We ain’t no delinquents

by Henry Farrell on August 19, 2008

Hilzoy “comments”:http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2008/08/advisors-claim.html on David Brooks’ latest “column”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/19/opinion/19brooks.html?ref=opinion about how John McCain is a decent man being forced by the sad realities of the American political system to run a negative campaign.

Compelled? No choice? I don’t think so. For one thing, there are lots of ways in which McCain could campaign without lying or impugning his opponent’s patriotism. Some of them might even win. If McCain’s advisors can’t think of a single one of them, that shows only their limited imaginations.

But let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that they are right to say that the only way to win, this year, is by taking the low road. Would that mean that they have to take it? Of course not. That means you have a choice between honor and ambition; between running a decent campaign and a sordid one; between being a candidate the country can be proud of and being a candidate who contributes to the degradation and trivialization of political discourse.

You would have no choice only if you assumed that your own ambitions were more important than your honor.

To enlarge on this point a little: isn’t it _particularly_ incongruous for a self-described conservative pundit to invoke the “Gee Officer Krupke”:http://www.westsidestory.com/site/level2/lyrics/krupke.html defence? You know, all that honor and integrity stuff – how the choices we make reflect our innate character rather than our environment and all that. I imagine that if we saw an actual principled conservative assessment of some of the tactics that have been used by McCain in the last several weeks (flat out lies, claims that his opponent cares more about winning the election than the lives of American troops and so on), it would arrive at rather different conclusions …



roy belmont 08.19.08 at 9:06 pm

The ultimate version of that kind of principled refusal is “death before dishonor”.
A concept so alien to the people who are running most everything now they ridicule it. In private.
Publicly it just never comes up.

The same jingoist reverence for the bravery of FDNY at Ground Zero coexists in the hearts and minds of those who will use the justification of imminent danger for the commission of heinous cowardly acts.

This is pretty much the dominant American psyche now, if not the majority condition.
We have to do all these craven things in order to survive.
And of course eventually that’s a perfectly valid statement.


Barry 08.19.08 at 9:09 pm

“To enlarge on this point a little: isn’t it particularly incongruous for a self-described conservative pundit to invoke the Gee Officer Krupke defence? ”

No, not one bit, since ‘self-described conservative’ means (almost always) ‘shill for the right-wing’.


DC 08.19.08 at 10:38 pm

“all that honor and integrity stuff – how the choices we make reflect our innate character rather than our environment and all that.”
There’s an odd dissonance between conservatives’ instinctive dismissal of sociological explanations of delinquency of various kinds (the personal responsability schtick) on the one hand and their emphasis on people’s responsiveness to incentives in the context of their support for markets.

(I know, I know – cultural conservatism combined with market fetishism is one big talking contradiction – but this particular aspect of the affair never struck me before.)


John Emerson 08.19.08 at 11:02 pm

He was compelled, because he has no other way to run. Neither his own record nor Bush’s record is viable any more. Brooks couldn’t say it that way, though.


jcasey 08.20.08 at 12:11 am

Don’t want to be a fly in the ointment–I think as little of Brooks’ reasoning as anyone–but he didn’t endorse,/i> McCain’s choice of campaign strategy, he noted, somewhat sorrowfully, its effectiveness. The real silly thing here, however, seems to be the implication that Obama has run an equally low-road campaign. My sense is that he hasn’t.


bianca steele 08.20.08 at 1:36 am

Dissonance? . . . Maybe it’s a deliberate plan to win the opposition over to his way of thinking. Or maybe he sees Reason as no more the province of one party than of the other — or maybe he sees Reason as inherently the province of the Right and thus his to use against the Democrats as he pleases. Maybe he’s trying to write an impartial, nearly academic analysis and then put it in a more entertaining partisan form. Or maybe this is just the mask that seems most suitable at the moment. Or maybe he really believes it.

And as far as “endorsing” or “not endorsing” goes, the column reads like a campaign ad. As a practical matter, it’s clear he’s endorsing it. I agree he sometimes seems to imply, when he criticizes the Republican candidate, that what he says applies at least as much to the Democrat — but I’m not sure I see this in today’s column.


PHB 08.20.08 at 2:00 am

Is is somewhat sad to see all the honor and decency sucked out of a man like McCain, leaving only an empty husk that can barely remember the words others have put in his mouth for him.

Obama cannot defeat McCain, McCain has already done that himself. He sold himself out when he hired Rove’s crew. Obama doesn’t face John McCain in November, he faces Rove-McCain, a man who will do anything, say anything to get elected.

