Daiblog A Fair and Balanced daily discussion of Democratic politics, ideas, strategy, and news
Saturday, March 29, 2003
Bush the JV President I do think that compared to the pre-9/11 world where Bush was elected, there is a much stronger desire for a serious and credible leader—a father figure. Suddenly wisdom in the Oval Office is more important than it once was. And to go back to the CEO analogy, Bush was elected before the bursting of the internet bubble and the financial scandals that followed. Investors definitely are seeking grayer, wiser business leadership today and it seems to me probable that this attitude only redoubles the new premium on wisdom in the Oval Office.
That said, I agree that such attacks are politically risky precisely because of their negativity, which tends to make the electorate sympathize with the attacked and not the attacker. Perhaps the emphasis could go more on wisdom and experience than I.Q. The Camp David press conference made a huge impression on me. Listening to Dubya and Blair each give separate answers to the same press questions made Dubya seem unnervingly incompetent. His small and petulant retorts, when thrown into relief against Blair’s thoughtful and mature responses, were exposed not as resolve, not as ideology, but as a lack of grip on the situation (both the press conference and the world). A performance like that from a CEO under fire, especially side by side with a better performance, could get him tossed by the board of directors. If people are seeking wisdom from the president in a way they weren’t before (is this not an answerable survey question?), I’d like to show them all a couple of clips from this press conference. Did you guys see it? It was dramatic. It was a national embarrassment.
I’m still wondering if there are creative ways to make maturity part of the democratic theme. Here are some ideas I’ve brainstormed for how possibly to expose Bush’s weakness as a leader without shooting oneself in the foot by attacking him straight on.
Juxtaposition The press conference for me illustrated the potential power of juxtaposing Bush with someone wiser and more mature. Juxtaposition is perhaps a more artful way of pointing out his weakness as a leader, a more positive way, than stating straight out that he is a fool. Call it the Bounty-quicker-picker-upper approach. If Bounty can show that it is more absorbent before you’re eyes, you begin to believe in it. The problem with the 2000 presidential debates, which were an opportunity for direct juxtaposition, was that there was no spill for the Bounty and the cheap brand to mop up and give comparative results. Everything was fine. 9/11 and Gulf War II are spills. And if you’re watching at the right time (when Bush is without his script) Bush looks like a skimpy paper towel.
Imagine the presidential debates taking place now, and unfolding the way the Camp David press conference did. Imagine a question focusing on recent policy that many people feel has gone awry, hawks and doves alike.
Here is one of the questions asked and Bush and Blair’s responses, verbatim from the NYT transcript. It was much more dramatic and embarrassing in the actual viewing. Whether you are for or against the war, note Blair's clear answers and his acknowledgement of the relevance of the rest of the world and their disagreement. I inserted the three bracketed phrases but changed nothing else:
Q: …But could I ask you both, you both ranged over history, the justness of the cause that you believe that this war is. Why is it, then, that if you go back to that history, if you go back over the last century, or indeed recent conflicts of your political careers, [by comparison] you have not got the support of people who've been firm allies, like the French, like the Germans, like the Turkish? Why haven't you got their support?
BUSH [petulantly]: We got plenty of Western allies. I mean, we can give you the list. Ally after ally after ally has stood with us, and continues to stand with us, and we are extremely proud of their participation.
BLAIR: In relation to our soldiers, the reason I used the language I did was because of the circumstances that we know. And the reason why I think it is important to recognize the strength of our alliance -- yes, there are countries that disagree with what we're doing. I mean, there's no point in hiding it, there's been a division.
And, you know, you obviously have to take, and go and ask us those other countries why they're not with us and they will give you the reasons why they disagree.
But I think what is important is to bear in mind two things: First of all, there are an immense number of countries that do agree with us. I mean, I hear people constantly say to me, "Europe is against what you're doing." That is not true. There is a part of Europe that is against what we are doing.
There are many existing members of the European Union, and virtually all the new members of the European Union, that strongly support what we're doing. So there is a division, but we have many allies.
And the second point I'd make is this, that I understand why people hesitate before committing to conflict and to war. War is a brutal and a bloody business. But we are faced with a situation where Saddam Hussein has been given 12 years to disarm, voluntarily, of weapons of mass destruction that the whole of the international community accepts is a threat, and he has not done so.
Instead, what we have had is 12 years in which he has remained in power with these weapons intact and brutalized his own people.
Now, we felt we had come to the point where if we wanted to take a stand against what I believe to be the dominant security threat of our time, which is the combination of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unstable, repressive states and terrorist groups, if we wanted to take a stand, then we had to act.
And we went through the diplomatic process. We tried to make the diplomatic process work, but we weren't able to do so.
And the other reason why I think it is important that we act, and why indeed we have many, many allies, is because people do know that this is a brutal regime. That is not the reason for us initiating this action, that is in relation to weapons of mass destruction. But it is a reason why if we do so, as we are doing, we do so in the full knowledge that we are indeed going to bring a better future for the Iraqi people.
And if you just want statistic, although statistics, I'm afraid, never have the same emotional appeal as pictures, but we don't see these pictures of what has happened in Iraq in the past, but just one statistic.
