"... Yeah, well, just cuz you have the facts on your side doesn't make you right, y'know."
December 1st, 2006
Part 3: Iraq and Investigation
In the last two installments of this essay, we discussed the overwhelmingly popular Democratic Six for '06 policies and the Republican efforts to convince the American people that they don't exist. We also talked about the legislative strategy the Democrats need to pursue in order to politically capitalize on the Six for '06 and some of the ways in which the Republicans can actively oppose that strategy.
This installment turns its attention to two potential stumbling blocks for the Democrats: Iraq and investigating corruption.
Changing Course in Iraq
Everyone knows the situation in Iraq, although the details of the rhetoric change a little depending on who your talk to: President Bush took us to war in March 2003 on pretenses which were either deliberate lies or the result of questionable intelligence. He ignored the advice of his experienced military generals and advisors, instead pursuing an incompetent invasion plan which directly undermined the stated goals of the mission. Despite these failures, the President declared a false victory in a gaudy propaganda event on the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1st, 2003. Three and a half years later, the Iraq War is still far from over. The country is on the verge of, or is already consumed, by a civil war.
The reality is that there is no clear solution to the Iraq war. Bush's incompetent handling and failed strategy during the initial invasion has created a host of ever-multiplying problems which have only been worsened through subsequent disasters such as the Abu Ghraib POW torture scandals. If the war had been handled competently from its beginning, it would probably have as much political significance today as Bosnia or Kosovo. But because Bush ignored the advice of those who actually knew what they were doing, its possible that Iraq has become a completely intractable situation. An unwinnable war.
Unsurprisingly, in the absence of a clear-cut solution, the Democratic caucus -- like America itself -- is fractured on the issue: There are some who feel we have done all we can, and that it's time to leave the country as soon as possible. There are others who want a clear set of landmarks set, with troop withdrawals based on their successful completion. There are others who, like the President, want to stay the course... although they'd prefer to do it under more competent leadership from the Commander-in-Chief.
Because the Democrats are fractured on this issue, there are some who conclude it's a vulnerability for them: They were elected to Congress to fix Iraq, the argument goes, and when they haven't done that in two years, they'll take the blame for it.
I disagree. While there's no easy solution to the Iraq War itself, the Democrats shouldn't have any problems handling it politically as long as they can maintain their focus: After all, Bush is still the Commander in Chief.
First off, if the Democrats are smart they'll stop talking about "landmarks", "timetables", and "deadlines" for Iraq. It's political rhetoric which the Republicans have repeatedly characterized as "cut-and-run". Instead, Democrats need to start talking about a "definition of victory". And they need to publicly and frequently demand that Bush provide that definition: What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Mr. President? How are you planning to accomplish it, Mr. President? And how will we know whether you're succeeding or failing?
Think about it: What does it mean to win the war in Iraq? I don't know. Beyond vague rhetoric, we've never been told. If our goal was to eliminate the threat of WMDs, hasn't that been achieved? If our goal was to establish a democracy in Iraq, hasn't that been achieved? If our goal is to make sure that democracy is stable enough to survive our absence, what needs to be accomplished for us to consider it stable and secure?
This is just basic common sense: You can't try to solve a problem until you know what the problem is.
But the President and his administration have shown not only a remarkable inability to choose a specific set of goals for Iraq, they have systematically failed to define what succeeding at many of those goals would actually look like. This fundamental inability is amply demonstrated by Devon M. Largio, who revealed that the Bush Administration proffered 23 different reasons for invading Iraq between September 12th, 2001 and October 11th, 2002. Nor did they stop there. For example, in August 2005, Jennifer Loven of the Associated press reported that the Administration had come up with yet another rationale.
Now whether this inability is the result of raw, naked political expediency or complete incompetence on the part of the President is open to debate, but what isn't open to debate is that no solution can be found to the Iraq "problem" until we actually know what the problem is.
To put it simply: What are we trying to do in Iraq?
