Friday, December 09, 2005

If I Ruled The World...Or At Least The DNC

Snatching "Unwinnable" From The Jaws Of Victory

If I was supreme emperor of the Democratic Party, this is what I would do: I would gather every Democratic politician, pundit and public figure and usher them into one enormous conference room. I would approach the podium in a stern and august manner. After deliberately prolonging the task of organizing my papers on the lectern, I would cast a piercing gaze across the room, making eye contact with as many faces as I could manage. Lieberman, Pelosi, Dean, Murtha, Hillary, etc. Then, with the tension properly built, I would place my forefinger over my lips and say, "SHHHH!!" After that, I would walk off stage, my mission accomplished.

But seriously, are the Democrats completely devoid of strategic thought? Has the Gore/Kerry ham-handedness spread like a virus throughout the entire corpus democratis? Allow me to explain my puzzlement by way of some analogies. It is often said that the first rule of politics is to get out of the way when your opponent is shooting him/herself in the foot. Well, it works in other milieus as well. When in a courtroom, never (I mean never) interrupt the proceedings or object to anything when your adversary is going down in flames. Don't try to pour it on or bolster your case in any way. Let them do the damage, and rest your case. Your actions - even if you think you can score some extra points - can only hurt your cause. Low reward, potentially high cost.

In football, if you're the coach and your team is marching down the field on offense, and the defense can't stop you or figure out what you are doing - don't call time out and give them time to regroup. In baseball, when you're the manager and your pitcher is in a groove, and the opposing batters are flailing helplessly at the ball and getting jelly legs at the combination of hot hot heat and nasty breaking pitches, don't halt the momentum by calling time out and heading out to the mound for a conference with the pitcher.

Feel free to consider other relevant analogies as you see fit. But why is it that what is basic common sense to ordinary folks, football players, attorneys, baseball players and most politicians eludes so many within the Democratic Party? I am responding to the recent spate of "plans" being offered for the future of Iraq by the Democrats and other related entities.

The events of the past six months have conspired to induce a confusing combination of shock, horror, vindication, relief, encouragement and sadness as the American people have finally begun to recognize the level of incompetence on display in the White House and GOP writ large: The ongoing violence in Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, Plamegate, Rove/Libby, Harriet Miers, Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, the Republican caucus in the House, the thinly veiled attempt to gut Social Security, the ballooning deficits (which the GOP intends to solve with - get this - MORE tax cuts!!!), the stagnant wages and tepid labor market, the steady erosion of worker benefits, environmental degradation, etc. But I guess the Dems can't stand success, because in the middle of Bush's decline, with the entire nation (save the die-hard 30%) riveted on what many historians are now saying may be one of the worst presidencies ever, the Democrats have done the unthinkable. They've interrupted the court, called a time out, offered up a distraction and thrown Bush a lifeline.

I am referring, in the main, to the recent comments by Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi regarding the war in Iraq, and the suggested course of action in terms of troops withdrawals. First and foremost, I want to table the discussion of whether or not Dean's and Pelosi's statements are right from a strategic point of view (that the war is unwinnable and that we should proceed with a Murtha-endorsed timed withdrawal, respectively). John Judis has written an interesting article chronicling the surprising consistency with which Dean has turned out to be "right" with respect to almost all of his brashest and most controversial statements. But as publius argued rather convincingly, you can be right and wrong. One refers to empirical truth, the other to political tactics. I have my own doubts about Dean and Pelosi, but that is for another post.

To use my courtroom analogy above, even where your opponent is making a mistake, and even where you think you can add some spice (even if you're "right"), the smart thing to do is just shut up. Literally. Let your opponent dig his/her own grave. Instead of letting Bush dangle in the wind, with his own policies around his neck like an albatross, the Democrats have, amazingly, shifted the focus back on themselves. And to what end? Instead of talking about Bush and Iraq (in a favorable light: intelligence manipulation, poor planning, etc.) and the many other scandals and failures surrounding the President, the press is talking about the Democrats. Brilliant.

Fight Vague With Vaguer

My guess is that certain Democrats grew frustrated with the oft-repeated, though relatively innocuous, taunts of the GOP (repeated by the compliant media) that the Democrats don't have a plan for victory Iraq. Well guess what: they don't. Nor should they. Nor can they. Nor is anyone listening. Why should the Democrats have a plan to solve this problem that was created entirely without their input, counsel or prerogative? It is as if Bush and the GOP tied up our foreign policy/military into a Gordian knot and then blamed the Democrats for not knowing how to solve the riddle. I'd rather be left with the tag of not knowing how to clean up Bush's mess, than other less desirable labels sure to follow.

