February 2004 Archive


Sunday, February 29, 2004

Mel's Passion. When I first heard about it, I wanted to like this movie, but from what I've heard and read since, I've decided not even to see it. I'm not going to let my thirteen year old go, either. It's not about the anti-Semiticism. I think too much is being made of that. The high priests and other factions in the Jewish power establishment are stand-ins for the power establishments of any time, any society.

If they made a movie about the execution of Socrates, is there anybody who would seriously call it anti-Greek? And yet the motives of the Athenians and the Jews for killing Socrates and Jesus were pretty similar. Their executors perceived them both as subversives of the traditional social construct. Socrates and Jesus meant to their respective societies the end of an older world, and people who are invested in that world will do anything to prevent its destruction.

So my real reason for not going to this film is because I've been convinced from the descriptions of people whom I trust, that this movie is pornographic. It only goes skin deep. It focuses in obscene detail on the sadistic physical brutality suffered by Jesus. That such an obscenity was committed is not in question, but I question what value there is in being a witness to it. And I suspect that more often than not a movie like this serves a voyeuristic need for visual stimulation that at its roots is perverse. I don't care who it is that is being flayed alive, watching such thing is an exercise in voyeurism that in my view serves no good purpose.

Pornography is to the eyes what fundamentalism is to the mind. It reduces the unfathomable human mystery to its grossest and most superficial terms, and it's sickening not just in that it dehumanizes the person objectified, but in the way it dehumanizes and numbs the voyeur. An experience this brutally graphic in its physical detail serves only to give the almost soul-dead a physical experience it misinterprets as religious.

For a movie like this takes the Christ Passion whose real importance is on a spiritual level and reduces it to something that in its raw, physical brutality numbs understanding more than it does to enable it. Witnessing this portrayal can in no way approximate the the real truth about what happened. People who go to this film are just witnessing an actor. Had one really been there in the moment, if one were with an open heart in the Presence of the one who suffered as he did during this time, the experience would have been utterly, qualitatively different. But even those of his friends who loved him most were not a witness to most of what this movie portrays. And only a few were there in his last moments. There's a reason for that. Perhaps these are privileged moments that most of are either incapable of witnessing in their enormity or not deserving to.

So here's an attempt on my part to suggest the meaning of the Christ Passion that a movie like this is incapable of presenting. Take it for what it's worth:

If you have ever, even for the briefest moment, been opened to an experience of genuine love, you have in a very real way had an experience of a reality that is qualitatively "eternal.". And it's not too hard to imagine the experience of those who have experienced love with such intensity that it was for them an experience of being swallowed by eternity. Now imagine an opposite experience of eternity, one in which you are being swallowed up by the eternity of hell, which is an equally intense experience of the complete absence of love.

Some of us in this life pay an occasional visit to any of a variety of the antechambers of hell, but none willingly has been swallowed by it. Those who have been swallowed haven't come back to tell any stories about it. The Christ Passion, from its first moments in Gethsemane to the last moments on the cross, when Jesus cried out in despair about his abandonment by the Father, the root source and essence of love, is the story of pure love willingly submitting to be swallowed up by the eternal intensity of hell.

He went willingly where none other could, and his purpose in doing so was to subvert the reality of hell in such a way as to create the possibility of its eventual destruction. The only thing capable of destroying the eternity of hell is the eternity of love. Its eventual destruction is a task for the rest of us to accomplish in time. That's how I see it, anyway.

I don't go to movies that delight in putting me in one of the antechambers of hell. It's not that I don't think that hell is real in this sense. It's just not the whole story. Lots of filmmakers take us there and they think they are doing us a favor by exposing us to a reality that we'd rather not deal with. Evil is real--I don't need any convincing about that, but it's not the whole of what's real, and it's the least significant part of what's real, even if it is the part that most of us experience more frequently and more vividly.

From what I've heard about the movie, Gibson delivers his audience into hell and he leaves them there. If he makes a movie that shows the second and most important part of the story, and if he does so in a way that is as convincing as the first, maybe I'll watch the two of them back to back. It's easy to portray Inferno; filmmakers do it all the time. The more important achievement in our day is by those artists who can convincingly and unsentimentally portray Paradiso.


Saturday, February 28, 2004

Tolkien's Conservatism. An interesting article by Stephen Hart in today's Salon discussing how The Lord of the Rings trilogy is being claimed or disdained by conservatives and liberals. It started out, of course, as a kind of hippy manifesto in the 1960s when it first hit college campuses. This has always been a kind of ironic association for the tweedy, conservative Oxford Don and orthodox Catholic.

Hart gives an interesting overview about how the books are playing especially in theological circles, and I learned some things I hadn't been aware of, as for instance, the correlation of key events in the story to the liturgical calendar. He has some pretty funny things to say about how certain factions of evangelical Christendom are deeply suspicious of Tolkien's "gaiaism"--you know talking trees, and the like. And also such silliness as this quote from David Cloud from Logos Resource Pages: "Though not as overtly and sympathetically occultic as the Harry Potter series, Tolkien's fantasies are unscriptural and present a very dangerous message." Sheesh.

But if, as I believe it is, The Lord of the Rings is profoundly Christian in its deepest thematic development, it has primarily to do with the stance it takes toward the uses and abuses of power. Hart has this to say about Tolkien and this power theme:

Looking back on Tolkien's life, we find his conservatism was rooted in a proper suspicion of power and the motives of those who seek to wield it. This suspicion infuses every line of "The Lord of the Rings," in which the good characters are defined by their wariness of power, while the bad are invariably eager to seize it. One of the many ways Jackson amplifies Tolkien's original comes in the portrayal of Aragorn, fated to become the king of reunited humanity, who spends much of the story resisting his destiny because he doesn't trust himself with such power. Saruman seems to think he can use the power of the Ring to work toward the greater good (a point made clearer in the book), but Gandalf is reluctant even to touch the ring, lest he fall prey to his own version of Saruman's delusions.

Contemporary conservatives, by contrast, are very much enamored of power -- indeed, it is hard to imagine any other way to define them. Certainly none of the qualities that used to typify conservatives -- fiscal prudence, limits on spending and checks against the spread of government power -- can be found in the Republican-run halls of power. All of which should make Gollum, the river-dwelling hobbit who becomes entranced by the Ring of Power and pays for it with his soul, an ominous metaphor. He never hesitates to exploit a wedge issue, be it Frodo's trust of Sam or the distribution of lembas bread, and is savage in combat until defeated, at which point he whines endlessly about how unfair it all is.

The essential theme of the book is that the forces of men and elves cannot win the power game on power terms. Indeed the whole strategy that leads to their eventual victory is founded on the basic insight that Sauron cannot comprehend anything except in terms defined by power, and so it would be incomprehensible to him that his enemy would willingly destroy the weapon that would give its user sure victory.

The central protagonists in this story are not the action heroes Aragorn and Gandalf, but the unassuming Sam and Frodo. Gandalf and Aragorn accept that they must play the power game, but they do so understanding its limits. They have no delusions of winning by force of arms. They use power with the very limited objective to buy time, to hold off the enemy long enough so that the real victory can be achieved not by the use of power but by its surrender, which is Sam's and Frodo's mission.

Indeed one could say that the whole of Tolkien's trilogy, David Cloud's warning notwithstanding, is an extended meditation on the the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. If there's a subversive message that conservatives should worry about, it's really the one articulated there by St. Paul.


