On being a liberal

Tavis Smiley had the Heritage Foundation's Tim Kane on this morning, the dulcet voiced hack infamous for his specious op-eds about how the whole unemployment "thing" is really just due to a misunderstanding about federal survey numbers, which have somehow managed to slip by the editors of almost every major newspaper. Listening to Kane's facile and decptive logic ("But we do have a solution to structural unemployment among black males, it's called economic growth and you get it through supply side economics...") it struck me how truly uninterested are the current crop of conservatives in actually addressing the business of running the government. The conservative movement is so dependent on several intoxicating discursive frames, that little room is left for the sort of self-examination and "courage to choose the best solution" invaluable to real government reform.

Which got me thinking about an important but forgotten aspect of the liberal appellation debate: the importance of a strong liberal tradition in creating better government. The conservative ascendancy of the past three decades has been remarkably successful at diverting and stifling real debate about the purpose and character of government. They pit the overwhelming popularity of most government programs against a PR campaign of smearing anything with the word government attached (except the military) and reap the benefits.

But the ensuing gridlock has shown its cracks in recent years. Bowing to political pressures, Bush has all but abandoned "starve the feds" rhetoric (regardless of his backers' true intent). The increasingly frequent omission of true believer anti-government rhetoric in American politics points to a time when we can again have substantive debates about how government should be shaped.

Bill Clinton was able to achieve this to an extent, but he had to reframe the entire debate in the terms palatable to conservatives. That his triangulation was (briefly) successful only goes to show that the country is yearning for such a debate.

By virtue of its goals, the anti-government 'movement' doesn't have much interest in stemming the tide of venality and favoritism which has come into sharp relief in the past four years of government. But Americans have repeatedly demonstrated that they appreciate smart, accountable government. When they are convinced that government is reasonable, efficient, and responsive, they will rally to more inspiring visions of what they might accomplish through it.

In this sense, George W. Bush has done a favor for liberalism. He has thrown into sharp contrast how government operates without taking liberal principles seriously, leaving us to hope for a time when they are.

My thoughts exactly


Not the revolution, per se

Kevin Drum has a thoughtful extended post about Billmon's column in the LA Times today that is worth a read. Billmon takes a pretty straight "if it hasn't already, the blogosphere is due for some big time selling out". Kevin, in response, says, yes, yes, and so?

I think there are a few major reasons why we shouldn't fear the corruption and decline of the blogosphere quite so soon, many of which closely overlap with Kevin's.

1) What do you mean by "blog" anyhow? Just because the top bloggers have now enetered a realm where their popularity might bring them into the orbit of unwelcome influence doesn't mean regular people can't blog anymore. In fact, it only means more people will become aware of the format and try it. To suggest that one category of discouse we call "blog" is on its way out is to overestimate the medium, which is really very simple.

2) Certain blogs are popular not because they're blogs. The reason that a handful of blogs have achieved the dangerous popularity which Billmon describes is not some maturation of the blogosphere. Rather, it is a quite natural outgrowth of the Internetization of news junkie-ism. The reason why certain blogs are attaining mainstream cred is because they fill a niche in the Internet news universe.

Regular newspapers, while still the center of that universe because they are the ones that can actually supply new information from, um, the real world, move too slowly for the million or so people that keep an Internet explorer window open all day, trying to get a constant fix of news and debate. Their op-ed columns only appear once every 24 hours, and there's no guarantee they will follow the story you're interested in, especially when you're checking back 3 hours after the initial news story was posted. Cable news made a valiant try, but ultimately it was just too stupid, shallow and boring to satisfy an over-educated audience. So, this is the space that the top punditry blogs fill, and it has a lot more to do with making a faster more efficient op-ed column than it does with any high minded blogoshpere ideals.

3) Blog cachet is next to impossible to replicate. We should know, we've been watching as newspapers and other media big and small have tried to replicate the blog as a way of drawing people to their sites. Still, the only successful blogs are ones that do have their own reputation or unique pull. Name me the vacuous coroprate blog that has made it big at the expense of good taste. The audience for blogs is by definition the neurotic news junkie population, and these people are not in the game for whatever's on. Thus, the danger that blogs will be bought and turned towards corporate ends is still great. But I have trouble seeing how a corporate master could degrade and defang the content of these blogs too much before they lose their appeal and the news junkies head elsewhere.

