In rhetoric there are two common tactics debaters use when the facts aren't on their side: they attempt to change the subject or alter the terms of the debate.
Magicians frequently use misdirection when they're about to make something disappear.
Grifters have been making money off of rubes since biblical times with the, "Hey, look over there" ploy just before they hide a card, slip a coin from under a shell or otherwise fool the mark.
And strong-armed stooges have been intimidating the timid for time immemorial.
But none of them hold a candle to what the Bush administration and the right wing echo-chamber has been doing to both the press and the Democrats for going on seven years now.
The MSM and the Democrats have been fleeced more times than a slack-jawed yokel at a three-card monte festival. And after every encounter, the Democrats tentatively peak out the bathroom door, hair dripping from yet another swirly, and whine, "Hey. The big kids took my lunch money, again."
The problem with this is, when they get fooled or intimidated, the people get screwed and democracy gets shortchanged. It also allows Republicans to beat us even when they aren't holding the winning hand.
Two recent examples - the press's and the Dems' response to the MoveOn ad on General Petraeus and the discussion surrounding Dan Rather's suit against CBS - show how effectively the Republicans use these tactics, and how seriously it undermines the basic tenets of democracy our founding fathers built into the Bill of Rights.
Let's examine them, starting with the MoveOn ad.
The MoveOn Ad- It's the Issues, Stupid
MoveOn correctly raised the following questions: Was Petraeus a credible witness? Was he being honest with Congress and the American people? Was it appropriate for a military man to carry partisan political water? Would he, in fact, be betraying us if the answer to some or all of these questions were yes?
But have we as a nation had a full debate on these issues? Nope. Republicans raised a huge stink over name-calling, and the Democrats and the MSM veered off on an orgy of recrimination over a bad pun.
Let's pause a moment and contemplate this astounding turn of events: the nation became obsessed with MoveOn's bad pun-to the point where both Houses of Congress passed proclamations condemning it - but basically dropped the extraordinarily important issues raised by the ad.
The fact is, Petraeus did lie - or at least deceive - Congress and the American people about the "success" of the surge. The GAO Report, statistics from the UN, from humanitarian groups, and Iraq's own count suggest there was no verifiable change in the number of sectarian killings since the surge began. More importantly, most of the objectives of the surge were political, not military, and none of them were met.
The sleight-of-hand Petraeus used to create the appearance of military progress was straight out of a grifter's playbook - he appears to have changed the way we count sectarian deaths.
Those bodies piled in the corner over there? Oh, they don't count. They're ...uh ... let's see ... uh ... victims of crime. Yes, that's it. Crime victims.
Using legerdemain to deceive Congress? Trying to pass off an abysmal failure as a success? "Well, maybe that's not appropriate," mumble a few of the less timorous Dems. But then the Republicans scream, "Wait! Look over there! Those people are calling a General a bad name! A General with all kinda medals an' stuff. This is serious! Quick! We need to nip this in the bud! Call out the instigators!"
And like a bunch of four-year-olds at a magic show, the Dems and the MSM turn from General Prestidigitator to watch Chuckles the Clown perform some inane foolery, and those hoary facts and abject failures disappear in a cloud of righteous indignation.
But here's the deal. There's ample evidence suggest that MoveOn's questioning of the General's impartiality and objectivity was more than warranted.
After all, Petreaus has a history of acting in a highly partisan and political manner. In September of 2004, he intervened in the presidential election by placing an op-ed in the Washington Post defending Bush's "they're standing up, so we can stand down" pitch.
This issue - whether we were succeeding in Iraq - was perhaps the most hotly contested and important argument in the campaign. It's fair to say, Petraeus' op-ed - strategically timed before the election and placed in Washington Post - helped Bush win in 2004.
The fact that Petraeus was wrong, that the Iraqi security forces were not "standing up" merely makes the substance of MoveOn's ad all the more important. An independent assessment of Iraqi security forces headed by Retired Lt. General Jones found that the security forces - which Petraeus was in charge of training when he wrote his op-ed - are so riddled with sectarianism, incompetence and corruption, that the Commission recommended they be disbanded and that the US and Iraq start over again and rebuild them from the ground up.
Bottom line? The preponderance of evidence suggests that Petraeus was intentionally deceiving Congress and the American people on the military outcomes from the surge; that he is ambitious and that he has a record of partisan and political behavior that is as blatant as any General since MacArthur; and that he may have misrepresented progress in Iraq once before. In short, the issues raised by MoveOn's add were legitimate, vital to our national interest, and on target.
