Stop the madness

Ed Kilgore brings up how Democrats can fight the culture war here. As I mentioned several weeks ago, the war against television should be an easy one for liberals...hell, that's why we're single-handedly keeping PBS in business. Why is it so hard for liberals to speak out on this issue? We support government funding of the arts and like-minded sophisticated culture, so why don't we feel the government has a right to talk about primetime TV? After all, liberal vision was the force behind the fairness doctrine, PBS, and other schemes to make television a tool for enlightenment. For my money, refusal to talk about things like television betrays a grander failure of vision among liberals today. Liberals don't keep quiet about television because they believe criticizing reality TV dreck is like censorship. They do it because television is "too mainstream" an arena for change, and thus seen as a "somewhere down the road" project. And there you have it, the mindset keeping good liberals down. An organizing principle for society that considers some public spheres off-limits is a principle bound for permanent minority status.

Strong medicine

Kilgore lays the cards on the table for Democrats and national security. It's not very pleasant, but everyone concerned should read this post to get on the same page about WHAT JUST HAPPENED.



Good Frank Rich here. Try the last paragraph in the piece:
Washington's next celebration will be the inauguration. Roosevelt decreed that the usual gaiety be set aside at his wartime inaugural in January 1945. There will be no such restraint in the $40 million, four-day extravaganza planned this time, with its top ticket package priced at $250,000. The official theme of the show is "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service." That's no guarantee that the troops in Iraq will get armor, but Washington will, at least, give home-front military personnel free admission to one of the nine inaugural balls and let them eat cake.


More Beinart

Check out Eric Alterman's response here. He isn't quite throwing his hat in the ring as to an alternative organizing principle for liberal foreign policy, but its a good show nevertheless. Of note is this paragraph:
Can Beinart point to any evidence that the US government possesses the knowledge, authority or cultural sensitivity necessary to perform this historically unprecedented operation? Does Beinart really believe that the Arab masses are yearning to be freed in order to catch the last episode of Desperate Housewives? Such naïve hubris about America's ability to remake other cultures to our liking at the point of a gun is what underlay the decisions that cost us 58,000 lives in Vietnam and wrought death and destruction across Southeast Asia for more than a decade. In the persons of Paul Wolfowitz and other alleged "idealists" in the Bush Administration, it has reared its ugly head again, and produced tragic results. Now Beinart wants to run the same damned movie with liberal credits at the end. Are American liberals really cursed to make this same mistake over and over like one of Pavlov's poodles?
One issue the Beinart debate has revealed is that liberal hawks seriously need to get their house in order before they can start leading the Democratic party at large. This issue--the neoconservatives' Muslim domino theory, we'll call it--is perhaps the biggest sticking point. No matter how swift our critiques of Bushian warmaking, this angle is an enduring vulnerability for liberal hawks, who have had a tough time articulating why Iraq is not Rwanda or Kosovo. The key to that distinction--a fundamental appreciation for the limits of military force and the practical reasons why it is a last resort--is still perceived as a less worthy rationale than the neocons ironclad "Bad Man? Send Marines" logic.

As Alterman points out, however, that distinction is intrinsic to the liberal approach to foreign policy, and key to drawing a line between the smart things about the cold war and the pointless, shameful things:
In fact, just as the liberal realists of the 1950s whom Beinart so admires opposed the excesses of conservative US foreign policy--including CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala--so too did liberal realists argue in 2001 that the US government was not availing itself of the best approaches to fighting Al Qaeda. New Yorker reporter Nicholas Lemann surveyed a group of them and came away with a remarkably consistent--and painfully prescient--set of analyses. "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda," Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard told Lemann. "It's a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can't anticipate.... This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got leveled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we'd want them to be." Stephen Van Evera of MIT concurred: "A broad war on terror was a tremendous mistake.... you make enemies of the people you need against Al Qaeda."
Of course, this is not to say that all liberal politicians acted according to such principles during the war, but simply that these were the guiding norms of the liberal as opposed to the conservative approaches.

Kerry certainly talked about military action as a 'last resort', but the appeal came off as isolationist and chiding rather than wise. Until liberals can be confident in their arguments about why stupid and senseless use of the military only weakens us, and point to the smarter alternative, the jury on will still be out on a liberal foreign policy.


Is there or isn't there?