Friday, February 27, 2004

Moving toward the Post-Secular. In a column I sent out in October I began a reflection on American identity politics with a consideration of what was happening in Italy at the time. A Muslim father there sued successfully to have the crucifixes removed from the classrooms in an Italian public schools. So I've had that incident in mind as a different kind of story has emerged recently in France. There the French parliament passed a law prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing the traditional head scarf or hijab. In France, where secularism truly is the official relgion, most of the native born were pleased with the decision, but the religious minorities were outraged. In Italy the religious minorities were gratifiied by the decision, and the native-born Italians were outraged.

The difference in approach between France and its neighbor to the south are very pronounced, remarkably so considering the Catholic heritage of both countries. But there's also a marked difference in the approach taken by the French and the approach we take here in the U.S. There really is freedom of religion expression here in the way there is not in France, and I think a key to understanding the differences lies in the differences that distinguish the French from the American Revolutions.

The American Revolution really came in two stages. The first was the English Civil War in the mid 1600s, which was a religiously motivated revolt of mostly bourgeois English Calvinists against the Catholic Stewart monarchy and its aristocratic narrative. The English Puritans were precocious regicides killing their king almost 150 years before the French got around to it, and over 250 years before the poor, backward Russians.

The Puritan impulse at that time is was what I would describe as "proto-modern." "Modern" in the sense that it was a class war driven by a bourgeois Englishmen who wanted to destroy the entire premodern, tradition-based, medieval, crown-and-altar narrative that they found so oppressive. "Proto" because it was "first-stage" modern--while it indeed rejected the premodern, it was not purely modern because driven by religious motives rooted in English Calvinism. The purely modern is purely secular.

The New England Calvinists were watching mid-century events in England with interest, and they were sorely disappointed when the Cromwell dictatorship ended and the English brought back the Stewarts. And the compromise some years later, called for some odd reason the "glorious revolution," which brought in some German Protestants to sit on the throne while establishing the popish Anglican religion, was not greeted in New England with much cheer.

And so there was always in the Puritan soul this itch to finish well what in their view ended badly for their English cousins. The American Revolution, at least for the New England radicals, was as much motivated by this religiously grounded longing as it was by any resentment the New Englanders had about taxes. Indeed the taxes were probably more of a trigger of this smoldering, deep-seated ambition to kill the king once and for all. In this sense the American Revoultion was the second stage of the English Civil War, just as the English Civil War was the first stage of the American Revolution.

The planters in the American South had a lot more in common with the landed aristocracy in England than the New Englanders did, but some like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, while not particularly religiously fervid, were very much influenced by the rationalist ideals of the French Enlightenment. And it was they, along with other Enlightenment rationalists like Ben Franklin, who constituted the other wing of patriotic motivation for the American Revolution, and their motivations were much closer to the secular spirit of what happened in France a few years later.

The American Revolution, therefore,was a hybrid of nativist Puritan religious fanaticism and imported secular French rationality, and this defines a split that has riven the American psyche since the revlutionary and framing era. The French Revolution was also a bourgeois-driven revolt seeking, as the English Puritans did almost a century and a half earlier, to destroy the crown-and-altar narrative as it shaped French culture and politics. But unlike the English revolt it was much more purely secularist in its orientation than the earlier revolt in England.

So the post-revolutionary situation in America was in some important ways more complex than it was and is now in France. It's this fundamental tension between the religious and the secular in American identity that is causing so much of the confusion now when it comes to the gay marriage issue or whether the ten commandments should be displayed in courthouse lobbies. There is ver little that I've read that's made any attempt to sort out the confusion, so this is my attempt to do so.

The framers had a foot in two worlds, one in Enlightenment rationality and the other in Calvinist Christianity. And civil law, with its primary focus on the protection of rights and the enforcement of contracts and other civil obligations, had not yet been fully separated from an older kind of law very much shaped by the Christian moral tradition.The story of American jurisprudence, it seems to me, is the story of its becoming more clearly defined in its secularity as it separated its civil
principles from its inherited traditional relgious ones grounded in moral law.

And this process was moved forward only when laws based on the old moral traditions were challenged. All kinds of "blue laws" from the pre-constitutional period lingered even into the twentieth century because they were never challenged.

We don't live in a theocracy. The Enlightenment-inspired framers of the Constitution insured that by insisting on the separation of church and state, but we still live in a country where that theocratic dream of the early Puritans still lingers, even if just subliminally in some precincts of the American psyche, and so our thinking about it tends still to be rather muddled.

So much more can be said and needs to be said about this muddle--and I intend to in future columns that I'll be sending out. But the important point is this, that while the secular/religious split in the American psyche is a source of much confusion, it's also a source of an interesting dynamic that gives American life its peculiar spiritual vibrancy, a vibrancy you just don't find in Europe these days.

As I've said or implied in columns I've sent out already, the whole Puritan/Calvinist syndrome has to be transcended, and it will as we move into what I really want to start talking about, which I'm calling a post-secular era of American spirituality. In my view nothing much important is going to happen in the political sphere until something like this gels in the cultural sphere. All genuine human aspiration is spiritual in nature, but but now this spirituality has to be defined in a postmodern, post-secular idiom.

I am personally convinced that one of the chief reasons that a genuine progressive politics (not the tepid Democratic Party variety) has failed to get any real traction in the United States since the civil rights movement is because it so linked in the public imagination with the secular side of the American psyche, which itself is very uncomfortable with the religious side, which in its more generous moods it tolerates with a kind of patronizing disdain. But every substantive, culture-wide, progressive social movement in American history has been inspired by religious or spiritual ideals.

I very seriously doubt that secular left will ever offer a genuine way forward for Americans. They have nothing to offer except their critique, which as incisive as it often is, does little to help us envision a way forward. At best they'll be tag-alongs as they were during the days of the civil rights movement. But right now there is nothing for them to tag along on, and that's why we are as a culture so profoundly directionless.


Thursday, February 26, 2004

Political Cynicism II. In case you need reminding about any specifics regarding the Karl Rove m.o., from today's Salon by Tim Grieve:

But if history teaches one thing about Bush and Rove and their allies on the right, it's that they're not afraid to use nasty political tactics on divisive social issues if they think it will help them win an election.

And history teaches one more thing: They're good at it.

It's Texas, 1994, and Karl Rove is running George W. Bush's campaign against Gov. Ann Richards. Bush appears to be in for an uphill fight against a popular incumbent, but then the whispers and the rumors start. Maybe there's a lesbian working for Richards. Maybe she's using state funds to visit her lover. Maybe Richards herself is gay.

" There was a lot of whispering going on in the backwater," says Bill Cryer, a former newsman who worked as Richards' press secretary. "I don't think anybody ever really thought Ann Richards was gay, but somebody was trying to plant the seed."

Bush says nothing about the rumors, but he doesn't have to. The stories are everywhere, and one day a Bush surrogate -- a state senator serving as Bush's East Texas campaign chairman, a guy who just happens to have worked with Rove -- says just enough about the rumors to get the word into the press. Richards' appointments of "avowed homosexuals," he tells a reporter, might be a liability in her campaign for reelection.

Just like that, the allegation is on the record, the rumors become newspaper stories, and Bush becomes governor of Texas.

Six years later, it's South Carolina, and Bush is running for the Republican presidential nomination against Arizona Sen. John McCain. The rumors start again, and this time McCain is the target. Maybe he's mentally unstable; maybe he has "sired" an illegitimate black child; maybe his wife has a drug problem. "A day in the McCain campaign looked like a day at NORAD watching missiles coming across the screen," says Trey Walker, who served as McCain's national field director. "We had a thousand missiles coming in every day."

After McCain meets with a group of gay Republicans, somebody sends anonymous letters about the meeting to South Carolina legislators who had endorsed him. Somebody distributes a flier calling McCain the "fag candidate."

