Theocons vs. neocons

With Mad Mel scaring the Jewish vote and Bush pandering to his theocratic base, the Republicans are quickly losing their secular swing voters.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published March 4, 2004 8:01PM (EST)

George W. Bush has the worst job-creation record, 2.6 million lost, of any president since Herbert Hoover in the depth of the Great Depression. The self-proclaimed "war president" finds himself embattled in a crisis of trust and credibility over the reasons for the war. Even before Sen. John Kerry's big primary victories on March 2, Super Tuesday, making him the presumptive Democratic nominee, Bush trailed him in every national poll. Faltering on the economic and national security fronts, Bush opened another war: the culture war.

Bush had campaigned in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative," softening his edges and separating himself from the hard right. As it was, he lost the popular vote by more than a half-million. Now Bush has decided he has no choice but to chase his base.

The launch of his kulturkampf has been a blitzkrieg. Bush proposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. He dismissed two scientists who dissented on his bioethics board, which he has used to ban forms of stem cell research, replacing the dissenters with adherents of the religious right. (Shortly before, 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize laureates, signed a statement charging that Bush has "suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy.") Bush made a recess appointment of William Pryor of Alabama as a federal judge, previously blocked in the Senate for his extremism. Pryor had said that "abortion is murder" and supported the building of an altar of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, exclaiming: "God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians ... to save our country and save our courts." Then Attorney General John Ashcroft subpoenaed the medical records of women who have had abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics. Bush followed by supporting the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, creating a new federal crime of "fetal homicide," that passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives on Feb. 26. At Bush's order, the Senate is being transformed into a battlefield of the culture war. Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the Republican Conference, mocked the Democrats who "love to talk about education and healthcare."

But Bush's instigation of religious wars in America, while it mobilizes the evangelical Protestant faithful, is also unexpectedly thwarting him. The born-again Bush, who reconstructed his presidential self-image after 9/11 as a messianic leader, assumed that the agendas of the neocons and the theocons were one and the same. However, Bush outsourced his foreign policy on the Middle East and Israel to the neocons in part for an electoral purpose, capturing the Jewish vote, which will not be fulfilled because of his anxious devotion to the theocons.

The neocons and the theocons were bound together in reaction against the 1960s for different reasons: the neocons on foreign policy, the theocons by their continuing fundamentalist revolt against modernity going back to the early 20th century. Under Ronald Reagan, this coalition was held together in the crusade against godless communism. But George W. Bush is haunted by what happened next to his father.

The elder Bush won 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1988, but only 11 percent in 1992. He had paid the price for his toughness in forcing the Likud government of Israel into the peace process, which was continued by President Clinton. In 2000, the younger Bush won 19 percent of the Jewish vote. In office, fearful of repeating his father's fall, he immediately abandoned the peace process. In his memoir, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill records Bush as saying, "I think it's time to pull out of that situation."

After 9/11, Bush began extensive polling of Jews. "We have a figurehead at the top of the ticket who has the potential to catalyze a realignment," said Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Visions of carrying the entire East Coast, including New York, and California, and holding Florida forever, danced in Bush's head.

Just as Bush stokes the culture war, Mel Gibson enters sprinkling holy gasoline on the fires. Only in the combustible atmosphere Bush has fostered could Gibson's grand guignol version of an anti-Semitic medieval passion play, "The Passion of the Christ," become the No. 1 box office hit. This is the ultimate "Mad Max" escapade: blowing up the cultural contradictions of American conservatism.

But with his culture war the son is echoing another political error of the father, who alienated Jews and Catholics by permitting his 1992 convention to be used as a platform for the religious evangelical right. The latest revival is frightening Jews, cautioning American Catholics (who are overwhelmingly of the liberal John XXIII/Vatican II persuasion and hold the same view on abortion as other Americans), and scourging mainline Protestants. The more Bush supplicates his base, the more he repels the others. Moreover, Bush is running against a Democrat who's a modern Catholic, with Jewish ancestry and lineage to the oldest mainline Protestant families of New England.

Bush's bid for a Republican "realignment" based on Jewish voters, by giving the neocons the franchise on the Middle East, is being washed away in the blood of "The Passion." The leading neocon columnist, William Safire of the New York Times, has denounced the film as "the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen" and compared it to the passion plays of "pre-Hitler Germany."

The price Bush has paid for the chimera of gaining a segment of the Jewish vote is the greatest price he's paid. But his political miscalculation at home is far outweighed by the disastrous consequences in the Middle East. Desperately he is campaigning on behalf of his various fundamentalisms in a crusade against modernity in America, his greatest war of all.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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2004 Elections Gay Marriage George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.