The GOP already had trouble winning a national majority in 2000. But it came close enough that George W. Bush wound up in the White House anyway. As early as 1992—when the youngest voters were born the year after the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam—the tainted reputation that had kept Democrats out of the White House for most of a quarter-century had begun to fade. By then, national security was less of a defining issue in U.S. politics, and George H.W. Bush declined to campaign on the “culture war” that might have taken the place of the Cold War. He and a similar candidate in 1996, Bob Dole, lost to Bill Clinton, who prevailed with popular-vote pluralities.
The second George Bush’s nonconfrontational “compassionate conservatism” couldn’t win a popular majority either, and Karl Rove drew a clear lesson: not enough of the conservative base—particularly evangelicals—had turned out in 2000, and for them the culture war was paramount. So Rove would mobilize the churches in 2004, which proved indeed to be the year of the “values voters.” The values in question were defined in contrast with the “counterculture” of the Vietnam era. And in more ways than one, the 2004 election would be the last battle of the Vietnam War.
In Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Party nominated exactly the wrong candidate both for the circumstances of the Iraq War—for which he’d voted, and which was only beginning to lose popularity—and for the cultural hangover of the Vietnam War. To voters on one side of the Vietnam divide, Kerry evoked memories of the antiwar left, and indeed his patriotism came under attack in the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign. To actual antiwar left-wingers on the other side, however, Kerry was someone complicit in the wars in Vietnam and now in Iraq. Thus, far from seeming tough and confident (but, perhaps, wisely restrained) in foreign policy, at a time when the Iraq War was a hot but not yet radioactive issue, Democrats conjured vivid memories of everything that was wrong with their party from Lyndon Johnson onward.
Kerry still came close to winning—a testament to just how far the country had moved away from the ’60s-polarized mindset that still dominated the Republican Party. That the politics of Vietnam were not altogether behind us, however, was clear enough not only from the “swift-boating” of Kerry but also from a report late in the campaign season in which “60 Minutes” impugned Bush’s Air National Guard service using documents that turned out to be fake. The media’s role in the controversy reinforced another Vietnam-era narrative, the idea that an unpatriotic media had it out for war presidents. CBS had lost the Vietnam War, but now America had defeated CBS.
Unfortunately, Bush’s victory exposed the central deceit of the Vietnam-era narrative: the idea that if the counterculture and the Democrats were bad, the counter-counterculture and the Republicans were good. By 2006, the mismanaged response to Hurricane Katrina, the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and the failure of Bush to translate “values” into meaningful policy—his troubles with the right on the last point being symbolized by battles over amnesty for illegal immigrants and the prospective appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court—had dashed the counter-counterculture’s dreams of righting the wrongs of the 1960s through politics.
The counter-counterculuture—as much a product of Vietnam and its times as the counterculture itself was—could only recognize threats from a single direction, the left. It had nothing to say about a war that the Republican Party couldn’t manage; it had nothing to say about the housing crises, beyond reflexively fingering some kind of ’60s-style racial agenda; and it had nothing to say about the Great Recession. It still has nothing to say about any of these things, and it broadcasts that “nothing” every day of the week on Rush Limbaugh’s airwaves and through the cable signals that carry Fox News.
The counter-counterculture was never conservative, although by virtue of its opposition to the counterculture it wound up occupying the space that prudent conservatives otherwise might have occupied. The counter-counterculture was not all bad, just as the counterculture itself wasn’t. But neither has any relevance to the strategic and economic problems facing the country today.
That was true in 2003 and 2004 as well, but the psychology of the country’s leaders and leading pundits lagged the strategic realities of the new century. I suspect that part of the shared passion for the Iraq War felt in the breasts of such seemingly different figures as Christopher Hichens and Richard John Neuhaus arose from the hope of overcoming the divides of the 1960s: the New Left and New Right—or at least their intellectual avatars—could be together a last, as if 1968 had never happened. Hitchens could be on the side of the flag without betraying his ’60s leftist ideals because this time the war would be fought for those ideals, against not a socialist state but an “Islamo-fascist” one. And Neuhaus could fulfill his Vietnam-era radicalism without abandoning his new conservative idiom.
Radicals who persisted in opposing American military action were really not radicals at all but fellow travelers with fascists, and conservative critics of the war were “unpatriotic.” Real ’60s radicals and real anti-’60s conservatives supported the war, which was how everyone knew it was right—until it proved to be wrong.