If we can get a meaningful and detailed answer to that question, then we'll have defined a concrete goal. And once we've done that, we can start talking about what we can do to actually accomplish that goal.
That means that the Democrats need to demand specific answers. The type of answers that you can use to measure the President's success or failure. That's what it means to have a definition of success.
In the battle of perception, meanwhile, the term "definition of success" serves two purposes: First, its far more difficult for the Republicans to twist and distort. (If you're trying to achieve victory in Iraq, you clearly can't be "cut-and-run".) Second, it reminds people that Bush has changed his reasons for this war a dozen times; that he falsely declared victory in 2003; and that he still hasn't told us what needs to be achieved before our brave men and women can come home.
At the same time that they're publicly demanding that Bush tell us what victory means, the Democrats can take pragmatic political action by dramatically increasing Congressional oversight on the war (including reinstating those oversight positions in Iraq cut by corrupt Republicans).
The result is the creation of an open public debate with the goal of changing course in Iraq and finding a path to victory. By insisting that Bush provide answers on the one hand and guaranteeing that the war is fought in an ethical and efficient manner on the other hand, the Democrats will create a political environment in which their own internal debate over the right course of action in Iraq will not prove a liability.
At the end of the day, from a political standpoint, the Democrats can't lose: If things get better in Iraq, it's because the Democratic Congress forced the President to define a course for victory. If things don't get better in Iraq, it's because Bush is still an incompetent Commander-in-Chief.
The only way the Democrats could really screw up is if they did something radically stupid, like defunding the war in an attempt to force Bush to bring the troops home. (Because this would be characterized by the Republicans, quite accurately, as hanging the troops out to dry.)
But not losing is not the same thing as winning, and winning is not going to be easy: Winning would mean finding a way to bring the troops home safely while leaving a stable Iraq in their wake. And winning politically means accomplishing that without Bush taking any credit for it. The former is difficult, but needs to be achieved. The latter would be highly desirable for the Democrats, but is probably impossible. (Bush is, after all, Commander-in-Chief.)
As public servants, the Democrats must engage on this issue. (And they will. That almost goes without saying.) But from a political standpoint, it would be foolish for the Democrats to put Iraq front-and-center: While its something that they can influence and improve from their new position of power, it's not something that they can directly control.
Everybody, including the Democrats, have been hasty to say that the absolute worst thing they could do would be to go rabidly hounding after impeachment proceedings. This is probably the most common post-election meme: If the Democrats impeach President Bush, they'll be viewed as nothing but partisan hacks.
This is true.
However, it should also be remembered that the American people want this corruption weeded out. They want their government fixed and they want justice done.
Failing to pursue the rampant corruption which has plagued our government for the past six years would not only be an abdication of constitutional duty, it would also be a betrayal of the American people. That duty cannot simply be put aside because it would be politically difficult to see justice done.
And the reality is that, despite the pundits decrying the "political folly" of "vengeful Democrats", pursuing justice is not only ethically right, it can also be politically effective.
In order to find their political leverage on this issue, the Democrats first have to understand their weakness on it: The American people desperately want to see Congress DOING ITS JOB.
Now to be clear: Part of Congress' job is to investigate corruption. But in the eyes of the American people, the top priority right now is to turn the country around and get it back on track.
So understanding the "political folly" here is simple: If Congress makes pursuing corruption more important than fixing the country, they aren't doing the job they were elected to do. So when the Democrats try to investigate corruption, the Republicans will try to paint the legitimate investigation as partisan and "just more business as usual from those liberals in Washington".
How can the Democrats overcome this weakness? By making sure that their priorities match those of the American people. They need to fix the country first and then root out the corruption second.
To put it another way: The Democrats can inoculate themselves with legislative success.
If the Democrats can either pass the immensely popular Six for '06 proposals or make it clear that the Republicans are responsible for their failure, then it becomes difficult if not impossible for the Republicans to characterize the investigations as a distraction.
