In the movie “A Few Good Men” the rookie JAG lawyer played by Tom Cruise cleverly exploits his own lack of military experience and bearing by using it to provoke a deep contempt in the crusty general played by Jack Nicholson. In response to Cruise’s skillful baiting, Nicholson explodes in an on-the-witness-chair meltdown that leaves him sputtering futilely and blurting out the critical evidence of his own misconduct.
“A Few Good Men” is not the only Hollywood movie that ends with a similar meltdown of a military “bad-guy” at the hands of a quintessentially liberal journalist/attorney/citizen (one who invariably has only “the truth” on his or her side). Kirk Douglas, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott and a bunch of other A-list actors have all played the heavy in this particular bit over the years.
And amazingly, in real life as well, exactly the same thing has happened… let’s see…….um, well, gee, when you get down to it – Never. Not once. Not in this bloody universe. Not even close.
On the contrary, military men testifying before Congress invariably come off better then their interrogators – William Westmorland, Oliver North and now General Petraeus never even break a sweat while the legislators questioning them probe and thrust haphazardly like rookie public defenders who misplaced their case notes and are bluffing their way through a cross-examination, hoping the cop they are questioning will suddenly develop amnesia or some other miracle will fall in their lap.
Now the truth is that everybody knows perfectly well that this is the way it always works out in real life and everybody — not just communications specialists — knows exactly why.
It’s not just the uniform, although that’s profoundly important. A military career obviously suggests a vast range of admirable messages about the person and his values – patriotism, self-discipline, bravery, technical mastery, cool-headedness, a commitment to something larger then money (Politicians, in contrast, generally embody…. Oh never mind).
But even more important, a high-ranking military officer testifying before Congress is presenting something more then just a particular viewpoint or opinion. He is outlining a military strategy – a coherent plan that includes the goals and objectives being sought, the general plan for achieving them and the results of technical analyses and feasibility studies drawn from a whole series of sub-fields – logistics, transportation, force structure, intelligence, and many others.
Midway through reading Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazineprofile of Mark Warner in March of 2006 (the one accompanied by the famously unflattering cover photo of the Virginian), I opened an instant message from a friend who said, “Matt Bai is great at writing about conventional wisdom a couple hours after it becomes conventional wisdom.”
But in The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, Bai has penned an unconventional and fascinating account of the various elements of the recent insurgency movement inside the Democratic Party, based on three years of close personal observation.
He was one of the first journalists in Washington to see the now famous Rob Stein PowerPoint presentation charting the rise of the “Right Wing Message Matrix.” He was the only writer in the room when some of the richest donors in progressive politics committed to build the Democracy Alliance. He was the first reporter to book a seat at the inaugural YearlyKos convention. And when Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and Jerome Armstrong went on a tour to promote their book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, Bai rented a car and drove them the length of California.
All of which is to say that Bai was way ahead of the collective wisdom on this one. The mainstream media recognized something was up, but from top to bottom, everyone was slow to grasp that the new activists in the Democratic party weren’t like the old constituent groups. They weren’t content to raise money for a little access. They weren’t patient with authority. And whether they liked to admit it or not, they weren’t happy with the Clinton legacy.
Bai captures all of that artfully. Armstrong and Kos emerge from the book as complex individuals, not as representatives of an “angry blogger” stereotype. Important figures unused to the profile treatment, like Gina Cooper (the woman who organized the first YearlyKos) and Rob Stein (the man who convinced some of the wealthiest people in the country to commit millions of dollars to the Democracy Alliance), are rendered candidly and sympathetically. And the scene where Bill Clinton finds himself in a heated disagreement with one of the donors from the Democracy Alliance smolders with significance.
Though I’ve heard some of the stories he describes before, all of this feels fresh — perhaps because, with the exception of Crashing the Gate, The Argument is the first thing I’ve read to give book-length treatment to this whole phenomenon. That said, you expect all this from a writer as talented as Bai. What you don’t expect are the insights all these details provide.