An interesting debate today between Garance Franke Ruta, Kevin Drum, and Ezra Klein about whether the "there's no damn crisis" approach to the debate, as advocated by Matt Yglesias, Josh Marshall and others, is just asking for it. Whether Republicans will be able to twist that position, which, on the merits, is right on, into an example of Democrats not 'getting' it and being hopelessly behind the times.

There are a lot of liberals who are upset that Democrats ever waffled on the 'crisis' issue, and see this as a sort of original sin of the privatization debate. A primordial concession to fake out GOP economics that has henceforth given them free reign to control the debate with whatever fantasy they currently favor.

While i more than agree with the truth of the no crisis position, it does smack a bit of other battles Democrats have lost while defending their princples to the death. Yet most of the other options, as Josh Marshall has eloquently pointed out, involve playing the same old tired game of losing baseball with a Republican majority. It gets Democrats absolutely nothing, and, in this case, destroys a one of Democrats' seminal achievements.

The key, it seems, is the ability to keep a couple of targeted messages in the air at the same time. With the fake GOP policy wonks, you push the 'no crisis' line like there's no tomorrow, refusing to cede any of the various diversionary 'policy' debates they are already cooking up. To the public, you tone down the no-crisis attitude and focus on, like Garance suggests, a vision of the private account system riddled with many of the same broad, blunt, negatives that Clinton health care had.

The Republicans do this to us all the time. Democrats in Washington think they are engaged in the debate, debunking tons of absurd arguments while all the while, the Republicans have been really focusing on a public opinion battle that has nothing to do with winning those details.



Read Jonathan Cohn's story in the Times magazine Sunday and get mad. This is not supposed to happen in the most civilized, richest country on earth. And a big "fuck you" to all those people spending their time on Social Security privatization right now and ignoring the threat to our common humanity and dignity that the out of control U.S. health care system poses. Shame!


Strategy for the Social Security fight

BTW, Josh Marshall this morning was a must read on the strategy Democrats must adopt to counter the Bush privatization push. His strongest point is that Democrats MUST NOT think they can fight this by arguing sideshow points like Wall Street profits and transition cost plans. As I said earlier, Democrats cannot have this debate with the conservative "intellectuals". They have to have it with Bush and the other guys that really have the power. And they have to have it on its real terms: destroy Social Security or not. We must be categorically deflect the charges of 'scare mongering' that are sure to come and, in a very reasonable and calm voice, tell the American people that Bush does, indeed, want to take away your Social Security. Pretending he's doing otherwise isn't going to somehow blunt the Republicans' plans.

Forgive the (very) bad analogy, but Democrats are basically operating on an appeasement strategy with Republicans today. Now, as then, it doesn't work. Dems have nothing to lose and everything to gain by ending the cycle of appeasement and taking back the ball on the debates we are clear about, like Social Security. The problem with Democrats, after all, isn't so much that they don't know what they think, but that it is qualified and diluted in a hundred little ways so that only people who follow these things for a living can really make them out anymore.

That certainly doesn't mean there is some definitive liberalsim out there yet to be discovered, but it does mean liberals must stop thinking about their mission as "what parts of the ostensible GOP agenda are we comfortable with?" This is a very facile sort of math that always leaves liberals on the losing end. (And, incidentally, oen of the main reasons the DLC gets such a bum rap they don't deserve.)


That said...

Even though I disagree with Beinart, I think it is extremely important that he has provoked this conversation. For one, it is an idea that has been batted around a lot, and for many, was regrettably a "road not taken" during the Kerry campaign. For a lot the people in the Democratic universe who actually give a damn about national security, this is a very serious question, and that in and of itself makes it worth hashing out. Democrats can agree that Bush is doing stuff wrong on foreign policy, but they can't fully articulate their own vision yet. Stealing Republican thunder and making the War on Terror the defining goal of our politics is certainly one option of the table, and we should talk about it.


1947 revisited

Posts from Mark Schmitt and Josh Marshall about Peter Beinart's much discussed TNR piece remind me that I intended to comment on it way back when.

The Islamofascism as the new Cold War/World War II canard has certainly been one of the most cringeworthy rhetorical devices of the last 3 years. It is aggravating on one level because it smacks of people that went to good schools trying to emotionally manipulate a country that only understands those events in debased and oversimplified Hollywood versions (The War on Terror is like Saving Private Ryan? That movie was hardcore...) On a more serious level, it completely obscures the real threat at hand. Even if most of the people in charge deploy it cynically, it creates a sort of vicious circle of historical posturing and policy choices informed more by political than legitimate considerations.

