Like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck

by John Holbo on September 26, 2006

If you haven’t, you should read this Intel-Dump post, “National Insecurity”. And then read all 154 comments. If every American voter had to read the whole thread (it’s only, like, 30,000 words) I think the Democrats would get about 70% of the popular vote, showing most dramatic improvement in red states. Of course, we would still have no real plan for Iraq, sadly. But accountability starts at home.

The moral progress of the spectacularly ill-named Diogenes, through the thread, is worthy of special attention. He is the first commenter, leaping in with a brash accusation of partisan bias. When it is pointed out this thing he calls ‘a subsidiary of moveon.org’ is a catalogue of facts, he fires back, guns blazing in all manner of directions. Gradually he is reduced to mounting a narrow but determined point defense: we need to be roughing up some terrorists. He’s shining a lantern beam of, like, moral darkness, in the dead of factual night, looking for a bad man. Or, to put it a bit less unkindly, he is bound and determined to find some way to be bloody-mindeder than thou. The last stand of the moral clarity brigade. The fact that Diogenes in effect sidetracks serious discussion of Iraq and national security issues by loudly making the case for torture is a hideous illustration of just how wrong the frame of the national debate is, at the moment.

I’ll just quote the thread’s owner, in comments:

Some will wonder why I bother to respond to Dio instead of ignoring him as a troll? Because he is not a troll. He believes what he is saying, and 32% of US voters agree with him. They can’t really say why they agree, or they rely on “documents” that even the White House won’t push for fear of giving the Democrats another cudgel to beat them with – in short, the administration knows that such talk is nonsense. But why do they still imply such nonsense? Because people WANT to believe that the president has a plan, they WANT to believe that our nation was not misled or lied to, they WANT to believe that our cause, for which we have sacrificed so much, is just and right. They WANT to believe that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

The title of this post is taken from another commenter, who thusly characterizes the CPA. The torture debate, I guess, is what happens when ‘pasting feathers’ turns nasty. We’ll show that duck.

The first step for the Dems is becoming the party of speaking hard truths about what is going on NOW before they can hope to be the party of making plans about what should be done. (Plans they have no hope of implementing before 2008, after all. But telling the truth can start today.) Democrats will, of course, be maligned as traitors and defeatists and Bush-hating partisans – a thousand Diogeneses, as if to make up for the duck, will tar and feather with terrible zeal. But I simply refuse to believe that telling hard truths and holding a couple yards of high moral ground – about torture – isn’t a stance that can win the approval of a majority of the American people.

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{ 43 comments }

1

Matt 09.26.06 at 10:08 am

You’re right, of course, except perhaps about having hope that any significant number of democrats will stand up and do this. I wish like mad that that wasn’t so, but I see no evidence for it being so.

2

Russell L. Carter 09.26.06 at 10:16 am

“The first step for the Dems is becoming the party of speaking hard truths”

And this needs to be led by the safe seats, like Hillary. Now we get to see what she’s made of.

3

Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 10:35 am

If every American voter had to read the whole thread (it’s only, like, 30,000 words) I think the Democrats would get about 70% of the popular vote, showing most dramatic improvement in red states.

Don’t bet the farm on that. The remaining Bush supporters are almost all very much like Diogenes- impervious to facts and logic. (And by the way, they’re also very much in favor of torturing scary brown people.) I know this firsthand; I’m surrounded by these types at work.

4

John Holbo 09.26.06 at 10:38 am

Unfortunately, Steve, the likelihood of being able to put my optimistic proposal to a genuine empirical test is very slim. More’s the pity.

5

abb1 09.26.06 at 10:59 am

That the Bush admin has been a failure is an accepted fact. How does it help the Democrats – just because it’s a two-party system? Not obvious to me.

In Israel, for example, recent failure of one warmongering clique apparently gave a boost to another even more warmongering clique. This JD guy himself appears to be a proponent of the McCain/Kristol “need more troops” school of thought, so there you go.

6

Russell L. Carter 09.26.06 at 11:09 am

“How does it help the Democrats – just because it’s a two-party system?”

Look at the party composition of the branches of government as an optimization problem where the cost function to be minimized is the overall damage to the nation. Then when both parties are a disaster the solution to the problem is divided government, and for that to happen, the Democrats have to win one or two branches of government.

In my personal anecdotage I have had more success with this strategy, folksily explained, than any sequential list of facts and logical arguments.

Or maybe not. From my perch here in the middle of the crimson culture, I’m personally very dubious that significant change will happen in November.