Over the past five years, 400,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 died of malnutrition and disease, preventably, but died because of the nature of the regime under which they're living.
Now, that is why we're acting. And yes, there are divisions in the international community. There are many people on our side, there are those that oppose us. But that is for us, I'm afraid, to...
[another question about the rift with Europe]
BLAIR: Well, I'm afraid, that is a question to ask to other people, as well as to us. All I can tell you is why we are acting and why we believe our cause to be just. And yes, at the end of this whole process, we need to go back over it and ask why this has happened.
But I simply say to you that if the world walks away from the security threat facing us and if we'd backed down and taken no action against Saddam, think of the signal that would have sent right across the world to every brutal dictator, to every terrorist group.
Now, we believe that we had to act; others have disagreed. As I say, at some point we will have to come back and we'll have to discuss how the disagreement arose.
But I have no doubt that we're doing the right thing. I have no doubt that our cause is just. And I've no doubt that were we to walk away from this conflict at this time, we would be doing a huge disservice to future generations.
I think the polls would favor Bush’s opponent after a display like that. No one would care whether Gore looked wooden or like a show-off. They would care that Gore sounded not only pro-war / pro-national defense but also rational, knowledgeable, and in command.
Indirection Another less blatant tactic that I sometimes find a useful debating technique is to cause others to take for granted what you want to prove by indirection. If we want Dubya to come under fire for his leadership, we take for granted he already is. So you say something like, ‘George W. Bush is under fire across the globe not only from the left but from traditional supporters on the right. We all know he is facing a huge crisis of confidence in his ability to lead. He deserves the chance to defend himself at this point. The question is what is his response to this crisis of confidence? Compare his response with Blair’s response.’ You focus attention on the response to the alleged crisis of confidence and while everyone is considering whether or not he is rising to the occasion (the juxtaposition shows he is not) they have unconsciously accepted that he is undergoing a crisis of confidence in his ability to lead.
Feeding a Crisis to the Media The media hooks into crisis in the same way Hollywood movies do. That’s because inciting incident, crisis, and response are at the heart of story-telling. Newspapers and movies alike create interest (and hence sales) in part by naming a crisis and building anticipation for the outcome. The media I think can be manipulated by providing them with particular stories that will sell. Indirection is a way of framing a story where Bush is facing a rising crisis of confidence in his leadership and he has to respond. How will he? This story puts Bush on the defensive but not through straight out attacks. It can also backfire, if Bush finds a way to look like he’s mastered the crisis. But if the crisis is framed in a way where his own deficiencies, style, past decisions and policies prevent him from responding as he’d need to, then he’ll only look worse in scrambling to defend himself against the crisis of confidence. It seems to me this has happened again and again in elections. I seem to remember during the Bush-Dukakis race, a story got going about the doubts over Dukakis’s strength. He climbed into a tank and made everything worse.
Make a story about the crisis of confidence in his leadership and suddenly there will be one.
In any case, I want to press the case further for identifying a few themes that can all be tied into one central idea—a vision and not a critique of the incumbent. A few days ago Adam ticked off a list of things for which the Democratic party stands, and I agreed with all of them. But because they were a list, they didn’t compel me and they did have a kind of Ted Kennedy feel of moral chastisement. I also noticed that eradicating terrorism was last on the list, when I am convinced that it needs to be first on the list. I think the Democrats need to beat Bush at his own game. They have to not quibble with Bush’s war or his morals, but rather say that we want what Bush wants, but we know better how to get us there and we have a better Blair-like captain to sail this ship. (Incidentally, I believe the war on Iraq was necessary and of high priority even if I don’t agree with the way it was initiated and the way it is being executed. We’ll see if my convictions hold up when American and Iraqi civilian casualties climb further. But that’s another story.)
I've been pulling for Wesley Clark, except that I don't know much about him domestically. He's articulate and intelligent and clearly has credibility on the military. In addition, he's been a unique and effective critic of our foreign policy--> offering the best real-politic critique of the administration. He has argued from day one that Iraq is simply not one of the 5 biggest threats to U.S. security even though it is a threat. Simply as a matter of priorities, he would have advised a different course of action, not because he is afraid to use the military. If he doesn't run himself, he could be tremendous ticket balance for one of the other Dems--shore them up on foreign policy for the election and, even better, offer a wealth of advice and wise counsel for a Democratic president on foreign affairs.
posted by Jeremy
First, I agree with Adam that there is no need for apologies here, first and foremost because I haven't read your posts as an attack, certainly not an unwarranted one. Rather, this is exactly the kind of discussion and DEBATE that needs to occur for the Dems to get coherent and get better. This back and forth we've been having is one of the best political debates of which I've been a part--this is the purpose of the Blog.
