Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hillary and the Liberal Opening

There is in this election an opening for liberalism to reemerge as a popular approach to government in America for the first time since, really, the 1960s, certainly since the one-two punch of Reagan and Gingrich. Why is Hillary Clinton, notorious establishmentarian who voted for the Iraq invasion, the best champion of the Democratic Party and the liberal cause? Here are two reasons:
1) Although there is a potential swing to policy liberalism, its motivations are not entirely ideological. The center is moving left to some degree as a consequence of the perceived incompetence of Republican government. This has to do with the quality of Bush and Cheney, but it is deeper than that: Republicans today hold that 40 million uninsured people is acceptable healthcare policy, and propose to do nothing. Their position on the national debt and the trade deficit is that this is acceptable fiscal policy, and everything is fine. As to campaign finance reform, they're against it. And so on. Meanwhile, people remember the 1990s: budget surpluses, fiscal policies friendly to the middle class, an effective air war policy in the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East. Unlike the politicians and pundits, the voters are not essentially ideological. They are shoppers, and what they are shopping for at the moment is competence.
2) My Democratic friends tell me they're worried about Hilary's "negatives." But for a new liberal consensus to emerge, the right has to be beaten. This is bottom-line politics, and a secret of the Clintons' success is their understanding of this hard reality: for me to win a mandate, you have to lose (sunny platitudes from Obama notwithstanding). Ironically, Hillary, seen by the left as too establishment, too business-as-usual, is the Democrat who can defeat the conservative bloc in this all-important symbolic way: they hated her, she won the election. And that is how to achieve genuine liberal government.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have to convince the voters that they're not really pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-gay. Romney is trying to flip-flop into an ayatollah of the Christian right, Giuliani is sticking to his uber-hawk act: last week he rehearsed a version of the "madman theory" of foreign policy associated with Nixon. Thompson is counting on doing well among gun owners who opposed the immigration bill. And McCain is still out there, casting aspersions on Democrats for "disrespecting the officer corps" (his Orwellian construction for "criticizing the war policy"), and promising full speed ahead into deeper military involvement in Iraq. No one is pulling these worthies from the left. To their right are Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and various other scary folks. What is going on here? Part of the problem is that with the President's policies held in such disfavor by the general public, the only hope for a national-level Republican campaign is to play to the base. Meanwhile the GOP convention awards bonus delegates to states that voted for Bush in the last election, or that are solidly in the "Red" column. Why they adopted such rules is beyond me; I'm sure it made sense to someone at the time. The upshot is that the Republicans have a more acute version of the whipsaw effect that both parties have to deal with during presidential election cycles: you've got to run to your base during the primaries, then reverse course and run to the center during the general election. When you look at these guys and assess their national chances, given the conversation they're having at the moment, the only question is, How many stops to Wilderness Junction? Call this Republican primary season the Long Goodbye.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tell it to Ike

General Grant, General Patton, General MacArthur, and General Westmoreland would be surprised by the recent revelation from Republican politicians and pundits that active-duty generals are immune from public criticism. What's really going on is that the GOP has to play guerrilla gotcha (claiming, for example, that is a surrogate of the Democratic Party), as there does not appear to be so much as a single substantive issue on which they might possibly stand to win the election. Note to Dems: start talking about the economy, health care, the environment, education, trade. Talk about anything and you win, while the President leads his patriotic parade to nowhere. Meanwhile it's true that General Petreaus did not in fact betray us: when asked if the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, he answered, "I don't know," a polite phrase that translates as "No."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

At least they have a strategy for something

The Bush administration's "strategy" on Iraq is to try to get the country to the point where it won't come falling down around our ears the moment we withdraw. If it comes falling down a little later, that's livable (at least for Bush). But the administration has been quite adroit at keeping the war going through actions designed to manipulate the situation here at home: 1) they escalated the war in the wake of the Democratic Party's capturing of the Congress in the 2006 elections, making up the word "surge" as an alternative to the usual "escalation," with the added benefit that they can now announce a reduction of troops that are simply the troops they recently sent in (was this part of the intention all along?). 2) They scheduled Gen. Petreaus's much-anticipated report for the day before the 9/11 anniversary, understanding that the anniversary always boosts support for military action (note also that this is yet another example of waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 to advance the Iraq war). 3) They and their congressional and media proxies have advanced the audacious rhetorical idea that "cutting off funds" literally means leaving Willy and Joe out in a foxhole somewhere without any fresh bullets; as one Republican congresswoman explained the idea on the House floor, the Democrats would tell the troops "You're on your own," a ludicrous notion in reality, but a nice bit of demagoguery. The administration is not very good at running the government, minding the budget, or conducting a realistic foreign policy, but they are really very good at manipulating the American media and public. Maybe that's the lesson that this crowd learned from Vietnam - the lessons that we need to have clear war aims, and that the application of conventional military force can't solve every problem, continue to elude them.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

McCain on the War Train

There are two Republican primary candidates campaigning as pro-war candidates: Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Giuliani has come as far as he has because he has been the candidate of the hard-core pro-war vote, right wing voters who otherwise wouldn't think of supporting the pro-choice, pro-gun control New York politician, but who also despise McCain (for what seem to me, anyway, to be somewhat vague reasons of personality). But as a perception grows that the end of the Iraq adventure might not be as catastrophic as it has long appeared that it would be, Republicans who see themselves as moderates may feel that they can support a foreign-policy hawk after all. Those voters might start to lift McCain's numbers. That in turn could be the beginning of a process that will sink Giuliani (with McCain and Thompson pulling off his voters from two directions). And the sad fact is, if the Americans manage a significant withdrawal from Iraq, an ensuing major catastrophe for the Iraqi people might not sink the American politicians identified as gung-ho back home. Can you spell "vietnamization"? (And note that all of this errant speculation is a function of the Republican primary continuing to be wide, wide open.)

Monday, September 3, 2007

Waiting for Fred

When did people start announcing their upcoming announcements that they would be running for President? We are now awaiting with not-so-bated breath former Senator Fred Thompson's announcement of his candidacy. I imagine someone told us two weeks ago that last week he would announce that he was announcing next week. What this illustrates is the thinness of the Republican field. Any number of credible Republican candidates are sitting this one out. With all due respect, someone like Fred Thompson - a TV actor who served out one undistinguished term in the Senate - isn't someone who can keep the world on the edge of its seat waiting to see what the great man will do. Not that someone of his stature can't run for President. A lot of prominent Democrats decided not to try in 1992, and a young Arkansas governor ambled out to seize the brass ring. But such a candidate needs to run with heart and soul, needs to get up on the table and shout it out, not play coy games about "testing the waters." The fact that so many Republicans are willing to start gearing up for this mediocre savior speaks volumes. Anyone who thinks he would stand a chance against the Clintons is doubly deluded: about him and about them.