With apologies to L. Hughes...

Garance Franke-Ruta has a lovely explication of the new Kerry campaign slogan "Let America be America Again" on Tapped. Debate can be had about whether this is too 'nuanced' for a campaign, but it does boldly ask perhaps the most difficult question of this election: is the country over September 11? The question is not whether we are over terrorism--that is a battle we will be fighting longer than any presidential tenure could cover. But is the country ready, as the horse race people say, to change ships in midstream?

Kerry's task is convincing voters that it is time to move onward and upward--that the country need no longer submerge its prudence and long term goals to the exigencies of disaster, and, indeed, that Bush has drawn the country too far down a path we need not have taken. Anything less than an honest appraisal of this issue, and Kerry risks branding himself irrelevant. Think 2002. You remember...the one where Republicans actually won.

No easy chore, of course, considering Bush is running almost exclusively on the idea that September 11 is still the nation's overwhelming primary concern.



Mark Schmitt now has a regular column in the Prospect with perspectives on the history of liberalism. Here's the first, about liberals envying the right and one really lame Jonah Goldberg column about how conservatives are all in touch with their intellectual heritage and liberals are not.

To understand why this is good news, check out The Decembrist.



E.J. Dionne in TAP on the 10 arguments Democrats and progressives should stop having. Plain and indispensable advice. Can we take it?

Holy crap

This TNR article by Michele Cottle about Democrats trying to beat up Bush for rising gas prices is oh-so painfully right on. Apparently America Coming Together has gotten into the act now with a recent press release Cottle describes: "Charging that 'the Bush Gas Tax is Real and it is Causing Nightmares for families across the country,' ACT notes that the average family in Columbus, Ohio will pay $98.77 more this year than last to drive to the Grand Canyon. Worse yet, a family in Portland, Oregon, will pay an additional $158.64 to drive to Disney World."

This is such bad political karma I don't know where to begin. Democrats cannot be the party of truth, poised to restore fiscal responsibility and honest choices to national policy while simultaneously pandering to one of the most destructively unrealistic ultimatums in politics today. Stop it. Please.


Panic ensues

Must read Josh Marshall on war proponents' increasing desperation.


A liberal by any other name...

Yesterday I saw Bob Reich give a short talk about his new book Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle For America. "Liberal" is in the title for a reason, Reich said: the time is ripe for a revival of that much maligned term.

I couldn't agree more. Certainly the oft-quoted statistics that 41 percent of the country identify as conservative while only 19 percent identify as liberal gives one room for pause. But Reich's argument is compelling. He says that conservatives, specifically, radical conservatives, have been allowed to monopolize the language of values for too long. Liberals must reclaim the language of values, but not in the narrow, personal and intrusive ways the conservatives have. We must begin to talk about the virtues of a 'public morality'.

That's where the reclaimed liberal comes in. Before the term was associated with various substantive positions: redistributions of wealth, narrow cultural politics, etc., liberalism referred first and foremost to a philosophy of governance. The term denoted a respect for rigorous devotion to the facts, a willingness to shun partisan loyalties in the interest of the greater good, a rejection of venality and cronyism in government, and a smart rugged individualism against forces that would use the state to guard their power. A central tenet of this liberalism is a belief in the importance of the state - that politics is the only means of balancing the leverage of wealth - but also a clear-eyed understanding that the exercise of state power is an imperfect tool and must be endlessly accountable to the public which authorizes it.

This notion of liberalism would seem to dovetail advantageously with the conclusion most Democrats and many independent conservatives have come to about the current state of the Republican party. The secrecy, the relentless cronyism, the refusal to admit any mistake whatsoever, not to mention the shoddy, partisan-driven lawmaking - if your greatest fear is government unmoored from democratic oversight and uncowed by procedure or principle, a second Bush term is not where you want to be.

But easier said than done. Reich also spoke of informal conversations he had held throughout the "red" states on a cross country trip. When he asked people he met why they supported George W. Bush, the most common answer he received was "his honesty". When he asked them why they disliked Democrats, he got three main responses: "Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Monica Lewinsky."