To hope, as Beinart seems to, that liberals will ever do anything but scoff at this shoddy history and shoddier approach to policy is just plain misguided. The numbers simply don't add up to a "defining global struggle of our generation". And if the goal is to define the authentic principles of a new Democratic party, loyalty oaths to an overblown false analogy are not the place to start.

But Beinart isn't really after a good policy that the Democrats should claim for themselves. He's after emotional resonance for Democrats. And you can't really blame him: the journey towards a Democratic party defined by an active unifying vision and narrative is a long way from over, and the years in between are going to be confusing and frustrating. He is also trying to offer Democrats an emotional narrative to counter the one that has enraptured so many conservatives over the last few years.

But the factors that have made 9/11 a neverending political and emotional bonanza for conservative politics have a lot less to do with taking a stand against Islamofascism and a lot more to do with principles and currents of national and in many quarters ethnic chauvinism that are diametrically opposed to liberals core values. To think we could appropriate the power of the 9/11 worldview and capture its power for ourselves is to misunderstand why that phenomenon works for so many people.

The act that Beinart eventually settles on to define those who take up his suggestion, the swift renunciation of anyone who opposes military adventurism (i.e. Michael Moore, Moveon, etc.) is supposed to be the equivalent of the ADA's renunciation of communism and Soviet influence in the late 40s. But, as both Marshall and Schmitt point out, this gets liberal anti-communism, and the virulent anti-Bush left, totally wrong. Besides actual communists and communism, the factions Schlesinger and co. opposed were people still clinging to myths and misinformation about the Soviet Union left over from a generation before. More importantly, many of the intellectual strains supporting the Democratic party and broader goals of economic justics at midcentury were intertwined with socialist politics and analysis.

Postwar liberals had the foresight to understand how the world was shaping up after the war: troubled but free nations against a really, really fucked up totatlitarian empire, and the tenacity to make their fellow liberals face up to the future coming down the pike. But the most convincing thing about the choice posed by the ADA and like-minded liberals was simple: it was a real, all encompassing threat.

Had Michael Moore and Moveon existed in 1947, they would have been branded the "anti-anti-communists". Voices standing up for the costs that demagoguery and political opportunism were inflicting on American values, and, sure enough, using comparable outrage and overblow rhetoric to fight the demagogues of the right.

What made postwar liberalism unique is that these were secondary concerns. The ADA certainly would have sympathized with Michael Moore and company. But more to the point, they would understand that Moore et al are hardly the main event. They are duking out a fight that is ultimately peripheral to the creation of a consensus liberal vision.

Implying as Beinart does, that they are the fellow travelers in our mist is to completely discount the real ideological battle at hand after World War II, and completely overestimate the ideological battle at hand in 2004 with medieval Islamist fanaticism.


I have apparently offended the karma gods by whining about how stupid David Brooks sounded talking about how Iraqis should behave for the last few years. How else to explain the unholy punishments of reading his last two columns? As you may remember, Saturday's outing was about how "people who don't like Social Security privatization have an irrational hatred and paranoia about 'markets'". Today's uses the Potemkin economic "conference" the WH is organizing for Wednesday as fodder for a classic Brooks special: disguising the well-worn jabs at Democrats with this charade of being a 'self-deprecating' conservative. "Hehe, just some even handed ribbing" he says as he drives his (admittedly lame) shiv deeper. It's only bothersome in the sense that his unfunny, completely unserious garbage is considered A) mainstream B) fit for the NY Times and C) readable.

But, as always, the liberal bashing isn't really the point. He's always figuring out some way to carry the administration's water, to varying degrees of subtlety. In this case, the plan is to write a knowing column about policy wonks and their nerdiness, and how the white house conference will be super full of that stuff, thereby sneakily adding legitimacy to a farce which actually involves very few real policy wonks. See this LA Times story. Looks like the tone is going to be less nerdy panel discussion, more Fortune 500 executive meet and greet.


Democrats just don't understand markets

Brooks today: "Before we get lost in the policy details, let's be clear about what this Social Security reform debate is really about. It's about the market. People who instinctively trust the markets support the Bush reform ideas, and people who are suspicious oppose them."

