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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


The “platinum coin” alternative may be a “gimmick,” but it can play a very useful role in restoring balance to a negotiation that is deeply unbalanced by the equally outrageous gimmicks proposed by GOP extremism.

Stephen Stromberg hits the nail on the head today about negotiating strategy. As he says:

Skillful negotiating can begin with taking an utterly unrealistic opening stand and making it seem like you’re not. In advance of this year’s approaching budget battles, Mitch McConnell tried that strategy on Sunday.

McConnell’s pitch? The current GOP mantra: “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem”
Now some people may actually have rational reasons for thinking that certain specific categories of government spending should be reduced — I certainly do — but the simple fact is that the statement above is nothing but logical gibberish. It is logically equivalent to saying “the problem isn’t that the ladder is too short, it’s that the roof is too tall.” It’s substantively meaningless but has the outward appearance of reason and misleadingly suggests that a longer ladder is not one perfectly sensible approach to solving the problem while the only viable option is lowering the roof.
The entire GOP communications strategy has been predicated on superficial sound-bite memes of this kind. It’s essentially relies on (1) most people’s limited understanding of fiscal policy and (2) the MSM’s willingness to act as stenographers for anything the RNC says, no matter how egregiously absurd.
This is where the Platinum Coin can play a very useful role in rebalancing the currently lopsided way in which the two poles of the upcoming negotiations are being framed by the MSM.
Here’s how Paul Krugman summarizes the case for the “platinum coin.”

Should President Obama be willing to print a $1 trillion platinum coin if Republicans try to force America into default? Yes, absolutely. He will, after all, be faced with a choice between two alternatives: one that’s silly but benign, the other that’s equally silly but both vile and disastrous. The decision should be obvious.
For those new to this, here’s the story. First of all, we have the weird and destructive institution of the debt ceiling; this lets Congress approve tax and spending bills that imply a large budget deficit — tax and spending bills the president is legally required to implement — and then lets Congress refuse to grant the president authority to borrow, preventing him from carrying out his legal duties and provoking a possibly catastrophic default.
And Republicans are openly threatening to use that potential for catastrophe to blackmail the president into implementing policies they can’t pass through normal constitutional processes.
Enter the platinum coin. There’s a legal loophole allowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins in any denomination the secretary chooses. Yes, it was intended to allow commemorative collector’s items — but that’s not what the letter of the law says. And by minting a $1 trillion coin, then depositing it at the Fed, the Treasury could acquire enough cash to sidestep the debt ceiling — while doing no economic harm at all.
So why not?
It’s easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn’t look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable — if you’ve been living in a cave for the past four years. Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it’s just ridiculous — far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin. So if the 14th amendment solution — simply declaring that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional — isn’t workable, go with the coin.

Under current circumstances, a “gimmick” like the platinum coin actually plays a constructive role in the debate by placing the GOP’s gimmicks on the same plane with the comparably superficial “solution” to America’s economic problems offered by the coin. The MSM is easily manipulated by conservatives when they are willing to use gimmicks while Democrats feel obligated to limit themselves to patiently explaining the more complex realities of the situation.
To see this clearly, just consider the following: every single sound-bite in which the conservative commentariat is forced to discuss a notion like the platinum coin is an instance in which it cannot be promoting its preferred and more effective sound-bite messaging. It essentially degrades the GOP slogan, “America is going broke” — which the MSM treats as a serious statement — down to the same ridiculous level as, “OK, let’s print a very expensive coin” and reestablishes a basic balance in the debate.
Krugman concludes his column by indicating the real role of the platinum coin in the debate as follows:

This still leaves the question of whose face goes on the coin — but that’s easy: John Boehner. Because without him and his colleagues, this wouldn’t be necessary.

Average Americans don’t understand the intricacies of serious fiscal policy but they do indeed understand the inherent insanity of threatening to throw the U.S. economy into default and crisis simply as a partisan tactic in a policy negotiation between Democrats and Republicans. The one-trillion dollar “Boehner-coin” argument simply exposes the even more absurd Republican “solution” in a way that no sensible and sober explanation of normal fiscal realities ever could.
And anyway, isn’t it time a nation as great as America finally had a public figure with an orange face and a lit cigarette on its currency? After all, George Hamilton doesn’t smoke and Dean Martin never went in for ultra-tanning.