Second, I like where we are headed here-->trying to find a theme around which the central ideas of a Democratic candidacy can coalesce. Good points have been raised about the difficulties in pitching "collective" ideas to Americans--> we are so proud to have this libertarian individualistic spirit, even if the social mobility and classlessness is rapidly becoming more of a myth. That said, maybe it's just a matter of packaging--of finding a better term for an idea that is, actually, very appealing to most people? What does "national" security mean, but collective security of individuals gathered in a nation state? It means fighting for the greater good of the country (with the assumption, ala social contract theory, that what's good for the country as a whole is better for the inidividuals in it than it would be for them living without the country). The crux of Austin's idea, packaging aside, is very compelling. People need to be convinced that Democratic ideas are BETTER for their security than the path we've taken under Bush. That multilateralism is better. That Democratic vision of government as the guarantor of our security and freedom is a good thing, a thing that makes us more secure.
On the Bush is dumb issue--> his lack of engagement and curiosity kills me. There is simply nothing between the teleprompter and his mouth. He resorts to Reaganesque oversimplification of the issues, which is aided by an oversimplifying and pandering press. Adam points out rightly that attacking his stupidity has failed in the past. However, that doesn't mean it couldn't work if tied to policy decisions. His oversimplified dualistic right/wrong vision has led to bad policies for the economy, the environment and, I would argue, for foreign policy and national security. Why isn't that an issue? Don't argue just the dumbness (which does play into his everyman hands), but demonstrate that the dumbness has consequences. These are infinitely more serious-seeming times than the 2000 election, when the electorate could seriously (though erroneously) doubt whether it mattered who they elected. Read this op/ed piece by Krugman today about Bush's (Cheney's) energy policy and how it was a) wrong and b) quite possibly fraudulent, though we'll never know. I don't think we should only hit the policies, without hitting the person who makes the policies-- I'm not afraid to make this election about Bush.
Austin- even if you were attacking the rest of us, there's no need to apologize. Good ideas aren't formulated in discussions where everyone agrees with each other all the time. If you think anyone here is wrong, let 'em (or me) have it. Respectfully, of course. We all have the same goals, even if we disagree on how to achieve them. Also, there's no particular background required for having good political instincts. Karl Rove never graduated from college, and he beat Gore's collection of Harvard brains pretty soundly.
Having said that, I'm going to take issue with you over the merits of Bush's intelligence as a political issue. I've actually got some personal history with this, having seen first hand how the Texas Democrats tried to win on this issue. Bush beat them both times. I think it would be wrong to raise his intelligence as an issue. He also won in 2000 on this issue. Here's why I think this is so:
1. Bush is inarticulate and uncurious, but that's not the same as being dumb. Ann Richards ran aginst Bush as a moron in 1994, and she got her incumbent hat handed to her. Bush has a strange type of personal charm and charisma which sticks to more people than we'd like to admit. He plays the victim very well, and got great milage out of his "Why is everybody always picking on me" routine. Bush is the cool kid- people like him. He's Homer Simpson, and if he runs against Frank Grimes, he's going to win every time. This may be irrational, but I think it's true.
2. Bush's advisors make his actions brilliant, even if he's not the ultimate decisionmaker. Rove, Fleischer, Hughes, et al., are the best in the world at their jobs, and they are helped that much more by having a candidate who actually listens to them and who does not think he knows better. They have been able to mold a strong public image and to inspire unparalleled party loyalty. They make sound tactical decisions. Although their policy decisions are pretty much disastrous, if the Dems can't make hay of their failures in the next election, I don't think they really care. They think what they're doing is best for the country.
3. If the Democrats harp on Bush being dumb, Bush's expectations are lowered, and he gets good press when he manages to brush his teeth correctly. If and when he does something intelligent (see #2), he is exceeding expectations by that much more. The Democrats would be better off raising his expectations, praising his intelligence and his schooling, and coaxing the media to criticize him when he screws up.
4. The Democrats harping on Bush's intelligence plays into a bunch of political institutional biases. First, it plays into the "Democrats-as-elitist-vs.-Republicans-as-ordinary-people" bias. At times, this bias has been true, but more often than not, it is a myth. However, it is a myth which the GOP loves to spread, which the media loves to report, and which voters (esp. swing voters) occassionally lap up. The Democrats would be wise not to play into this bias. Clinton worked very hard to run against this myth, despite his Georgetown-Yale-Oxford resume. If you remember, the key moment of the 1992 Dem convention was the "Man from Hope" video, which was aimed at portraying Clinton as a Bubba. This idea, as much as any, contributed to Clinton's appeal. There's lots of mass psychology stuff here that I'm not real fluent in- the idea that people want a leader they can both relate to and elevate. This story works in reverse for Bush: despite his Exeter-Harvard-Yale resume, every time a Harvard Dem calls him dumb, a voter thinks, "Hey, he's kinda like me." Second, it plays into the institutional bias of the media- see #2 above.
So, what's the alternative? It's not that Bush is dumb, it's that his policies are bad for America. Period. I think there's some other ways to get to his character. One way would be to portray him as rigid, inflexible, and unable to adapt to changing conditions. Recession? Tax cuts. Economic boom? Tax cuts. War? Tax cuts. Any good adaptation he's done abroad has been undone by his rigid diplomacy and his inability to solve the country's economic problems. He's got domestic policy answers that don't change, even as the questions do.
Oh, and a good article on patriotism and dissent here.
