Here are a couple of editorials that ought to be read together. The first is in today’s Baltimore Sun —
Having refused for three years to try to come up with any actual constructive ideas about the war in Iraq, congressional leaders last week chose to put the enduring conflict smack in the center of the coming election campaign. Jeering at “cut-and-run” Democrats, the Republicans placed their confidence in a formula that would keep American soldiers in the deepening quagmire — indefinitely.
There it is: their strategy for victory.
How many times have we heard that the Democrats have no proposals for dealing with Iraq? Yet the Sun is right — the GOP has no idea what to do about Iraq, other than use it as a wedge issue.
Of course, as far as the Right is concerned, just having U.S. troops fighting in Iraq is all the plan they need. We’re bound to achieve “victory” eventually if we have enough faith.
The maneuvering in the Capitol on Thursday and Friday was shameless and pandering, but at least it puts Iraq on the table for the voters to think about. The last elections, in 2004, came when it seemed to some that things could still be turned around, given a little patience. Two years later, with no significant progress, Americans’ patience has about run out.
Yet the Republicans are still using Iraq as a wedge to split Democrats —
… the country, after all this time, deserves a real debate, not the lugubrious emoting that went on in Congress last week. The Republicans there were feeling their oats, because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bogeyman of Baghdad, had been whacked with a half-ton of explosives, because President Bush had spent five hours in Baghdad and come away confident that the Iraqi government was going to come up with a plan, and because that government itself has finally been formed just six short months after elections.
The House and Senate, as expected, rejected any sort of timetable for withdrawal. A plausible argument could be made that such an approach is not the best way to extract U.S. troops from Iraq, but plausible arguments were not what congressional Republicans were about. If there’s a better way to get out of Iraq and leave the country in some sort of stable shape, they should be talking to Americans about it. … If the Republicans think that doing nothing different is a good strategy, let’s talk about that, too.
The Sun is right; the Dems should be challenging the Republicans on Iraq and demanding they trot out ideas for dealing with it.
The second editorial is in today’s Los Angeles Times.
On Friday, the House, by a 256-153 vote, approved a nonbinding resolution opposing an “arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment.” During debate, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill) dusted off the specious connection between Iraq and 9/11, piously pleading with his colleagues to “show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93, the same sense of duty as the first responders who headed up the stairs of the twin towers.” For its part, the Pentagon unwisely provided members with “rapid-response talking points” that sounded more like a stump speech than a military reference work.
The President himself is taking (for him) a softer tone —
The commander in chief, meanwhile, appears to recognize that being too triumphalist and partisan could undermine support for his stated intention of reducing U.S. forces gradually as the Iraqi government takes over more responsibility for security.
This is standard operating procedure for the Bushies. Although last week’s maneuvers to paint the Dems as wusses on the war was no doubt orchestrated by the White House — Karl’s gettin’ feisty now that he no longer has a threat of indictment hanging over his head — it’s essential that the President appears to be above it all.
In his homecoming news conference last week, Bush sent mixed signals about whether he understands that public impatience with the U.S. presence in Iraq threatens his stated goal there: to help Iraq “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself” and become “an ally in the war on terror.” On the one hand, he said, “success in Iraq depends upon the Iraqis.” Yet he also suggested that Iraq was so crucial to the war on terror that it could not be left to the Iraqis, at least not yet. “If we fail in Iraq, it’s going to embolden Al Qaeda types,” he said. There is, to put it mildly, a tension between those two statements.
Yes, and let’s see the Dems capitalize on that. Let’s see the Dems take the GOP smear campaign and shove it back in their faces.
Behind the New York Times firewall, Frank Rich writes [UPDATE: Here’s a public link to the article at True Blue Liberal],
Polls last week showed scant movement in either the president’s approval rating (37 percent in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released on Wednesday night) or that of the war (53 percent deem it a mistake). On NBC Tim Russert listed Mr. Bush’s woes: “Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.” Americans pick Iraq as the most pressing national issue, 21 points ahead of immigration, the runner-up. They find the war so dispiriting that the networks spend less and less time covering it. Had the much-hyped Alberto roused itself from tropical storm to hurricane, Mr. Bush’s Baghdad jaunt would have been bumped for the surefire Nielsen boost of tempest-tossed male anchors emoting in the great outdoors.