Sue Sturgis of Facing South flags one of the better strategy ideas being kicked around in her post “Help Bring a Presidential Debate to New Orleans.” It’s a simple idea, and Democrats have everything to gain by debating in the Big Easy. They can showcase their specific policies for revitalizing the Gulf Coast, in very stark contrast to the GOP candidates’ vague, insubstantial boilerplate. It’s also a great way for Dems to show the South they care about the region’s future.
The campaign for a Big Easy Debate is being sponsored by “Women of the Storm,” a coalition of Louisiana women whose lives were affected by Hurricane Katrina and Rita. The group is working with Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier universities to persuade the Commission on Presidential Debates to hold a presidential debate at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The proposed New Orleans debate has been endorsed by the Washington Post, New York Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune and the six U.S. Senators running for president.
Friends of New Orleans, which also works to support rebuilding the Gulf Coast, is conducting an e-mail campaign supporting the debate on its website. Sending a message takes about 30 seconds.
Lord ‘a’ mercy! For the self-styled Party of the Godly, the GOP is certainly having a lot of religious issues with its presidential field. There’s Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. There’s Rudy Giuliani’s rather tenuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. There’s the question as to whether Fred Thompson is a member of the conservative Church of Christ or the progressive United Church of Christ, or doesn’t go to church at all. There’s Sam Brownback’s conversion from Methodism to Catholicism via the controversial Opus Dei organization. And for those Republicans, if there are any, who are scrupulous about separation of church and state, Mike Huckabee’s position as an ordained Southern Baptist minister might raise a few eyebrows.
And now we learn via AP that John McCain has suddenly started telling people in heavily Baptist South Carolina that he’s not, as he has always been identified, an Episcopalian, but a Baptist, having attended a Phoenix-area Southern Baptist Church for about 15 years.
The Associated Press asked McCain on Saturday how his Episcopal faith plays a role in his campaign and life. McCain grew up Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va.
“It plays a role in my life. By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” McCain said. “Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No.”
This news apparently led AP reporter Bruce Smith to do a little googling, and he promptly turned up a rather interesting personal tidbit about McCain from a few months ago:
In a June interview with McClatchy Newspapers, the senator said his wife and two of their children have been baptized in the Arizona Baptist church, but he had not. “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs,” he said.
Well, you’d think anyone who’s been attending a Baptist Church for 15 years might have caught wind of the fact that the denomination, as its name suggests, believes rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation, a reasonably important “spiritual need” by most measurements.
And no, it wouldn’t cut any ice with his fellow-Baptists if it turns out that McCain, like most Episcopalians, was baptized via sprinkling as an infant. Any kind of Baptist I’ve ever heard of holds that only a “believer’s baptism” (i.e., at an age of consent) through full bodily immersion is valid. That’s why their theological ancestors in Europe were contemptuously dubbed “Re-baptizers,” or “Anabaptists.”
I don’t know why McCain has chosen to wander into this particular thicket. But the only way out I can imagine is if he asks Huckabee to baptize him during the next candidate debate.
This is indeed a busy Monday morning in the political world. The White House is likely to announce retired federal district court judge Michael Mukasey as its nominee to succeed Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, having backed off more controversial possibilities such as Michael Chertoff and Ted Olsen.
Mukasey’s close relationship to Rudy Giuliani will raise a lot of Left and Right eyebrows, and his outspoken support for the Patriot Act will probably spur some netroots talk about opposing his confirmation. But the immediate reaction among Democrats has been fairly conciliatory (reflected most notably by positive comments from Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, as quoted in the Post article linked to above), and the best bet is that Dems will use the confirmation hearings to pin down Mukasey on Gonzales’ various misdeeds and prevarications, most notably the U.S. Attorneys scandal (Mukasey was himself a federal prosecutor under Giuliani back in the day).