The political centrism of the 1990’s played a major role in the evolution of today’s broad Democratic coalition. The superficial, “Dems are part of the problem” centrism that Third Way has been presenting lately offers a radically different perspective

Back in the 1990’s, the perspective called “political centrism” played an important role in the intellectual and organizational growth of the Democratic Party. While progressives often deeply and passionately disagreed with particular centrist policies and tactics, in retrospect most Democrats will now agree that centrist politicians like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore and others played a significant role in building today’s broad Democratic coalition. Today’s Democratic Party is a coalition of both progressives and centrists that has come of age in the era of Barack Obama, a man who personally embodies a very unique fusion of both centrist and progressive impulses and views.
In fact, most politically serious centrists as well as most progressives would today agree that although Obama has championed major progressive initiatives like national health care, he is more accurately described as closer to a 1990’s Clintonite centrist than to a traditional post-war New Deal Democratic progressive.
There are, to be sure, still very deep disagreements between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic coalition. Right now these are reflected in very substantial arguments over the extent of Obama’s concessions in his negotiations with the GOP. But these disagreements exist within the context of an extremely powerful underlying Democratic consensus – one that was emphatically ratified by the November election. The consensus is that there is a profound and fundamental difference between the views and values of today’s Democratic coalition and the right-wing extremist views and values of today’s conservatives and Republicans. Bill Clinton’s passionate defense of Obama and his agenda at the Democratic convention symbolized the basic unity and agreement that exists on this core issue within all sectors of the Democratic community.
That’s why it is genuinely dispiriting to see the distorted way that “centrism” is now being redefined by the current group “Third Way.”
Consider the recent Op-Ed commentary by two principals of the group that appeared in the weekend Washington Post. The commentary repeatedly implies that most or at times all “Democrats” and “Progressives” hold views that most political observers would more accurately describe as the views of “the left-wing” – or even “the most extreme left wing” — of the progressive coalition. The op-ed commentary does this in order to invent an artificial space for Third Way’s own “centrist” alternative – one that presumes to identify a moderate middle ground between what the commentators clearly imply is an unacceptable degree of partisan extremism on the part of many Democrats and progressives as well as Republicans.
Here’s how the commentary re-frames the views of the present Democratic coalition:

“If Democrats and their progressive allies are to achieve real gains during Obama’s second term, they must understand how we got here, and they must be willing to challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages. If they do not, this historic opportunity could easily be squandered.”

Notice that the “they” who must “challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages” refers without distinction to all Democrats and also to all progressives. Many of the most basic views of most Democrats and progressives are, it seems, so deeply wrong that they must be “challenged” or disaster will result.
The authors then apply this implicit criticism of the excessively extreme views of Democrats and progressives to a range of major issues, in each case identifying a new “centrist” middle ground alternative to the implied Democratic left-wing partisan extremism on the one hand and the right-wing views of the GOP on the other. In order to make this dubious argument, in each case they create either a “straw man” left-wing Democratic position or a non-existent opportunity for political compromise that Democrats have ignored.
Watch how this is done:
Taxes and Spending
The commentary says:

“Democrats can demand tax increases on the wealthy, but only as part of proposals that also include sizable spending cuts. A plan involving tax increases alone would be rejected by moderate voters and clearly is immovable in a divided government.”

1. Has any major faction within the Democratic Party -the Progressive Caucus in Congress, for example or the largest progressive organizations — ever actually demanded that Obama only propose or accept deals that involve absolutely no spending adjustments at all? Has any major faction within the Democratic coalition ever threatened to withdraw support from Obama unless he embraced a plan of pure tax increases and no spending reductions? The answer is obviously no.
2. Is a deal involving a genuinely balanced mixture of tax increases and spending cuts actually “movable” in the current “divided government”? Again the answer is obviously no.

In short, the implicit criticism of the supposedly extremist position of many Democrats and progressives combines both a “straw man” left-wing position that Democrats and the major progressive organizations have not actually insisted upon and a non-existent missed opportunity for compromise.

Pre-Christmas Final Exam — Current Events

Before closing our textbooks for the semester, please answer the following question:

Consider the following description of a political formation:

1. The political formation does not have majority support on a national level and cannot control the entire country but has impregnable strongholds in certain rural, less populated areas and specific geographic regions of the country.
2. Within these secure redoubts the leaders of the political formation are more directly threatened by hyper-extreme elements championing even more intense hardline policies than their own than they are threatened by challenges issued by any less extreme elements.
3. The political formation does not conceptualize “politics” as governance but as warfare. It has a warrior ethic that accepts the inevitability of continual battles that may extend over decades or generations.
4. The political formation is unresponsive to normal “carrots and sticks” as they are perceived in traditional western political life nor do they engage in what traditional political science calculus would consider rational cost-benefit analysis.

For 10 credit points, class, is this political formation:

a. The U.S. Republican Party
b. The Afghan Taliban
c. All of the above

Dems: Let’s not let deficit hawks get away with calling sensible negotiating positions “unreasonable”. Dems will be reasonable when dealing with reasonable opponents. Faced with debaters’ tricks and hostage-takers, they must apply different rules.