Bush wins South Carolina, then the Republican nomination, then the presidency.

I think that the other thing that might be different this time around is that in both the Richards campaign and the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush was an unknown quantity without much of a record of his own to attack. In addition the Rove/Bush strategy was in both those campaigns very effective in keeping the media spotlight focused on his opponents' negatives rather than on Bush's, and that just isn't going to happen this time.

If the Dems let Rove/Bush get away with this kind of thing in this election they deserve to lose. But that's why the Dems have to stay on the attack. The longer the GOP defense is on the field, the less time and credibility it'll have for an effective offense.

I don't think this Gay Marriage issue is going to work this time. It doesn't quite fit the formula because it's too out in the open now. I think the Rove strategy works most effectively at the level of innuendo and rumor, because then it has a more troubling, quasi-conscious effect that makes people feel uncomfortable or negatively inclined toward a candidate for reasons they haven't thought through.

The truth of the matter is that most people just haven't thought much about what they really think or feel about this particular issue. And now they're forced to. It's something that most people have just always thought was wrong, well, because that's just the way it's always been thought of. And while there are many who will continue to support the idea of denying gays their civil rights, I doubt that there's a majority of Americans who would be as likely to insist on it if they are forced to think about it in those terms.

So I think there's an advantage that the debate is in the open. But the Dems have to be aggressive in their defense of the fairness principle. If they stand strong on that, if they don't waffle but state very clearly that they are standing on principle, they should be ok with that swing group in the middle, which really is the only constituency to worry about. The GOP has a solid 45%; the Dems do, too. The main theater of action in this war is focusd on that remaining ten percent.

This gay-marriage strategy might very well be an example of how Rove is losing his footing. As I've said before I don't think Rove deals well with the pressure that comes when his candidate is on the defensive. In this case, he needed to come up with a big offensive ploy, and this Gay Marriage Amendment is it. But he may have overplayed it, and there's a very good chance that this whole thing will backfire on him, because he needs to worry more about the people in the middle than he does about the religious right who has no where else to go.

And as it becomes clearer to these swing voters that Bush is moving more to represent the the interests of the extremist cultural right, more and more will come to see him as who they thought he was--the compassionate conservative who is into uniting, not dividing. He never was that, of course, but this gay marriage issue is flushing that fact about him into the open, and I question whether that's really going to help him with the swing voters.


Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Political Cynicism to the Nth Degree. That's Karl Rove's m.o. Even Andrew Sullivan is catching on. In his column today he finally calls a spade a spade in recognizing that the Bush Administration cares about nothing except its own political calculus. Here's Sullivan:

Rather than allow the contentious and difficult issue of equal marriage rights to be fought over in the states, rather than let politics and the law take their course, rather than keep the Constitution out of the culture wars, this president wants to drag the very founding document into his re-election campaign. He is proposing to remove civil rights from one group of American citizens - and do so in the Constitution itself. The message could not be plainer: these citizens do not fully belong in America. Their relationships must be stigmatized in the very Constitution itself. The document that should be uniting the country will now be used to divide it, to single out a group of people for discrimination itself, and to do so for narrow electoral purposes. Not since the horrifying legacy of Constitutional racial discrimination in this country has such a goal been even thought of, let alone pursued. Those of us who supported this president in 2000, who have backed him whole-heartedly during the war, who have endured scorn from our peers as a result, who trusted that this president was indeed a uniter rather than a divider, now know the truth.

Maybe someday he'll see that in Karl Rove's cynical mind all Iraq ever was for him was an opportunity to get the POTUS in a flight suit for that photo op on that aircraft carrier.

Government isn't in the marriage business; it's in the contracts business. Why is this so hard for conservatives to grasp? If gays want to enter into a contractual or covenantal commitment, on what grounds does the government have reason to deny them? The intellectual incoherence of the administration is hidden in the fog of confusion about traditional moral qualms many Americans have about homosexual behaviors. But morality and rights are two different categories of things. That's the great contribution of modern social democracies--they found a way preserve civil order in a pluralistic society without relying on the particularism of specific religious traditions and their moral codes.

The principle at stake here is that the government is not about legislating traditional morality. It's about preserving rights--that's a big enough job. We don't live in a theocracy. The morality or immorality of homosexual acts is for individuals to work out in their individual consciences or in the context of their church communities. The civil government should have nothing to say about it. If you haven't read it already, see my 2/12 post on the matter.


Monday, February 23, 2004

Nader is Nada, Factorwise. Nader's entry into the race makes 2004 look even more like 2000, but this time all the indicators are that the Dems are not going to blow this election. Nader in 2000 was a factor, no doubt, in Gore's losing the race, but there were a lot of other factors as well. Nader will not be the factor this time that he was in 2000.

While it's understandable that Dems are angry that any votes will be taken away in what many fear will be a close election, no way Nader's going to get anywhere close to the votes got in 2000. This is not an election in which the left leaning will be inclined to cast "message" votes, no matter how dissatisfied they are with the Democratic Party establishment. Their goal is to get Bush out, no matter what.

It depends on what Nader's approach will be. It's quite possible that he could be a positive for the Dems. The Dems have to keep the GOP on the defensive. If Nader can help in that by attacking Bush in ways that the Dems are too timid to do, all the better. Like Michael Moore catalyzing the whole AWOL issue. If, on the other hand, he starts attacking Kerry as a corporate shill, well so it goes. (I'm assuming here that we're done with surprises, and Edwards will fail to overtake Kerry in the primaries. But we'll know for sure by next week.)

Kerry is Gore without all the Clinton baggage. Gore inherited the hostility directed toward him by the Beltway establishment and its media. And he chose not to benefit from Clinton's positives. He distanced himself from Clinton during the campaign, which was too bad. Clinton was a liability within the Beltway mindwarp, but he was a positive out in the real world outside of it. He would have been a big positive for Gore campaigning for him out on the hustings. Gore was an easier mark, and the media picked up with Gore where it left off with Clinton. I don’t think Kerry will have to deal with the same level of negative media intensity that Gore did, no matter what dirty tricks the GOP cooks up this time.

The more important factor that distinguishes 2004 from 2000 is that Bush and the GOP are in a strategically much weaker position now compared to then. The GOP was able to play mostly offense in 2000. This year they’re going to have to play a lot more defense. Karl Rove is much less sure footed when he’s playing on his heels.

The Democrats won in the popular vote in 2000, and they would have won electorally if they were playing on a level field in Florida. Kerry is beating Bush in the polls by a significant margin right now, and while Bush will surely make up some of that ground, it's hard to see how things can get significantly better for him for reasons I elaborated in my 2/6 post. If anything, Bush's situation is as likely to get worse.

There are always surprises, as the whole Howard Dean phenomenon demonstrated, and the unexpected should be expected, but I don’t think I’m indulging in wishful thinking here. This election should be the Dems to lose. It was theirs to lose in 2000 as well, and they managed somehow to do it, but this time there are too many things working against that happening.


Saturday, February 21, 2004

Moving On. Not much time this week, so not much blogging. Big news of the week, of course, is Howard Dean's dropping out of the race. It's hard to believe that a month ago he was everyone's favorite to win. Everybody's being nice to him now that he's gone--giving him credit for energizing the party, blah, blah, blah. Bottom line is that precisely what made him attractive to so many people who are sick to death of politicians as usual is precisely what made his candidacy an impossibility.