The Democrats can make the Republican smoke-and-mirrors strategy even more difficult to accomplish by carefully handling the execution and presentation of the investigations: If they are handled as the rightful, perpetual duty of Congress to provide oversight and a balance of power, the Democrats will not only be responsible and effective, they will appear to be responsible and effective. If, on the other hand, the investigations are treated as if some sort of special case scenario, then they're more easily painted as a partisan distraction.
Finally, it's important that the Democrats show absolutely no tolerance for corruption in their own ranks. If it's detected, they must act decisively to condemn it and then investigate not only as thoroughly but more thoroughly than they're investigating anything else. They set an excellent precedent for this in their handling of Congressman William Jefferson when he became targeted by an FBI probe for gross corruption in May, stripping him of his seniority and his committee memberships.
To sum up:
- The Democrats need to have legislative successes before they start the investigations and they need to continue having legislative successes while the investigations continue. The investigations cannot be a distraction from the business of putting America back on track.
- The Democrats need to treat the investigations as if they were business as usual, because they ARE business as usual. Just because the Republican congresses of the past six years failed in their duties doesn't mean those duties have disappeared.
- The Democrats must root out corruption in their own party even more swiftly and ruthlessly than they root out Republican corruption.
And why should the Democrats bother to walk this political tightrope? First, because it's the right thing to do. And, secondly, because, if they can avoid having the investigations politically neutered out of the starting gate, the investigations will almost certainly begin producing truths which are politically devastating to the Republicans. If the Republicans have not, in fact, spent the last six years instituting the most corrupt government since President Harding and the Teapot Dome scandal, they have certainly gone out of their way to make it look like they have.
The smoking guns are out there. All the Democrats have to do is make sure they grab the triggers and not the barrels.
There seems to be a meaningful sentiment running through the popular media that decisively winning the 2006 elections was the worst thing that could have happened to the Democrats. Even some of the Democrats themselves seem to think that they would have been better off living in Karl Rove's dream of a permanent minority.
This, of course, is complete nonsense. But even complete nonsense will be believed if it is allowed to stand unopposed in the public discourse.
This essay was written to point out what should be obvious: The decisive victory won on November 8th gave the Democrats an immense opportunity. If they can realize the potential of that victory, the Democrats can send the Republican party back to rigging school board elections for creationists too ashamed of their ideology to stand openly behind it.
But if they fail to realize that potential, then the Democrats will have handed the Republican party political ammunition strong enough to carry them through another three election cycles.
Yes, there is danger here. But it is a danger which can be overcome only through bold, decisive action. If the Democrats can do that, then they can restore government to its true purpose: To proudly serve the common citizens of this great nation.
|December 4th, 2006
It's my birthday. Feel free to have a virtual drink on me.
|December 6th, 2006
Thought of the Day
Politics is like a math test: It's not enough to be right, you've got to show why you're right. The quality of a policy is why it should be done; the perception of a policy is how it can be made a reality.
|December 7th, 2006
There are some who have labored long and hard to make "liberal" a dirty word. But the twin principles of liberal thought are liberty and a belief in equal opportunity. So we would look long and hard at those who would consider liberty to be a dirty thing and look on equal opportunity with suspicion.
|December 9th, 2006
Coda: Clumsy and Half-hearted
In this coda to my essay on Post-Election Democrats, I want to briefly talk about how the Democrats have already fumbled the ball. It's only been a month since the election, but we've already seen several critical errors that could have and should have been easily avoided. Before I delve into specifics, however, I want to first re-visit a point I made last May:
I also want to quote a point I made earlier in this essay:
Really, you can boil this entire strategy down to two bullet-points:
1. Clearly and concisely communicate your goals for making America better and stronger.
2. Quickly and efficiently pass the legislation necessary to make those goals a reality.
Six for '06 vs. 100 Hours vs. ???