On the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton is releasing the “coverage” piece of her health care proposal today, and all indications are that she will embrace an “individual mandate” to ensure universal coverage, joining John Edwards and differing from Barack Obama on that wonky but important point. Initial reaction in the progressive blogosphere is likely to be positive. One things’s for certain sure: any similarities between HRC’s plan and the Massachusetts initiative (which also includes an individual mandate) signed into law by Mitt Romney will be used by the Mittster’s GOP presidential rivals to label him as an advocate for HillaryCare, probably forcing him to discuss the MA plan more frequently.
But while HRC is making news on health care, Barack Obama moved a major chess piece in the politics of Iraq, coming out clearly yesterday for the no-war-funding-without-deadlines approach, earning cheers from Markos Moulitsas. Obama’s statement (in Iowa, of course) aligned him with Edwards, Dodd and Richardson on the funding cutoff strategy (Biden is stridently opposed to it), and shifted the focus to HRC, who in the past has moved in tandem with Obama on this particular issue. But Obama, like HRC (and to a lesser extent Edwards) remains exposed to demands by Dodd and Richardson that he disclaim support for a significant residual troop presence in Iraq after combat brigades are withdrawn.
In the Republican presidential contest, Newt Gingrich made a lot of Democrats happy late last week by renewing talk of a last-minute bid.
And in celebrity-culture-meets-politics news, last night Al Gore picked up an Emmy (for his role in launching the Current channel) to go with his Oscar, while the Fox Network may be open to charges that it censored Sally Fields’ Emmy acceptance speech for profane anti-war comments.
Thomas F. Schaller has a provocatively titled Salon post “So Long White Boy,” in which he all but urges Democrats to write off the white male voter, or as the article subtitle asks “Could 2008 be the year that Democrats finally admit an old sweetheart is never coming back, and stop pandering to the white male voter?” Schaller trots out some interesting numbers to bolster his argument, including:
In 2004, according to New York Times exit polls, Democrat Kerry won 38 percent of the total white male vote, confirming a familiar pattern. Kerry’s share was basically the same that every Democratic presidential candidate has received since Michael Dukakis. In the four elections between 1988 and 2000, in fact, using New York Times exit poll results, the Democratic nominee won 36 percent, 37 percent, 38 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of votes cast by white men. Because white men cast between 33 and 36 percent of all votes in 2004, that means a mere 12 to 13 percentage points of Kerry’s 48 percent nationally came from white men — about one vote in four. Nevertheless, and despite running against an incumbent in the first post-Sept. 11 presidential election, Kerry still came within one state of winning the Electoral College. Four years earlier, Al Gore also came within one state of reaching the magical 270 electors, and actually won the popular vote nationally — while, like Kerry, receiving only about one-fourth of his support from white men.
Schaller concedes that Dems are still “competitive” among white women voters and that unionized white male voters are still pro-Democratic. He compares demographic trends and voting patterns for white male and African American voters and concludes:
Democrats are able to neutralize their white male voter problem with votes from African-Americans — even though the latter group is only about one-third the size of the former….today, the black vote fully compensates for the Democrats’ deficit among white men.
Schaller doesn’t say anything about what possible effect discontent over the Iraq war, GOP scandals or other issues may have on white male votes in ’08. And Democratic presidential candidates may be less eager than he to write off one out of four of their voters. But it’s an important article in terms of political strategy, and one which merits the attention of Dems concerned about the Party’s future.
One of the strange shifts in its public posture on Iraq that’s been made by the Bush administration in recent weeks is the idea that total lack of progress on a national political settlement doesn’t matter, because progress towards a more orderly existence is being made on a local level here and there, a development that will somehow perculate up to Baghdad. The fact that Iraq’s sectarian fault lines are incredibly resistant to this kind of simple bottom-up solution, or that local “empowerment” may be completely inconsistent with national unity, doesn’t seem to enter into the equation. There’s a good, full analysis of the incoherence of what now passes for a Bush political strategy in Iraq by Dennis Ross up at the New Republic site.