On a related note, Reich had an interesting angle on why liberals have lost the ability to speak about the moral certitude of their agenda: the total acceptance of Keynesianism coincident with the Democratic triumphalism. Keynesianism dictated that an expansionary public sector was necessary to balance the aggregate demand. And thus Democrats no longer needed to fundamentally justify massive spending programs.

The truth in this can be seen in the Republican opposition as well. While Republicans have never been serious about actually starving the federal government and the like, they have done a remarkable job of filling the void left by Democrats with the rhetoric of resentment, distrust, and disengagement.

Dark things to come

Publius at Legal Fiction has the worst case scenario.



Fred Kaplan on where we go from here with the New Yorker and Newsweek allegations.

Also in Slate, Hitchens spins an argument to watch out for in the days ahead. Basically ceding that there must be some truth to the Hersh article, he takes the next step and asks: why are we so eager to beat up on the Bush administration for its inability to track down terrorist masterminds if we can't handle the methods necessary to effectively do the job?

I'm sure this is going to be complaint number one from administration supporters as this story unfolds. They will try to back the opposition into a corner by eliding one fundamentally different position with another, saying you can't have it both ways, and forcing the opposition to bear the brunt of a nuanced argument. Only this time, the administration winning means permanently unhinging America from standards of decency in its dealings with the world, a lookingglass which will not be easy to crawl back through.

The question is one of limits, of checks and balances. There should be little question that the tension between national security interests and the full exercise of fairness and democracy is a legitimate question, and this tension becomes especially abrasive when individuals and states clearly threaten American lives and stability. A perfect example are the cases Hersh mentioned where covert operatives failed to capture or kill important firmly identified targets because of legal obstacles. Indeed, the U.S. maintaining covert operations around the globe pretty much guarantees that we are perpetually testing these limits.

One check on exploiting these limits is constraining exceptions to only the most clear cut and discreet instances. Basically, that we abuse our power as a scalpel and not a bludgeon.



This column from the CAP people brings up a valuable point John Kerry should be making. Part of Clinton's genius at selling economic ideas (besides the fact that the economy was really good while he was president) was that he let people understand he was ready to be serious and creative about the shape of government involvement in all sides of the economic picture, both the populist-oriented job protection and creation mission but also the business-government partnership side of the equation. This is a coup waiting to happen--John Kerry needs to let business leaders and white collar tech workers know that he will use the innovation and resources of the government to grow our economy and encourage highly skilled people. Right now, his economic message sounds like 1954...better than Bush's non-existent one, but still nowhere near as creative as it needs to be. This would also go a long way towards shoring up support among the Internet-savvy political community which is dangerously close to having no opinion whatsoever of him. These people are still the bulk of the active base as long as Iraq and Bush scandal dominates the news...best to get them excited about you before August.



I spent the evening at the New Democracy Project conference, and will be going back tomorrow, but here are a few quick notes:

I love that Gary Hart. I wasn't old enough to witness his downfall, but I hope everyone that participated feels really guilty now.

Woodrow Wilson school dean Anne Marie Slaughter got booed when she proffered the conventional wisdom that Democrats who voted for the Iraq war resolution did not debase themselves since, knowing what they knew then, they assumed Bush would do as he said and gather a real coalition and exhaust all diplomatic avenues before resorting to force. This proved 1) New York is a real far ways from Washington these days, where that argument is probably repeated ad nauseum and everyone is cool with it and 2) Democrats need to get their story straight on this point. This explanation is looking increasingly ridiculous, if it didn't already. Bush may have bullied and boxed thoughtful Democrats into voting for the resolution, but they certainly had no reason to think he would do anything less than treat it as a formality. And it looks really pathetic when they try to play "He betrayed us." I knew what Bush was going to do. Everyone I know knew what Bush was going to do. This is not a good long term explanation for U.S. Senators that now need all the mileage they can get out of the gross failure of what Bush did. Jeff Sachs then appeared and gave a rousing speech about how insincere and morally bankrupt our commitment to 'soft power' is in light of Iraq, a speech which should have shamed just about everyone in the room who ever tried to play armchair general. That said, Sachs' vision of America wiping out disease in Africa, etc., does omit many tough questions and he didn't really explain that a cruel fact of life is that soft power is often impotent without hard power backing it up. But no doubt, we don't even have a competition going now.

