) is still looking down dark alleys.

The big new worry: U.S. soldiers are going left from Iraq into Syria or right into Iran. Or worse, the imperialist American war machine is going to conquer the whole region – and then the world.

"There is no confusion about how the Bush administration and its neocon pals see the Iraq war: this is just the beginning, wrote David Corn in the Nation magazine. "It's on to Damascus or wherever the crusade leads. At the end of this war, hubris has not been beaten into humility. It reigns and grows fat on the sweet nourishment of victory."

In the last days of the combat, David Moberg writing in the very progressive In These Times magazine, took the pessimistic cake: "No matter how the war eventually ends, the long-term consequences are likely to be damaging... But the fallout looks bad for both the world as a whole and the majority of people in the United States."

Democrats and The New York Times editorial page are worrying that President Bush will use his war popularity to invade the American economy with tax cuts. "With the blitz-like speed of his generals, President Bush has come out fighting for his disastrous plan for more upper-bracket tax cuts, which will only stoke the nation's record levels of deficit spending and deepening debt well beyond his incumbency."

Infuriatingly, no one has captured the scolding negativity of this moment in the liberal zeitgeist than it's most shrill and relentless nemesis, the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal.

An editorial called "Pessimistic Liberalism" skewered the liberal elite – or at least a good caricature of it: "The puzzle is why some Americans, especially media and liberal elites, continue to wallow in pessimism about this liberation."

"Two weeks ago these elites were predicting a long war with horrific casualties and global damage. Then at the sight of Iraqis cheering U.S. troops in Baghdad, they quickly moved on to fret about 'looting' and 'anarchy.' Now that those are subsiding, our pessimists have rushed to worry that Iraqi democracy and reconstruction will be all but impossible. What is it that liberals find so dismaying about the prospect of American success?"

OK, that's gloating that trivializes legitimate issues. Many Democrats supported the war.

But this sharp pen does have an honest point that liberals or leftists or progressives – whatever term you prefer – should ponder: "America's liberals weren't always so dour about their country's purposes. As recently as the 1960s, their favorite son (JFK) offered to 'bear any burden' to extend the promise of freedom."

It's sloppy to lump Democrats, liberals, lefties, progressives and foes of the Christian right together, admittedly. But I do think it's a problem when you a great swath of the political map essentially rooting for bad outcomes. Democrats are hoping the economy doesn't improve before the 2004 elections. They hope the tax cuts they helped pass two years ago fail.

Painted broadly, the temperament of left is pessimistic and the right is optimistic.

There's deep tradition for this. Al Gore didn't try to ride a wave of economic good times into the White House; he tried to exploit a class resentment that someone told him was lurking outside the Beltway. He was drawing from the lineage of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Humphrey and even Clinton worked from the other lobe of Democratic brain.

George Bush, of course, has optimism and assurance inherited from Reagan and Eisenhower that makes Democratic intellectuals barf and most everyone else vote for them. There is also a tradition of Republican darkness and worry – Taft, Nixon, Atwater, and Dole.

The optimistic idealism of classic liberals and progressives is that the world can be changed and improved; that becomes pessimistic negativity when the promise of better, more perfect times disparages and scolds what is satisfactory in the present.

The pessimistic curmudgeonliness of classic conservatives is that change is bad; but their optimism comes from seeing opportunity in the present and in the traditions of the past.

Often lately it seems that that the politicians we label as conservative are actually the optimistic advocates of change.

Optimism sells in America. Pessimists that lean left might do well to look for a silver lining in the silver cloud of Iraq without Saddam.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer