How Not to Play Against Cheaters
If there was ever any doubt that the Democrats in Congress are clueless about how to fight against the disreputable tactics of the Bushite Republicans, that doubt should have been dispelled by the recent debacle in the House concerning a resolution to “stay the course” in Iraq.
The resolution in question had but one purpose, and that was to put the Democrats in a no-win situation politically. If they voted for the resolution, they would be tying themselves to President Bush’s disastrous policy. If they voted against the resolution, the Democrats would expose themselves to the charge that theirs was a position of “cut and run”—precisely Karl Rove’s strategy for turning the albatross of the Iraq disaster into another Republican election-winner, as it was in 2002 and 2004.
The process was carefully set up by the Republicans to assure there would be no real discussion of anything, no genuine progress toward clarifying the real situation in Iraq or the nature of our real policy choices there.
It was designed, that is, to serve no national purpose but only a partisan political purpose.
All of which is typical of what the Republicans have been doing with their power for some years now. It should be no surprise that the same folks who put poison pills into the Homeland Security legislation, so they could paint a war-hero like Max Cleland as “Osama bin Laden’s man” back in 2002, would similarly poison American politics here in 2006 by trying to compel the opposition party two choose between two politically toxic options.
What’s downright astonishing is that the Democrats seem to have learned nothing in the intervening four years about how to cope with these Bushite tactics. The Republicans having set their trap, the Democrats obligingly walked into it.
And now the chorus of “cut and run” –foolish and dishonest, but possibly politically effective—is heard in the land.
How brilliant do you have to be to understand that, given a choice between death by hanging and death by shooting, the proper response is “Neither”? Is there any law that required the Democrats to vote either for or against that purely manipulative resolution?
No, no law, only the Democrats’ habit of playing “politics as usual” even when politics has become decidedly not as usual, even in this unprecedentedly dishonest political environment the Bushites have created.
In most of American history, the appropriate response to a measure before Congress has been to either support or oppose it. In today’s morally corrupt political environment, the proper response is neither support nor opposition but rather denunciation of the whole scurrilous game.
But the Democrats keep letting the Republicans get away with their “Have you stopped beating your wife?” way of rigging the game.
Just as John Kerry gave away the game by campaigning against George W. Bush as “a good man,” who just happened to have some different ideas about how to achieve our common goals, so also now, two years later, the Democrats of the House gave away the game by treating the measure before them as legitimate rather than as the scandal that it clearly was.
It’s About that Rogue Elephant in the Room
This is but the latest example of an almost invariable pattern: the Bushite Republicans behave scandalously and the clueless or craven Democrats let them get away with it.
It is about the scandalous Republican way of governing, through lies and the abuse of power –not about the various bogus issues through which the Republicans seek to gain political advantage—that the Democrats should be talking to the American people.
“It is a scandal,” the Democrats should have announced to the country just before walking out of the chamber, declaring that they would not dignify this fundamentally dishonest resolution by voting on it, “for the Republicans to be playing politics on this vital and painful national issue. Where lives are at stake, we need genuine discussion, not mere grandstanding for political advantage.”
It is the job of the opposition party to help the American people recognize how profoundly these Bushite Republicans are debasing our political process. And part of this is to draw the contrast between how the Republicans are operating, and how a healthy democracy would operate. So the Democrats’ statement might continue:
“How can we know whether or not we should ‘stay the course’ without conducting the substantive discussion this country so sorely needs in order to illuminate just what our real choices are with respect to this terrible mess that the Bush leadership has made in Iraq?
“The Republicans act as if we can somehow know what we should do just by virtue of some primitive logic that says because we went in we have to stay there until we achieve our goals. But such logic is foolish until we establish whether ‘staying the course’ will indeed get us any closer to reaching those goals.
“Neither is that logic sufficient that says that because it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place we ought simply to leave. We’d need first to assess what the consequences of a withdrawal would be.”
The Democrats do not need to take some firm stand between the choices Karl Rove offers them. Indeed, among the Democrats there is no unity on this issue. But what they can be united on is their denunciation of the dishonest Republican effort to reduce American discourse to the primitive and simple-minded level at which the Rovian manipulations succeed in feeding Bushite power even at the cost of crippling the nation. Their denunciation might continue:
“The question of what course of action is likely now to serve best American interests and values –including the responsibility we have to those people whose country ours has invaded—can’t be answered by primitive logic based only on slogans and ignorance. It can only be answered on the basis of genuine knowledge and expertise concerning the situation in Iraq and other relevant aspects of the world.