As for the name-calling? Perhaps uncalled for. Whatever else he may be, Petraeus has served this country and worked diligently to defend it. But he has only himself to blame. You don't jump smack into the middle of the political fray in a highly partisan manner twice, then get to run and hide behind your stars and medals.
Generals with integrity who feel they must become political retire before doing so. One of them, Lt. General Gregory Newbold, articulated the failings of this administration's Iraq policy on behalf of all troops as eloquently as anyone, when he said, "My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions - or bury the results."
That, for the record, is what supporting our troops looks like, when misdirection, change of subject and hysterical emotionalism are stripped away from the debate.
But most of our Democratic slack-jaws and the MSM are still staring at Chuckles the Clown and wondering how Petraeus and Bush pulled off the magic act of making the surge seem "successful."
The few who saw the facts get swept off the table are simply too timid to point it out - "What if the other boys and girls don't believe us?" they ask, with quaking voices and knocking knees. "Worse yet, what if they call us names like 'soft on terrorism'?"
Pathetic. Instead of confronting the faux patriots who used the simple threat of name calling to start a war under false pretenses; to gut the first and fourth amendments; and to commit unprecedented acts of greed, graft and corruption, the Dems, trying to be all things to all people, run and hide, and thus become nothing, to no one.
And now, Petraeus - Bush's very own Preatorian - is joining in the obscene chorus calling for military intervention in Iran. Having exalted him to the status of a warrior-god, and having failed to confront his clay feet, the Dems will be hard-pressed to rebut him.
Cowardice has its costs.
Dan Rather, the MSM, and the Feckless Dems
The MSM's reaction to Dan Rather's $70 million dollar suit against CBS is extremely revealing. As with the MoveOn ad, the issues raised by the suit are vitally important. They have serious implications for the fitness of the President to serve and the state of journalism in America -just as they had when Rather was summarily dismissed by CBS after their sham in-house investigation run by Bush family cronies.
And just as with the MoveOn ad, these issues got subordinated to questions of little or no import, raised by an hysterical right wing echo-chamber. And just as with MoveOn, the Democrats served as enablers, because they stood idly by in stunned silence like deer in headlights while it happened.
Here's the synopsis: Rather and Mapes used several sources to confirm that Bush had received special treatment in getting into the Texas Air National Guard and that he in all probability went AWOL, and failed a drug test or refused to take his physical to avoid one.
Mapes wrote a book detailing the research she and Rather relied on, and Sidney Blumenthal has published a thoroughly researched examination of the incident for Salon. It's hard to read either without being convinced the charges were true, and the case strong.
Rather used, as one of his sources, a couple of memos signed by Bush's squadron commander, Col. Killian, detailing Bush's violations.
Marion Carr Knox, Col. Killian's administrative assistant, said the contents of the memos were true, although she didn't remember typing them. It's possible Killian typed them himself, and Ms. Knox acknowledges she could have simply forgotten typing them.
A handwriting analyst confirmed that Killian's signatures on the memos were authentic.
As for special treatment? Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes admitted intervening to help young George get into the Texas Air National Guard (called the "champagne unit" because so many children of privilege found their way into it as a way to avoid the Vietnam war) at the request of George Senior.
When young George went to Alabama, he claimed to have fulfilled his military obligation with a Guard unit there. Yet there is no record of him ever attending a Guard meeting. Moreover, George senior asked some old friends - Linda and Jimmy Allen - to keep their eye on young George, and Linda said that to her knowledge, he never went to a National Guard base or wore a uniform.
Ms. Allen told Salon, that while she saw no evidence that he was involved with the Guard in any way, she did remember him drinking to excess, urinating on a car, screaming at police and trashing the apartment he had rented.
Right wing attack squads seized on one of the sources - Killian's documents detailing the charges - and claimed they were forgeries. Their only "proof" that they were phony-that the margin justification and superscripts used in the memos were not available back then -turned out to be completely wrong. Several electric typewriters of that era had both capabilities.
The preponderance of evidence suggests Rather got the story right, even if the documents aren't used as evidence. It shows that the contents of the documents were true, but it also suggests the documents were authentic. Indeed, Blumenthal's case is so strong, you come away believing that even if the documents had been forged, Rather's story stands as accurate based on corroborating information. It's also hard not to believe that there's been something close to a conspiracy of silence on the part of the MSM, and an abject caving to power and cover up by CBS.