Dean was to the Democrats in 2004 what McCain was for the Republicans in 2000. He was an independent-minded, anti- "party establishment" (ie DLC) candidate who threatened the Beltway status quo. He was as disliked by Democrat insiders as he was by the Republicans, and that establishment was bent on destroying his candidacy. The voters, it is true, are the ones who rejected his candidacy, but they did so because they were convinced he wasn't electable. Sure, but who convinced them of that?

The conventional wisdom was that Dean was 'unelectable', but the the unelectable meme was really code for "anti-establishment", which means that Dean would have been disruptive to the conventional thinking of conventional minds who are only comfortable with conventional candidacies. Therefore the conventional wisdom proclaimed that he was unelectable, and now that it looks like it's Kerry, everyone can relax because who, except maybe Lieberman, is a more predictably conventional politician than he?

So my head tells me it's time to move on and start thinking about November, but I have to say that I find the Democratic party establishment only slightly less nauseating than the Republican. I will be the first in line condemning Nader for running again this year, but I understand why. He's not running against Bush, but against the Democratic establishment, which he loathes for good reason. But clearly it's not a good enough reason to risk allowing Bush another four years.


Swing Voters. Andrew Sullivan in his blog yesterday put up this email written to him by a self-identified swing voter:

As an independent, Republican-leaning Edwards supporter. I guess I'm a swing voter - I voted for Clinton in '92, Dole in '96 and Bush in 2000. If Edwards is the nominee, I will vote for him. If Kerry is the nominee - feckless, say-anything, "Do you know who I am?" John Kerry - I will vote for Bush. It's that simple. And I imagine that a big reason Karl Rove is keeping his powder dry on Kerry right now, who's incredibly vulnerable to attack based on his record, is that the White House would much prefer to run against Kerry than Edwards.

I think the Kerry candidacy does make it easier for conservative-leaning centrists like this writer to vote for Bush. The contest boils down to an establishment conservative vs. an establishment liberal. People who are inclined to conventional conservatism don't have to think that hard about it. Bush is an easy choice for them. People who are conventionally liberal don't have to think about it, either.

So essentially with Kerry/Bush we have a redo of the 2000 election--two empty suits running against one another, both representing conventional choices for a more or less evenly divided country that isn't ready yet for anything other than politics as usual. So this time around, the Democrats should win. After all, they really did win it in 2000, and if anything Bush is a far weaker candidate now than he was then. It will come down to conventional perceptions of character, and unless there are skeletons in Kerry's closet that have yet to emerge, Kerry should win the character contest. That's not saying much for Kerry.

We'll see how it plays out on the presidential level--there's still a remote possibility that Edwards could make things interesting--but I find myself losing interest. It's looking more and more to me that the House races are where the real drama lies. The Chandler win this week in Kentucky is auspicious.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Beltway Mindwarp. It cuts both ways. I've commented on several occasions about how Beltway social psychology distorts reality for those who enter into its precincts, but my focus has been primarily on how its conservative, cliquish culture shapes the media mentality, which in turn distorts how our national politics is presented to the rest of the nation. The New York Times might publish out of New York, but its political coverage is done by people who live and work within the Beltway. The same is true for all the other major print and electronic media.

Well, Kos has some interesting things to say today about its effect on the political mentality of Beltway Democrats whose minds and spines have been severely warped by the Beltway effect. It reinforces the point that I make in my recently sent out Column 14, these dudes don't lead; they react. They think they're players at the center of the universe, but they're essentially clueless, visionless hacks who need to be directed. If we as "the people" don't direct them, we get the politics we deserve. Kos's whole piece is worth reading but here are some key grafs:

Those people can't see the forest for the trees. It's groupthink central -- they go to the same cocktail parties, consume the same media, and otherwise lose complete touch with the rest of the country. It goes like this: Person A to Person B: Bush is a popular wartime leader, we can't win. Person B to Person C: Bush is a popular wartime leader, we can't win. Person C to Person A: Bush is a popular wartime leader, we can't win. Person A responds: That's what I've been saying!

But something happened -- the "establishment" got an awakening from the people.

He goes on to talk about Bush's declining poll numbers and then ends with:

All across the party establishment there is a renewed energy and sense of purpose and the realization that we can, in fact, win.

And the key to all of this is us. While the party leaders in DC were lamenting their sad lot in life, Democrats started turning out in droves to cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Even after Kerry ran away with it, they still came out in record numbers. And those "fired up Democrats" were also talking to their friends and neighbors and coworkers, so Bush's poll numbers dropped some more.

It wasn't the party leadership that led -- it was us. It was the blogosphere. It was people who wouldn't know how to turn on a computer. It was me. It was you. We took control of this party, and they never saw it coming.

And sure, like any seismic shift in the status quo, there are those who resist. But they'll be roadkill. The DNC, DSCC and DCCC all have blogs now. So do allied party organizations like the New Democrat Network.

So while some may crow about Dean's demise, and the demise of the blogs and the Internet, their victory was Pyrrhic. If the Dean supporters were being marginalized, if the Netroots strategy was discredited, I would be unemployed. But my firm has never been in greater demand.

We demanded a voice in the process, and we got it.

We won. The Democratic Party's grassroots won. The question now is what we do with our newfound influence.

There's the rub. What do we do with our newfound influence? The only honest answer is that a real consensus has not yet developed about that, except to get the GOP out. It's easy to say No, but do the 'people' have the will to say a sustained Yes? If so to what? It's not the politicians' fault that our political life is so directionless; it's our fault. We're getting the politics we deserve until we get real clear about what we want to happen, not just in a negative sense--ie, kicking people out--but in the sense of commitment to a positive program.

What's the program? It has to start with curbing the influence of big money. I see this as the single most important issue and without having dealt with it effectively, nothing substantive is possible in the political sphere.

Then what? Energy and Healthcare are the two most pressing issues of national domestic concern, but they have to be addressed within the context of returning the country to fiscal sanity.

In foreign policy we need to find our way to a saner, more practical, shrewd, ie, prudent, strategy of dealing with the terrorist threat. How refreshing it will be to see the world once again without having to look through the distorting lens of neocon ideology.

We have to take a good, hard look at the WTO, World Bank, and IMF and how these institutions are ideologically blinkered to favor corporate interests and the interests of other international elites. The market isn't a metaphysical principle, but justice is. There's too much of the former and not enough of the latter in our thinking about international economics.

There's much more, but effective progress in any one of these areas would be remarkable. We can talk nuts and bolts issues later. But now its mainly a question of developing some solidarity about what needs to happen, and it starts with restraints on the influence of big money. Does the American people have the will to effect significant change on that basic issue?


Monday, February 16, 2004

Neocon Masterminds. In a long article former neocon and executive editor of The National Interest Michael Lind gives his take on the real influence of neocons on American policy making. He debunks David Brook's disingenuous assertion

that only "full-mooners" believe that neoconservative institutions like the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) have any influence on Bush Administration policy because PNAC "has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy." But PNAC disseminates the views not of its paid staffers, receptionists and interns, but of powerful Administration insiders like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in the same way that the Committee on the Present Danger used to broadcast the views of Paul Nitze and Gene Rostow, who as government officials were guarded in their own public comments.

He goes on to lay out in great detail the interconnections between all the key players in the neocon movement and PNAC and to make clear, if it still needs to be made so, that for these ideologues Iraq never had much to do with terrorism, and that 9/11 was simply a pretext for pursuing a policy they had been promoting since the early '90s.