7

Rev. Bob 09.26.06 at 1:11 pm

Matt, the Democrats who are silent on the issue aren’t the rank and file, they’re the “leaders” of the party. Fortunately, even the Democrats are capable of being swayed by a strong enough wind from the grass roots (winds from roots? well, you know). Once upon a time we were even better at it than the Republicans, but no matter how deeply we’ve fallen under the spell of the consultants and pollsters, I think we’ve still got the knack.

8

bob mcmanus 09.26.06 at 1:15 pm

“But I simply refuse to believe that telling hard truths and holding a couple yards of high moral ground – about torture – isn’t a stance that can win the approval of a majority of the American people.”

You weren’t around in the late 60s, were you?

9

Rich Puchalsky 09.26.06 at 1:22 pm

JH: “But I simply refuse to believe that telling hard truths and holding a couple yards of high moral ground – about torture – isn’t a stance that can win the approval of a majority of the American people.”

Well, refusal to believe in something doesn’t make it untrue. I think that it’s clear that torture is an electoral winner among the American people. Of course, I still think that torture should be opposed by all means available. But that opposition, to have a chance of succeeding, has to accept the fact that Americans, in general, like the idea of torturing people, and that a straight up-or-down vote on torture would legalize it. Not because people are really scared of terrorists, or think that we could find ticking bombs, or so on. But because of plain old sadism, authoritarianism, and (considering who is to be tortured) racism. Torture as a method of social control is not exactly a new American phenomenon.

10

Martin James 09.26.06 at 1:25 pm

What percent of the USA voters would approve of Iran and Syria looking more like Iraq and Jordan?

I think its more than the 32% although maybe its not 50%.

11

C. L. Ball 09.26.06 at 1:28 pm

The first step for the Dems is becoming the party of speaking hard truths about what is going on NOW before they can hope to be the party of making plans about what should be done.

This was done in 2004 and look where it got the Dems. The public in midterms needs to believe that a Democrat congressman will do a better job than a Republican congressman in fighting the “war on terror” and ending the Iraq war, but they have no reason to believe that the Dems will be able to do that unless they have a plan. Polls show that the public increasingly doubts the Bush ability to deal with terrorism and Iraq. The recent Pew poll shows that terrorism is the only issue on which respondents favor Republicans over Democrats, which is why Bush keeps linking Iraq to the war on terror — if people believe Iraq is part of terrorism then they may vote Republican rather than Democratic.

The public mostly agrees with what Intel-Dump says. What they want to know — and ‘they’ means independents and disaffected Republicans — is that switching course will make things better. For that the Dems need a strategy, and not a rant.

12

Richard Cownie 09.26.06 at 1:52 pm

“The public in midterms needs to believe that a Democrat congressman will do a better job than a Republican congressman in fighting the “war on terror” and ending the Iraq war, but they have no reason to believe that the Dems will be able to do that unless they have a plan”

I understand what you’re saying, but it’s rubbish.
In a presidential election, you need to put forward
a plan. In this midterm election, we know that
Bush/Cheney etc will remain in power for the next
2 years: the question is, will Bush/Cheney do a
better job with a Republican Congress letting
them get away with (literally) murder, or with a
Democratic Congress holding them accountable ?

Secondly, the Democratic leaders *do* have a
consensus on a plan for Iraq: it’s to set a
deadline and start withdrawing soon. The
Democratic base, on the whole, wants to get out
sooner. But either way, it’s clearly distinct
from Bush’s “that will be a decision for a future
president” approach, which is just kicking a
very bloody can at least 2 years down the road.

13

Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 2:06 pm

Tom Tomorrow knows the score, as usual.

14

C. L. Ball 09.26.06 at 2:07 pm

The Dems need a plan for the so-called “war on terror,” not just on Iraq. And the plan is important not on its own merits but as a signal to the public that Democrats will be better able to decide the policies than a GOP Congress.

15

bi 09.26.06 at 2:12 pm

C. L. Ball: No they don’t. They just need to look like they have a better plan. If the PNAC is any guide, all that’s needed are some nice high-sounding phrases.

16

bi 09.26.06 at 2:21 pm

Alternatively, point out that the “War on Terror” frame is totally bogus. Then the “plan” will be to go back to living life as normal, and combat terrorism with good old police work.

17

kid bitzer 09.26.06 at 2:27 pm

“The title of this post is taken from another commenter, who thusly characterizes the CPA. “

No,no–it’s far worse than that.