David Cole is a fantastic speaker. Enemy Aliens: on the reading list.

Chris Edley took Democrats to task for their increasingly hostile attitude towards the No Child Left Behind, saying that the bill does take the unprecedented step of systematically attempting to equalize school quality across race and income lines. I think perhaps Edley is taking election year snipery too seriously. NCLB is an easy target for administration criticizers--its fun to pick on them for passing one of the unfunded mandates they whined about so bad and the testing regime sounds kind of authoritarian if you don't mention any of the good stuff. Still, this bill had bipartisan support, and while Bush is certainly doing a lousy job of selling it and there is initial resistance, a Kerry administration probably wouldn't touch it. The real fact of NCLB's virtues, like many things this year, is another unfortunate casualty of the polarized electoral environment.

Eliot Spitzer is kind of a spaz in person. I still want him to be the next governor of New York (please God, make Pataki go away), but his public manner is not without flaws. Hopefully this will not be used against him when he is compared to lousy ol' Pataki.

Finally, let's just note again how obnoxious Mark Green is. Who thought he would be a good mayoral candidate? No wonder Bloomberg won. I thought he was abrasive sitting in the back of the balcony in a room full of the converted. God knows what he's like in front of people disagreeing with him.

More later...



Charles Taylor in Salon on the dark undercurrents of the current debate on Abu Ghraib and the Berg execution.

The downward spiral

The story of Nicholas Berg, the American civilian beheaded by terrorists in Iraq is almost too awful to bear. It's the kind of thing that makes you want curl up in a ball and never read the newspaper again.

But the hawks' collective reaction to this atrocity portends worse things to come. Many conservatives were quick to point to Berg's slaughter as an example of "who our real enemies are", i.e., that the uproar over the Abu Ghraib scandal pales in comparison. James Robbins at NRO has a particularly in depth explanation of how, between the prisoner torture and the beheading, the beheading is most definitely worse.

To quote Atrios, "What a fucking standard we've set for ourselves."

I'm sure there are some people on the left out there who need explaining as to why America is better than a band of fanatical homicidal maniacs, and in fact, we all might be better off if Gibbons, et al., went out and tried to reason with the teenagers carrying the Bush is Hitler posters they are so obsessed with debunking.

Part of the problem is that conservatives have spent a lot of the last three years fretting over their ownership of September 11. Many on the right feel that September 11 was their own personal epiphany in which good was separated from evil and the United States was anointed as the only country tough and ass-kicking enough to do something about it. This is the grand dramatic narrative which has infused the conservative line on everything from Iraq to Israel to Guantanamo. Liberals, especially those in New York who actually witnessed the attack, have difficulty understanding just how personally precious outrage over September 11 is to conservatives.

The danger now, as in any case where policy is dictated by thrall rather than sobriety, is that the hawks providing the intellectual and spiritual fuel for this mission will lose any sense of nuance they had to begin with, as they move inexorably towards the global showdown they anticipate. The democratizing portion of the Iraq mission was really always a second string excuse, brought to the fore when the self-defense rationale failed. And it has enjoyed a good run: conservatives triangulated to pretend that was their intention the whole time while liberals agonized over the part of the mission they always felt sympathy for.

But the reaction to Berg's death should clarify how little that has to do with the real impetus for our involvement there. Right wing conventional wisdom is now firmly set that outrage over the Abu Ghraib scandal is trivial against horror at Berg's death, and it suggests what was perhaps always our fate in this adventure. That we would be sucked into a lonely, bloody war of attrition, in which our army fights civilians in the Middle East while al Qaeda and other terrorists become ever more provocative. Check out the Freepers today. There is no love lost with the idea of 'nuking' 'them', I can tell you.