Dems who are following the current economic debate cannot help but be frustrated by the way that Democratic negotiating positions that are actually totally sensible in the context of dealing with an extremist opposition that considers the economy “a hostage worth ransoming” (in “Mich” McConnell’s memorable phrase) are criticized as “unreasonable” by deficit hawk critics who demand “leadership” or “compromise” from Dems – things that the hawks do not demand of the Republicans.
In fact, in a particularly infuriating maneuver, such critics actually use the extremism and irrationality of the GOP as the reason why Dems must meet Republican demands more than half-way. As Michael Gerson actually had the temerity to put it in a column today “Obama must give John Boehner political cover.”
Many of the spokesmen for the deficit hawk point of view are simply acting as open or covert representatives of the GOP and as such their political motivations are clear. But they are also joined by a substantial section of the mainstream media and the business community who begin from the premise that all sides should recognize the need for limits on deficits, spending and debt and a variety of related economic policies. They complain that Democrats are being “unreasonable” when they do not accept such points as the only proper foundation and absolutely necessary starting point for any serious negotiation.
Critics of this kind dismiss practical Democratic counterarguments about the futility of Obama’s attempts to offer historically unprecedented compromises in 2011 and the continual Republican pattern of “moving the goal posts” and undermining previously negotiated agreements as all irrelevant to the present day negotiations. In their perspective “reasonableness” necessarily consists in Democrats always and under all circumstances completely conceding the basic premises of the deficit hawk platform at the outset and negotiating on the basis of that foundation.
What is ironic is that most of the broad and general deficit hawk positions are actually not really controversial if they are viewed as only one partial aspect or component of an overall Keynesian or European Social Democratic approach. For example, not only a standard Keynesian textbook of the 1960’s but modern progressives like Paul Krugman and even the architects of the post-war Swedish Social Democratic welfare state would easily agree with propositions like the following:

• Except in exceptional circumstances (e.g. wartime) the budget should be balanced over the course of the long-term business cycle.
• Government spending and debt cannot perpetually increase as a percentage of GNP.
• At extremely high marginal rates, income taxes produce tax-avoidant behavior (e.g. use of tax shelters, capital flight) that makes them ineffective.
• The generosity of social welfare programs must be related to the level of real economic growth.

These and many similar propositions are not really controversial; progressives can easily agree with them when they are treated as just one component of a larger approach that is balanced with reciprocal propositions like the following:

• There must be a healthy balance between investment in the private and public sectors.
• Taxes to pay for needed public services and investment are the “price of civilization” and an obligation of responsible citizenship.
• The share of income going to the wealthy cannot continually rise as a percentage of total income.
• National economic policy in modern mixed economies must have as its objective the creation of adequate job opportunities and a basic level of economic security for the citizens of the country.

The American and Swedish mixed economies of the 1960’s reached different political compromises between these distinct classes of propositions, with the Swedish economy providing substantially greater social equality and economic security. But in both political systems, it was recognized that any “responsible” economic policy required the negotiated political reconciliation of many of these kinds of conflicting economic requirements and goals and not just the political imposition of one unbalanced side of the equation or the other.
Seen in this perspective, the inherently dishonest character of the arguments of most of the modern American deficit hawks becomes strikingly clear. They define only one pole of a comprehensive and balanced approach as representing the “responsible” position and simply ignore the other. This places Democrats in the position of having to forcefully assert the other side of the policy mixture simply in order to restore the missing balance to the policy debate. This then allows the dishonest deficit hawks to pillory the Democrats as “irresponsible” because they do not assert a fully elaborated and balanced Keynesian or social democratic view.
This is not economics. It is simply an old and rather transparent debaters’ trick. It can be met with an equally simple response – one that works just as well in negotiations with used car dealers as with political adversaries.
The basic rule is to require with absolute rigidity an equal and reciprocal concession for every concession offered. In this particular case it takes the following form:

I will agree with your assertion that proposition X is part of a “responsible” position if you agree that my proposition Y is also part of a “responsible” position.

So, for example:

I will agree that government spending and debt cannot continually increase as a percentage of GNP and must be held within limits if you will agree that the share of income going to the wealthy cannot continually rise as a percentage of total income and must also be kept within limits.

Conservative deficit hawks will not want to explicitly concede the latter point but – because it is every bit as mathematically inescapable as the former – will be unable to conceal the fact that that it is their own position that is not balanced or “responsible” in any meaningful sense of the word.
For every major plank in the deficit hawk program there is a corresponding and reciprocal progressive plank which can be counter posed to it and which exposes the fundamentally “irresponsible” character of the deficit hawk program when viewed in isolation.
An additional complexity is added to the current economic debate by the fact that one side currently uses the threat of damage to the economy as a “hostage” to extort concessions. In this case, applying the “reciprocal concession” rule to discussions with deficit hawks means demanding the following:

“Responsible and serious negotiations about the debt, deficit and spending cannot be conducted under the cloud of threats and blackmail. Any concessions or agreements on our part regarding deficits, spending or the national debt will be entirely dependent on the GOP first renouncing – and remaining committed to the renunciation – of threats to the economy and credit rating of the United States. Any agreements we may make during these negotiations will automatically and retroactively become null and void if such threats are employed now or at any time in the future”

