The best place to observe the masochistic tendencies of the American left these days is in San Francisco. That is where Cindy Sheehan, the grassroots anti-war activist, is preparing for a run next year against Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who — in addition to being Speaker of the House of Representatives — is one of the nation’s most committed anti-war leaders, has perfect ratings on both her abortion and gay-and-lesbian-community-related stances, and sports her “F” from the National Rifle Association as if it were a badge of honor.
Aside from Hillary Clinton, it is hard to think of two women more hated and vilified by the right wing than Sheehan and Pelosi. Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh sneer, pout, or grimace whenever they mention their names. Even then, O’Reilly and Limbaugh could pass for civilized; the conservative blogosphere can be quite a bit rougher.
Yet Pelosi is not above reproach. She’s too tolerant of pork-barrel legislation and too moderate on some fiscal and budgetary issues. All things considered, however, she is a European-style social democrat who is relatively far to the left of many of the conservative and moderate Democrats on whom she, as Speaker, relies for support.
So what’s Cindy Sheehan’s beef? She’s bummed that Pelosi will not call for the impeachment of President Bush. Yes, there is little doubt that George II deserves impeachment, as does his vice-president and his attorney general. But saying that a president deserves to be impeached is very different from actually impeaching the sucker. The first is a value judgment. The second is an act of political will. And the will — the votes —are just not there.
It may be tempting to act as irresponsibly as the Republicans did when they lowered the boom on President Clinton. Then, the GOP House nailed Clinton for his two-timing interludes in the White House, though the Senate failed to convict. The Republicans had the luxury of a prosperous nation at peace. They did not have to worry, as the Democrats do, about a bloody and failing war. Indeed, it is ironic that the very war Bush lied to start is probably his best political insurance policy. But only those who believe themselves to be holier than thou expect politics to be fair.
The impulse to believe as much has a definite place in politics. Socialist Norman Thomas, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, feminist Betty Friedan — to name but three — were all skilled practitioners of the politics of conscience.
Sheehan’s claim on the conscience of the nation rests on the fact that she is a mother whose son was killed in Iraq. When she wanted to speak with the president about it, he brushed her aside, would not see her, and kept her waiting outside the fence of his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
Like Thomas, King, and Freidan, Sheehan is a crusader. As of yet, she is not of the same stature; she is a politically savvy crusader nonetheless. She is not, however, a politician.
The holier-than-thou impulse does not play well in electoral politics. It helped Nixon to be elected president in 1968, because many of Eugene McCarthy’s supporters could not bring themselves to vote for Hubert Humphrey. And it helped put Bush in the White House in 2000, when Ralph Nader’s supporters diverted votes from Al Gore.