And here's the other half of the equation: the Republicans don't have a plan either. There are no plans, no magic bullets, no simple courses of action, no mystical strategies that if only we adhered to, voila!, Iraq would emerge as a peaceful, stable, secular, democratic and friendly nation. We might be able to achieve at least some of those goals, and damage control remains a crucial objective, but time is not on our side, and any success will likely only be the result of an adjust-on-the-fly and hope for the best combination. I mean, Bush's latest unveiling of the new grand strategy for victory in Iraq was little more than a reupholstered version of his previous strategy - only now with bullet points! More interestingly, that speech contained the hints at the inevitable: because our armed forces are so overstretched, because of the waning support for the war domestically, because of Iraqis losing patience with our presence, because of Bush's plunging approval ratings, because of the 2006 midterm elections and because the situation in Iraq is so chaotic, we will be withdrawing significant numbers of troops over the course of the next 12-18 months. Even if couched in terms of new Iraqi forces being "ready" to take over, whatever follows in Iraq, be it civil war or some lesser level of violence, will be Bush's legacy. At least it should be.

Enter, the Keystone Democrats. Now the Democrats are jumping into the fray, stealing the spotlight and, in effect, shielding Bush from the eventual fallout. We have replaced the "Democrats don't have a plan" charge to "the Democrats have as many plans as there are Democrats." We look confused, befuddled, internally fragmented and generally hapless. Bravo. Well done. What's worse: the Democrats have fallen into the trap and have, foolishly, claimed the mantle of "withdrawal" (although some of this charge is clearly unfair, overstated and duplicitious). Let me put it this way, if you were Rove and Bush, and you knew that you had to begin pulling out troops in 2006, and you knew that with the current troop levels we can't defeat the insurgency so with fewer troops we will be even less successful, would you be upset or relieved to hear that at least some Democrats were leading the charge on withdrawal? If I were Rove or Bush I would let out an enormous sigh of relief. Say thank you. There's the exit strategy: The Democrats made us do it! Just like Vietnam, we were on the verge of winning in Iraq, and were this close, but the liberals rushed us to the exits prematurely. It all would have been a smashing success, but for those traitorous, yeller' liberals. That should sound familiar.

On the other hand, if Bush and Rove actually intend to continue on in Iraq, against the advice of the military and the wishes of nervous GOP legislators facing re-election, what better aid to galvanize the base and win back some wandering moderates than to have a vocal anti-war movement to push against and use as a foil. Whereas up until recently the Democrats have, rather deftly, let Bush shadow box himself into a corner, now the Democrats have stepped into the ring and given Bush an adversary to fight against. If they want to stay in Iraq, statements like Dean's help them to keep their supporters in the fold. If they want to leave, Dean gives them the perfect scapegoat. What does Dean get?

You know who has a better plan? Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (this should come as no surprise because, um, she's getting advice from the only strategic thinker left in the Democratic Party - her husband). Neither of them are offering anything radically different than Bush, and neither of them are big on the specifics, but why should they be? Bush isn't. Nobody is. And nobody should be. Here's another first rule: when negotiating a contract, settlement or anything else, let the other side speak first. Be vague. You'd be surprised how often you end up getting more than you were going to ask for by letting the other side propose their solution first. In the present context, why offer up a plan that can be critiqued and ridiculed when your opponent isn't? Fight vague with vaguer, and let Bush's actions be his alone.

I would also recommend the approach suggested by Bob Herbert in his most recent column: call Bush's bluff. If he says he wants to keep our troops in Iraq until we "defeat all the terrorists," sit back and let him do the talking. In fact, as Herbert did, challenge him to take the steps necessary to achieve this: raise taxes to pay for it, and increase the size of the Army through draft or other means. Demand more troops (even though we know there aren't any). [Please Note: This should in no way be read as an endorsement of the embarrasing, inept and far more damaging rants of the hypocritical Joe Lieberman.]

I would rather the Democrats be taking the line that if Bush wants to win it, we need to do more, or that no one can solve the mess Bush created, than the position that we should withdraw. Or no line at all. The quieter, the better (see: above). Aside from the fact that I think, strategically, we still need to try to stablize the situation in Iraq and too hasty a withdrawal could damage us considerably, from a political point of view, let withdrawal be Bush's legacy. My guess is his hand will be forced one way or another. Even if Murtha, Dean, Pelosi and others are right in their stances, Bush isn't going to take their advice anyway, so they're shouting in the wind. So what's the point? The self-satisfaction of being right? It is far more important that if and when the full toll of Iraq becomes apparent to the American people, and Bush leads our troops out of that situation, that there is no Vietnam redux where the folks who opposed the debacle get blamed for the outcome because of the potent blend of cognitive dissonance, guilt, humiliation and anger. At least that's what I would do if I were King. Maybe I'm missing something.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?