Nevertheless, no one fought back, and the forgery charges stuck.
So once again, we have a story with profoundly serious accusations that was de-railed by righteous indignation from the rightwing echo chamber. Somehow, an accusation (quite possibly a false one) aimed at Rather and his CBS team, made the rest of the story simply evaporate. In fact, while the press promptly dropped the Guard story, the issue of Rather's handling of the story rattled around in the press for weeks.
It's as if the entire MSM headlined "DOG BITES MAN" for weeks on end, while they ignored a story about a guy who was running around the country biting dogs in broad daylight. You get the sense that if deepthroat called a reporter today offering a tip, the editors would have insisted that they hang up on him and write a story on bad sourcing.
Now, which is more important: whether the President of the United States is lying about matters directly relevant to his credibility and his fitness to serve as commander in chief, or whether one out of several proofs of this behavior might (or might not) be phony?
Remember, this is a man who called himself a "war president," a man who sent young men and women off to war on a pack of lies and deceptions with no compunction, and a man who used fear and intimidation as key parts of his campaign strategy.
If it became widely known that Bush used privilege to avoid the Vietnam War (a war he supported - provided, apparently, that other people fought in it) then failed to fulfill his duty - probably to avoid drug tests - it would have almost certainly altered the election.
But the press dropped it, and the Dems cowered before the right wing assault on what amounted to a mere sideshow to these major issues. Yokels indeed.
Fast forward to today. How does the MSM respond to Rather's suit? As if it were the courageous act of a dedicated reporter trying to get to the bottom of a critically important story that had been wrongfully suppressed?
No, they portray it as the act of an egomaniac or attempt to diminish it with fake pity, paying absolutely no attention to the critically substantive issues it raises - issues that have hung out there unaddressed for more than three years now.
If this confirms that the Democrats are pathetic cowards, it also tells us a great deal about the press. They've simply stopped performing the task our Founders envisioned for them when they provided First Amendment protections - informing the people and holding the privileged and powerful accountable.
The Death of Truth and the Wages of Cowardice
Why has the press abrogated this responsibility? Because they've become one of the powerful elite. Because they've shifted from a profession operating according to an ethical canon, to a business driven only by a bottom line. Because they've aligned themselves with the Republican Party's corporatization of America.
The press won't rescue itself - but the Dems can confront this kind of demagoguery by standing on principle.
They can quit trying to be all things to all people, and stand up to the bathroom bully.
They can refuse to let Chuckles the Clown fool them and the American people by taking strong, clear stands on issues of substance, and insist that those issues be addressed, instead of mumbling dried out mush, spoon fed by inside- the-beltway consultants designed to say nothing and offend no one.
It's not like that strategy has worked for them. They've lost two consecutive presidential elections they should have won by replacing their values with cowardly "consultant speak."
Only the Republican's dishonesty and gross incompetence allowed them to win the 2006 mid-terms.
And now, the only thing less popular than Bush is a Congress dominated by spinmeisters, consultants and cowards who are once again advocating this losing strategy of saying nothing, offending no one, and holding no public principles other than the most smarmy inanities and cynically calculated positions defined by polls.
And so we have a Congress swooning in front of metals, uniforms, and stars like a high school girl at a Justin Timberlake concert, afraid to withhold funding to end Bush's Iraq folly, afraid to put impeachment "on the table," afraid to assert their Constitutional responsibilities on Iran, afraid , afraid, afraid.
And we have an MSM allowing a distinguished journalist to get mugged by right wing wackos over mere trivialities, and worse, joining in on the mugging the second time around when they had a shot at redemption.
Meanwhile, issues of vital import to our nation get swept under the rug.
And it goes well beyond Rather and MoveOn.
Basically, Pelosi Reid and crew are doing what Dems have always done: folding like an accordion at a polka festival.
No wonder the Republican charge of being weak on defense sticks. When we quake in corners afraid of name-calling and drop our principles quicker than a geek gives up his lunch money we reinforce that stereotype.
No wonder the MSM can get away with substituting "balance" for truth, "fairness" for accuracy, as they pursue corporate-will-to power and profit over public interest. When the Dems cower and pander, there's no one to stop them.
Pundits are saying it would be nearly impossible for the Democrats to lose the 2008 elections - but don't underestimate their ability to fold a winning hand. Mumbled mush and political cowardice have enabled them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before, and judging by their performance over the past few weeks, they're well on their way again.