Bush’s celebration of developments in Anbar Province is highly reminiscent of an earlier, grossly premature celebration over Iraq’s first “national” elections, back in January of 2005. All those GOP politicians waving purple fingers didn’t seem to be aware that the vast majority of Iraqi voters rejected every available inter-communal political option. And like Bush’s basic course of action in Iraq, that’s something that hasn’t changed at all.
Now that Petraeus Week is over, and Bush has made his Big Speech announcing he’s willing to consider withdrawing enough troops by next July to bring us back to exactly where we were the day after the 2006 elections, the spin wars over how Americans (and Iraqis) will react are beginning in earnest. And for those of us who like the idea of clarity, one of the first shots out of the block, a Rasmussen poll on “the Petraeus Plan” for Iraq, is truly infuriating.
In fairness, the pollsters quizzed Americans about the “Petraeus recommendations” for Iraq, to wit that the U.S. “withdraw 30,000 soldiers from Iraq but leave 130,000 troops in place at least through the summer.” But the initial media report on the poll, in The Hill, changed “recommendations” to “plan,” so we have poll results supposedly showing a plurality of Americans–43 percent to 38 percent–supporting the self-same “Petraeus Plan” that Bush “embraced” last night. That looks like a pretty big shift in sentiment on Iraq, eh? Particularly when the poll shows only a bare majority of Democrats oppose the Petraeus Plan.
The problem with the poll, of course, other than enabling Bush’s effort to make it look like the military, and a particularly popular general, are actually controlling the overall war strategy, is this: are people responding to the question focused on the idea of withdrawing troops, or the idea of leaving troops? Do they know the “Petraeus Plan” makes troop withdrawals contingent on political progress, or that most of the the withdrawals would occur nearly a year from now? And do they know the relationship of pre- and post-surge troops levels?
I’m sure other polls, using better methodology and better questions than Rasmussen’s, will soon come out. But the last thing America needs right now is “evidence” that seems to support the already rampant idea in GOP circles that Bush’s massive bait-and-switch tactics for continuing the same policies indefinitely are producing some sea-change in public opinion. We are talking about people, as Ron Brownstein reminded us in a L.A. Times column today, who have convinced themselves that their 2006 defeat was a mandate for a more right-wing Republican Party (and even, as you may recall from the early conservative line on the “surge,” for an escalation of military action in Iraq). They don’t need any further encouragement for their delusions.
There has been a fair amount of blog buzz about the interesting and graphically-gorgeous Media Matters study “Black and White and Re(a)d All Over:The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns.” The Media Matters team, lead by Senior Fellow Paul Waldman, pretty much shreds the GOP claim of liberal bias in the print media, at least as far as op-ed columnists are concerned. (And, in recent years GOP presidential candidates have gotten the most newspaper endorsements on editorial pages) The conclusion should not come as too much of a surprise to those who read op-eds widely. But some of the blog commentary about the study raise some interesting questions. In The Plank, TNR’s Josh Patashnik asks, for example:
…The real question then would be, if nearly one in two Americans identifies as “moderate”, why are only two of the top ten columnists in America centrists?
…a liberal op-ed editor may be quite hard on other liberals, who don’t sound, to him, like they’re saying anything new. Conversely, he could be quite easy on conservatives, because even their basic arguments are, to him, analytically fresh and innovative.
…maybe opinion columns have little measurable economic value (does anyone really believe Washington Post circulation would change in either direction if they sacked Krauthammer and hired Rosa Brooks away from the LA Times?) and basically exist to put forward ideas that newspaper owners find congenial.
…complex arguments don’t generally make for the same hard-lined, concise, and easy-to-read column fodder that our ever-more-dumbed-down mainstream media tend to favor. Conservative columnists tend to lean on the most basic, unexamined, talking-point-specific arguments – quick, easy to digest, appealing to reader’s basest instincts. Liberals tend to explore the issue and construct a case for the merits of their arguments, which fewer and fewer papers have the space for, and fewer and fewer readers have the attention span to get through.