Oh good. I was worried that we might have to let the facts interfere with making policy regarding the government's finances for the next 75 years. But Brooks has the right answer: fuck 'em. This is about lovin' on "the markets".

Read the whole thing. How this man can get away writing an entire column about the mother of all complicated public policy issues, not explain a single legitimate statistic, and reduce the question to an issue of "tone" is beyond me.

Kerik out

Well this is an interesting turn. Kerik really was a crappy choice, so it is to the administration's credit that they axed him early. It will be interesting to see if anything more leaks out about how this went down behind the scenes. Have they backtracked on the notion that every bright idea about how to milk 9/11 doesn't need to be pursued? Are Rovian voices in the administration less important now that reelection isn't a paramount goal? Did someone say: "I get the symbolism, but really now, this is a nasty assignment and there's no reason to provoke more headaches in this arena"? Either way, let's hope G2 part two looks more like this...


More Liberalism is...

In the recent hysteria over how liberals have lost their ability to connect with America's moral center, conversation about what constitutes an ethical culture has been regrettably stifled. Ethics are, in fact, central to the liberal vision of society, and required for its proper function. Applied liberal ethics can be broken down into three different sectors:

Institutional Ethics. The liberal society is highly contingent upon robust institutions, and upon ethical codes which govern those instititions and the individuals who work in them in the place of the heavy hand of government intervention. Liberal ethics constrain firms from violating standards of competition and consumers' trust, nonprofits from abusing their mandate to exercise the greatest good for the individuals they serve, and governments themselves from imposing undue leverage on the governed.

Community Ethics. Despite the myth of rugged individualism, communitarian responsibility is central to the American ethos. Vital commitments to one's community both reduce the need for government and ensure the strength of democracy. Furthermore, the community ethic ultimately enables liberal government by justifying redistributive measures and taxation.

Individual Ethics. The most obvious ethical responsibility of the individual in liberal society is adherence to the rule of law. But that is hardly the extent of indivudal ethics. Liberalism requires the embrace of a number of personal ethical stances if it is to work. Fairness, Equality, Tolerance, Justice, and Reason at the individual level constitute a basic code from which liberal society grows. And while religious doctrine may sometimes be at odds with these ethics, it is folly to assume that these qualities are not fundamentally tied to faith. As liberals, we recognize that the ethical dialogue between secular government and faith has a deep common ground which must be emphasized in the face of intermittent friction.



Definitely read the back and forth between Andrew Samwick, Max Sawicky, and others about Social Security. It has been a very enlightening dry run of some of the debates that will rear their ugly heads come January. It also goes to show that liberals are not going to win the fight to preserve the system if they focus on beating back the arguments of "responsbile" privatization supporters. These people are fun to argue with because they are not private account demagogues, but their musings about when a deficit is a deficit and why it really does make sense to think about how Social Security finances will behave during the last days of earth (it's not pretty, that's for sure) will only serve to distract from the real fight.

The real fight is with the Bush administration and people who want to destroy any government responsibility for older poor people. They think the government should have nothing to do with the pension business and they treat this is an article of faith more holy than everything except cutting taxes. So, my apologies now to the open-minded thoughtful conservative leaning economists who really do want a nice debate and who might give up on the private account thing if it really didn't add up. You have almost nothing in common with the motives and politics that will bring about Social Security reform under George W. Bush. We can't have this conversation with you because your political bedfellows don't want to negotiate or think critically about long term liabilities. They want to mess the system up because they think it is immoral.

As liberals, we must argue that A) you don't screw with a government program as successful, efficient and enduring as Social Security lightly; B) government must have a role in ensuring that old people are not destitute and that this is a very different question than encouraging saving opportunities; and C) social insurance is a vital part of American life. It has been 70 years since the New Deal proved how we could create a humane society through mutual trust, broad compromise, and common goals, and coalitions like that come about only once a century.

Liberals don't seem to fully believe privatization is a real threat yet, probably because the math doesn't work. But make no mistake, Bush is deadly serious about making history with this. Liberals need to talk about why we believe in the promise of the program, and why it is fundamentally American in a way that private accounts are not.


Democrats just don't understand babies

Or so Brooks would like you to think. Nothing new/interesting/sensible here, but let's just note that all those cynical, brittle, pretentious, child hating spinsters on the coasts are keeping the precious Red children from begging in the streets. You know, with the tax dollars left over after we've bought our cocaine and porno, of course.