It doesn’t come from a mere blog-commenter. That great phrase comes from someone who *worked in the occupation*. I believe it was a mid-level military commander. It’s a real quote from someone who was in Iraq, faced with the appalling incompetence of the Bush cronies.

I’m pretty sure it is a quote from the new “Emerald City” book. (yeah yeah google but I’m busy).

18

Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 2:29 pm

Give #15 a cigar. And that’s why I am not particularly interested in the Dems winning the midterms. It will only do them harm in the long run- they’ll have little real power with narrow majorities from 2006 to 2008, and responsibility without authority never makes anyone look good. What they should be doing is patiently preparing the ground for 2008 and beyond- the educational task laid out by bi being an important aspect of that- while being content to let the Repubs continue to bear responsibility for the current messes for 2 more years.

But of course the short-term lust of politicians for being in the majority always outweighs sound long-term thinking. Sigh.

19

kid bitzer 09.26.06 at 2:33 pm

Okay–wasn’t that hard.
It’s from Thomas Rick’s book, Fiasco.

“And an end-of-tour report by a colonel assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority memorably summarized his office’s work as “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck.””

quoted in the NYT review.

20

Richard Cownie 09.26.06 at 2:59 pm

“Give #15 a cigar. And that’s why I am not particularly interested in the Dems winning the midterms.”

The Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision was effectively
5-4. Justice Stevens is over 80. Replace him with
another unitary-executive wingnut in his 40s, and
you’ll deal a severe blow to all hopes for
constitutional government and a progressive agenda
for the next 30+ years. This election matters a
lot.

As for 2008, the Republican presidential
contenders look weak. Frist is incompetent,
Allen has imploded, McCain is old and has
forfeited his claim to “independence” with the
cave-in on torture: and any of them will suffer
from their support for Bush, who’s electoral
poison now – how many Republican candidates
can’t find time to appear at fundraisers with him ?
and will only be worse in 2008.

21

Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 3:22 pm

What matters a lot more is having a president in 2008 and beyond who can appoint GOOD justices along with a Congress that will confirm them. That’s a lot more effective than merely trying to prevent some of the very scariest conservative appointees from being confirmed. (And even that may not be accomplished with a narrow majority as there are likely to be conservative turncoats on the Dem side.) And I am seriously worried that narrow victories in 2006 will actually damage the party’s 2008 propects.

22

Richard Cownie 09.26.06 at 3:35 pm

“lot more effective than merely trying to prevent some of the very scariest conservative appointees from being confirmed”

No. It isn’t. With (in decreasing order of
repugnance) Thomas, Alito, Scalia, and Roberts
there are 4 solid right-wing votes on most issues.
One more Bush appointee and we’re screwed for the
next 20 years or so. Having 4 excellent judges
won’t help a bit against 5 ideologues (that may
be a little harsh on Roberts, who by all accounts
is an excellent lawyer – but he already sided
with the administration on Hamdan in the lower
court).

23

Barry 09.26.06 at 3:59 pm

And as for kicking the can down the road to ’08, please remember that the GOP has a strong talent for normalizing disaster and evil. Right now, the fact that we’re losing in Iraq is still a bit surprising and disturbing to many Americans. Come ’08, it could well be ‘old news’. It’s clear that the administration is keeping a war with Iran on the warmer, in case of need.

24

BigMacAttack 09.26.06 at 4:12 pm

Rudy != Bush.

I think what abb1 says is right for 2008 but wrong for 2006.

In 2006 all you need is to not be DeLay and Bush. (I think that is the best strategy.) It works for me, I doubt I will vote.

But in 2008 you will need more and it isn’t clear that folks like JD should vote Democratic in 2008 and it isn’t clear what the Dems can do about this.

25

Anarch 09.26.06 at 4:38 pm

What percent of the USA voters would approve of Iran and Syria looking more like Iraq and Jordan?

What percent of the USA voters would approve of all that, and a pony?

26

nick s 09.26.06 at 5:22 pm

There certainly appears to be a negative correlation between classical pseudonym and cluefulness. Diogenes the cynic, indeed.

What percent of the USA voters would approve of Iran and Syria looking more like Iraq and Jordan?

That’s like asking whether they’d approve of a zweeghb looking more like a xalymymph.

