I will stick with the Democrats as the only chance left. They are close to 50%. But Democrats could have gotten way, way out front on the torture-habeas bill by declaring very early that the bill is not only wrong, it is stupid. As noted before, because it is seen throughout the world as the United States favoring torture of Muslims, whether guilty of anything or not, the bill only weakens us by creating more terrorists and making it harder for allies to support us. That’s stupid. The debate should have been not whether it is wrong or not – everyone knows it is wrong, but many Americans don’t care if they think (or imagine) it keeps them safe – but whether doing something we know is wrong actually works. Whether it is stupid to be seen as the “torture country.” By imagining themselves that McCain and his two sidekicks would do all the heavy lifting on principle, Democrats allowed themselves to be painted into the corner of weakly opposing the bill only on moral and philosophical grounds – so now they look weak because they failed to take a strong position, and they are still going to be accused of exactly the thing they were afraid of. Lots of people have said that, but somehow in Washington they just don’t get it.
Who could have led that charge? There is one and only one individual Democrat right now -- unfortunate but true -- with (1) sufficiently broad moral authority and (2) command of media attention, to have initiated the charge. And, what, first, was that charge exactly? It was this: persuading a majority of Americans long before any vote that this bill, once it became known as the “torture bill,” regardless of its actual provisions or any showy “compromises,” is not only an egregious violation of what America stands for, but also stupid: S-T-U-P-I-D. And persuading almost everyone else that it is probably stupid, or might be stupid (and we shouldn’t rush on it). The case is frightfully easy to make: more terrorists, fewer allies. When we fight the war on terror, we need all of our weapons – and checking our brains back in the locker room, and flailing at anybody we can grab with an Arabic name, is no way to win anything, much less something this complicated.
And who despite protestations of not being ready needed to lead it? Not Harry Reid -- he’s been good on many things, but he’s still just a Democratic spokesman who will only get a single quote insufficient to create the necessary debate among the talking heads on the news shows. John Kerry would have presented the similar partisanship issue as Reid, and would not have been able to break the media screen to get the traction. Biden would not have stood a chance, and Kennedy is old news now.
Both of those elements would have been necessary to do it right: broad credibility and ready command of media attention. Bill Clinton could come close, but he is unwilling to do anything political other than in defense of charges against him. Hillary comes fairly close, too – with ability to command media attention -- but right now there is the high negatives that would foreclose some 40% or more from even listening, and give the talking heads easy counter-attacks by changing the subject. Although not being able to penetrate more or less the same audience who would never listen to Hillary, Al Gore could have generated a bit of buzz, with some authority from having been involved on the inside in the beginnings of the war against Al Qaeda, and partly from the fact that the right-wing message machine would inevitably have attacked Clinton again for not “getting” Bin Laden – which, if the Democrats were ever prepared, could prompt ton-of-bricks retorts reminding all Americans how Bush, Cheney and Rice, despite the departing warnings of Clinton, Madeline Albright, William Cohen, and despite the continuing warnings of Richard Clarke and George Tenet, completely ignored the terrorism issue before 9-11, even the specific threat in the CIA memo headed “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” And never forget to remind the public of what Bush said, as reported in Ron Suskind’s recent book, to the CIA agent hand-carrying the smoking gun memo before 9-11: “OK, you’ve covered your ass now,” before resuming his golf swing or whatever he was doing at the ranch.)
The one media star who could have broken through is, obviously, Barack Obama. He is trying to avoid that kind of leadership role as a national figure too early, and is concentrating now on building his bipartisanship cred – probably wisely in anticipation of a national desire for deliverance (and is “deliverance” the right word or what?) from the horrendously divisive Bush years. But Obama has that leadership role, like it or not, and is someone who would have been able to couch a blistering attack on the stupidity of fighting terror this way as something that should concern all Americans, liberals and conservatives alike. Once having laid the groundwork with a single broadside, Hillary, Reid, Kerry, Kennedy, Leahy, Biden and all the other prominent Democrats could have continued the talking-heads assault – with far more credibility because it was endorsed by Obama first – and Obama could have backed away to avoid getting drawn into the strongest exchanges and resume building the bipartisan mantle. And who better to make the case for the importance of using our brains than the guy everyone knows is the smartest person in Washington? Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review? Crikeys!
Right now, a majority of Americans are willing to see principles bent (even broken entirely, many would say) in the face of threats of physical destruction. Americans believe, with a lot of visible evidence, that there are terrorists out to kill Americans – and that with planning and minimal technology and resources, they can do it by the thousands. We know, of course, that Bush’s program is more pretense of fighting terrorism than reality, a show for political purposes, and is so incompetently conceived, designed and implemented that it has only made the problem worse. But Democrats must recognize the fear and command the ground of victory, not just the moral high ground. But even the moral high ground can be brought into the security equation: when we stick to the principles that make America great, when we adopt laws that all Americans can support enthusiastically, then we strengthen the country. When we use our brains as well as our military might, we strengthen the country. When we lurch around throwing fearsome punches that never connect like some punch-drunk palooka (imagery courtesy of another blog, I forget whose), we weaken the country. When we violate our principles before the whole world for something like the right to torture, we create more terrorists, lose allies in the war on terror, divide Americans and weaken the country.
Democrats could successfully take the initiative like that with some planning, but cannot constantly be in a state of response to what we ought to know weeks in advance is coming: “No, that’s not fair for them to call us ‘cut-and-run,’ we believe in fighting terror, too, really.” When the pundits say Democrats are just objecting and are offering nothing constructive, tell them listening to the experts like we did successfully for most of 60 years in winning the Cold War is the real meaning of “stay the course.” In order to make the news and the late night jokes, and shut the Republicans and the pundits up, the retorts must be clever, blunt, vicious and more vicious, accurate, directly on-point, and very, very, very short. Otherwise, only the first Republican shot gets any footage. Unfortunately, nobody is minding the store when it comes to strategic and even tactical planning. Many concerned Democrats have said that, too, but once again – as with lack of anticipation and preparation for the Swift Boat commercials – we see how true it is.
Howard, Rahm, we certainly need to get the troops out there, but they need strong leaders to fight for. And yes, we need the advertising focused at crunch time, but the advertising needs to be sealing the deal, not climbing back up the hill after our candidates have been knocked down. As they say in business, somebody somewhere needs to get their shit together.