I have commented before on Leo Strauss's elitist notion that it's ok to deceive the electorate because it doesn't know what is in the national interest. I've bought into the idea that this has contributed to the neocons' justification for the nonsense the administration purveyed about its reasons for going into Iraq, but here's Lind's take:

But too much can be made of the mendacity of the neocons. The influence of Leo Strauss's teachings about the need for the "philosophers" to conceal the truth from the masses can be exaggerated. The conviction on the part of neocons of their own rectitude may be sufficient, in their minds, to justify deception of the public in matters like Iraq's nonexistent threat to the United States. After all, they are waging World War IV against--well, against whomever--a revived Russia this year, China the next, and the next year a vague "Islamist" threat that somehow contains anti-Islamist Baathists and secular Palestinians along with Osama bin Laden. In their own minds, the neocons are Churchillian figures, a heroic minority who, as they battle a generic "totalitarianism" of which radical Islam is the latest manifestation, are handicapped by cowardly establishment "appeasers" and purveyors of a decadent "adversary culture" among the "new class" in the academy and the media.

I don't doubt that many leading neocons sincerely wanted to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the Iraqi masses would embrace Ahmad Chalabi as their de Gaulle, that there would be a democratic domino effect in the Middle East, bringing pro-Israel and pro-American secularists to power. Now that they have been proven wrong, at enormous cost in American and Iraqi life, they are disoriented. Instead of acknowledging and taking responsibility for their catastrophic failure, they are desperately trying to avoid blame.

Unfortunately for them, a political ideology can fail in the real world only so many times before being completely discredited. For at least two decades, in foreign policy the neocons have been wrong about everything. When the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, the hawks of Team B and the Committee on the Present Danger declared that it was on the verge of world domination. In the 1990s they exaggerated the power and threat of China, once again putting ideology ahead of the sober analysis of career military and intelligence experts. The neocons were so obsessed with Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat that they missed the growing threat of Al Qaeda. After 9/11 they pushed the irrelevant panaceas of preventive war and missile defense as solutions to the problems of hijackers and suicide bombers.

They said Saddam had WMDs. He didn't. They said he was in league with Osama bin Laden. He wasn't. They predicted that no major postwar insurgency in Iraq would occur. It did. They said there would be a wave of pro-Americanism in the Middle East and the world if the United States acted boldly and unilaterally. Instead, there was a regional and global wave of anti-Americanism.

David Brooks and his colleagues in the neocon press are half right. There is no neocon network of scheming masterminds--only a network of scheming blunderers. As a result of their own amateurism and incompetence, the neoconservatives have humiliated themselves. If they now claim that they never existed--well, you can hardly blame them, can you?

These are the supposed grownups who took over our foreign policy.


Sunday February 15, 2004

Dear Prudence. Prudence is a virtue that doesn't get the credit it deserves. It's got an image problem in its being associated with words like "prude" that suggest priggish and uptight. In general we think of a prudent person as someone overly careful, timorous, and risk averse. If someone were to describe you as prudent, chances are you wouldn't take it as a compliment. Prudent people are, in Dennis Miller's terms, "wusses."

The word, 'prude', you might be interested to learn (maybe not), has nothing etymologically to do with prudence because it derives from an early French word that means 'pride', while prudence derives from the Latin providens, which means foreseeing. But its root meaning also suggests 'discretion' and 'wisdom'--or to say it another way, 'shrewdness'.

The American decision to invade Iraq lacked prudence. It lacked intelligence; it lacked discretion. It was not shrewd.

Prudence would have suggested another approach after 9/11, one that is poised and clearheaded. Terrorism is a nasty fact of contemporary life and its roots are deep and complex. Terrorism is what the weak do to the strong because they have no other way of inflicting damage on those whom they perceive as their enemies. But it's also what the strong do to the weak to keep them in line. Maybe the strong, especially if they aspire toward moral leadership, should consider the possibility that they have other options.

9/11 was the terrorist version of "shock and awe," and it worked. So the US decided to strike back in kind. But whether patriotic Americans want to face the fact or not, there were thousands more innocents killed by the American shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq than the terrorist shock-and-awe campaign in New York and Washington. We never hear about that in the media echo chamber, do we? Those lives don't count, so we don't count them.

I know, there's a moral difference between the civilian deaths inflicted intentionally in a terrorist attack and those that occur because of collateral damage. But tell that to the Iraqi families of those who died. That's why you don't choose to go to war unless you're absolutely sure. And that's why the whole business about our not finding any WMD is so devastatingly ironic. It wasn't ever the administration's real reason for going to war, and it turns out it to be even more false than the false thing it was all along. It's as if the cosmos was telling those for whom it was't already obvious, "This adventure completely lacked intelligence. Don't you get it? How much more clearly do you need it spelled out for you?"

War hawks like Charles Krauthammer, Andrew Sullivan, and others who buy into the idea that this attack on Iraq was necessitated by 9/11 are essentially buying into the macho Israeli mentality that when you get hit, you hit back even harder. That's the only thing them Ay-rabs understand--raw displays of power. We can argue about whether this policy has served the Israelis particularly well, but at least for them it's understandable. They are a small country surrounded by enemies, and they fear for their survival.

But is there any country whose position could be more opposite to that of the Israelis than ours after 9/11? Our survival was hardly at stake. We didn't have to strike back in kind. We were the strongest military power in the history of the universe surrounded by the world's sympathy and good will. We had time to think things through and to come up with a more intelligent, imaginative response. In other words we had time to be prudent. But we chose the rashest, most primitive response, the one guaranteed mostly likely to be the most destructive and costly. And so it has proven to be.


Saturday, February 14, 2004

Why the AWOL Story Matters. A majority of Americans polled this week say that it shouldn't be an issue. I suspect in large part they think so because they they see it with a dose of skepticism--this is as politics as usual, and they don't really believe there's much substance to the story. I think that kind of skepticism is a healthy response. Most Americans exhibited it with regard to Clinton's affair with Lewinski. I think an awful lot of them were more disgusted with the Republican sanctimony and hypocrisy and for their forcing the country to have to wallow in business that was essentially none of its business.

And it's possible that a lot of Americans may respond to the AWOL story in the same way. People want to think well of their president. There is a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance that will make it difficult for people who have had a favorable opinion of Bush to accept that what this episode in his life really says about the quality of man he is. It's news from thirty years a go. The evidence is ambiguous and confusing. They don't want to know about it or deal with it.

And that's why this story is important. Because this is a Potemkin Presidency. This guy is a fraud, and it's about time the American people found out about it. He's a complete mediocrity who has been stage managed his entire career. He was anointed by the powers behind the GOP precisely because he would be so easy to direct. The absolutely worst thing that could have happened to the GOP in 2000 would have been for someone with substance and an independent mind like John McCain to have been their nominee. So they destroyed his candidacy with their dirty tricks and smears.

The Republicans are experts at creating a fantasy that plays to what Americans want to believe about themselves and they promote hollow men like Ronald Reagan and George Bush to play their parts to perpetuate this fraud on the electorate. I don't know how this AWOL thing will play out, but if it helps even in the slightest way to snap the American electorate out of their GOP-induced trance, I'm hopeful it will stay alive for some time to come.

I'm going skiing.


Thursday, February 12, 2004

Bush AWOL Story. Not going away. It's likely to morph into other stories that have the potential to be more troubling. USA Today does a piece on how his files were cleansed of any "embarrassing" material. And then there's this question about why he never took that physical exam and never flew again after May of '72.


Gay Marriage. I'm going to be sending out a series of columns soon in which I explore basic tensions shaping American culture and lifestyle, the tensions between freedom and tradition, the secular and the spiritual, and the progressive and conservative. None of the paired elements coexist easily and yet most people are torn between them, wanting their cake and to eat it too. They are the source of many a family feud around the Thanksgiving table. And no issue gets to the heart of all three pairs like the tension between the two words "gay" and "marriage."