First let me say I hope that my critique of the democratic leadership and message was not taken as an attack on Daiblog. Before I wrote my first post, I read through your past discussions, and I was struck by the intelligence, pragmatism, and high ethical standards with which you guys have thought and written. Furthermore, my own diatribe against negativity and my preaching on the power of government was inspired by the eloquent mission statement, which already says it better than I did. So I write with the utmost respect for you, and with the knowledge that I am coming to this discussion as a non-lawyer, an outsider to Washington, and someone who has not formally studied public policy or history.
Adam, you are right to point out that all campaign messages must contain positive and negative strains. I also agree that the word “collective” has a damningly U.S.S.R. connotation.
I’m still eager to see the Democrats consolidate around one idea that encapsulates their major themes. Something that means collective power without sounding socialist I think potentially draws three major democrat themes under the aegis of one phrase: 1) tax policy 2) international relations 3) the person in the oval office.
As I already said, fiscal responsibility, not tax cuts, strengthens the government so that it can fund homeland defense, foreign wars, and medicare. As Adam pointed out, and probably more importantly, fiscal responsibility, not tax cuts, strengthens the economy! Nobody believes in Reaganomics anymore except Bush (or do they?).
The collective power of many nations unified is greater than the power of the U.S. alone.
And here is where negativity perhaps comes in: We need a strong leader right now. We need someone who is intelligent, knowledgeable about and experienced in his field (in this case, government, the economy, and world affairs), and articulate—the same qualities you would want in a C.E.O. of a company you were going to invest in. We need to be aggressive but also smart about it. Is it possible to hammer on Bush’s flagrant stupidity? To me, this is less problematic and controversial a message than to hammer on his morals. I feel like even the right knows he’s an embarrassing ignoramus and totally inarticulate. And furthermore, I’ll make the provocative argument that his stupidity is a bigger problem than his morals. Aggression in the pursuit of national self-defense and in pursuit of the rule of law is not the problem per se and I still think to make aggression itself the issue—‘Bush is a thug’—is to alienate the average threatened-feeling American who believes we need to fight against a vicious enemy. It’s intelligence in the use of aggression, brain power. Bush is a mental midget.
I don’t know much about Wesley Clark, but I know Jeremy mentioned him the other day and I yesterday heard he’s considering running for president as a Democrat. Wouldn’t it be powerful to have the former Supreme Allied commander of NATO forces in the Kosovo conflict, formerly first in his class at West Point, stand up and say George Bush and Don Rumsfeld don’t know what they’re doing. They have neglected the advice of all the top brass, including Colin Powell and Tommy Franks, and they have neglected the advice of Bush I’s top statesmen, including James Baker.
Show several clips of Bush side by side with Tony Blair at yesterday’s press conference. They each answered the exact same questions. This is an example of our president in action. Unable to complete more than one original sentence, and with the maturity-level of a grade-schooler. The man is dumb. Can we trust a dumb president to make good decisions?
I’d rather have a smart president who is for the use of force and resolve in pursuit of our aims than a dumb president with resolve.
On the whole positive/negative hope/fear framing idea, a few more thoughts. First, there's obviously lots of shades of gray here, and the dichotomies we're discussing are more theoretical than practical. A good campaign message has both positive and negative strands to it.
Having said that, I might prefer the descriptor "strong" to "positive." Yes, the Dems need some of their own ideas. Yes, some of them should probably be new. Yes, there are institutional problems in creating new ideas (numerous ones, ranging from the lack of a coordinated liberal think-tankery to the power of certain interest groups to choke off new ideas). However, coming up with what we're "for" isn't really that hard. We're for a safer homeland. We're for economic security. We're for working families. If you work forty hours a week in this country, you shouldn't have to scratch and claw and borrow money when your kid gets sick. We're for eradicating terrorism, both root and branch, and we think it'd be easier to do this if the rest of the world helped out.
I guess, maybe, Jeremy, the problem is rhetorical. This message doesn't strike me as condescending or whiny, but somehow it usually comes out that way. Clinton was the best at avoiding bad rhetoric, and he did so by preaching "strength." Firm language can support centrist ideas. He was more focused on how to make the country better than in pointing out what was wrong with it.
So, on taxes, my take (which is well-documented) is that the message should be that problem with Bush's tax cut isn't that it goes disproportionately to the rich (though I think that's bad), but that they're bad for the economy. They don't make the country better. I'm no economist, so I don't know if some form of tax cut could improve the economy, but the Dem's "positive" plan should be whatever does just that.
On collective power, I'm leaning against it, more for the word choice than the concept. Lots of people get very angry when you use the word "collective" when describing government.
By the way, I also think there's an asymmetry between the left and right in terms of their uses of hope and fear. More on this later...
Welcome to the world of the Blog! Live long and prosper. Your critique of the Dems is well-argued, salient, and inciteful. I don't have time right now to offer an equal response, but I had a few immediate reactions. You and I are in a lot of agreement about the New Dems. I'm STILL a Clinton fan--I think that's the model that must be followed. Clinton understood (or came to understand) the value of fiscal responsibility and embraced modern economics while remaining true to the core values of pluralism, choice, racial equality and opportunity across the socio-economic spectrum. My feeling all along is not that the Dems need to get more progressive in the face of Republican right-wing excess, but that they need to get clear on what it is they stand FOR, not just against. You've articulated that as well as anyone I've heard. In the 2002 elections, the Dems ran on nothing (not even principled opposition). While I have been unable to stop ranting about Bush lately, my hope in co-founding this Blog was precisely this--> to find a way to funnel new ideas into a clear statement of where we stand as Democrats. You've made a strong case for the value of an approach that is 1) the positive, 2) centrist, and 3) cognizant of Americans' need for reassurance in scary times.