I had previously spoken about the Six for '06 agenda the Democrats put on the table during the 2006 campaign season. Here's how that legislative agenda was announced in press release on June 16th, 2006:
And here's how it appears at "News & Views" on www.housedemocrats.gov, the top result when you do a Google search for "Six for '06" (ironically, if you use the search function at www.housedemocrats.gov for the same term, there are no search results):
And here's how the agenda for the first 100 hours appears, also at www.housedemocrats.gov:
The first thing you should notice is that the Six for '06 platform rolled out six months ago doesn't match the current Six for '06 platform. And this isn't just a case of the verbiage being tweaked or the specific policies being adjusted or expanded (although those efforts should have been approached only with great care and consideration), the content itself has significantly changed: In June, the Six for '06 included a pledge to practice fiscal responsibility. Today, that pledge has been dropped and replaced with a security agenda.
The next thing you should notice is that the 100 Hours agenda doesn't match either of the Six for '06 platforms. Now, obviously, the 100 Hours agenda shouldn't include everything in the Six for '06 platform: It's a prioritized list of the first things the Democrats want to accomplish, not a comprehensive list of everything they want to accomplish. But why are there items on the 100 Hours agenda that don't appear on the Six for '06 platform? You'll note that the fiscal responsibility pledge (dropped from the most recent version of the Six for '06) appears along with the pledge to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission (absent from the original version of the Six for '06). And there's also a pledge to break " the link between lobbyists and legislation" which doesn't appear on either Six for '06 platform. How can something be important enough that you want to accomplish it in the first 100 hours of the new session, but not important enough to include on what would appear to be a definitional document for your party?
The last thing to notice are the items on the 100 Hour agenda which cannot be accomplished in the first 100 hours of the new session. I'm not talking about stuff that's going to be politically intractable, I'm talking about long-term pledges of conduct. For example, that pledge to break "the link between lobbyists and legislations". Well, you can certainly break that link on any legislation passed in the first 100 hours. But the promise only really means anything if you continue to abide by it well after the first 100 hours is long gone. And accomplishing "no new deficit spending" is a laudable goal, but presumably the Democrats are not going to try to pass a comprehensive budget in the first 100 hours of the new session. So that really just boils down to a pledge that they're going to pledge to do something. And then round that out with the promise to "fight any attempt to privatize Social Security" -- which is, apparently, a pledge to NOT do something during the first 100 hours of the new session. It would even seem to imply that privatizing Social Security is an option they'll be putting back on the table once those first 100 hours is up. This is, of course, absurd, but demonstrates the problem here:
This is just plain sloppy.
The Democrats really had an opportunity here to present a simple, unified, crystal-clear statement of their principles supported by a listing of specific goals. Backing that up by focusing on a core subset of those goals as a blitzkrieg agenda for the first 100 hours of the new session was, frankly, a stroke of genius.
Instead, they loused it up. What should have been a definitive document has instead been multiply revised and rendered inconsistent. What should have been a clear-cut list of achievable goals was muddied up with fuzzy promises.
What Should Have Happened: First, the Six for '06 should not have been revised. The whole point of issuing such a document is to have a definitive platform. Changing it mid-stream misses the whole point.
That being said, I think the addition of the security proposals (most notably the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations) was a good idea. It's definitely something that needs to be done. One way they could have achieved that without compromising the original Six for '06 would have been to carefully roll out a Seven for '07 at some point that would have included the security proposals as part of a general expansion of the Six for '06 to reflect the full legislative agenda the Democrats would pursue in the new year.
Second, the 100 Hour agenda should have been a subset of clear-cut, concrete goals drawn directly from the Six for '06 (or Seven for '07). It should have been possible to literally treat the 100 Hour agenda as a checklist.
What Can Be Done: To understand what a golden opportunity this was, you simply need to look at the fact that it can still be salvaged despite its clumsy handling to date. The concept is that strong and the ability to communicate a clear message to the American people that palpable. Imagine if, 100 hours into the new session, Nancy Pelosi can address the nation and say:
In addition to all the positive good those policies will do for this country, imagine the political effect of such a speech: The Democrats would establish themselves authoritatively as efficient, effective, and in-touch with the dreams and aspirations of the American people.
