Playing With Matches

One of my consistent criticisms of the Bush Administration on its post-9/11 responses to the world has been that they were seeking momentary domestic political advantage with potentially explosive and self-defeating rhetorical, symbolic and institutional moves. Adopting messianic postures on the spread of democratization and liberalism around the world while exempting themselves from the standards they were trying to promote. Arguing for the rule of law while looking the other way at lawlessness under their own watch.

Or egging on the proposition that Islam or Arabs in generic are the wellspring of terrorism, or similarly, diffusing responsibility for 9/11 from al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and any other potential target of U.S. ire within the Middle East. Xenophobia is a pretty dangerous fire to be stoking with subtle Karl-Rovian gestures and winks, and this week it turned around and burned the Bush Administration pretty seriously with the flap over port management.

President Bush is right that anybody who bothers to look at the details of the deal could hardly be disturbed by it: almost all of the popular and political reaction is coming from somewhere far away from the specifics. But that’s what happens when you play fast and loose with the facts, skew the intelligence, play bait-and-switch with policy, bury the mechanisms of decision-making and treat public knowledge in a democracy as a form of security risk.

The only aspect of this whole flap that genuinely annoys me is the response of leading Democrats. A few of them are just doing the politicas-as-usual service to their own constituencies, largely the Teamsters.

Most of them are managing to demonstrate how accurate the claim that the party has no prevailing ideas or underlying views really is. The only conviction the Democrats have is, “Wait until the Republicans make a mistake, and exploit it by saying whatever is most likely to expediently increase the discomfort of the Republicans”. Sometimes you could see a real politics, a driving idea, potentially emerge from such a seed. If the Democrats wanted to react to scandals that result from Republican dominance of the political system, from arrogance, then they could go beyond just saying, “The Republicans are sleazemasters” to driving hard and consistently for a systematic reform movement that aims at the structure of federal governance, the management of elections and districting, and so on. That doesn’t have to be Al Gore level boring technocratic, either: imagine a statement of reform principles roughly as catchy and transmissable as Gingrich’s “Contract With America”. Instead, the party just briefly comes to life during the news cycle of a story like the Abramoff scandal and then goes back to sleep.

So now this time they’ve awoken to join in the xenophobic panic, which absolutely doesn’t lead anywhere in the long-term, at least not anywhere that the Democrats want to go (I hope). I don’t know why it is so hard for the Democrats to transit from whatever doubtlessly legitimate and useful discussions they’re having on a daily basis to some kind of sustained national momentum, but the fault evidently lies significantly within the party and its leadership, not in developments outside their control.

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7 Responses to Playing With Matches

  1. withywindle says:

    It took Pres. Bush, and his administration, years to switch from saying “war on terror” to “war on Islamist terror.” Many of us security hawks think that the Bush administration was excessively naive in discounting the deep and not very tractable intertwinings of terror with Islamic and Arabic culture–and that his blaissez-faire attitude toward the UAE port deal is, alas, of a piece with his excessive pollyannishness. Hence your critique seems peculiarly off-target: from where I sit, the characteristic failing of the Bush administration is complaisance, not xenophobia.

    The rest of your critique of the Bush administration is based on an understanding of fact I find far divorced from reality; but at this point it is probably useless to rehash stale partisan arguments.

    Strangely enough, I have less argument with your critique of the Democratic party. I will say, in their defense, that relentless opposition, if not the best policy, is not the worst policy either. It does serve to slow the enactment of Republican policy, and diminish its scope, and it does help to define and inspire their party. It may not be a winning policy, but it may be a good holding and defense policy until such time as they get their act together, or the times are more propitious. And if in point of fact that Democrats are quite riven on matters of positive policy, it may be intelligent to focus on what unifies them: opposition to Republican policy. I don’t deny there are costs to these tactics, which you state well, but there are benefits, too.

  2. joeo says:

    I agree with withywindle, relentless opposition is one of the few tools democrats have. The democrats are not a majority in the house or senate and they don’t have the presidency. Acourding to the rules, the republicans can do whatever they want. Relentless opposition is the democrat’s only tool to make it hard for the republicans to do whatever they want.

    It also isn’t Xenophobia to point out Saudia Arabia’s links to 9/11. That is where the money came from; that is where the people came from. Saudia Arabia had implemented and continues to implement a deliberate stategy to not go hard after islamic extremism, so as to not unstabilize the goverment. It would be good if they clean up their act.

  3. emschwar says:

    joeo: The US republican (note little ‘r’) form of government does provide a way for Democrats to regain control of house, senate, and presidency, at 2, 6, and 4 year intervals, respectively. The Republicans may be able to “do whatever they want”, but they also have to face elections, and despite massive gerrymandering by both parties, they still have to get the votes.

    If Democrats do indeed intend to gain control of those institutions, they need to win elections, and reflexive opposition to every Republican idea is not the way to do that. Most voters are more interested in voting for somebody than against someone else; unless and until Democrats grasp that, they’re not going to gain control of House or Senate. Relentless opposition just makes them come across as whiny and petulant, without any ideas of their own. I’m not necessarily saying they don’t have any (though I’d love to hear a Democrat plan for Iraq that wasn’t “get the hell out of there NOW”), just that if the only message voters hear is “Republicans are doody-heads!”, then they’re not going to be too impressed with the messenger.

    So really, the best thing Democrats can do right now is get out of the Republican’s way, and promote their own solution to our problems as a positive thing. Either Republicans will self-destruct (as seems increasingly likely), in which case the Dems come out smelling like roses, or the Dems will convince people that their ideas are better.

    I know I personally respond better to “here’s my plan to improve America” vs. “we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s all their fault!”

  4. joeo says:

    There was a lot of talk a year ago about how Democrats need to put out their own ideas about reforming Social Security. But, they really didn’t have to. They just needed to stop the Republicans. Social Security isn’t a new idea but it is pretty popular with the middle class voters who the democrats need.

  5. Laura says:

    I’m torn on how I feel about all of this. In some way, I feel that Bush is only for the deal because there’s money in it for his friends. I feel it’s somehow disingenuous of him to claim his opponents are being racist when many of his policies that he’s enacted border on racism. On the other hand, I see how this deal does not look good if indeed there are ties to terrorism. And I absolutely agree with you that the Democrats do not look good right now.

  6. Western Dave says:

    I think this is about cronyism. Almost all Democrats started on-board with the war on terror. When the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, it was woo-hoo go USA! When the Bush administration sought to expand the war on terror to Iraq most Democrats said why? and the Bushies said “trust us.” Deomocrats said OK but you’ll do this right and have a plan and everything right? And the Bushies said, “Trust us.” What has become clear is we can’t trust the Bushies, so when they say, “UAE is perfectly capable of running these ports and we don’t need to follow the law about something like this, trust us.” Who the hell is going to trust them? In my mind UAE isn’t “terrorist raghead” its “incompetent Bush crony.”

    Emschwar – the Democratic plan for Iraq is and always has been full international cooperation under a legitimate international body such as the UN (or at the very least NATO). Remember Kerry’s endless “I have a plan” rhetoric. Didn’t work too well.

  7. barry says:

    Getting out of the Republican Party’s way and letting them destroy themselves only makes sense for those who still believe that there is a functioning feedback mechanism in our society, aside from partisan opposition. The GOP has profited from lying, profited from corruption and profited from incompetancy. Given lack of opposition, there wouldn’t be any mechanisms to stop them any more (see Texas redistricting for just one example).

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