I like the idea of collective power as a principle of ordering both our own government and international relations. Collective power embraces the notion of government as the means by which we express our collective desires and fulfill our collective needs, rather than as something outside of us. The government is us, collectively. Internationally, I couldn't agree more--I have been arguing that our security is assured both by strength of arms and by collective action in support of rule of law and order. What's great about the collective security approach is that, as you've argued, it provides reassurance while, without becoming negative, truly rebuking the approach taken by Bush on almost every front.
What do other people think about Collective Power as the guiding principle/ signature message of the Dems going forward? Do you like it ideologically? Does it work pragmatically? Despite the recent patriotic fervor (perhaps a yearning for collective security), is there too strong of a libertarian strain in the American polity for collective notions to have, as Adam would say, much traction? Also, does it leave us too vulnerable to Naderite attacks from the left? Does that matter anymore? (You'd think Naderites might have learned that there is a difference between Dems and Repubs after the events of the last 2 years). I might call it Collective Security instead of Collective Power--> is there a salient difference between those terms? I like this idea quite a bit--> I'm curious what others think.
posted by Jeremy
An addendum on tax cuts--how to push an alternative vision with positivity.
The common argument is that these cuts favor the wealthiest 1%. This is true, but it’s also old school Democrat moralizing. The Dems can still mention that the cuts favor the wealthiest 1% but give a different point of emphasis. What about this: Tax cuts weaken the federal government. That's why Republicans want tax cuts--because they want a weaker federal government. This is what they ran on. So Republicans stand for a weaker federal government at a time when we need a strong federal government. We need the collective power of federal government to protect us.
I was invited to Daiblog at the beginning of March but have been too busy to check it out until recently. I thought I would try to weigh in now. Maybe I’ll start with a few contributions to yesterday's debate on patriotism and dissent and follow with more general comments on the mission statement, which I liked a lot.
On patriotism and dissent I think Jeremy makes a valid point that ‘you’re not a patriot’ is an insufficient counterargument to Democratic dissenters. I also agree that Ashcroft’s unprecedented power does undoubtedly threaten our civil liberties. However, I think the ‘shut up and be patriotic’ rhetoric of the Bush administration and the infringement on civil liberties are two distinct issues. I don’t think the meekness of the Democratic opposition can be attributed to a fear that Ashcroft is going to throw senators in jail for conspiring with al-Qaeda. If we are headed into an Orwellian nightmare, we are not there yet. I also think Bush’s ‘if you disagree with me, well don’t’ approach is less an antipathy for the first amendment and more an extremely un-nuanced ideological and undiplomatic approach to promoting his agenda. I see the Democratic silence as a function of their fear of the electorate (though why should they fear when they were already wiped out in the midterms?) and lack of focus. The Dems don’t appear to have a clear message or to know how to get across that message.
My own answer to how the Dems should attack the Bush administration is that they should not. Americans feel threatened and I’ll wager the majority aren’t eager to hear arguments phrased in a way that implies that Bush has made them more unsafe, especially in the absence of a reassuring alternative. They also don’t want to see infighting and negativity in our government (which was also true of the electorate before 9/11). They want to feel safe and they want to hear positive messages only—messages consistent with Churchill’s notice in the Cabinet War Rooms, “There is no depression in this house.” They want to be told, yes, we are safer than we were, yes, we will win the war on terrorism AND here are some more ideas about how to make us even safer or about how to solidify our gains. Any message must couch the truth inside positive, encouraging statements that play to what people need to hear. In other words, the Dems should not say, ‘here are all the reasons that the Bush administration is wrong, weak, corrupt, and damaging our nation.’ This approach, to my mind, does not respect the powerful need for reassurance. But we can play to denial in a particular way. The Dems should start from a mutual recognition of the threat, embrace the efforts of the Bush administration to make us safer, and propose additional solutions to the threat. It can be stated this way even when those additional solutions represent a reversal of what came before. For example, ‘We’ve done a great job showing resolve to rogue nations and terrorist groups. In the future, we will continue to show this resolve and in addition we must build a new international polity linking nation to nation in a revamped version of collective security.’ The same idea could have been stated, ‘The Bush administration’s lack of diplomacy has crippled our efforts at making the world more secure.’ I prefer the former approach to the latter. Or, ‘We’ve shown a commitment to spending a large amount of money on the war on terror, and that is necessary. A critical addition to the war on terror will be the exercise of fiscal discipline to pay for these measures and adequate funding for homeland defense. (Rah Rah, War on Terror.)’ Don’t even mention Bush. Just point out that the status quo requires additional measures and course corrections.
The Dems need to sell their product. Apple can’t just yell and scream that Microsoft’s operating systems suck. They have to push their beautiful sleek-looking computers and easy interface. We need to stay positive.