No lifestyle is more antithetical to traditional American values than the gay lifestyle, and yet here are gay men and women demanding to be as traditional as any other American with lifelong vows and kids and everything else your typical middle class family wants. And gays can holler homophobia all they want, but they have to recognize that for a lot of Americans the combination of these two words just causes the psyche to short out.

It may be, at least in the short run, too much to expect that these two words accepted into the mainstream American culture along with apple pie and Fourth of July picnics. But it's not too much that they should be given civil legitimacy. All fair-minded Americans would be loathe to deny basic civil rights to any group, and that's essentially what's at stake here.

But words matter. In some polling I've seen a majority of Americans have favorable attitudes toward the idea of "civil unions," but unfavorable attitudes toward the phrase "gay marriage." Why? Because the two words that compose the phrase "civil union" fit comfortably together; they have a secular, civil rights connotation, which is what's at issue. Governments should be in the business of promoting and protecting every citizen's civil rights.

The problem people have with the phrase "gay marriage" lies in its being composed of two words that don't fit comfortably together. It combines an anti-traditional word with a traditional word, and that's where things start getting confusing, and understandably so.

The conundrum facing the Massachusetts legislature right now derives from this mixing of worlds, the civil/secular with the traditional/religious. Civil union, as it is legally defined confers fewer rights than does the legal definition of marriage, so the legislature is stuck with a legal problem that requires that it use a word with traditional connotations.

If it's not possible to redefine more broadly what civil unions would mean in Massachusetts law, they should use the the phrase "civil marriage," to distinguish it from traditional marriage, because the state has competency only within the civil or political sphere. It is not within the competency of the courts and legislature to confer onto gays acceptance into the traditional American mainstream, but they can and should promote and protect their "civil" rights. Acceptance in the cultural sphere may come in time, but that has to work its way out in a different way.

My guess is that the problem that most "homophobic" (a stupid, unfair word) Americans have with "gayness" is that they don't know any flesh-and-blood, ordinary gay couples who are just trying to live their lives like any other middle-class Americans. When they think about gays, they think of them as wildly promiscuous hedonists cavorting in bathhouses and in the shrubbery of their public parks. That's there, for sure, but is it behavior any more morally offensive than the wildly promiscuous behavior of heterosexuals? But neither promiscuous gays nor heterosexuals are asking for legitimacy; they just want to be left alone. And they should be.

But those gays who want to be married are saying that they are not that, that they don't want to be that, and that they want to be publicly recognized as other than that. In fact, as conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in his 11/23/03 column, traditionalists should be promoting gay marriage rather than opposing it:

Some conservatives may have latched onto biological determinism (men are savages who need women to tame them) as a convenient way to oppose gay marriage. But in fact we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender. We're moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.
When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote.

Marriage is not voting. It's going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination. 

Brook's thinking in will become more typical as what I've been describing elsewhere as the emerging fusion culture becomes more of what we think of as mainstream--traditional values are retrieved and then applied in nontraditional ways.


Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Duckspeak. I have commented on a few occasions about the chilling Orwellian quality of this administration's rhetoric. Christopher Ketcham has a great piece in Salon (subscription needed) analyzing Bush's Meet the Press interview as an Orwellian exercise in Duckspeak. Some key grafs.:

Duckspeak, of course, is the language celebrated in George Orwell's "1984." Characterized by mindless invocation and the repetition of slogans, it was the highest form of speech in Orwell's nightmare demolition of the English language, Newspeak. Orwell wrote:

"Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning 'to quack like a duck'."

Loud honking sounds emanated from Bush as soon as the interview started and were most clearly heard after Russert pointed out the numerous times that Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and the president himself said there was "no doubt" that Saddam had WMD. "I don't want to get into word contests," Bush told Russert. Translated from the duckspeak: Words mean nothing.

Then Ketcham gives an example of how it works by looking at some of Russert's questions and then at Bush's responses translated into Duckspeak. An example:

Tim Russert: On Friday, you announced a committee, commission, to look into intelligence failures regarding the Iraq War and our entire intelligence community. You have been reluctant to do that for some time. Why?

President Bush: Quack quack quack winning the war against the terrorists. Quack quack war against terrorists quack war quack hide in caves quack quack quack shadowy networks quack rogue nations. Quack good intelligence system. We need really good intelligence quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack fighting this war on terror.

Duckspeak in an environment of visceral fear generates hypnotic compliance. It's how governments get their ducks in a line. The statement: "9/11 changes everything" is another example of Duckspeak. It's used now to justify just about anything the government wants to do. And because the very phrase 9/11 evokes such fear and anger in the American collective psyche, Americans are inclined to let the government go and do it.

Terrorism is real and it will be a continuing threat. But our response to it has to be prudent, measured, and sane. Reasonable people can disagree about the strategy to most effectively cope with the terrorist threat. But our response since 9/11 has not been measured and sane, and I am certain that our invasion of Iraq will be perceived by future generations as an hysterical response by a nation which has temporarily (I hope) lost its wits.

Update: After writing the above I came across an interesting article by Maureen Farrell in which she asks where all the principled conservatives have gone. A question I've been wondering about myself. She uses the following quotes to introduce her article. Irving Kristol, of course is one of the earliest and most influential of the neoconservatives. Goering doesn't need an intro. They are an apt complement to what's presented above.

" If the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win.... The American people had never heard of Grenada. There was no reason why they should have. The reason we gave for the intervention--the risk to American medical students there--was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on, but they backed the president. They always will." -- Irving Kristol, The Fettered Presidency,1989

" Of course the people don't want war...that is understood. But voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger." Hermann Goering

Every time you hear Kerry or whomever called unpatriotic because of his opposition to the Iraq War or being soft on terrorism, that's Duckspeak. It's about quashing debate not engaging in it. Debate takes too much thought, uses too many words, and that's the last thing Duckspeakers want--for people to actually think about what we're doing.


Monday, February 9, 2004

Meet the Press Postmortems. The liberal response is pretty predictable, but it's interesting to note that conservatives weren't very crazy about it either. Here's the Salon War Room roundup of conservative responses to the Russert interview:

Peggy Noonan watched Bush's Meet the Press performance and the former Reagan speechwriter concluded that this president just isn't good at interviews. "The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared. He seemed in some way disconnected from the event."

Noonan wasn't the only conservative griping about Bush's missed opportunity to defend his record. John Podhoretz in the New York Post said Bush "didn't deliver a peak performance on Meet the Press yesterday in the midst of the dreariest days of his presidency," and gave a rundown of other conservatives' criticisms. "National Review magazine's Web site was firing on all cylinders as participants in its blog, The Corner, threw brick after brick at the president. Talk-show host Michael Graham called it a 'disaster.' Rod Dreher, formerly of this paper and now of the Dallas Morning News, said Bush made him wince: 'He looked nervous, defensive and intellectually insecure.' The vituperative John Derbyshire called Bush 'pretty dismal.'"

For his part, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan called the president "frighteningly unaware of the reality of his own legacy and policies," referring to the Bush budget. "That's the only conclusion you can draw from his answers on Tim Russert. Either that, or he really is lying," Sullivan wrote.

People are beginning to see Bush as he is unobscured by the fog of war. He's an affable mediocrity who has very little grasp of the issues. He's like a lazy, incurious student who's been coasting most of the quarter but who crams just before the exam. In response to questions he says this and that which more or less relate to the question, but the answers are fragmentary and superficial.