As Kevin concludes, the greatest danger to big-time bloggers is from themselves. They will have to maintain diligence that their own opinions don't succumb to increased pressures. And thankfully, journalism has well worn ethical standards with which to approach these questions. In a medium that turns utterly on how distinctive the writer's personality is, bloggers will confront those debates with a leg up.



I spent some time at Andrew Sullivan tonight, and have decided to address the curious world of Bush loving gay Republicans that, while it appears to exist almost exclusively on his blog and in feature stories about the gay Republicans, is nonetheless compelling.

Long story short, I am all for gays agreeing with Republican principles. If you are gay and hate welfare, or what cash in the form of tax cuts, or hate terrorists pathologically with no qualifying statements, more power to you. That is your right. But what people wrestling with this issue have to realize is, that Republican party's hatred for gay people is not a principle that can be steadily amended.

It is an instance of political pandering that will not disappear until major schims in the current Republican coalition occur. The GOP's position on gay people is categorically different than their regular positions. I have no doubt that G2, Karl Rove, etc. don't really give a shit about whether gay people can get married or not. But the way the current GOP domination is run, political concerns de facto trump substantive concerns, and that means, inevitably, a very hardline stance about hating gay people and using that hatred in the most exploitative and manipulative way possible. They don't wanna do it, but...

Log Cabin Republicans, Andrew Sullivan, and the rest of them have to understand this, and probably do. And they probably think that they can go on separating out the gay piece of themselves from the "Oh man do I love G2" side of themselves. Unfortunately, the GOPs gay-bashing is going to be around a lot longer than they think.

Short of another terrorist attack, the administration's focus on the 'war on terror' to the exclusion of all else is on the way out. Regardless of whether Kerry wins or not. If not, politics dictates that Bush is going to have to sweep Iraq under the rug right quick. But where domestic issues are concerned, all he has is left are the extreme wedge issues, and, if the fundies win this election for him, expect that he will be far more amenable to their wins in a second term.



Jessica Mathews gets it blindingly right in her Post op-ed today. Losing the "hearts and minds" battle isn't important because it undermines our long-term ability to change the face of the region, blah blah blah. It's important because everyday more Iraqis think we are a cruel invader who needs to be violently destroyed. How long Bush will continue living in the fantasy that he can play "with us or against us" with angry, armed, unemployed Baghdad slumdwellers who haven't had reliable power for a year and are more than a little inclined to assume the very worst about the US?

While I agree with Matthew Yglesias that Kerry is very likely to get his ass kicked in the debates, this is one point he can win. If Bush starts to do happy-talk about Iraq, Kerry must be tough and uncompromising about what a distortion this is. As I've said before, Bush is pushing the envelope of Americans' tolerance for altruism towards other countries. When Bush tries to confuse the issue and downplay the costs, Kerry needs to be clear about exactly what has been lost in Iraq, AND make sure he separates that from the broader War on Terror. Say it over and over: 200 billion, 1000 soldiers, no WMDs, no connection to Osama bin Laden, world hates us. If that litany doesn't eventually trump Bush's "The gift of liberty is a gift that keeps on giving!" argument, nothing can.


Makes you think

There are a lot of reasons to read Adam Gopnik's piece about World War I from an August New Yorker (I think the link is dead, but Nexis it if you can). For one, it is a very useful discussion of the popular reads one should pick up on the subject. I've read Guns of August and the Keegan book, and with god as my witness, the new Froomkin book and others mentioned therein will be read shortly.

But this passage stands out:

History does not offer lessons; its unique constellations of contingencies never repeat. But life does offer the same points, over and over again. A lesson is many-edged; a point has only one, but that one sharp. And the point we might still take from the First World War is the old one that wars are always, in Lincoln's perfectly chosen word, astounding. They produce results that we can hardly imagine when they start. It is not that wars are always wrong. It is that wars are always wars, good for destroying things that must be destroyed, as in 1864 or 1944, but useless for doing anything more, and no good at all for doing cultural work: saving the national honor, proving that we're not a second-rate power, avenging old humiliations, demonstrating resolve, or any of the rest of the empty vocabulary of self-improvement through mutual slaughter.