Whatever residual decency might be left in McCain, his administration will be a Bush-Rove administration. McCain just proposed immediate admission of Georgia to NATO. Does he understand that that would require the US to immediately declare war on Russia, a country that is still the worlds second largest nuclear power? If so he knows that his call is empty rhetoric, that the NATO allies would veto the proposal. Is McCain really that duplicitous or merely senile?


felix culpa 08.20.08 at 2:31 am

Seems suitable to offer a quote from Planet Narnia I came across yesterday:
…Lewis states that “necessity” was always “the tyrant’s plea.” He has in mind a number of tyrants, or commentators upon tyrants, including Livy, Cromwell, Milton, and Pitt, who observed how the claim of necessity could be used to excuse any kind of behaviour, however brutal and cruel. (p. 94)
Cromwell’s name is footnoted thus: ‘Twas a cruel necessity’ (the beheading of Charles I). Yet Cromwell also said, in a speech to Parliament in 1654, ‘Necessity hath no law. Feigned necessities, imaginary necessities, are the greatest cozenage men can put upon the Providence of God, and make pretences to break known rules.’


P O'Neill 08.20.08 at 3:04 am

Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of Bobo is that he is making a subtle criticism of the electorate, or at least the treasured swing voter portion therein. After all, they are the ones that seem to be responding (if polls are to be believed), to McCain’s shite.


John Emerson 08.20.08 at 3:33 am

No need to be charitable to Brooks. He’s just a sly, ingenious operative assigned to demoralizing and confusing weak Democrats.

My theory is that Geron was hired to do more or less the same thing when the Armageddonists realized that Brooks is Jewish.


Joseph 08.20.08 at 3:49 am

If it’s a lack of imagination that’s fueling the strategy, that’s worrisome in its implications for doing the job should he get it. It’s a facile point, but contemplating a limited range of options in foreign policy especially is dangerous.


PHB 08.20.08 at 3:55 am

You can tell when McCain is lying: he starts bleating on about his POW experience.

He has somewhat more justification in using this tactic than Gholianni who tried to climb to the oval office using the bodies of the 9/11 victims as a platform.

But it gets very old, almost as old as McCain himself to watch him dodge every hard question this way. At the end of the day, his military career was undistinguished. He was never on track to become a flag officer.


Jon H 08.20.08 at 7:02 am

Would it be crude to point out that Brooks’ argument is basically that McCain cracks and gives up his values under pressure? In Vietnam it required torture (unless you’re using Bush administration definitions), but now the bar is much lower.


bad Jim 08.20.08 at 8:10 am

Voices on the left have been insisting for weeks that we need to go severely negative on McCain, excorciating him for his dumping his crippled first wife for a wealthy beer heiress, noting his Ferragamo footwear and the rest of his designer wardrobe, the private jet, multiple homes, as well as his opportunism in office, his involvement with Keating in the S&L fiasco, his early ardent advocacy of attacking Iraq and current espousal of war all over the world.

Would “We can’t afford McCain” do better than “We need a change”?


Stuart 08.20.08 at 8:50 am

Doesn’t the admission that “we must campaign negatively” effectively say “I am the worst candidate”?


Matt McIrvin 08.20.08 at 11:53 am

The term “negative campaigning” is too imprecise; there’s nothing wrong with negative ads if they provide true and relevant information. Of the list of McCain negatives bad Jim provided, all of them are true and some of them are actually relevant.

I think that, on both sides, the advocates of low-road campaigning have a basically apocalyptic view of the race, that if the other guy wins it will be mortally dangerous for America and many thousands or millions will die. If you think that (and I personally do think that to some degree about McCain, so I can empathize), and you think that personally destroying the opposition is the only way to win (I go back and forth on this), you can justify a lot of bad behavior.

The asymmetry is that on the right, some of these people are actually running the McCain campaign, whereas on the left they’re watching from the sidelines and complaining in blogs.


politicalfootball 08.20.08 at 2:03 pm

I wish the Democrats were a little more effective at playing in the gutter, because that’s where American politics is conducted. I wouldn’t have any problem with Obama deciding to take cheap shots at McCain – as long as they struck their mark.


drpangloss 08.20.08 at 2:42 pm

Pretty funny. It’s just a short hop and skip to the: “I’ll never forgive you for making me do this to you” in the deluded justification framework.


mpowell 08.20.08 at 5:07 pm

I’m not sure Obama is taking the high road based on principles. I think it’s just his political strategy. I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but I certainly hope it works. I expect that later in the season the campaign will begin to launch some higher profile attacks on McCain. Perhaps these can work in concern with the dismal debate performance we can all expect from McCain shortly. The really sad thing about the current American political discourse is that due to asshats like Mr Brooks, it is more difficult for a Democrat to do negative campaigning effectively. The Republicans have spent decades building up completely irrelevant and erroneous frames with which to attack Democrats that the media report completely uncritically on.