Liberalism is...

Pardon the intermittent randomness over the next few weeks, but I'll be using this space to test out ideas for another project, one thinking how to define the big questions that the unapologetic liberal should be asking in America today. While I hope to draw on and think about theories of liberalism so defined, the main event here is liberalism the American political tradition, rather than any family of philosophies. That said, thoughts on liberalism and government:

Liberals cherish a basic faith that government can serve as a vital force in society. Government, executed properly, is capable of transformative power, and of acting as a necessary counterweight to the excesses and human costs of capitalism. Regarding process, liberals believe that government is best conducted with reason, transparency, and wisdom. Liberals seek a reasonable balance between government as the means to mediate between competing interests and government as an evolving experiment in how best to organize those sections of society and the economy unaccounted for by the free market. Thus, while liberals support the purest democratic expression in elected office, we have always argued for a civil service based on merit rather than patronage and cronyism. An entrenched "interest" class is a terrible cancer on democracy that, if not completely eradicable, should be marginalized as far as possible. This phenomenon not only undermines democratic practice, but perverts capitalism and prevents the proper functioning of the market.

Liberals, despite their enthusiasm for government's possibilities are always aware and honest about government's limitations, that we must not be wedded to programs and principles that do not work. Over the past 30 years, as the 'starve the beast' school of governing has taken hold of the conservative imagination, liberals have been forced to choose between defending programs they would like to fix and doing away with those programs entirely. Thus, a liberal agenda must concern itself with retaking the debate about government, and instilling sensible and humane principles of governance in the nation at large.

Sweet mother of God

This is beyond fucked up. TAPPED records this exchange between the majority leader of the UNITED STATES SENATE and George Stephanapolous:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, let me switch to another subject. There was a bit of an uproar in Washington this week about this issue of these abstinence programs that are funded by the Federal government, the funding has doubled over the last four years but there was a report by the minority staff at the House Government Affairs Committee that showed that 11 of 13 of these programs are giving out false information. I want to show some of the claims they identified in the curricula. One of them was, one of the programs taught that "The actual ability of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, even if the product is intact, is not definitively known." Another, "The popular claim that condoms help prevent the spread of STDs is not supported by the data." A third suggested that tears and sweat could transmit HIV and AIDS. Now, you're a doctor. Do you believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?

FRIST: I don't know. I can tell you ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't know?

FRIST: I can tell you things like, like ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, wait, let me stop you, you don't know that, you believe that tears and sweat might be able to transmit AIDS?

FRIST: Yeah, no, I can tell you that HIV is not very transmissible as an element like, compared to smallpox, compared to the flu. It is not, but the first slide, because I think it's dangerous to show that and then sort of walk away.


[after talking about other issues pertaining to the programs]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me just, I wanted to move to another subject, let me just clear this up, though. Do you or do you not believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?

FRIST: It would be very hard. It would be very hard for tears and sweat, I mean, you can get virus in tears and sweat but in terms of the degree of infecting somebody, it would be very hard.



The Medium Lobster concurs about the Kerik nomination as only the Medium Lobster can.


New HS capo

Benjamin Wallace Wells has the lowdown on why Bernard Kerik is a pretty weak choice for Homeland Security secretary. The DHS bureaucracy is still in its infancy, and some of the largest functions (immigration especially) are in considerable disarray. We need someone that has an unholy amount of bureaucratic foresight, plus the ability to keep morale high for the tens of thousands department employees, for whom any initial reorganization buzz has most definitely worn off.

As Wells points out, there's no evidence that Kerik is the kind of virtuoso manager required, or even a successful one, for that matter. What he does have, of course, is the ability to keep 9/11 fresh in everyone's mind. Even though they won the election , they still have to act like its three years ago, when perception of strength and emotional tie-ins seemed appropriate to "keep the country moving forward". It's like a bad sequel, where only a few of the original cast came back, and secondary characters you didn't really care about in the first one are now in leading roles. The whole thing just reeks of lameness.


Nope, still not WWII

More to say on this Beinart article and Kevin Drum's response soon...


Dang Easterbrook

Via Kevin Drum, this Greg Easterbrook column is dumb. There's a perfectly reasonable part about how we shouldn't let the ginormous size of the U.S. military disquise the fact that there are needed and expensive capital improvements still to be made. Fine. The rest is nonsense.