Making the GOP renunciation of hostage-taking a non-negotiable demand at the beginning of any debates with deficit hawks will force them to either agree with the logic of the Democratic position and repudiate the tactic or, once again, to concede at the outset that it is their position that is not balanced or “responsible” but which rather legitimizes the use of hostage-taking by one political party but not the other. In either case, the spurious claim of “above politics” neutrality that the deficit hawks claim is revealed as empty and dishonest.
(A final note: in case you are wondering, the application of the reciprocal concession approach to negotiating with a used car dealer is to determine the real value of the auto from the Kelly Blue Book or other source and then to respond to each price offered by the salesman with an amount precisely as far below the real value as his is above it. While difficult to execute in practice, it is in principle impossible to defeat)

Et Tu Jennifer?

My, my. Will wonders never cease.
Jennifer Rubin, the MSM’s most florid and fact-averse defender/champion of the Tea Party, the GOP party line and, more recently, Mitt Romney has suddenly reinvented herself as a champion of “prudent, judicious” conservatism, going even to the extreme of wrapping herself in the awesome mantle of the great and most venerable Saints Buckley and Burke in order to scourge the extremists of the Tea Party and Republican House of Representatives.
Heck, not only does she ram a nasty little shiv right into the gizzard of the Tea Party on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the budget with the same glee that she formerly reserved exclusively for all opponents left of Attila the Hun but she even plunges her dagger directly into the unprotected back of the hapless Julius Gaias Romney with a swipe at “self-deportation” as a classic example of moronic extremist overreach.
With Rubin’s absolutely spectacular self-reinvention the Tea Party and other “true conservatives” are quite suddenly finding themselves exiled back to the wastes of outer fringelandia with their stalwarts Limbaugh, Beck and Coulter while their fair-weather groupies in the MSM desperately rush to dump their “Amnesty, Never” teashirts and “Don’t Tread On Me” snake-thing bumper stickers in the nearest dumpster and dig those old Buckley posters out of dusty cardboard boxes in the garage.
The speed of the turnabout is impressive. Within two or three years we will almost certainly be calmly assured by the MSM conservative commentariat that there was actually not a single reputable conservative supporter of Tea Party extremism at all from 2008-2012 – just as all upstanding conservatives know that there was not even one solitary single conservative opponent of Martin Luther King and the 1963 March on Washington.
Granted, it is impossible to find even one significant conservative figure in the historical photographs or lists of supporters of the March on Washington that were collected at the time. But of course, that’s just because, unlike liberals, conservatives were by temperament just too modest and “judicious” to engage in any maudlin displays of public support like actually supporting the March.
In similar fashion, we will undoubtedly soon be informed that virtually every conservative capable of expressing an opinion without literally frothing at the mouth was actually completely appalled by all of that sweaty-sloppy-gauche-no-good Tea Party stuff. The only thing that prevented conservatives from making these delicate, refined and noble sentiments more publically known was, of course, their tremendous sense of decorum and propriety.

In 2011, Senate Minority Leader “Mitch” McConnell Gave Democrats Some Very Good Advice About How to Negotiate With The GOP – Dems Should Take McConnell’s Advice Seriously and Look At What A Specialist In This Particular Kind of Negotiation Recommends.

Immediately after the debt limit debate in 2011, GOP Senate minority leader “Mitch” McConnell made the following profoundly illuminating comment about his party’s basic negotiating strategy:

“I think some of our Members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage worth ransoming.”

Many commentators minimized the importance of this comment because, on the surface, it can be viewed as merely a metaphor. But when one considers how the GOP actually negotiated in regard to the debt limit, it becomes clear that McConnell’s comment actually represents something substantially more significant. His comment describes a clear and distinct negotiating strategy – one that is quite different from other well-known negotiating strategies such as “seeking a win-win outcome” or “getting to yes” that are widely used in business or international affairs.
If we look at President Obama’s current negotiations with the GOP from this distinct perspective, one excellent place to find expert advice is on the PoliceOne database, “the most comprehensive and trusted online destination for law enforcement agencies and police departments worldwide.” On that site there is a quite detailed description of the negotiating strategies that are used in hostage situations, a description written by police expert Lawrence Miller PhD – author of “Hostage negotiations: Psychological strategies for resolving crises.”
The following are some of Dr. Miller’s recommendations for negotiating in hostage situations. These recommendations are actually remarkably illuminating when one systematically compares them with the actual negotiating strategies that President Obama is currently using in his dealings with the GOP. Although the GOP currently has less leverage to hold the economy “hostage” than they did in 2011, they still have a very substantial ability to threaten to damage the economic recovery if Democrats do not acceed to their demands.
Here are some of Miller’s recommendations:

Even with foul-mouthed HTs (i.e. hostage-takers), avoid using unnecessary profanity yourself. Remember that people who are stressed or angry are more likely to use profanity. You are trying to model mature, adult speech and behavior in order to calm the situation.
For emotional HTs, allow productive venting, but deflect dangerous escalation of speech tone and content. In many instances, the whole rationale for the hostage situation is so the HT can “make a point” or “tell my story.”
Focus your conversation on the HT, not the hostages. …Remember that hostages represent power and control to the hostage taker, so try not to do anything that will remind him of this fact…

Dems take note: there are some encouraging signs that the Obama team is not going to put the massive campaign organization into a deep freeze like they did after 2008. This could make a major difference in 2014 and beyond.