It is not surprising that the media don’t comprehend the difference between legitimate criticisms of the other candidate and ‘negative campaigning’. The media has chosen not apply even the most mild scrutiny by claims made by political actors. In fact, you almost get the impressions that in the eyes of many, there is no significance to the substantive truth of any of the claims made by political actors. Having nearly given up on objective reality, and certainly having given up on reporting it, it is impossible for them to tell the difference between a fair criticism and a disgraceful smear. Welcome to American politics. I think it’s a veritable miracle that the human race has even gotten this far.


jcasey 08.20.08 at 5:29 pm

I would second this remark:

It is not surprising that the media don’t comprehend the difference between legitimate criticisms of the other candidate and ‘negative campaigning’. The media has chosen not apply even the most mild scrutiny by claims made by political actors.

When Obama says “McCain has run a low-road campaign, then Obama has gone negative. Silly.


noen 08.20.08 at 6:49 pm

P O’Neill
After all, they are the ones that seem to be responding (if polls are to be believed), to McCain’s shite.

That would be the latest Zogby poll that shows McCain with a slight edge. Zogby however, has been completely discredited. The poll is worthless. Moreover, we don’t elect presidents by popular vote, the states do and there Obama still has a significant lead.

The media has chosen not apply even the most mild scrutiny by claims made by political actors.

Because those political actors do not tolerate scrutiny. The surest way for a journalist to end his/her career would be to conduct honest investigations of politicians or the corporations who own them. They are the values of a royal court.

felix culpa
…Lewis states that “necessity” was always “the tyrant’s plea.”

It’s just Will to Power speaking, the Father who says “This is for your own good”. The Right has long complained about the supposed relativism on the Left. “Do your own thing” and situational ethics is taken to mean that everything is permitted. That only reflects their own failure to internalize their social values. They are Adult Children.


felix culpa 08.20.08 at 7:33 pm

I’d add that it’s a Will to Power at Any Cost. Dishonour as the necessary Way of the World, Big Daddy’s and Big Mommy’s Big Thumb. Humiliation for all, by choice or by subjection.

No wonder they are adult children.

Then there are the artists for love’s sake, who turn necessity on its head; and are indeed the culture’s archetype of adult children for that reason.


Rich Puchalsky 08.20.08 at 11:14 pm

“I imagine that if we saw an actual principled conservative assessment […]”

There is no such thing as a principled conservative. Really.

And criticisms like this one only maintain the myth that while one particular conservative is a bad person, there exist conservative people of principle etc. etc. Those people do not exist, and never have, ever.


noen 08.20.08 at 11:32 pm

That seems a bit… globalizing Rich. We are the Children of Light? Everyone pursues their own rational self interest or so says the current wisdom, but how it gets payed out on the world stage varies. So… we are all monsters, we just wear different masks? Is that it?


felix culpa 08.21.08 at 2:09 am

If you’ll take a useful paraphrase, here you are. But only in Atlanta; pity. (Canadian joke.)
h/t TPM.


Order of Magnitude 08.21.08 at 3:42 am

Before you guys get too holly, let’s remember that the Democrats’ Daisy ad , the original negative TV ad shows that the gutter is not owned by the Republicans; it is a condominium.


Roy Belmont 08.21.08 at 6:31 am

Inside that particular bad conservative, indeed in all conservatives, there exists a conservative of principle, needing only to be brought into the light.
Good and evil in each heart.
Batman does not exist.

There’s all kinds of self-identified conservatives who are principled within their view of the world, and their place in it. Some of those places align more or less with what the rest of us see as the real world, though the misalignments can be glaring.

It seems more the time to be finding common ground than increasing division. But maybe Pulasky’s right, and we should start throwing large blocks of people overboard.

I was going to leave “Eat the rich” as a snappy closer, but it won’t work, sadly.


Walt 08.21.08 at 6:32 am

Oh well, then if a Democrat did it once, Republicans are entitled to do it forever and ever.


Tracy W 08.21.08 at 8:10 am

There is no such thing as a principled conservative. Really.