How strange then, at the beginning of the 21st century, that we should be conned by a new incarnation of this sentiment (albeit on a mercifully far smaller scale). That our leaders should be able to convince us once again that war, the violent intolerable deaths of our fellow human beings should be good for anything except avoiding an unconcionable alternative we have no choice to ignore. If you dig deep down in the Iraq war's true belivers, this is the sentiment you will find. It is remarkable the pull it has on us, even now, after perhaps the most personal violent act committed on the American people. But it is there...that deep abiding faith that new violence can cleanse and disrupt the brutal systems of the past.

Look into their rhetoric and you'll find it. "Something had to be done about the cycle of authoritarianism in the Middle East." "Nothing short of a war could have brought democracy to the Iraqis." "Dictators won't change unless someone is willing to use force against them."

News of today

David Brooks is a freaking idiot. Read this, and then go read the last few days of posts at Juan Cole's site. If you have half a brain you have to know that this is not a regular war anymore. We 'won' in Iraq. No doubt. Good job us. Brooks criticizing Kerry's Iraq policy because it is not a path to "victory" is fucking ridiculous because there is no "victory" here. There is painful unattractive compromise and then there is utter disaster. That's what happens when you take a country with one power structure that controls violence in one way and blow that wide open so that everyone thinks they have the leeway to use violence to achieve their ends. It may be 'better' in the long run, and in this case, I am still in the camp that thinks it most likely will.

But for the love of god let's not pretend that somehow if we fight hard enough everything will be peachy. A 'decisive victory' for the U.S. in this situation can ONLY be bought with countless civilian deaths. That's what happens when you turn cities into open warfare zones. And considering the nature of the Middle East we are dealing with right now, countless civilian deaths does not, in fact mean epiphanies of love for the U.S. Sacrificing your grandmother to gunship attack doesn't make most people appreciate the price of freedom, after all.

God help us we don't achieve a 'decisive victory' in Iraq. I would gladly settle for one of those middling uncertain 'let's check back in 5 years' victories, thank you very much.

UPDATE: Ok. You MUST read Cole's latest post here.


Back on the horse

Sorry it's been so long. I guess I've been feeling a bit of campaign fatigue. I'm happy to read about it and talk about it, but spending the energy to actually write about it is harder.

This isn't exactly going as planned, is it? While I wouldn't say the Republicans are trouncing yet, they have executed their game plan skillfully. The goal for the GOP has never been a decisive victory in this election, and they have tailored their campaign to that understanding. The best case scenario for Bush, after all, is a sort of confused ambivalence on the part of the voters. Can't let reality in, that's for sure. On the other hand, making stuff up is getting harder.

So the GOP strategists, cynical realists that they are, have settled on their gamble, and, no doubt, it has a fair chance of working. They understand how to push the right media buttons capable of transforming a story in their negative column into a draw--how to concoct and deploy sordid morsels for the press' baser instincts to feed upon, all the while maintaining their virtue, or at least well-timed invisibility. That formula may not win them unmitigated triumph, but it blurs all the edges enough so that, provided it still exists, their slight inherent advantage will be decisive.

The Democrats have figured none of this out. With six weeks to go until the election, all their sympathizers can think to haggle about is whether the Kerry camp is going to find its message or not. Democrats by and large still believe that the message sweet spot is out there somewhere, and, if we can only hit it in time, the swing voters will see the light and come running in droves to our side. They still see the media leviathan as a scalpel, rather than a bludgeon, as the Republicans do.

In part, its a David vs. Goliath mentality. The right's ability to manufacture stories and support is viewed as so insidious and monolithic, that the only weapon capable of stopping it must be the truth. It looks small in comparison, but launched in just the right place, and just the right time, and it will bring the whole thing crashing down. Republicans on the other hand, see the beast for what it is. Lumbering, ineffective, and least dangerous when stunned.