27

nick s 09.26.06 at 5:25 pm

What #15 said, too. The overwhelming mood among the public right now, I think, is ‘whatever is being done right now isn’t working’. The Dems have a rare chance to say ‘we agree, and the people currently in power don’t.’ Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

28

Martin James 09.26.06 at 6:08 pm

nick s,

Does zweeghb look more like a xalymymph after a few months of bombing? If it does, then I agree with your analogy.

29

Andrew 09.26.06 at 6:34 pm

Nick S – As far as I can tell, the overwhelming mood of people who self-identify as Democrats, plus the uneasy sense of those who self-identify as independents, is that things aren’t working.

Not all of these people will vote in November, and many who do will be in districts that effectively disenfranchise them.

The calculation by the Republican campaign leadership, not necessarily silly, is that the Republican base will not spend much time evaluating the pluses and minuses of the actions of the Bush administration, but will be stirred into going to the polls by a mixture of habit, visceral dislike of liberals, and identification with “strong on terror”.

So long as the topic is terror, and the Democrats’ line is “well, we’d do it better”, I don’t think they’ll swing many of the right base, nor much motivate their own base.

For me “we’d do it better – but we daren’t object to bad bills rushed through Congress in a matter of days because we’re frightened of what our opponents will say about us” isn’t going to rally anyone.

The frame has to be failure. Failure in Iraq, failure against Al Qaida, failure to catch Osama, failure to act in August 2001, failure to support the troops, failure to respond to Katrina.

Just one word.

30

nick s 09.26.06 at 7:18 pm

Does zweeghb look more like a xalymymph after a few months of bombing? If it does, then I agree with your analogy.

I have heard it reported so, but since Americans have seen neither, the appropriate analogy is to a quigoflatch, the plumage of which curiously resembles Hiroshima precisely 61 years ago.

31

Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 7:43 pm

Just one word.

Sadly the “one word” the Democrats need, but sorely lack, is “cojones”. Maybe Clinton unloading on Chris Wallace will be just the signal the timid Congressheep need that it’s OK to come out from under the sofa. But I doubt it.

32

Andrew 09.26.06 at 8:21 pm

I found the following passage from one of Diogenes’ comments particularly, well, puzzling and horrifying all at once:

“All of this crap I’m hearing about how torture doesn’t work, or being brutal doesn’t work…

Well, if it doesn’t work, then why are so many of you apparently convinced that it worked for Saddam??

Don’t say that brutality doesn’t work, because it clearly does for many totalitarian regimes currently in power. And they wouldn’t resort to torture and summary executions if it didn’t “work”. There wouldn’t be “death squads” performing “red on red” counter-terror campaigns if it “didn’t work”.”

This was intended as a defence of Adminstration strategy. Torture is a good thing, which we know because totalitarian regimes use it so successfully.

I don’t know if he’s working according to some sort of inverse variant of Godwin’s Law whereby you automatically win the argument if you compare you own side to Hitler first, or what. Weird & creepy.

33

Harald Korneliussen 09.27.06 at 3:55 am

Andrew, I think that issue is worth reflecting upon, why dictators torture and act meanly in general.

There are many ways to command respect, some are quick and easy, others are difficult and time-consuming. The trouble is that once you start using the quick ones, they become less effective, and they quickly sabotage any effort to use the hard ones. Once you start relying on force to get people to do what you want, you have to keep on using it, all the time losing real control

Ask any primary school teacher who has taken over for a strongly authoritarian predecessor.

34

stuart 09.27.06 at 9:43 am

This was intended as a defence of Adminstration strategy. Torture is a good thing, which we know because totalitarian regimes use it so successfully.

Of course here he is conflating two things – torture being used to gain useful information (which it generally isn’t very good at doing), and torture being used as a technique to keep a population in line (which it is effective at in the short term, but tends to rapidly multiply your opposition).

35

Steve LaBonne 09.27.06 at 9:54 am

The truth is simpler (and the “arguments” people like Diogenes proffer are just a cover for the real motivation): bad, scary, brown people who follow strange religions deserve to be tortured because they want to harm virtuous white Christian Murrikans, and besides we need to show them that we have bigger dicks. Jeebus would want it that way. Whereas, being “soft” on the scary brown people makes baby Jeebus cry.

I’m not really kidding. Shorn of the sarcastic language, that’s pretty much the way a number of actual Bush-loving people I know “think”.

36

Martin James 09.27.06 at 10:20 am

John or Steve or anyone else who is open to a presidential thought experiment,

The task is to select the past president that best represents the appropriate strategy for the current situation in the USA that can also win an election.