One of the most significant – and least explained – strategic errors the Obama team made after the 2008 election was to essentially demobilize the massive campaign organization they had developed during the campaign. Had they not done so, that powerful grass roots organization could have provided a progressive-democratic counterweight to the tea party, it could have mobilized support for the health care reform bill and it could have played a significant role in minimizing the Democratic losses in the 2010 elections.
As a result, it is encouraging to note that the Obama team does not seem to be contemplating a similar demobilization of the 2012 campaign organization after this recent election. Two weeks ago Obama for America sent out an e-mail asking supporters to fill out a survey describing their experiences in the campaign and expressing in their own words how they would like to see the organization operate in the future.
Over a million Obama supporters replied to the questionnaire – an absolutely stunning number, it should be noted — and apparently many if not most strongly advocated for an energetic, ongoing role for the organization. Here is how a follow up e-mail from OFA characterized the response:

Here are a few comments from supporters like you about the road ahead. We fought for the chance to continue moving our country forward for the next four years, and it’s up to each one of us to follow through on this remarkable opportunity:
“This organization has tapped into the enthusiasm of Americans that were previously on the sidelines of the political process. These Americans are now fully engaged and aware of the policies that are being advanced that will impact their lives and the lives of future generations. They are excited, ready, and willing to do whatever is within their power to influence policy makers to pass legislation that reflects and responds to the issues of our times.” — Rita, Virginia
“Create an engaged community of people that keeps the momentum alive and ensures that progressive policy is implemented at local, state, and national levels. Community here is the operative word! Build and enhance local organizing groups. Would be happy to be included in a local group and lead such a group.” — Merida, Illinois
“Don’t let the energy of the re-election slip through your fingers. This is a very powerful network of people.” — Joel, Texas

We’re going to put your survey responses to good use. Over the next month or two, a team of campaign staff from across the country is working on a project to document and analyze the work we did over the past 19 months, identifying both strengths and areas for improvement. Our goal is to pass along what we’ve learned from the 2012 campaign.
You’re the reason President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, and your input from surveys and calls is crucial to this project. So please stay tuned. We’re putting together a final report that will be available to the public, so that your voices continue to shape the future.
Jeremy Bird
National Field Director
Obama for America

The fact that OFA will issue a public report is particularly significant. The publication of that document will provide the platform for a massive intra-Democratic discussion and a springboard for establishing the OFA field organization into a permanent grass roots base of activists and supporters for the Democratic Party.
There will be some complicated decisions required. A new and innovative grass roots Democratic organization should not be built as simply another multi-issue progressive organization, duplicating efforts that are already in existence, nor should it be just a passive fundraising/GOTV tool of the DNC that only operates for a few months before elections. It needs to combine elements of both these models as well as incorporating useful operational lessons from the Tea Party movement as well.
For the moment, however, the critical fact is that a national conversation among the coalition of Obama supporters about the future of the organization will indeed take place and provide the opportunity to convert the impressive organization created in 2012 into an ongoing grass-roots foundation for the Democratic Party.
Having promised to have a public discussion of a public report, OFA is no longer in a position to repeat the massive mistake they made in 2008 when they allowed the vast energy, excitement and enthusiasm of the campaign to dissipate. All Dems should closely follow and be ready to actively contribute to the discussion that will inevitably emerge when the final report is issued.

Watch out Dems: Don’t underestimate the conservative “Benghazi scandal” narrative. It isn’t irrational, trivial or vacuous. It serves to support four very important attacks on Obama. As a result, conservatives are going to play it for all that its worth.