So what does this suggest for the campaign? There was a time not too long ago, we must remember, when the media was souring on Bush. Newspapers were doing a whole lot of real reporting on big issues that, inevitably, turned out poorly for him, and consequently, his negatives were skyrocketing. If the Democrats can't figure out a way to drown the right wing's distraction tactics in negative stories about Bush, then there will be little hope. Mind you, these don't have to all be on message for the Kerry campaign. Let Kerry do what he does. But figure out how to get the media hooked on bad Bush stories. In a world where this was done more effectively, one would not have seen the travesty of this past week, where confusion over documents that proved nothing we didn't already know, and that, by the way, were negative for the president regardless of their authenticity, took precedence over the dramatic deterioration of the situation in Iraq.


I'll give him this one

I really hate Bill Maher. I've never seen his cable show since I don't have HBO, and, as I said, I hate him, but his regular show drove me insane. And that was before the idiot guests you wanted to reach into the TV set and throttle came on. However, I have to tip my hat to this little rant, courtesy of Atrios. Maher says:

But by the looks of your convention, you'd think that the worst thing that ever happened to us was the best thing that ever happened to you. You just can't keep celebrating the deadliest attack ever as if it's your personal rendezvous with greatness. You don't see old men who were shot down during World War II jumping out of a plane every year. I mean, other than your dad...So I say, if you absolutely must win an election on the backs of dead people, do it like they do in Chicago, and have them actually vote for you.

This really goes to the essence of what I'll call the "9/11 lovers". These people aren't really interested in stopping terrorism, or taking a practical approach to domestic security, or other boring, unsexy, difficult things like that. The object of their love is their own narrative of the attacks. The emotional catharsis they felt watching the tragedy unfold and the closeness they felt to their countrymen. The shining feeling of moral certitude they found by declaring their unique and eloquent opposition to terrorism and cruelty. The delicious twinge of courage and decisiveness which twitches in their breast as they announce their bright line in the sand, and their willingness to sacrifice as many lives and dollars as necessary for the cause.

The lovers are jealous of their love, as all lovers must be. One must be a true believer or not at all. In this way, facts and practical realities come to seem less troubling. The primary object, you see, is the perpetuation of that love. Wrapped in their ecstasy, the lovers feel comfortable dismissing these challenges with any old rationalization that will make the problem go away quickly, and return their gaze to the love object.

How can so many people fetishize such a tragic, awful problem? Because it doesn't cost them anything of course. If the 9/11 lovers seem to be awfully carefree for war partisans, its because they don't really have much to worry about. Even New Yorkers, who should actually be worried (unlike most of the people supporting Bush), can't claim a fraction of the justified fear a resident of Tel Aviv today or a Londoner of the 40s felt. As far as material hardship goes, the symbol of this war will be tax cuts and checks in the mail, not ration cards. And, while certainly sobering over one's morning coffee, very few Americans can claim direct sacrifice from the war's casualties.

This is war in the abstract (until you actually get there, of course). Nowhere is that more clear than in the frequent and shameful comparisons to World War II. In summoning that war of truly universal, devastating price, the 9/11 lovers stake their claim to the story of sacrifice, of courage, of history they so desperately covet, yet are denied. It was probably bound to happen, seeing as how we just came off a decade characterized by restless comfort, topped off by a lot of feelings of inadequacy in the face of Greatest Generation tributes.

I don't necessarily blame all of the 9/11 lovers, some of whom you can't help but marvel at their earnestness (until you start thinking about all the death and lost opportunities, that is). But less forgiveable are the operatives of the Bush operation, who know exactly what they are dealing with, and have raised to an art the craft of exploiting this sugar-coated war. These people have been given unlimited freedom and audacity to mold the country and the world into a reasonable facsimile of the 9/11 lovers' fantasy in order to consolidate their political might.



There's a slim possibility that David Brooks may not be the debased shill I often accuse him of being. On the contrary, what if Brooks is the ultimate Charlie Brown to the Bush administration's Lucy with the football? Hoping, just one last time, that G2 will take a real stab at running the kind of sensible, compassionate, cutting edge conservative revolution of Brooks' fantasies.