The real test of resolve was never whether we could crush a lot of people in the Middle East. That's not resolve, that's just what we're capable of. The test of resolve was how long we could keep the charade of Wilisonian goodness alive in the face of a political mindset that lacks the will to discriminate between terrorists and our objects of liberation.


Conflict of interest

One of the saddest aspects of the prisoner torture scandal, among many to choose from, is that it all seems fairly predictable, a product of the inherent contradictions of the war itself. As the final nails have been hammered into the coffin of the pre-emptive defense rationale for the war, and Bush and company has gravitated towards a pure liberation argument, a yawning disconnect has emerged, most visibily in places like Falluja and Najaf.

Our days in Iraq were always numbered, despite how the WH PR machine said things would go. The idea that a massive American army could successfully set up shop in a part of the Arab world raised on bitter oppression and anti-American rhetoric and arrest and kill civilians for any extended period of time only ever bore the most tenuous relationship to reality. The central fallacy of that proposition is revealing itself now. Less obvious has been the fallacy on the flip side of that equation--the idea that you could set a massive American army in the heart of a hostile Arab world, justify the mission as a vital defense of the homeland and not a little bit as revenge for a bitter national tragedy, and have that army act like social workers instead of soldiers.

Moreover, the military and civilian leadership has made it very clear that military prerogative outweighs niceties and conventions in this conflict, between Guantanamo and other well publicized contraventions of prisoner codes. Don't think that climate was lost on the soldiers and the officers of all people, or that somehow standards not enforced in the Western hemisphere would be respected in the midst of war zone with soldiers picked off by the objects of their liberation day after day.

Conservative supporters, despite the degeneration on all sides of this operation, are increasingly backed into a corner (see Brooks today, I would be worried my head would explode if I tried these feats of logic), trying to reconcile the failing of the post war mission with the embers of the neocons' democracy project and the unassailable good of the end of the Saddam regime. It must be funny being them right now, reduced to challenging the world with the zero sum question: was it not worth forfeiting our global credibility, hundreds of billions of dollars, and possibly igniting the decline of American hegemony to oust a genocidal dictator?

And morally, at least, they may very well be right. Certainly the left has shown a callous disregard for the suffering of Iraqis under Hussein in their refusal to address that factor leading up to war, and with their subsequent facile equations of the invasion with Saddam's 20 years of brutalization, i.e., look, we're no better! That is a wretchedly ignorant thing to say. The fact that every insurgent in Iraq right now is using the same phrase to advance his bloody political calculus should give some clue as to why that is not OK.

But then again, the business of being a good global hegemon is not so black and white, and attempts to reroute history are notorious for the unintended consequences they produce, a scorecard that should give any begnin conquerer pause, regardless of the quality of her intentions. This is especially true when one is waging 'war in the name of peace.'

This justification is patently absurd, on its face, and empires throughout the course of history have proved just how fragile a proposition this proves. Nonetheless, we have recognized, especially in recent times, the necessity of disinterested force in the name of justice. But this force is of a special character, which we have chosen to ignore in the campaign in Iraq. Rebecca West provides a useful example in her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, speaking about the Dalmation coast, a region certainly familiar with the vicissitudes of empire under all sorts of banners. The towns she visited there all speak of there oppression under various foreign tyrants, but praise is universally reserved for the French. Not because Napoleon was any better a conqueror--he sold out those lands as bad as the Austrians or Turks which came before and after him, but because the military governor he sent to control those areas was something of a genius among colonial administrators.

The devil truely is in the details when one embarks on missions of foreign conquest, whether they be charitable or self interested, and history judges the conqueror accordingly. This point has been entirely lost on the Bush administration, and may very well be its downfall in Iraq. Human memory is too short and too immediate (in the most unforgiving sense of the word) to understand the logic of "Our killing of you now is preferable to others' killing of you before".