Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Who Are the Real 'Vichy Dems'?


[This post was prompted by Eric's earlier one, and the also excellent comments thereto.]

(CW commented): Perhaps some part of the calculation [for Democratic votes authorizing the use of force in Iraq] was that Bush could be trusted to not invade unless it really was necessary. As I recall, we didn't really know at that point just how dishonest his administration would turn out.

Or that, in a worst case scenario, he could get away with only so much. It's important to remember how different the reigning standard was then (it seems so long ago). Even a jaundiced liberal like me, who 'enjoyed' the Nixon AND Reagan years in real time, someone who just viscerally didn't trust Cheney and Rumsfeld - even I thought that institutional and political constraints would force some moderation (no rush to war, a plan). I thought that it would be disastrous policy AND politics to do anything remotely like what they actually did do. To be fair to some of the people I will shortly take a little to task, I clearly wasn't cynical enough. But cynicism is not a virtue, and let's not forget who's really at fault here, not forget from whence the cynicism flowed, like dumpster juice. Anyway, Cheney and Rumsfeld 'handled' all that pesky institutional stuff.

The only question left is whether or not it will be disastrous politics for them. The answer must be 'yes'. American Iraq, functioning as it does as a kind of doppelganger for our government, can reliably be thought of - even now - as political theatre for Americans. So, it is not mere snark, nor is it hyperbole to say that this moment in time is a Milestone For Democracy in America. If this government's policies are not politically disastrous for them, we've got a Real Problem on our hands - all of us.

Freedom (sometimes) Fries

Neocons, conservatives and liberal hawks have (to put it mildly) made much of the French capitulation to the Nazis. I'm not sure what it is they've made of it, but it's a lot. The story goes that the true, staunch freedom-lover then was President Blum, who was essentially betrayed by the bickering, incoherent 'liberals' around him. Some really betrayed him, some just dithered. Anyway, that's the Liberal Hawk version. The conservative version is...well, incoherent. I can't imagine they would have any sympathy for Blum, who was a Marxist after all. American ruling conservatives seem hell-bent on establishing a fascism which is culturally American as opposed to a foreign kind. Or something. But, foreignness aside, American conservatives' ideological sympathies are - and were - close to Franco (and Hitler) and far from Blum.

Who are the 'Vichy Dems' now? The answer is: all of us, until we stop bickering about that fucking war vote. On one side, we have a few people like Hillary and Joementum, who are nauseating. On the other, we have a certain large - or at least loud - segment of Democrats who were 'right' about Iraq, who are filled with a curiously O'Reilly-ian rage against other Democrats. I'm not talking about everyone who made the right call or all antiwar Democrats (please read that sentence again). You know who I mean. Our budding O'Reillys (eg Sirota), who want to whip up an anger which stems more from personal, atomized frustration than from civic alarm - the idea of fighting hysterical rage with hysterical rage; 'we need our own Grover Norquist'; etc. The people who favor behaving like Republicans, IOW. Reaction-as-'fighting-back'. Basically, we're talking about the people who would kind of like to somehow ex-communicate all Dems who voted 'yes'. Both sides, but - paradoxically - especially these latter people, are following Karl's script to a T. Are they therefore 'traitors' to the liberal cause? Of course not. Most all are passionate defenders of it. They're just making a political mistake. A political mistake here, a political mistake there, and pretty soon you're talkin'...German.

When we make that vote our Party Fault-line, even just rhetorically (or especially rhetorically) we are bickering about the answer to a Republican question, a set-up. We keep ourselves stuck in the trap Karl Rove designed for us. Rove gave us a topic, told us to discuss it amongst ourselves - and we have obediently done it! WTF?! Withdraw Now/Withdraw Later is also kind of a trap, BTW. We should've noticed by now that, other than Murtha, we currently have zero influence on policy in Iraq. Zero. (Well, as close to zero as you can get: theoretical zero). In the current regime, everything is politics, and our role is to be useful idiots, helpfully, earnestly giving our opponents an out whenever they need one. We are demonized no matter what we say or do AND we have no influence. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be talking about Iraq policy - hardly! But that's policy, not politics.

Want to Get Out of Iraq? Want to save our country? Win Elections. Period. It's the 'only thing they understand'.