For instance, today he transforms the domestic agenda portion of Bush's speech from the same tired list of proposals he trots out every year into a bold new vision of "government as a positive tool" (gasp). I have no doubt that Brooks realizes that Bush and team have had the patience for exactly one piece of big compromise driven legislation (NCLB) so far, and that otherwise they have been content to fake it (Medicare) or just blindly push a starve the government agenda (when they are not selling it off piece by piece, that is). Even if he believes the Cato math on all of these things (which leaves a lot to be desired), he has to know they are going way more time, energy, and compromise than Bush can muster.

And yet there he is, all wide eyed and trusting, not quite grasping that a) the other major intellectual current in his party (which arguably has a lot more pull than his blue state appeal garners) wants to DESTROY the federal government by any means necessary; and b) everyone of these proposals would be sacrificed to tax cuts. Brooks even mentions the latter problem, but thinks it is still up for debate.



I thought Bush's speech was surprisingly lackluster, compared to the bold new visions of the next four years we were promised. In fact, the only idea we haven't heard before (i.e. idea that actually had a policy direction attached to it) was the "let small firms buy health coverage at the discount of large firms"--a proposal so piddling and ineffective I have no doubt it will never see daylight again. But it kinda sounded real, didn't it?

They seemed unwilling to really commit to the 'ownership society' thing, maybe becuase they already scrapped it once and are bummed they couldn't come up with anything new, or maybe becuase they never resigned themselves to the fact they couldn't use the "compassionate conservative" formulation again. I see them getting frustrated like so: "I mean, we made people forget about the WMDs rationale for the war, why can't we make them believe we never used compassionate conservative before? That was sooo good!" Although in their defense, I will admit that the ownership society thing is a lot harder to explain, and would involve a lot more effort and math to pretend to implement it. Perhaps they tire of keeping up the appearances of potemkin domestic agendas?


Zell's lies

Many smart people who will otherwise think Miller's speech last night was scary and overblown may nonetheless be curious about his accusations regarding all the weapon systems Kerry has "tried to cut" in his Senate career. For the record, Fred Kaplan had the final word on this back in February, for anyone that cares to look.

Yet another reason why Bush needs to lose this election.

Defense policy at the "which planes should we buy" level is a pretty complicated thing. It is just about everything a honest member of Congress can do to try to inject some legitimate oversight into that secrecy, inertia, and pork-chasing that defines defense planning. One level, deploying crude attacks that confuse someone's voting record on complicated issues is just politics, but on another level, it just goes to show how unserious these people are about having a real debate on how our military needs to change to fight terrorism.


Virtual Republicans

Ezra Klein raises a point I've been meaning to bring up if there's a lull in the screaming monopolizing most my skull.

That is, how much of the Republican Party's appeal is really kept in business by these 'moderation' fests which crop up at conventions and various other opportune moments? Put another way, is the Republican tent bigger than we think? Or is there the Republican party we know, and another virtual Republican party that exists to keep Democrats, the media, and those idiot swing voters guessing?

That virtual Republican party is the party of David Brooks, the party of the (some) in the conservative intellectual establishment, and the party that people with explicit libertarian feelings get excited about. The trouble that liberals have with this virtual party (which, even if we disagree with it, sounds like a worthy, sensible adversary) is that the viability of its artifice is bought with the souls of its proponents.

People like Brooks--"blue state" Republicans, principled libertarians, etc., appear to be hypocrites because the only way they can achieve their policy goals is by forging unholy alliances with people whose real agendas are anathema to the kind of tolerance and reason they preach. But isn't that just politics? You get what you want and your partner sucks it up, next time your partner gets what he wants and you suck it up?

The trouble in this case is that the actual constiutency voicing this line is hard to locate outside of Republicans with op-ed columns and political junkies. The party isn't accountable to these ideas in any real way, but when it's time to go on network TV, they have no problem taking up that banner. It has some important political value in appealing to independents in the moment, and perhaps more importantly, it is a powerful tool of message distortion. Democrats are unable to differentiate themselves, the news media doesn't take the time to check, and Republicans confuse party identities to their advantage.

And what do they do if they happen to really get pressed on it? Make shit up, of course.