I would also argue that, in that same speech, Pelosi should go on to roll out a Seven for '07 that establishes the Democrats' legislative goals for the rest of the year. And at the end of the year, the party's leaders can stand up again and talk about what they've achieved and what the Republicans have stopped them from achieving. And then they can roll out their Eight for '08 and go into the elections with a full head of steam. Handled correctly, such legislative agendas could replace the party platforms (which have become bloated and pointless) as a way of clearly communicating the party's goals and values to the electorate.
When Pelosi spoke after the Democratic victory on November 7th one of the things she said was, "We will make this the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history."
This was an important promise which was also incorporated into the 100 Hours agenda. It distinguished between the corruption of a Republican congress more interested in special interests than the interests of the American people and the new era which was beginning.
It was meant to be a fresh start. Unfortunately, Pelosi -- through two questionable decisions -- managed to muddy the carpet before the Democrats even made it through the door.
The first poor decision came when Pelosi publicly backed the scandal-tainted John Murtha to become the Majority Leader of the House. Even ignoring Murtha's video-taped connection to the ABSCAM scandal, it was unusual for a Speaker to publicly back any candidate for the position, and there was has been a lot of speculation about what Pelosi's actual motivation for doing so was. Whatever the motivation was, however, is largely irrelevant: Pelosi decided to make essentially her first public action as the leader of a Democratic majority the backing of a scandal-tainted candidate.
This is not the way to convince the American electorate that you're planning to run the "most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history".
Heck, the only way she could have made it worse would be if she decided to place another scandal-tainted Democrat in the limelight...
... which, of course, she did almost immediately by publicly announcing that Jane Harman would not be the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Passing over Harman was not, in itself, the problem. The problem was that the next most-senior democrat on the Intelligence Commitee was Alcee Hastings, who, as a federal judge, had been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate in 1988 for taking a $150,000 bribe.
Although, to my knowledge, Pelosi never confirmed that she was considering Hastings for the position, she had effectively made him the only apparent candidate for the position.
The bungles here are readily apparent:
It was unnecessary for Pelosi to publicly announce that she was passing over Harman before she had a final candidate in mind.
It was unnecessary for Pelosi, having publicly announced that she was passing over Harman, to not immediately rule out the scandal-tainted Hastings as a potential chairman.
This is just common sense: If one of your campaign pledges is the most ethical congress in history, you can't have bribe-takers as congressional leaders and committee chairmen. The question can't be whether or not you're going to allow that to happen; the question can only be how you're going to stop that from happening.
Murtha was defeated in his bid to become Majority Leader and Pelosi eventually nominated Silvestre Reyes -- a highly qualified Texas Democrat with essentially unimpeachable credentials and policy positions (at least on intelligence issues) that mirrored the party's politics and the beliefs of the American people -- to chair the Intelligence Committee.
But the damage had already been done: The story had changed from, "Nancy Pelosi is ready to lead the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in America." It had become, "Nancy Pelosi supports corrupt Democrats for key leadership positions."
What Should Have Happened: This one's easy. Pelosi should have refrained from endorsing Murtha. And she should have either refrained from publicly announcing the Harman was being passed over as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee or she should have immediately announced that Hastings was also being ruled out as a candidate at the same time that she announced that Harman was not being considered.
What Can Be Done: In the short term, basically nothing. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression and Pelosi blew this one badly.
In the long term, however, the Democrats can actually follow through on their promise and make the 110th Congress the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history while passing reform legislation to help guarantee that future congresses will follow in their footsteps. If they can do that, then Pelosi's dreadful fumbling of this issue will become an unimportant footnote.
Half-Hearted Tax Reform
One of the most promising policy ideas I heard floated just after the election was that Bush's tax cuts for the ultra-rich would be rolled back and the resulting revenues used to balance the budget and fund a middle class tax cut.