Regarding the AWOL issue, James Moore has this to say:

An exceedingly well-prepared interviewer, Russert went after the president on his time in the Texas Air National Guard. In fact, he was the first to ask Mr. Bush if he would release his pay records for days spent on duty. Each day he reported to fly his F-102, Mr. Bush would have been paid and there should be a record. These receipts, or stubs, are the simplest method for determining if the president was carrying out his sworn commitment to defend the U.S. None have ever been seen. Mr. Bush told Russert that, of course, he would release the records, and that he had already done so during the 2000 campaign. Not exactly, Mr. President.

Mr. Bush has authorized only the release of his records from Texas National Guard files. And his Military Personnel Records Jacket from Texas is missing many things. There should be pay stubs for every day served, a roll-up of total retirement points earned for service, and, most likely, an Officers’ Board of Inquiry Report on why a pilot, who had spent $1 million dollars learning to fly a jet in war time, was suspended. These records, if they exist, have been committed to microfiche and are on file at the Air Reserve Personnel Headquarters in Denver. And, regardless of the president’s parsing of language, he has not yet authorized the release to the public of his full service record from Denver.

Why not? Every president in American history has signed a form to provide the public with all information on his time in the military. In South Carolina, when John McCain was getting beaten up by Karl Rove operatives over possible mental health problems from too many years in captivity, McCain ordered the full release of his military file. Immediately, the issue went away. John Kerry, John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and everyone who has ever aspired to or held the office of the presidency, has given every detail of their military service to the people who had to decide whether they were fit to lead the country. George W. Bush has not.


Check out this chart tracking Bush's approval ratings. James Galbraith does a Salon article about how the only thing that has buoyed Bush in the polls has been 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and a little bump after the capture of Saddam.


Galbraith comments:

We cannot say that the erosion will continue as Bush's approval slips into "red" territory -- below the 48 percent or so who supported him to begin with. Indeed, there is no evidence that Bush's Republican base has eroded at all. What we can infer, reasonably, is that there is a strong tendency in the electorate to revert, over time, to the sharp and narrow division of the last election. Tick, tock.

The numbers tell us one other thing: 9/11 was worth 36 points of approval over two months. The Iraq war was worth a bit over 12 points, again over two months. The capture of Saddam was worth five points in one month.

Galbraith goes on to point out that the only likely thing that could boost Bush's approval ratings would be the capture of Osama. But I would take issue with his assertion that his approval ratings are not likely to go below the 48% mark for reasons explained last week. Things could deteriorate significantly for Bush barring an Osama capture or some other terrorists-related event.


Sunday, February 8, 2004

Kerry Mojo. Kerry seems pretty unstoppable. In my corner of the world Dean did pretty well in the Seattle districts which have been overwhelmingly antiwar from the beginning, but Kerry dominated everywhere else. So it's getting to that point when it's time to do the Dean postmortems. It's an astonishing story, really. On Larry King Dean blamed it on a combination of the Beltway insiders, the media, and of course the other candidates ganging up on him in the weeks before Iowa.

Greg Easterbrook dismissed Dean's reasoning as "conspiracy theory." (I am so sick of this phrase used so cavalierly. For an interesting piece on how this phrase is being overused to dismiss anything you don't agree with see Zachary Roth's CJR piece.) Easterbrook says the bottom line is that it's the voters who rejected Dean. Indeed they have, but if Easterbrook doesn't think that the Beltway establishment, its media, and especially Dick Gebhardt didn't have anything to do with profoundly influencing voter perceptions of Dean, he's just blinded by his own Beltway insider biases.

But why Kerry? I think that Charles Krauthammer puts his finger on it in his Friday column. The key moment that defined for voters at the "visceral level" that Krauthammer talks about was when that guy came forward to tell the story how Kerry saved his life in Vietnam. Until then Kerry was just this droning politician. At that moment he became larger than life, and as such a real alternative to Dean who voters would have stuck with for want of someone else who stood out.

People were growing increasingly uncomfortable with Dean for the reasons I think he correctly identified on Larry King. But Kerry became the guy Americans could feel comfortable with because in a post 9/11 world you want a guy that knows what war is. Until that guy came forward, Kerry was just an empty suit, a politician like any other politician. Howard Dean was the guy who stood out as the one who had the courage of his convictions. But when Kerry emerged in that moment, an awful lot of Democrats said to themselves, "Where have you been all my life?"


I'll have something to say about the Russert/Bush event when I've had a chance to read the transcript. I missed it live.


Saturday, February 7, 2004

Caucus Day in Washington. Just came back. Interesting, energizing experience. Big, big turnout with lots of people all riled up about the huge mess Bush is making of things. My cluster of precincts was evenly split between Dean's 23 delegates and Kerry's 22. (These are delegates to a county convention that will sort things out later.) From what I've heard from some of the other Seattle-area caucuses, Dean is doing a lot better here than he's done nationwide--not at all clear yet if he has statewide strength. Doubt it.

My precinct had fifty people. At the first tally Kerry had enough votes for 3 delegates; Dean had enough for 2, and the rest were split between Kucinich, Edwards, Clark, and uncommitted. It was interesting to me that Edwards was the weakest of the lot.

So in the second round a bunch went to the uncommitteds which can send an uncommitted delegate. And a Kerry guy switched to Kucinich with the intent to give Kucinich enough votes to qualify for a delegate, which, as it turns out, was the second delegate awarded to Dean after the first round--so Dean lost a delegate to Kucinich. A little bit of neighborhood gamesmanshp there by a Kerry partisan who wanted to weaken Dean's delegate count.

In the end our precinct wound up sending 3 for Kerry, 1 for Dean, 1 for Kucinich, and 1 as an uncomitted..


Inquiring Minds Want to Know. The buzz in the blogosphere is about Bush's decision to go one on one with the reputedly tough questioner Tim Russert on Meet the Press tomorrow. Everybody has his ideas about what questions he should ask the president. Joe Conason's questions in his Salon column yesterday come pretty close to the ones that would be at the top of my list. Lets' rate Russert's toughness on how many of these issues he'll deal with:

1. Given the controversy about your attendance record during your National Guard service, Mr. President, perhaps the best way to resolve matters would be to authorize the release of all of your military records, including pay stubs, Social Security records and so-called retirement-points records. Will you do that? If not, why not, and how can the American people believe that you actually fulfilled your service obligations as everyone else in the Guard was required to do?

2. Mr. President, on page 54 of your autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," you wrote: "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years." But the truth is that you quit flying after less than two years, despite fighter training that cost the taxpayers almost a million dollars. Did your superiors approve your decision to quit flying, or did you just quit on your own? Weren't you suspended from flying in August 1972 after you failed to take a required physical exam? Why didn't you take that physical?

3. Mr. President, I'd like to ask you about the now-famous "mission accomplished" speech you gave on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln outside San Diego last May. You landed on the carrier in a flight suit -- a piece of videotape shown around the world. [Roll tape.] A lot of your critics were appalled by that image. Here's a man who never fought in a war, never saw the danger and horrors of real combat, dressing up like a soldier and proclaiming a victory that, as it turned out, we were far from accomplishing. As you look back on it, has it ever occurred to you, that Eisenhower, who won D-day, never dressed in uniform when he was president; John F. Kennedy, who was a genuine war hero, never dressed in uniform either. Was there something disrespectful to the military in a costume stunt like that? Your thoughts, sir.

4. You have blamed the rapidly rising, unsustainable federal deficits on "out-of-control" domestic spending. But Mr. President, the plain fact, according to every nonpartisan analyst, is that your tax cuts are responsible for a far greater percentage of present and future deficits than spending. Your current budget proposal cuts billions in programs for children and veterans. Wouldn't it be more compassionate -- and more responsible -- to rescind some of the tax breaks for the very wealthiest Americans?

