Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tough Smart, Tough Stupid

Glenn Greenwald, who along with George Carlin would get my vote for Living National Treasure if America offered such a designation, has a terrific post today on Unclaimed Territory: "Conceding John McCain's 'Toughness' On National Security."

Greenwald discusses the dangerous fallacy of buying into your opponent's premise: in McCain's case, the premise that national security and militarism are the same thing; that victory against Islamic extremists is best served by an endless occupation of Iraq. When McCain claims that he's strong on defense, I hope the Democrats will have a response moderately more clever than "We're strong, too!" Hint to Democrats: here, "more clever" means something along the lines of, "Strong? We've lost 4000 men and women in Iraq, we've already blown a half trillion dollars on a war the Republicans promised would cost fifty, we've given al-Qaeda an ongoing recruiting bonanza, and you want to keep at it for another hundred or even ten thousand years... and you call that 'strong'? That's not strong. It's stupid. We need leadership that's strong and smart."

Theoretically, either Clinton or Obama could properly frame the debate by attacking Republican premises, but in practice Clinton's attempts would be less effective. After all, she voted for the Authorization of Use of Military Force in Iraq, and has been trying to defend her vote ever since. Her strategy, therefore, will be to agree with McCain's premises regarding how much of national strength has to do with war (if you doubt this, watch the video clip in Greenwald's post). Obama, who opposed the war by noting, "I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars," will be much better positioned to reject McCain's premise that continued war is the same as continued strength.

Again, the key to winning the debate is to convincingly reject the premise of the other side's argument. Obama failed to do this against Hillary in the South Carolina debate (instead of denying that he'd said anything nice about Republicans, he should have said, "What's your point? We're not allowed to say a single nice thing about the other major American political party?"). He'll have plenty of opportunities to rectify that oversight in the general election, in which the Republicans will call every Democratic proposal for a more sensible allocation of resources in the fight against radical Islam "retreat" and "defeat" and "surrender." (For a sneak preview of Republican talking points, see Mitt Romney's concession speech, in which he declares defeat and surrenders while accusing the Democrats of doing the same).

In fact, I'd like to see Democrats widen their campaign against Republican premises by questioning the antiquated Republican mantle of conservativism. The party of George Bush is many things, but conservative is not one of them. You can't legitimately claim that a president who has done what Bush has done to America's finances, whose foreign policy is so radically millenarian that it includes "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," and whose philosophy and practice of governing can most kindly be called authoritarian, is a conservative. And when did conservatism come to mean, "We're from the government, and we're here to protect you?"

The Republicans have used a traditional conservative wrapping to package a product that is anything but. Exposing the disparity shouldn't be all that difficult. As part of this campaign, Democrats might want to enlist the aid of actual conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower:

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small,there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research-these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs-balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage-balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between action of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

Whether the Democrats can succeed in exposing Republican fictions is largely a question of Democratic communication skills (I'm not sure this is cause for optimism). After all, the public seems to be tired or increasingly immune to demagoguery. Look what happened to Clinton in South Carolina after her campaign of distortions there. And look what happened to Rudy Giuliani, whose chief legacy as a candidate is to have functioned as the canary in the Republican coal mine. The most fear-mongering candidate of the party whose current brand slogan might be summed up as "Be Afraid" flamed out spectacularly (think "fear-mongering" is too strong a description? Take a look at this campaign video, and its hilarious parody).

Hawkishness is a means, not an end. And like any other means, it can be used stupidly, or well. If the Democrats don't understand and articulate this, they stand a good chance of blowing another election. Doing so would cost them the presidency, and the Republicans the opportunity and impetus to return to conservative principles. The biggest loser on both counts, of course, would be America.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

When you're right, you're right. I especially agree that people habor funny ideas about what "conversative" means. Also, I like the title Requiem for an Assassin emensely.

PBI said...


Good points with regard to both the tactics that should be used against GOP talking points, and the unfortunately low probablility that the Democrats will actually pursue them.

While I share your deep admiration for Glenn Greenwald's insightful writing, I am less certain about your contention that what Republicans have been peddling since Bush has been in office is somehow separate from "conservatism." Greenwald himself makes what I think is an excellent point (here, at his old blog) that it is impossible to separate the people within a movement from the definition of that movement, especially as current GOP leadership (and the rank and file) are now trying to do with George W. Bush. To whit:

"Conservatism" -- like "communism" -- has only one real definition, only one definition that matters: "that which 'conservatives' and the leaders they support do when in power." Conservatism is a set of principles about how government ought to function and the policies which political leaders should implement. And those principles can be known not by how they exist in some Platonic form, abstractly enshrined by think tank groups or in textbooks. One knows it by how its proponents -- "conservatives" -- actually govern and by who and what they support.

I agree with Greenwald that, like communism, there is a "pure" conservatism that exists in books and in thought. I also agree with him, however, that while we have certainly heard a lot about it, we have seen very little of it in practice. Further, there is little question that just about everybody who calls themselves "conservative" (with the notable exception of people like Bruce Fein) were backing Bush as their leader until it became clear he had put their grip on power at risk. Conservatism is as conservatism does; and while it may be that "ideal conservatism" has never been fully realized because of human failure - as was the case with communism - I think we make a grave mistake if we apply different standards in rejecting or accepting these doctrines as viable and worthy of pursuit.

Communism was discredited and abandoned less because of its end goals, and more because of what people who claimed to represent "communism" actually did when they were in power: death camps, corruption, economic failure, etc. American conservatism (defined as Ronald Reagan forward), has, in the main, repeatedly imposed authoritarian policies, subverted the Constitution, been fiscally irresponsible, and undermined shared social responsibility. Simply put, there may be some sort of "ideal conservatism" that exists as a philosophy, but I'm not sure that it hasn't been rendered wholly irrelevant by the actions of its advocates.

I feel that it is vital that we work to avoid falling into the trap of "Convservatism never fails, it is only failed by people." It's not that the end goals of American conservatism aren't worthwhile, it's that they're NEVER carried out, and the people who not only claim to stand for conservatism, but actually lead the "conservative movement" - the Tom Delays, the Rick Santorums, the James Dobsons, the Rush Limbaughs, the Mitch McConnells, the George W. Bushs, etc., etc., etc. - have proven themselves wholly untrustworthy and undeserving of our support.

Take care,
Sensen No Sen

Barry Eisler said...

Paul, those are great points and key into something I've been thinking a lot about -- perhaps the subject of a longer post. In my mind, there's a distinction between the name of a party and the name of a philosophy. The party can, and should, mostly stand for whatever it's about today. In my mind, today the Republican party is essentially the Bush party; twenty-five years ago, it was the Reagan party. Ten years ago, the Democrats were the Clinton party. Etc.

But my sense is that the term "conservative," like the names of other philosophies, ought to denote something more enduring than the political flavor of the month. Otherwise, I feel we're living in a Humpty Dumpty universe, where words mean whatever the user says they mean, and that can't be right.

But it might be that the distinction I'm making is artificial, or that what I'm trying to articulate as two classes actually represents more of a continuum. As I said, I want to think more about it -- thanks for providing such a terrific impetus.