“America has many knowledgeable people –both in government service and in our private institutions—who could help us in the Congress come to judgments on such questions as: What is likely to happen if we continue what we are doing, and what is likely to happen if we choose some other course? What are the likely costs and benefits of the different courses of action, and how should those be weighed against each other?
“But that is precisely the kind of discussion that the Republicans have refused to have. As this scandal of a Republican-sponsored resolution in the House demonstrates, the same regime that deceived Congress to lead us into war, and that “fixed” the intelligence to support that decision to go to war –the genuine reasons for which we are left still to wonder about—has no interest in helping us to make reasoned decisions based on true understanding.
“The Republicans have seen to it that we hold no thoughtful hearings, have no substantive debate, contemplate no reasonable alternatives. All they seek is the political advantage they believe they can get by reducing our political discourse to simple-minded slogans like ‘stay the course,’ and by engaging in the kind patriotic flag-waving that has rightly been dubbed ‘the last refuge of scoundrels.’
“America deserves better. America needs better.
“We have already seen how disastrous are the results of making policy on the basis of ignorance and arrogant assumptions. This Bush regime may have no great respect for genuine knowledge about reality, but reality does not go away just because we try to assume it away.
“That’s why we have this mess in Iraq—from the series of colossal misjudgments and blunders this administration has made in both leading us into this invasion and in running the subsequent occupation. At every turn they have scorned what proved to be good counsel from people with real knowledge and experience. And now America and Iraq and indeed the whole world suffer the consequences.”
The Bushite arrogance and dishonesty is hardly confined to the Iraq war. It is a pattern that pervades everything they do. And so whatever the immediate manifestation of this scandalous Bushite way of wielding power, the Democratic denunciation needs to tie the specific issue with the larger pattern, so that the pattern becomes more visible to the American people who can then join in the repudiation of this disastrous and destructive regime.
“So enough of this playing politics with a matter so grave,” the Democratic statement might conclude. “Enough of putting political advantage over the interests of the nation.
“We need real deliberation, not posturing. We need genuine leadership, not mere manipulation and deception.
“The Republicans now have the power to disserve this country and disgrace this Congress with this dishonest charade. We Democrats cannot now stop it. But neither will we participate in it.”
Die on Your Knees or Live on Your Feet
It is not, of course, only on this Iraq resolution, that what the Bushite Republicans are up to is scandalous.
There is also the disregard for the law and the Constitution. There is the penchant for character assassination –swiftboating, plamegating and the rest—in lieu of dealing forthrightly with the issues. There is their politicization and distortion of science –on climate change and on various other issues where reality might impede their agenda—at the cost of our ability as a nation to confront our real issues clear-sightedly. There are the lies told to the nation.
At every turn, it is about this pattern of dishonesty and manipulation and corruption that the opposition party should be talking to the country. This is the urgent matter facing the country, more than any of the specific issues.
The job of the Democrats now should be to help the American people see this pattern of the scandalous abuse of power and degradation of our public discourse. It is on this terrain that they should wage the campaign of 2006.
But as we have seen, they remain clueless. Or perhaps they are not so clueless as they are afraid. Perhaps they fear that the American people will not reward a party that dares to speak about this dangerous elephant in the room.
Certainly, there are risks in speaking the truth and speaking it boldly. But if the evidence of the last two election cycles proves anything, does it not prove that there is no security for the Democrats in continuing to play politics as usual?
Paradoxically, it seems that it by acting from fear that the Democrats bring upon themselves the very defeat of which they are afraid. Is it not the perception of the Democrats as lacking genuine strength and courage that has most diminished them in the eyes of the American people?
Indeed, it seems likely that the bold course of truth-telling is the only ground from which Democrats can find real strength. The choice may well be between dying on their knees or emerging victorious by standing and fighting on their feet.
These are dangerous times in America, where power does not recognize the constraints of the law and where lies consistently triumph over truth. The nation needs leadership that shows moral courage and integrity and a commitment to truth.
This is the kind of leadership the Democrats must now provide.
Andrew Bard Schmookler has recently launched his website, NoneSoBlind.org, devoted to understanding the roots of America’s present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Email to: email@example.com