If, instead of reflexively reacting to Republicans, we don't instead change the conversation entirely (Bush has made us less safe; Bush lost a war (at least one); Bush is wrecking our Army; Bush has not prepared the country for disaster; Bush is wrecking our economy - freely substitute 'Republicans' for 'Bush' in '06) - if we don't make them answer our questions, react to us instead of the other way around, we are all the Vichy Dems, and we will hang together (albeit in a 'lite', 'non-lethal' way).

[UPDATE: I wrote the above this morning, and tonight, I read this back and forth between Mr Yglesias and Mr Sargent over at Tapped. Viva Le Blogosphere! Viva la nascent vast network of occluded neural connections! Huzzah!


The decision to support or oppose the Iraq war wasn't about doctrine. It was about judgment. Many of those who backed the war fell prey not to ideology, but to a massive judgment failure. ... Saying the decision was about judgment, not doctrine, is not mere semantic quibbling. It goes to the heart of what the opinion-making trade is all about. ... If we look at those who are now mea-culpa-ing about the war and see their decision retrospectively as having been driven by doctrine or ideology, not judgment, it absolves them of professional failure.

He's (ostensibly?) talking about pundits, and he's not wrong. There was huge failure of judgment in the punditocracy about Iraq. But Yglesias makes a key point without, perhaps, fully realizing how central it is:

Judgment matters, of course. But doctrine matters, too. And for intellectuals, confessions of doctrinal error are important. The Bush administration won't be in power forever. Perhaps it will be replaced by an administration full of thoughtful, competent people. The doctrinal question will then arise: Does it make sense, morally or practically, for the United States to invade and conquer medium-sized dictatorships for the purpose of transforming them into democracies? I say no. William Stuntz says yes. I think it's worth trying to pin people down on this question...

As Matt insists, developing a doctrine is important in itself. But the more urgent reason doctrine is important is, naturally, politics. Doctrine is where Dems fall down, because we don't have one. Any doctrine we propose is in the context of the awful situation we're in (and not responsible for).

Mr Seargent's piece boils down to well-reasoned petulance, but he's on to something. He's spotlighting something which is moot and very hard to quantify (judgment) instead of something which is by definition quantifiable, and hardly moot - doctrine. What elected and re-elected George Bush? Vague, unquantifiable things like 'judgment' and 'character', not his 'doctrine'.

I don't believe voters are necessarily looking for a 10 point plan or a George 'Mister X' Kennen long telegram. They're looking for leadership. It's time to attack the president's putative strengths: judgment, character. And since he has been unable to avoid laying out a (very bad) doctrine, attack that, too. When your opponent manages, with uncanny consistancy, to do just about everything wrong, the answer to 'you got a better idea?' is 'I can't think of a worse idea'.

[Edited severely for (I hope) clarity]

[UPDATE 2: Mark Schmitt says it so very well (emp. mine):

...why the institutions of democracy, particularly Congress, have moved so far from what public opinion, election results, or traditional political science would expect[?]. And the answer is that those in power changed the rules - the unwritten, it-just-isn't-done kind of rules -- in radical and unexpected ways (...)

These rules can be powerful on their own, but their strength ultimately depends on the other side, and the press, not getting it. If you look at the entire first Bush term with some perspective, it will look like a game in which one team was standing around paralyzed because it just didn't recognize the rules and customs of the game being played. (...)

But understanding the new system and finding the points where accountability can be created is not the same as changing the system. This is an ugly set of ground rules for American democracy. (...) But getting rid of the Republican majority is not even my highest priority. This country has survived Republican majorities before, we'll survive them again. But we won't survive this one. Breaking down the command and control, parliamentary, and largely invisible system these Republicans have created should be the highest priority.(...)

But just as it took a very long time to understand the rules of the Republican game, it will take a while to understand when it's over. An activist generation has emerged on the left that has never seen any form of politics other than this one. Everything they've seen supports the argument that political success depends on the Republican machine rules: absolute party loyalty, a play to the party's ideological base, a single simple message, and ruthless punishment for those who stray. But two parties built on that logic can't govern any more than one can. We're not going back to the old rules, the rules I learned carefully when I worked in Congress not so long ago. But when the Republican system breaks, we all need to remember the deep message of Off-Center -- that these rules and assumptions are created by people, they change, and we have to change them rather than just fight within them.

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