In fact, I think an unmarketable negativity has plagued Democratic rhetoric for a long time. For me, Clinton turned this around. But lately the Democratic leadership has me curious about what happened to the New Democrats. Which brings me to some general remarks I wrote up a couple days ago but didn’t get a chance to post:
On the mission statement The mission statement made me wonder where the blog founders stand with respect to the New Democrats and the so-called “Third Way”—a group of moderate positions that appeal to me from what I know of them (and forgive me if I come across like an outsider to Washington). I agree with the notion that the Dems need an infusion of new ideas or strategies, because since Bush came into office and even more so since 9/11, the Democratic voice has fragmented and grown increasingly inaudible. Personally, I am content with the shift in vision represented by the New Democrats. However, I do worry that the Democratic leadership, finding themselves the minority party in Congress under a bullying wartime Republican White House, is having major strategic difficulties. More specifically:
1) They seem afraid to speak with force or to articulate priorities that are different from those of Bush—in part because they haven’t found a way to make these differences into positive, marketable messages.
2) In some ways I fear a drift backward toward the impractical moralizing of pre-Clinton, Ted Kennedy-style politics in the Democratic party, where the Democrats project themselves as do-gooder crusaders for the disenfranchised instead of savvy pragmatists who understand the role of government and civic responsibility in the context of the New Economy. This began with Al Gore’s total abandonment of Clinton and his salient campaign image—the terribly static, backward, defensive, even coffin-like social security “lockbox.”
3) I feel that the Democrats (including Clinton) still suffer a lack of credibility on national security at a time when national security dominates our concerns.
While the Bush administration has from the beginning sought not to lead but to drag American citizens and other nations along by force and through bait-and-switch campaigns, the Democrats have also disappointed me with their failure to lead. Instead of 1, 2, and 3 failures cited above, I wish for 1) united, forceful, cogent, positively-worded proposals and statements of priorities that serve as challenges to the Bush vision, 2) a moderate willingness to engage with, even compromise with, viewpoints on the right, to be progressive and practical, not moralizing, and to recognize the need for structural reform in social programs not just more money, and 3) a clearly stated alternative to Bush’s foreign policy—not just partisan attacks on Bush’s policy and his arrogance but different, specific, and equally forceful solutions to the problems of terrorism, rogue states, and anti-Americanism. Tony Blair wrote in The Guardian last month, “Our task should not be to shrink from full involvement in the battle against weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, but to broaden the agenda….”
As soon as Democrats convince the American people that they are as tough on terrorism as Bush, as concerned about national security as Bush, but so much more rational and practical than Bush (note, not ‘morally superior to Bush’)—at this point, I think people might be ready to get rid of him and latch on to new leadership. He’s dug himself a pretty deep hole without our piling on.
I think the conservatives are doing a better job naming the fears of many Americans. They could not do worse, however, at providing a sense of reassurance with their solutions (except for the half-hearted reassurance of their frenetic activity). With the exception of Colin Powell, every prominent member of the administration has been frighteningly clumsy even in the eyes of many senior Republicans. These guys are what some of us expected: buffoons. There is an opportunity for the Dems to forcefully name those same fears and to proffer better solutions and better leaders.
Overall I think the Dems must consolidate around one message and it should be: the notion of collective power to solve the very same problems identified by the right. The collective power of our own government, sustained through fiscal responsibility (not tax cuts), and the collective power of the many nations of the world. This is a time for unity and strong liberal democratic government. It’s a time to reshape collective security with more, not less, outreach to Europe, Russia, and China. To move the world toward an international social contract of shared power but also shared responsibilities. The international order is now a feudal one, with vassal states owing fealty (or not owing it in perhaps more cases) to the House of Bush.
Tom Friedman said the Democrats should run Tony Blair for office. Where is our Tony Blair? Where are the New Democrats?
Your points are well-taken. Particularly the point that any effort to criticize Bush et al on Homeland Security will be met with the patriotism defense. That's spot-on, and I think I misunderstood you on this the first time. How do we break through that defense? I don't know. It seems to me that there are a bunch of possibilities, each of which would have to be polled or focus-grouped. I don't have a particular preference for rhetoric or substance. I'll take whichever one is more likely to work. One other point: I'm all for being part of a vigorous opposition party, I just don't want to become a permanent opposition party. A tough balance to strike, I know. Here's some possible ways through the "patrioitism defense."
- The lone nut attack. As described here, the Dems can have their own decorated military veterans attack Bush et al on defense, in part raising Bush's patriotic defense of Alabama during the Vietnam War. The Presidential candidates (particularly Kerry, who would get mauled in the press over this), can take the high road, but Bush (hopefully) takes the hit.
- The "your children will pay for this" message. This one has been used before with some success. It has, as they say, the added virtue of being true. Who's paying for the war? For Homeland Security? This is tough because Bush has the advantage of promising more government services and less taxes without thinking he's being inconsistent. Must be nice. I don't think there's a lot to be gained by this one, but I could be wrong.