5. Sir, with respect, most economists say that the tax cuts are responsible for no more than 20 percent of the recent economic growth, and that the recession could have been addressed with a short-term stimulus primarily aimed at middle- and working-class tax payers, rather than long-term tax cuts tilted toward the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. These long-term tax cuts for the wealthy are the major cause for these massive structural deficits that we now have and the complete inability to fund some of these programs for children, the elderly and veterans. How does that reflect responsible Republicanism or compassionate conservatism?


Friday, February 6, 2004

Bad Month for Bush. AP reports this morning that 44% of Americans are likely to vote against Bush as opposed to 37% who are likely to vote for him. A month ago the numbers were 41% for 33% against. Bush defenders might say that this is because all the attention is on the Democrats and their campaign to choose their nominee. They're in the spotlight and mostly what they're doing there is bashing Bush. Just wait until the Bush campaign gets rolling, and it starts fighting back.

But here are ten reasons things are likely to get worse for Bush rather than better.

1. The AWOL business is not going to go away. The only way he can make that happen is by releasing all of his military records. If there was nothing to the AWOL story, he would have done that long ago. It's heated up enough for him that the report is that he'll be going on Meet the Press on Sunday. That should be interesting, assuming, that is, that Russert will be an equal-opportunity aggressive jerk in his questioning.

2. The Iraq War isn't going to go away. Americans are dying every day and when more and more Americans start making the connection between Bush the AWOL rich kid and the ordinary Americans who are putting their lives on the line every day over there, most will understandably be turned off.

3. The WMD issue won't go away. Many Americans say they don't care now and think that it was an honest mistake that the administration 100% wrong on this. The Bush people are trying to blame the CIA, but the CIA and State Department, who were always dubious about the war, aren't going to be patsies. And now especially because of #1 and #2 above, they're going to fight back. We saw a little of that yesterday with Tenet's defense of the CIA. The real intel story is not how the CIA failed, but how the administration cherry picked and used their people in OSP to politicize intelligence. The Democrats are sure to make an issue of it. But the bottom line is that Americans are dying in Iraq because of a reckless, poorly- planned, unnecessary war promoted for reasons that turn out not to have been valid producing benefits that don't come close to justifying the costs.

4. The military, for reasons 1, 2, and 3 above, is angry at Bush and Rumsfeld--the generals down to the enlistees. They're also angry because of Rumsfeld's inadequate planning for the post-war phase in Iraq. They're angry because the military is cutting back on benefits. People in the national guard and their families are unhappy because of reason 1 and because they are being deployed far longer than they ever had any expectation of doing. Kerry might be a liberal, but he proved himself a stand-up guy when it mattered. Military opinion has a ripple effect among that sector of the electorate that used to be called the Reagan Democrats who supported Bush in the last election.

5. Principled conservatives are angry at Bush. Fiscal conservatives are angry at the way they were railroaded on the Medicare prescription bill. They're angry at the enormity of the deficits. Cultural conservatives are angry about the new immigration policy. They have nowhere to go, and it's not likely that they'll vote for Kerry, but they're less likely to fight enthusiastically for Bush, and many may not vote at all. He'll be for many Republicans what Gore was for a lot of Democrats in 2000.

6. The Valerie Plame affair will have a damaging effect. News on this is already breaking, and it looks like people from Cheney's office are going to be identified as the culprits. Whether indictments come down on them or not, this cannot help the Bush cause, especially in light of everything listed above, particularly the politicizing of intelligence.

7. The Dick Cheney Factor. Because of the Plame affair. Because of his dour aloofness. Because of the Halliburton connection. Because of his role in exaggerating the threat Iraq posed in the runup to the war. Just because. He's a liability, and there are rumors he might be dropped from the ticket. He hurts Bush one way or the other.

8. The jackal factor. The mainstream media have given Bush a pass so far for lots of complicated reasons--a big part, though, is because they fear power. But when they sense weakness, they pounce. If all of the above-listed reasons continue to work against Bush, the media will gradually come to perceive him too wounded to defend himself effectively, and the press will start treating him as unfairly as it treated Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Bush doesn't have the ballast to withstand that.

9. The Democrats, thanks mainly to Howard Dean, seem to have developed a spine, and it looks like they are going to develop an aggressive, offensive game plan. This will keep the Republicans on their heels, and as I've said before, whichever team has its defense on the field longer loses.

10. Rove missteps. When the pressure's on, you make mistakes. Rove's political surefootedness seems to have abandoned him. He plays good offense but isn't as good in the defensive game. I think it's more likely that he will compound Bush's problems than help him to recover from them.

We could also throw in the possibility that the 9/11 commission might come out with information that will show that the administration was negligent in preparing for an attack like the one that occurred on 9/11. There's also the whole business of the Bush family business connections to the Saudis, and the bin Ladens in particular.

We'll see. Republicans are worried, and they should be. They've made a mess of things, and the public mood has truly shifted against them since the summer. The Democrats can still find a a way to blow this, and the Republicans I'm sure have some tricks up their sleeves. But it's not looking good for them.


Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Sullivan on Howard Dean. Conservative pundit and blogger Andrew Sullivan delivers as eloquent an argument why the Democrats should make Dean their nominee as any I've read. I think the Democrats' focus on electability is not an irrelevant issue, but I think that it's become the tail wagging the dog, and Sullivan rightly points to this as one of the main problems with Democrats--they're too concerned about getting elected and not concerned enough about what they stand for.

That's the problem I have with Kerry. Like many conventional liberals, he seems to believe what he believes more out of habit than out of any real inner conviction. So it's fitting that Democrats in their desire to nominate someone who's electable have chosen someone who like most career politicians has made getting elected the focus of his career. I'm sure he's basically a decent guy as pols go, and I'll vote for him in November because the alternative is beyond consideration. But this Saturday at my local Washington caucus, I'll be voting for Howard Dean.

One of the talking heads this weekend, I think E.J. Dionne, described Dean as John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness--but not the "One." I think that's probably true, and as such he's helped the other candidates to get religion. I'm casting my vote this Saturday more as a symbolic gesture of recognition for the important role he's played in energizing Democrats and in refusing the spineless style that is more typical of their approach. I really don't have much hope that he has a chance to win at this point. But it ain't over till it's over.

Another good article about the demise of the Dean campaign appeared in today's Salon. It's written by Dean supporter Tom Schaller and he points to the critical mistakes both Trippi and Dean made in the last two months, and I think he's right on. Don't have time now to get into details, but it's worth further discussion.


Bush AWOL. The Washington Post is finally taking a look at this in today's issue. Also see the Daily Howler piece (scroll down to Times AWOL) that talks about how reporters have been giving GWB a pass on this.

The thinking seems to be that Gore wasn't in a position to push this issue in 2000 because even though he served in Vietnam, he had a fairly safe job as a reporter. And it's pretty likely Gore's father's influence helped him to pull that kind of duty. Now that Kerry is the presumed nominee, his record of service and heroism puts him in a much stronger position to challenge Bush on this issue. Dean really isn't in a position to challenge either, since he avoided military service on a medical deferment and then went skiing.

But that doesn't exonerate the press from investigating this more thoroughly. At the very least what reporters should be turning up here is a record of a privileged son being able to get away with things that ordinary people would never get away with. There's a pretty smelly fish rotting here, and there will be enormous forces brought to bear on trying to cover up the smell one way or the other. But the main thing is that this issue is getting traction at long last. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

January Posts