In other words, what past presendents have an aura of succesfully managing a withdrawl. I’m not a great hagiophile of US presidents but it seems to me that the mythology of pre-WWII presidents are too tied up with expansionism.

So I came up with Carter, Eisenhower and Nixon as possible choices. Let’s call them the moral, the institutional and the political options.

Carter seems to represent the feeling (the smart thing to do is to leave off expansionism (Panama canal, Iranian hostages) and promote peace (Egpyt-Israel relations) etc. things will be alright.

Unfortunately for the moral strategy, a Carter can’t beat a Reagan. That’s the whole political point, the sensible moral strategy is a one-term strategy.

So that leaves Eisenhower and Nixon setting aside that they are Republicans for a while, let’s pretend you have the democratic equivalent.

Th problem with Eisenhower, is that we need a successful general. And since Iraq II has tainted Gulf War I, we don’t have any successful generals to use. Gen. Clark is a Carter, not an Eisenhower. Yes, Powell is a general, but everyone knows he’s not a REAL general. The real generals (Franks and Schwarzkopf) don’t seem to represent the policy.

So that leaves a Nixon or (Clinton is you prefer)they both represent the middle-class lawyer turned politician strain of President.

The trick here is that you need to have the “only Nixon can go to China” street cred. You need to have a Pro-Big Oil, anti-Islam (I could have said anti-terror but that wouldn’t have made the point as clear) reputation to win as a withdrawl candidate.

I see the problem for the Democrats is that they can’t decide which of the three to take a stand on is it the anti-war moral position (Dean?), is it the effective war general(Clark?) or the realist politician (Hillary Clinton?).

The wild card would be to go with a populist. An American Hugo Chavez might be able to pull it off.

I’m not asking what policy would be effective, I’m asking what given the effective policy, what mythology might sell. Any thoughts?

37

Steve LaBonne 09.27.06 at 10:28 am

The wild card would be to go with a populist.

That’s my choice. Not just as a tactical matter, though populist rhetoric is in fact a good sugarcoating for sane policies. But also, and even especially, because I think this country actually needs a dose of genuine populism right now. Partly because self-serving, self-dealing elites really are running the place into the ground, and partly because left-wing populism is an essential antidote to the danger of Buchanan-style faux populism.

Of the possible 2008 candidates John Edwards strikes me as the one who can come closest to filling that bill. And at least he’s openly apologized for his initial support of the war, which some of the others still can’t bring themselves to do.

38

Martin James 09.27.06 at 10:48 am

Steve,

I think you’ve got good instincts. Bill Clinton was hugely popular and John Edwards could be also.

The Buchanan reference reminds me of another question I can’t figure out. What is that fine line that separates the Reagans and the Bushes who can win Presidential votes from the Buchanans and Phil Gramms and Newt Gingrichs that can’t.

Its the flip side of how most Americans hold populist and progressive opinions (national healthcare, progressive tax rates, enviromentalism, etc.) yet the Ralph Naders of the world who rationally present these opinions are non-starters presidentially.

Why?

39

Steve LaBonne 09.27.06 at 11:13 am

This is just a guess, but I think mainly personality. Voters like “regular guys”, not wonks or scolds. Whether left or right. Sad, but then democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

40

Martin James 09.27.06 at 11:31 am

I agree its personality and being a “regular guy” but it still seems like there is a curious process behind who or what control’s the perception of “regular guy”.

Take the infamous case of Howard Dean’s rant. To me, that made him more of a regular guy; he was letting off some steam. The rap was that instead it represented a lack of dignity and judgment.

Popularity contests are notoriously fickle.

41

Steve LaBonne 09.27.06 at 11:34 am

See the Newsweek thread for a major part of the problem…

42

maidhc 09.27.06 at 4:38 pm

#37. The Carter-Reagan election might be summarized like this:

Carter: If you keep on stuffing yourself with ice cream , you’ll get so fat you won’t be able to put on your pants.
Reagan: I heard somewhere that some study proved that ice cream has negative calories, so eat as much as you want and you’ll get thin.

The most reliable predictor of who will win the presidential election in recent history has been that a state governor will beat a senator. Only two senators were elected president in the entire 20th century (Harding and Kennedy).

Some people think this is due to the fact that most senate seats are safe, so senators are out of the habit of doing hard campaigning.

43

Martin James 09.27.06 at 7:28 pm

So if we put the two things together does it mean that the best liar wins and governors make better liars than senators?

Too bad we never got to see Clinton vs. Reagan. That would have been a presidential celebrity death match to watch.

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