Or in other words, I’m right and all those poeple are not merely wrong, but evil. Lovely, charming attitude, which I am sure will make all those nasty conservatives suddenly realise how totally evil they are and cause them to convert to the way of Puchalsky.


bad Jim 08.21.08 at 9:09 am

Tracy W., the point, which should be obvious by now, is that the conservatives lie, cheat and steal, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. Or to show up to a debate without expecting slander from the other side, particularly when they’ve been using it for decades. It would be unwise in the extreme to be too high-minded to take notice. They’re the ones reminding each other not to bring a knife to a gun fight.

Moreover, McCain is a pretty sleazy character (see Keating Five) as well as an enthusiastic warmonger. He does exhibit some of Reagan’s charm, which isn’t necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s…


Dave 08.21.08 at 9:55 am

I think it is fair to say that there can be principled conservatives; it just so happens that those responsible for GOP electoral/political strategy are no such things. Unless, that is, you’re choosing to invoke “framing” to have things mean just exactly what you want them to mean, nothing more and nothing less?


Jaybird 08.21.08 at 1:26 pm

Man, imagine how much better the whole “we’re the principled ones!” thing would be if Kucinich had been nominated instead of Obama.


Rich Puchalsky 08.21.08 at 3:49 pm

I could care less about getting conservatives to convert. At this stage all that matters is telling the truth.

If any of the mythical personally principled non-electoral conservatives that people assume must exist actually do exist, they are not principled because by continuing to adhere to conservatism at this point, they support the evil done in their name. Damn them all.

That doesn’t mean that non-conservatives stand for good. But they at least have the possibility of acting on principle.


noen 08.21.08 at 6:09 pm

In large part I agree with you Rich. I just thought you overstated it just bit. But yeah, damn them all.

The truth that needs to be faced I think is that the Mafia crime family style of organization, the Bush family, trumps representative democracy. Is that really true? If so then we have a serious problem.


Roy Belmont 08.21.08 at 8:47 pm

Andrew Bacevich, self-identified conservative, principled.


Rich Puchalsky 08.21.08 at 9:32 pm

Bacevich? Self-serving “principles” that enable him to diffuse blame for the war to Hollywood, the Democrats, or the culture in general, rather than admit that it’s mostly because of his own political philosophy. He espouses respect for tradition, and in order to do that he has to obfuscate the tradition of American imperialism that he as an academic should know has existed as long as America has.


Roy Belmont 08.21.08 at 11:16 pm

“I’ll saddle Rumsfeld with about ten percent of the blame for Abu Ghraib, the other ninety percent rests with the senior American military leaders in Baghdad… ”
Not Hollywood or the Democrats or culture in general, not there at least. And the blame’s pretty specifically targeted in what he says that I’m reading.

“When Rumsfeld and [Paul] Wolfowitz came into office they were determined to shift the balance of civil/military authority within the Pentagon. They were intent on trimming the sails of the generals.”
Respect for tradition, for sure, but not all military tradition is imperialist, and some of it’s pretty heroic.

“BILL MOYERS: And do you remember that it was his successor, his Vice President, the first President Bush who said in 1992, the American way of life is not negotiable.

ANDREW BACEVICH: And all presidents, again, this is not a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing, all presidents, all administrations are committed to that proposition. Now, I would say, that probably, 90 percent of the American people today would concur. The American way of life is not up for negotiation.
What I would invite them to consider is that, if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, and of course you need to ask yourself, what is it you value most. That if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, then we need to change the American way of life.”
Changing the American way of life in order to preserve what you value most in it is a form of traditionalism, yes, but…

These quotes aren’t from his books, which I haven’t read, but interviews online.
Either what we have as a nation is capable of redemption, or it isn’t.
Dogging someone who believes it is redeemable is pretty easy given the real history of the country, but the alternatives to that redemption are looking pretty ghastly and will involve even worse forms of tyrannical bullying, or a vulnerability to them that’s scary as hell.
You’re imputing to Bacevich a cynicism and that’s mostly personal I think. Maybe what’s most irritating about it is it’s a call to arms. With all that implies.


John Emerson 08.22.08 at 2:10 am

Order of Magnitude, you really should study up on Martin Van Buren. A horrible man, but a typical Democrat.


J Thomas 08.24.08 at 5:18 am

There is no such thing as a principled conservative. Really.

There are really and truly principled conservatives in the USA.

Their dilemma is that they have no one to vote for, they are entirely unrepresented in the political system.

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