Democrats have observed with a great deal of puzzlement the extent to which conservatives are currently pushing the notion that the events in Benghazi represent a major, potentially game changing and reputation-destroying scandal for the Obama administration.
After all, from a Democratic perspective it seems entirely obvious that the administration had no possible motive for stripping its own ambassador of sufficient security protection nor any cynical election campaign reason to attempt to conceal the fact that the attackers were an organized terrorist group. Democrats logically assume that an impartial investigation will indeed reveal significant failures to properly anticipate the danger somewhere in the military-diplomatic chain of command and also clarify why the initial public description of the attackers by the CIA was revised as time went by. But Dems have great difficulty understanding why conservatives imagine that such an investigation will somehow deeply discredit the administration.
As several progressive commentators have recently asked: “Do the critics really think Obama and his administration deliberately exposed their own ambassador to assassination?” “Do they really think there was some huge political benefit for Obama in describing the attackers as ‘extremists’ rather than ‘terrorists’ for two weeks during the campaign? ” “My god, just what the devil are they actually implying – the whole thing simply doesn’t make any sense?”
Unfortunately, however, it actually does make perfect sense. Conservatives have four very important objectives they can realistically hope to achieve, even if not one of the parallel investigations now planned find even the slightest culpability at the top levels of the administration’s foreign policy team where Obama or his major military and diplomatic advisors could be directly implicated.
1. the narrative destroys the image of Obama as the tough, competent President “who finally got Bin Laden.”
It is impossible for Democrats to fully visualize how hideously painful and infuriating it is for conservatives every time the man they genuinely and seriously imagine to be a cowardly, anti-American radical who gleefully bows to our enemies and sabotages our friends is described as “the President who finally got bin laden” and whose authorization of drone warfare is widely credited with effectively weakening the terrorist threat.
The conservative Benghazi narrative — if one accepts it – undermines this image and replaces it with a story of incompetence, weakness and timidity. Specific facts may add some detail and texture to this story but in reality, for conservatives there really does not need to be any concrete proof that this description is accurate. Conservatives already “know” it is true by a process of infallible logical deduction: The image simply must be true because a spineless president like Obama and his appointees could not possibly have responded in any other way.
This alternative right-wing narrative of incompetence, weakness and timidity also serves to finally overwrite the lingering memory of the massive intelligence failures around 9/11 and Saddam’s nonexistent nuclear weapons. Although fair-minded observers will think it absurd to treat the Benghazi attack as a failure of equal magnitude to those fiascos, even the briefest perusal of conservative commentary will reveal that this is precisely what they now choose to passionately believe.
2. The narrative exonerates the inflammatory anti-Muslim documentary of any responsibility.
Religious conservatives in particular were outraged when it became obvious that an anti-Muslim documentary produced in America had generated widespread anger and protest across the Middle East and was being criticized even in America as an distorted and unnecessary provocation. When the early descriptions of the attacks on the embassy linked those widespread spontaneous protests against the video to the assault, it was doubly infuriating.
From this point of view, the fact that the attack on the embassy was in fact premeditated and not directly part of the spontaneous protests against the video is a vital concept for religious conservatives to assert in order to defend the much more general principle that attacks on Islam, no matter how inflammatory or distorted, must never be considered irresponsible and must never be held responsible for any negative consequences they may produce.
3. The narrative creates a permanent anti-Obama headline-generating scandal machine.
Back in the 1990’s, in the 10 year, multi-million dollar “whitewater” real estate investigation that never found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Bill or Hillary Clinton, conservatives perfected the tactic of what might be called the “permanent vacuous investigation.” They perceived that producing any actual crimes was entirely unnecessary. The process of investigation itself was hugely effective in undermining an administration.
After all, the staging and theatrics of an investigation inherently provides endless opportunities for conservatives to pose as fearless seekers of truth and investigators of wrongdoing, for delivering withering speeches implying that vast crimes are soon to be exposed and for generating a permanent flow of media headlines, sound-bites and TV reports all critical of the administration. The simple fact that an investigation is occurring ironically appears to many people as proof that some kind of wrongdoing must have occurred. And, of course, there is always the possibility that a wide-ranging “fishing expedition” might accidentally turn up something that can be exploited.
The mechanics of exploiting the investigation process are not complex. Each witness, each testimony and each question necessarily establish the basis for demanding additional witnesses, testimonies and questions. This process can already be seen developing in the Benghazi investigation. General Petraeus in his testimony indicated that the decision to change the term “terrorist” to “extremist” was made within the national security apparatus and was not ordered by the oval office. Republican congressmen who had implied such direct interference quickly switched to demanding to know “who” within the security apparatus made the decision and who in the White House might have known about it. From here, the entirely predictable next stage will be to ask if the person or persons who made the decision to change the wording “were in contact” with anyone in the White House. E-mail records and sworn testimony will be described as vital to answering this question. If the individuals were only in contact with individuals in the White House with whom they were properly supposed to be in contact, the next question will then be who were those proper individuals themselves in contact with. What e-mails did they send and receive. And so on.
In short, the investigation will become a perpetual motion machine, one that places the targets of the investigation in an inescapable double bind. If they object to a “fishing expedition” they can be charged with engaging in a “cover-up,” if they agree, each testimony and record release simply sets the stage for the investigators to pose additional questions and seek additional disclosure.
In the meantime, the “fearless and intrepid truth seekers” are provided with endless opportunities to crank up the investigatory cliché machine, “I promise I will not rest until we get to the bottom of this,” “these new revelations raise more question than they answer” “this new material proves that something very wrong going on,” “the whole truth has to come out” etc, ad nauseum. This is a process that – as Whitewater demonstrated – can go on for months and years.
The perpetual investigation machine serves two ongoing purposes for the conservative media. It continually reinforces the conservative framing they seek to impose on the administration and it provides a constant stream of new material for conservative columnists and commentators.
It can, in fact, be quite confidently predicted that, if the investigation is allowed to extend indefinitely, two years from now there will be over 200 segments on Fox News devoted to the subject and 3000 major references to it in speeches by conservative spokesmen and Republican politicians. Even if not a single “smoking gun” is found, it will become a major, permanent part of the national political narrative.
4. Weakening Obama’s position in relation to Netanyahu.
There is deep concern among conservatives and the GOP that Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented partisan intervention in the 2012 election has deeply weakened his influence with Obama and his level of support in the United States. Attacks on Obama based on the Benghazi attacks, although they do not have any direct bearing on U.S. Israeli relations or U.S. policy toward Iran and the occupied territories, can be used as partisan wedges against Obama. The conservative and GOP sound-bites are predictable: “The Obama administration — its utter and total incompetence exposed by the Benghazi scandal — is certainly in no position to lecture the Israelis on the Middle East” “Obama, the incompetent ‘bungler of Benghazi’ should do whatever a “real” anti-terrorist like Netanyahu wants him to do” And so it will go.
What Can Dems Do?
As this makes clear, even in the absence of any evidence of White House or top advisor error in the Benghazi attack, conservatives and the GOP have four very real and practical reasons for prolonging and inflating the inquiry.
But what can Dems do? A legitimate, non-partisan investigation is entirely appropriate and necessary as it is in all cases of military and/or security failures. But how can Dems effectively object when conservatives and the GOP attempt to turn it into a right-wing propaganda-fest and partisan fishing expedition?
One key tactic should be to carefully challenge conservative and GOP figures to distinguish between legitimate inquiry and fishing expedition. This can be accomplished by demanding clear answers to questions like the following:

1. Will you publically apologize to any government officials whose reputations are impugned in the course of the investigation and who are later shown to be innocent of any wrongdoing or error?
2. Describe what specific measures will you take now to make sure this investigation does not become another Whitewater – a 10 year multimillion dollar boondoggle and waste of taxpayer money that turned up no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
3. Will you insist that the investigation be at least 50% focused on developing recommendations for preventing such tragedies in the future or will you try to make it entirely devoted to seeking scapegoats and assigning blame.

The answers to these questions will “smoke out” the partisan warriors from among the legitimate investigators. People seeking legitimate answers to what happened in Benghazi should have absolutely no problem providing acceptable answers to all these questions. Partisan warriors seeking only to score partisan debating points, on the other hand, will twist, slither and turn like political Burmese pythons to avoid directly answering them.

I admit it. I’m rootin’ 110% for Good ole’ “Charlie the K” Krauthhammer in the intra-Republican debate. He’s my man. He ain’t having none of this silly “reassessment” malarkey.

In his Washington post column today, Charles Krauthhammer comes out swinging at the Nervous Nellies in the GOP:

[Republicans] lose and immediately the chorus begins. Republicans must change or die. A rump party of white America, it must adapt to evolving demographics or forever be the minority…

Fiddlesticks, says the big K:

The country doesn’t need two liberal parties. Yes, Republicans need to weed out candidates who talk like morons about rape. But this doesn’t mean the country needs two pro-choice parties either. In fact, more women are pro-life than are pro-choice. The problem here for Republicans is not policy but delicacy — speaking about culturally sensitive and philosophically complex issues with reflection and prudence.

Right on, Charlie baby. You rule, dude. You go on telling the GOP that they should hang in there and stick with all their extreme and unpopular positions — that they just need to learn how to mumble a little bit more when they get to the naughty bits. After all, you conservative guys know much better than us liberals about how it is that them thar little women really don’t really want to worry their pretty little heads much about “philosophically complex issues” like “no exceptions for rape” – stuff that men understand much better than they do anyway. Republicans just need a couple of etiquette lessons to learn how to stop sounding like they’re a bunch of drunk aluminum siding salesmen swapping locker room jokes while they try to grope the waitresses in a third-rate topless bar.
(Now it is true that on the particular issue of appealing to Latinos Charlie the K actually does recommend a full scale, if clinically delusional, pander – a surreal Hunter Thompson-on-acid policy mix of total amnesty, napalm strikes and land mines on the Mexican border and Marco Rubio giving misty-eyed orations about the American dream. But never mind about that. Otherwise he’s absolutely implacable. No compromise, no surrender.)
Here he goes:

…The doomsayers warn, Republicans must change not just ethnically but ideologically. Back to the center. Moderation above all!
More nonsense. Tuesday’s exit polls showed that by an eight-point margin (51-43), Americans believe that government does too much. And Republicans are the party of smaller government. Moreover, onrushing economic exigencies — crushing debt, unsustainable entitlements — will make the argument for smaller government increasingly unassailable.
So, why give it up? Republicans lost the election not because they advanced a bad argument but because they advanced a good argument not well enough. Romney ran a solid campaign, but he is by nature a Northeastern moderate. He sincerely adopted the new conservatism but still spoke it as a second language….. Romney is a good man who made the best argument he could, and nearly won. He would have made a superb chief executive, but he (like the Clinton machine) could not match Barack Obama in the darker arts of public persuasion.