Here’s another question: Since Dems kicked butt in the ’06 elections, might that mean that conservative columnists, or even op-ed columnists in general, have little influence on swing voters? Or would Dems have done even better if there was more political balance in op-eds?
I’ve written earlier about the long-running but intensifying debate within the blogosphere about the netroots’ orientation towards a purely partisan or more ideological stance. Mark Warner’s announcement that he’s running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia is proving to be something of a Rorschach Test for this difference of opinion.
At OpenLeft.com (a site founded in no small part to push netrooters towards an ideological orientation), Matt Stoller greets Warner’s “disgusting, Lieberman-esque” announcement with this categorical judgment:
Warner’s a centrist, not a partisan, and my guess is that this will turn a lot of people off who had previously ‘loved’ Mark Warner. If the Republicans can find a candidate, I think he’s going to have a bumpier ride than expected. He’ll still win, in all likelihood, but he’s going to be a bad Senator.
Note the planted axiom here that “centrists” can’t be “partisans.”
Meanwhile, over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas expresses zero ambilvalence over Warner’s decision:
Mark Warner was the most popular governor in Virginia history. Republicans, on the other hand, will face a bloody primary that will pit not just “moderate” versus conservative, but NoVa versus Southern Virginia. This Tom Davis versus Jim Gilmore contest should be positively bloody, and further deplete and demoralize a Virginia Republican Party in retreat.
About the only Republican happy today is George “Macaca” Allen, who is eyeing the 2009 gubernatorial contest. With Warner probably out of the picture, his chances for a comeback are much greater. But that’s a bridge we’ll cross in 2009. As for now, and with all caveats about getting too cocky and all, this seat will remain in the hands of a senator named “Warner”.
As some of you may remember, Mark Warner’s relative merits have always been a contentious issue in the progressive blogosphere. Matt Bai’s book The Argument has an entire chapter about Warner’s famous appearance at the first YearlyKos conference, which began as a lovefest and concluded with some mutual reassessment of Warner’s relationship to the netroots (Bai even suggests that Warner’s experience at YearlyKos had a significant impact on his decision to fold his presidential campaign).
Now we’re talking not about a Warner presidential run, but about a red-state Senate campaign. And it’s a road-sign in the partisan/ideological debate that such a candidacy is being hooted at in a prominent progressive site.
We’ll probably see even sharper disagreements if Bob Kerrey, an inveterate defier of ideological orthodoxy, decides to run for the Senate in Nebraska.
Late in the evening of the special election in PA-18 Tuesday night, before it was clear Democrat Conor Lamb had won, I offered some reflections at New York
While we don’t yet have a clear winner in this election, we do have a clear loser: the Republican Party. This was, as I argued some time ago, the “no-excuses” special election for the GOP. This congressional district is strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either: He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and conservative groups to counteract anything Lamb could throw at him. Plus, he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that decided the presidency. If Lamb wins, it will represent a historic disaster for the GOP. If Saccone wins, it will still send a stark warning sign to the majority party in the House as we head toward November.
Republican message-meister Frank Luntz put it plainly this evening:
Whatever the outcome tonight, #PA18 is an extremely bad omen for the @GOP.
Make no mistake: It is a leaning Republican district that is leaning no more.
Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.
Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November.
Yes, a lot of things can change between now and then. But we are now seeing a regular pattern of Democratic over-performance in special elections — whether they ultimately win or lose — spanning the entire Trump administration so far. This election may just be another data point among many, but put them together and they unambiguously show big trouble for Trump and his party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they can’t make it there (in southwest Pennsylvania), they can’t make it anywhere. And it’s time they woke up and smelled the bitter coffee.
As of this writing, Saccone still hasn’t conceded, despite his cause looking hopeless. But it could be some time before his party recovers from this one.