- The economy. I know this seems off-topic, but hear me out. You don't have to be a Nobel Prize winning economist to realize that increasing government spending and cutting taxes ain't good for the economy. Since this is all the GOP wants to do, and since they've done this a bit so far in Bush II, they're on the hook for the economy. It can be argued that people care more about their jobs than their rights. So, the idea here is that the economy should be the primary Democratic issue (1992 anyone?). The problem with this is that it was a big stinker in 2002. Didn't work because of the public's concerns over security issues. So...
- Security: Bush is not keeping us safe. Period. Rather than "Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago," this is "Are you safer now than you were four years ago?" 9/11 showed us all that the US needs to become a safer and more secure country. In theory, that's what the war in Iraq is about. This message hits hard on Bush's disdain for the rest of the world (because his disdain makes us less safe), his underfunding of Homeland Security (makes us less safe), his needless impingement on civil rights (adds nothing to safety), and his reliance on patriotism as a defense to critics (calling someone un-American doesn't make us safer). My hunch here is that there's no magic message, but that some serious and dedicated message discipline delivered with the vigor and fearlessness you talk about, may do the trick. I'm guessing this is where your "have you no shame" idea fits, but if not, where does it? If that moment is the beginnig, what comes next? What is the "substance" of the Dems' new "substantive role?"
You make some great points and, as always, your historical perspective is welcome and wise. However, I don't see the 2 choices you've described as polar. To sketch a scenario: Imagine taking on Ashcroft (and Bush et al) on the ineffectiveness of the Justice Department's efforts. You could argue, for example, that the usual suspects mentality combined with Bush's go-it-alone Cowboy routine with the world have vastly hindered our ability to gain good intelligence about terrorism. In fact, you could go a step further and suggest that, despite the (politically opportunistic) rhetoric about Homeland security, the Bush administration has actually cut funding needed for the Homeland security apparatus. The Bushies would respond, inevitably, that it was providing comfort to the enemy to question the President. Therefore, in order to even get to the merits of the debate on effectiveness, you need to get through the muck of the intimidation tactics. To that end, isn't it important to carve out the principled reasons for vigorous debate so that you can have a vigorous debate? This is my problem with what's been going on--> there's been an absence of real debate about any of this, from the impact of the Patriot Act to the merits of war with Iraq. And this absence of debate is largely attributable to the way the debate has been framed as somehow un-patriotic.
I think that in both principle and impact the intimidation rhetoric is bad for our democracy. I guess that leaves open the question of which has to come first--> do we hit them on the rhetoric so that we can get to effectiveness/merits or do we hit them the merits as a way to demonstrate the danger of the rhetoric they have employed (i.e. intimidation of dissent leads to bad and dangerous policy). Adam, don't you agree both the principle (have you no shame) and the merits are necessary components of this debate? I don't suggest that the "have you no shame" speech would be the endpoint. Rather, I see that as the launching point for a more substantive role as the opposition party. After the 2002 election, don't we need more fearlessly to pursue our policy aims?
posted by Jeremy
The Senate partially reversed itself on the tax cuts it shamelessly passed while nobody was paying attention because of the war. (By the way, Denny Hastert in the House appealed to the patriotism of Congressmen in supporting Bush during the war to push through the House version of the tax cuts. Unbelievable!) The Senate cut in half Bush's tax cut package to "only" $350 billion. See here. However, if this is the best we can do, we're in big trouble. This is Bush's 2nd tax cut package, derided even by republicans as insane, passed during a time of war, blossoming deficits (brought on largely by Bush's 1st tax cut as the budget has not yet accounted for the cost of the war), and fiscal crises in states and cities.
Our tax system gets more regressive even with this "big" rebuke of Bush. Where is the shared sacrifice? Oh, here it is! The Bush administration today awarded it's first Iraqi oil contract to Cheney's old friend Halliburton. Imagine that? There is now an alarming and unholy synergy between big business and big government. As a result, the poor (including those fighting the war) will find cuts in services across the board by a broke government that increasingly exists to service the needs of the wealthy. Krugman today called this synergy the new oligarchy in a good piece that also hits on media conglomeration.
posted by Jeremy
Interesting stuff. A few partially-connected thoughts...
First, although I don't think your "Have you no shame" idea is mere idealism, I don't think such a tactic would have the effect you're looking for. If I remember my history correctly, Joe Welch asked that question of Sen. McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, during which McCarhy was on a witchhunt for Communist operative in the military. This statement, in my opinion, was made in a different context than the one in which you are asking for it to be made today. McCarthy had been on the warpath for several years at the point Welch stood up to him. Public opinion, which had been on McCarthy's side (!) for a while, was starting to turn. And, Welch's statement was a brilliant piece of televised political theatre. It was made during hearings on television. From what I understand, it appeared spontaneous, even if it wasn't. The exact opposite would be true today: such a statement would appear calculated, even if it was spontaneous.
Furthermore, although Patriot is a bad law and although Ashcroft's Justice Department doesn't always seem particularly constrained by the Fourth Amendment, today's facts are different than the Red Scare of the 1950's. For argumentative purposes, we can discount a comparision of the threats (although that would be an interesting discussion), and look only at impact. Although the current Administration has done some bad things, they have not registered in the public's consciousness as did McCarthy's. Ashcroft is extreme in his views, but he hasn't gone off the deep end, at least not in public, like McCarthy did. As much as I'd relish taking him on, and as much damage as I think he's doing to the country, I just don't think the "have you no shame" approach will have the desired effect.