Yes. Yes. Finally. Someone with the guts to stand up and tell the truth about the role of the dark arts in Obama’s campaign — that the real reason Obama won was because he was trained in secret Jedi techniques of mass hypnotism by Indonesian/Kenyan witch doctors or something like that. I mean jeeze, didn’t anyone else notice the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” hand gestures Obama was making at the camera during the second debate?
Here’s the Big K’s finale:

The answer to Romney’s failure is not retreat, not aping the Democrats’ patchwork pandering. It is to make the case for restrained, rationalized and reformed government in stark contradistinction to Obama’s increasingly unsustainable big-spending, big-government paternalism.
Republicans: No whimpering. No whining. No reinvention when none is needed. Do conservatism but do it better. There’s a whole generation of leaders ready to do just that

Damn, what a refreshing breath of fresh air. Just when I was starting to worry that Republicans might actually learn from their mistakes and present a more formidable challenge next time, The big K rolls into town to reassure me that there are plenty of people in the Republican coalition who will keep them firmly on the path to sustained electoral failure.
You hang in there, Big K man, you keep right on trucking. Trust me, bro’, I got your back.

Paul Krugman on the GOP’s political strategy: “blackmail” and “protection racket politics

In his New York Times column today titled “the Blackmail Caucus“, Paul Krugman puts his finger on the real issue in this election:

….Lately, however, I’ve seen a growing number of Romney supporters making a quite different argument. Vote for Mr. Romney, they say, because if he loses, Republicans will destroy the economy.
O.K., they don’t quite put it that way. The argument is phrased in terms of “partisan gridlock,” as if both parties were equally extreme. But they aren’t. This is, in reality, all about appeasing the hard men of the Republican Party.
…During the first two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Republicans offered scorched-earth opposition to anything and everything he proposed. Among other things, they engaged in an unprecedented number of filibusters, turning the Senate — for the first time — into a chamber in which nothing can pass without 60 votes.
And, when Republicans took control of the House, they became even more extreme. The 2011 debt ceiling standoff was a first in American history: An opposition party declared itself willing to undermine the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, with incalculable economic effects, unless it got its way.
And the looming fight over the “fiscal cliff” is more of the same. Once again, the G.O.P. is threatening to inflict large damage on the economy unless Mr. Obama gives it something — an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy — that it lacks the votes to pass through normal constitutional processes.
Would a Democratic Senate offer equally extreme opposition to a President Romney? No, it wouldn’t. So, yes, there is a case that “partisan gridlock” would be less damaging if Mr. Romney won.
But are we ready to become a country in which “Nice country you got here. Shame if something were to happen to it” becomes a winning political argument? I hope not. By all means, vote for Mr. Romney if you think he offers the better policies. But arguing for Mr. Romney on the grounds that he could get things done veers dangerously close to accepting protection-racket politics, which have no place in American life.

In making this argument, Krugman deflates the pro-Romney argument based on the urgent need for a “Grand Bargain” on the budget.

But would Mr. Obama be able to negotiate a Grand Bargain on the budget? Probably not — but so what? America isn’t facing any kind of short-run fiscal crisis, except in the fevered imagination of a few Beltway insiders. If you’re worried about the long-run imbalance between spending and revenue, well, that’s an issue that will have to be resolved eventually, but not right away.

He then makes an absolutely central point:

Furthermore, I’d argue that any alleged Grand Bargain would be worthless as long as the G.O.P. remained as extreme as it is, because the next Republican president, following the lead of George W. Bush, would just squander the gains on tax cuts and unfunded wars.

This final point is one that has been totally missing in the current debate. Every single solitary call for a “Grand Bargain” implicitly assumes that the Republicans will keep their end of any bargain they negotiate if they are returned to power or at some point obtain some temporary political leverage. Yet the explicit, fundamental and official philosophy of the movement conservatives who now dominate the GOP is that any compromises they may make of their ultimate goals are simply tactical and have absolutely no binding moral or political force.
The consequence is simple. So long as the GOP remains committed to its current extremist philosophy, they can be absolutely and completely trusted — trusted to never, ever, ever genuinely respect the terms of any “Grand Bargain” that they might negotiate. At the very best any so-called “Grand Bargain” will be a temporary two or four year deal, renewable at the GOP’s exclusive option.
As a result, the only viable road – the only road — to a “Grand Bargain” on the budget must begin with the defeat of the political extremism that now dominates the GOP. And the first step toward achieving that goal is the defeat of Mitt Romney in next Tuesday’s election.