The beauty of such a proposal is that it finally neuters a 25 year cycle of a Republican strategy aimed at crippling the middle class in favor of the ultra-rich. The cycle looks like this (you can ignore this segue if you like):
The point here is that, for the past 25 years, whenever the Democrats have tried to practice fiscal responsibility or make the economy fairer for the middle class, the Republicans have trotted out their "tax-and-spend" and "big government" talking points. These talking points have no relationship to reality (as we've seen), but they've tested great in the focus groups and the Republicans have spent three decades repeating them until you start subconsciously believing them without really thinking about it.
But you render those mindless little soundbites useless if you simultaneously repeal unpopular tax cuts given to the rich while providing much needed tax relief to the middle class. Republicans can't just accuse you of "raising taxes" while hoping that no one looks too closely at the details, because you can just say: "No, we're cutting taxes for the middle class. This is the difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats believe that the middle class is the heart of America's strength. Republicans believe that the nation should belong only to the ultra-rich."
And the Republicans don't have an answer to that because there isn't an answer to that: It's just plain, simple truth.
This is a great proposal because it not only enacts meaningful, positive change for the nation's economic policy, but because it also allows the Democrats to clearly demonstrate their middle class values while revealing that the Republicans are owned by their rich special interests.
But Charles Rangel, the future chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (which would be in charge of tax policy), has recently been backing off this proposal: "It's dumb politics to do it, especially when it's going to get vetoed."
This is unfortunate. Rangel is not only throwing what could have been a very effective piece of legislation into the trash bin, he's also doing it for a completely incomprehensible reason.
What Can Be Done: The Democrats simply have to understand that, just because George W. Bush is going to veto a piece of legislation which is popular with the American people, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't force him to veto it. Quite the contrary: It means you should almost certainly force him to veto it.
Don't be the party that failed to take action. Be the party that tried to take action and would have succeeded if only the out-of-touch and cold-hearted Republicans hadn't stayed loyal to their rich friends and special interests and stopped you.
That's how you build a case for sweeping the Republicans completely out of power in 2008.
After the 1994 Republican Revolution, the Democratic Party -- after more than half a century of essentially total domination in Congress -- reacted like the bully who's gotten his nose bloodied for the first time: They ran away and cowered in the corner.
The only Democrat who didn't run away and hide in the corner was President Clinton, who faced off against the most irrationally hostile Congress in the history of the country and won time and time again.
But the rest of the party ran away and hid, and -- predictably -- they just kept right on losing elections.
Ideologically, they were discordant: The Republicans had slanderously destroyed their principles by hanging erroneous buzzwords on them. Even the term "liberal" itself was turned into a curse word. But rather than fighting back and reclaiming their principles -- that liberty is important; that equal opportunity is the root of the American dream; that government is the place where society comes together to solve problems too large for any individual to cope with -- the Democrats splintered in a mad race for a muddy center.
Politically, they were dysfunctional: Party machinery atrophied and died. Despite the fact that, in many states, they had only just lost control of the state houses and governorships, they essentially gave those states up as forever lost.
It was only with the 2006 election cycle that we saw some of these trends reversing. Ideologically, President Bush and other extremists had so compromised the public principles claimed by the Republican party that the Democrats garnered the courage to proclaim (however tentatively) that the Emperor had no clothes. They started to find some identity for themselves, and at the same time Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy reinvigorated party infrastructure and forced the Republicans to actually fight a truly national campaign for the first time in over a decade.
But there are still plenty of Democrats who still haven't learned the lesson of their failure: They still think that the key to success is to try to find some sort of "Republican-lite" ideal. They still think that the best way to win a national election is to pick what parts of the nation you want to win and ignore the rest. If that section of the party is allowed to assert itself over the next two years, then the Democrats will go right back to being a minority party in 2008. (And they'll deserve it.)
If the Democrats are going to be successful, they're going to have to remember their principles. They're going to have to stand by them. And they're going to have to fight for them.
If they do that, then they can't lose. Because if you're fighting for liberty and equality and the hope that tomorrow can be made better than today, it doesn't matter if you lose some political battles over the next two years. In fact, those losses will only make you stronger: Because the American people will see what you're fighting for. And they'll see who's standing in your way.