Your next point, whether it is more important to be "right" or to win elections, is an interesting one, and one which goes to the heart of a lot of issues. The classic historical examples in my opinion are 1968 and 1972. In both years, the Democrats nominated an anti-war candidate (who, in my opinion, was "right"), but who lost each time. The 1972 loss was particularly one-sided, and there were numerous McGovern volunteers (some of which I bet are in Democratic leadership positions today) who just couldn't believe that they lost. Only after Watergate, in the 1974 and 1976 elections, did the Democrats gain traction with the voters.
Presidential politics are extraordinarily personal. Each candidate is different. It would have taken an extraordinary politician to win on an anti-war platform in 1968 or 1972. RFK may have been able to do it. Humphrey and McGovern couldn't. I don't think the 2004 crop can win on an anti-war platform, either, although circumstances could certainly change my mind.
In my opinion, I'd rather win. If for no other reason than nothing would anger the Republicans more. Yes, I agree that the Republicans have expanded their dislike for "big-D" Democrats to include disdain for "small-d" democracy. Yes, I think the Democrats should stand up and dissent. However, I'd rather take all of the anger and frustration and turn it into something positive. Hokey, I know, but the hokeyness is balanced out by the merciless discipline we'd need to win. So, Jeremy, I'll put the question back to you: How can we channel our displeasure with Ashcroft and Bush's disregard for civil liberties into electoral success? How can we persuade a majority of voters that they'd be better off with the Democrats in the White House? I just don't think "Have you no shame" is going to move any voters. It would energize the base, and that's fine, but what's the broader strategy? My initial thought: Ashcroft may be rounding up "the usual suspects," but his actions ain't making us any safer. ("Casablanca" rip-off commercial?)
I would like to start a discussion about civil liberties and freedom of speech in this country. Since 9/11, led by John Ashcroft's zealotry, the government has taken extraordinary actions in the name of security to curtail our civil liberties. The administration and its cronies in Congress have used both legislation and the un-subtle intimidation tactic of carelessly accusing its opponents of treason to cow dissent and destroy any chance for meaningful debate. Moreover, the docile mainstream press has allowed reactionary forces (and powerful corporate media conglomerates) to relegate dissenting voices to the fringes.
Free speech is the wellspring of all our liberties--> the political process rights embedded within free speech are the only true guarantor that our democracy is democratic. It's all well and good to speak of free elections, but are they really free when the powerful have voices magnified by money and the powerless can be denied the right to vote (see the voter "purge" list in Florida which prevented thousands of African-American non-felons from voting in 2 succesive elections because a Republican-hired company inaccurately labeled them felons)? The inequities of our system which obviously preceeded 9/11 have been made much worse by an administration willing to prey on people's legitimate fears about their security. I have written before about the need for politicians to stand up and deliver "have you no shame" speeches about the new McCarthyism. The "with us or against us" attitude has had a disastrous effect on our foreign policy, whatever you think of the wisdom of the war in Iraq. At home, this attitude threatens the liberty we are purportedly fighting for overseas.
Tim Grieve wrote an interesting article on salon about John Aschroft's assault on civil liberties via the USA Patriot Act (rammed through what Grieve calls a terrified Congress) and new, much more aggresive and threatening, legislation in the works at Justice. In addition, the administration continues to rely on bullying demagoguery to get its way in lieu of persuasive arguments. At what point does this stop? I'm not sure it will stop as long as it is as successful as it has been. We really are seeing the beginning days of an Orwellian nightmare. Can the Democrats successully challenge this trend or is it political suicide to give a staunch defense of robust free speech? How do we take this on? Isn't it political suicide not to take it on? Look what happened to Max Cleland and the Democrats in the 2002 election, when they had supported Bush. I argue that the principle of free speech is important enough to make it necessary to fight this fight whatever the immediate political consequences; we owe it to this serious moment in history not to adandon our freedoms, but to vigorously exercise them to offer a challenge to the administration. Principled dissent is our duty.
Do you agree? Or is my "have you no shame" speech idea just a silly, idealistic rant? Is this as big of a problem as I think it is?
posted by Jeremy
After the events of the weekend, there's not much to say today. Except: for anyone who thinks that politics doesn't matter, that government is irrelevant or that the events of their lives or the lives of others aren't affected by what goes on in Washington, D.C. consider...
Regardless of your position on the war, whether it be for, against, or some combination of the two, consider...
Would the United States be at war right now if the 2000 Presidential election had gone the other way?
Would the United States be fighting this war this way if the 2000 Presidential election had gone the other way?
But for a few votes in Florida (or, I suppose, in the Supreme Court), but for some different strategic decisions by the Gore campaign, but for a few votes, but for a few more dollars, but for any one of a million little things which could have been affected by a very small group of people,CNN would be very different right now. Whether or not you think the war is wrong, the inescapable conclusion is that politics matters. Elections matter. Winning elections matters.