Not yet six months old, 2007 has already been a fantastic year for conservative belly-aching. Whether they're defending a dishonest attorney general or a hypocritical World Bank chief, begging for time in Iraq or pleading for leniency on behalf of Scooter Libby, griping about how irreverent Americans provoke terrorists or siccing the Justice Department's once-proud Civil Rights Division on those brutes who would dare discriminate against our population of religious zealots, the remaining true believers of the right have spent the year in one long, plaintive wail about the unfairness of it all. Though the specific complaints may vary, the refrain in this chorus of kvetching is the same: It's always someone else's fault. Boo hoo.
Given last year's election results, the griping should come as little surprise: It's the province of folks with few other options, especially when politics remains dominated by the still-unfolding disasters they created. Still, it's worth wondering whether the explosion of self-pity doesn't herald some larger change in the popular political imagination, where liberals were always the ones cueing up the tiny violins. Have conservatives finally closed the whining gap?
Not so long ago, "whiny" was one of those adjectives pundits only applied to the left, usually somewhere between "latte-sipping" and "bleeding-heart." Liberals were ever cast as Tweety Bird, needing special protection from the Sylvesters of the GOP. Conservatives fashioned themselves hard-headed inhabitants of the real world, deriding liberals as the sort of officious pantywaists who called in unelected judges to do what voters wouldn't do, turned the federal bureaucracy into a jobs program for fellow travelers, hit up taxpayers to funnel money to allies who couldn't cut it in the market--and then made ostentatious promises to leave the country when elections went badly. The smear wasn't quite accurate: Whining has been essential to all sorts of philosophies, from tax-averse tea-lovers in colonial Massachusetts to regulation-wary suburbanites in Barry Goldwater's Arizona. But marshaling organized dissatisfaction is one thing; playing the bawling toddler is quite another. At any rate, the image of the pouty Democrat had resonance as recently as 2000, when Republican taunts that Al Gore was a whiny "sore loser" managed to knock the vice president back on his heels during the Florida recount.
What would those Floridian sign-wavers have made of the Republican reaction to Libby's conviction? Having lost before a jury of his peers, Libby summoned a cross-section of Washington's elite to attest to his decency. To be sure, such letter-writing campaigns are common for federal convicts, the lowest of whom can always manage to find a few neighbors and friends who can describe them as charitable family men. More telling, in Libby's case, was the shrill breast-beating of his neocon chums from the Bush administration--especially that of former Pentagon figure Douglas Feith, who explains that important people can't be expected to remember details, and Paul Wolfowitz, whose five-page missive cast the former vice presidential aide as a selfless victim of partisanship. "His career and reputation are in ruins," Wolfowitz wrote, apparently unaware that such consequences tend to be the case when you, um, get busted for breaking federal law.
Wolfowitz, of course, should know a thing or two about mooning over ruined reputations and damaged careers. His own fall from grace just a couple months earlier featured the same set-pieces of whiny conservative consequence-dodging: The implication that nitpicky rules shouldn't apply to someone engaged in the noble pursuit of global strategery; the allegation that critics were really just on a political witch-hunt; the insistence that the specifics of the moment should be trumped by his Churchillian personal virtue. "For those people who disagree with the things that they associate me with in my previous job, I'm not in my previous job," he said, as a right-wing chorus weighed in to disparage his critics. Change a few words and a few media outlets and it could be a big-city mayor dodging graft allegations by trumpeting his civil rights history and love for the downtrodden. The poor, misunderstood dear.
But if personal, public breast-beating is especially colorful, it's institutional griping that best reflects the whiny image of the contemporary right--and the danger for conservatives of becoming known as this can-do nation's top kvetchers. For years, alleged discrimination against religion and purported misdeeds by minority political machines have been conservative talking-points. But as the scandal around Alberto Gonzalez has grown, it turns out the Bush administration has turned the full force of the federal government to take up arms against the war on Christmas and the crusade for voter-roll purity. The GOP has redirected the Justice Department away from the legacy of segregation and onto prosecuting the twin scourges of anti-religious bigotry and alleged voter fraud. Such moves may pay off when it comes to the political game of screwing their enemies. On the other hand, being known as the victimology-obsessed folks who want to make a federal case out of every slight is no way to endear yourself to the American public. Just look at how popular the old civil rights establishment became.
Smart Democrats, of course, would take advantage of the conservative whining to label Republicans as crybabies--a neat way to make them think twice before complaining about even actual injustices. Spend enough time cracking wise over high-profile tantrums like Richard Perle's empty threat to sue Seymour Hersh in the thin-skin coddling courts of England (a particularly un-PC critic might take to calling him "Richard Girl") or Dinesh D'Souza's book-length assertion that libertine Americans were to blame for Muslim extremism (the GOP once famously got a lot of mileage out calling their opponents the "blame America first" party) and journalists might just add a "whiny conservative" shortcut right next to the "whiny liberal" one on their keyboards.
That hasn't happened yet. But that could change, judging from the media's reaction to the apotheosis of the recent right-wing whine fest: The complaint by conservatives like Laura Ingraham and Peggy Noonan during this month's immigration debate that they had been unfairly tarred as un-American by ... President Bush.
As foes of Bush's bill rose into a chorus of high dudgeon over the White House's switchblade style, at least a few chatterers on the left sat back to enjoy the irony: "I have to say, it gives me a great perverse delight to hear conservatives talking about, 'We're victims. We're victims. We've been treated badly by our leaders,'" said Mark Shields on PBS's "NewsHour." "I mean, I'm sorry, Peggy. I'm sorry Laura, you poor, conservative folks who've been so mistreated by George W. Bush. Those Western men, they're just mean."
By Michael Currie Schaffer