All of which makes it stupendously counterintuitive that the Republican campaign strategy for 2006 is to run on the war. But there was Karl Rove, freshly released from legal jeopardy, proposing exactly that in a speech just before the president’s trip. In a drive-by Swift Boating, he portrayed John Kerry and John Murtha, two decorated Vietnam veterans calling for an expedited exit from Iraq, as cowards who exemplify their party’s “old pattern of cutting and running.”
Rich points out that Karl is working from exactly the same playbook he was using back in 2002. But in 2002, Bush’s approval ratings were sky-high, and in the four years since the American public learned the hard way that Bush can’t be trusted. Why isn’t Karl adjusting the playbook?
One explanation might be that he thinks his team can still keep the ball by running the old plays, because the Dems still haven’t developed much in the way of a defense. Although individual Dems have taken firm positions on Iraq, the party as a whole is all over the map and can’t agree on anything approximating a united counter-strategy. Rich continues,
While the Democrats dither about Iraq, you can bet that the White House will ambush them with its own election-year facsimile of an exit strategy, dangling nominal troop withdrawals as bait for voters. To sweeten the pot, it could push Donald Rumsfeld to join Mr. DeLay in retirement. Since Republicans also vilify the defense secretary’s incompetence, his only remaining value to the White House is as a political pawn that Mr. Rove can pluck from the board at the most advantageous moment. October, perhaps?
â€œAn opening now exists, as it hasnâ€™t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries,â€ writes Michael Tomasky, the editor of The American Prospect, in the magazineâ€™s May 3 issue. â€œTo seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differentlyâ€”to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.â€
A narrative is more than a bulleted list of policy proposals. A narrative is a story. A narrative puts policy in the context of history. And stories are often saturated with mythos — traditional beliefs and notions accumulated about a particular subject. The Republican mythos about Democrats and liberals is that they don’t know how to fight bad things, like Communism, crime, and terrorism. They don’t seem to understand how dangerous these bad things are. They raise taxes to ruinous degrees and throw money at expensive social programs that only make [mostly black and brown] people lazy. They are impractical and snooty and don’t love America/children/God as much as normal folks do.
Ann Coulter’s whole shtick is the Republican mythos. She has become the perfect reflection and embodiment of the mythos, like a priestess who gives voice to the pure and undiluted narratives of her tribe.
This mythos has been so thoroughly internalized by much of the American public that it doesn’t have to be spelled out in Republican narratives. Dennis Hastert merely has to evoke the memory of Flight 96 to conjure the lore of weak and wussy liberals who don’t know how to fight. This mythos is so hardwired into American brains that a baby-faced pudge like Karl Rove can tell Republicans audiences that Democrats are wussy and soft, and the audience can’t see what a joke that is coming from Karl.
Frank Rich continues,
What’s most impressive about Mr. Rove, however, is not his ruthlessness, it’s his unshakable faith in the power of a story. The story he’s stuck with, Iraq, is a loser, but he knows it won’t lose at the polls if there’s no story to counter it. And so he tells it over and over, confident that the Democrats won’t tell their own. And they don’t â€” whether about Iraq or much else. The question for the Democrats is less whether they tilt left, right or center, than whether they can find a stirring narrative that defines their views, not just the Republicans’.
Rich also links to Michael Tomasky:
What’s needed, wrote Michael Tomasky in an influential American Prospect essay last fall, is a “big-picture case based on core principles.” As he argued, Washington’s continued and inhumane failure to ameliorate the devastation of Katrina could not be a more pregnant opportunity for the Democrats to set forth a comprehensive alternative to the party in power. Another opportunity, of course, is the oil dependence that holds America hostage to the worst governments in the Middle East.
Instead the Democrats float Band-Aid nostrums and bumper-sticker marketing strategies like “Together, America Can Do Better.” As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, “The very ungrammaticality of the Democrats’ slogan reminds you that this is a party with a chronic problem of telling a coherent story about itself, right down to an inability to get its adverbs and subjects to agree.” On Wednesday Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were to announce their party’s “New Direction” agenda â€” actually, an inoffensive checklist of old directions (raise the minimum wage, cut student loan costs, etc.) â€” that didn’t even mention Iraq. Symbolically enough, they had to abruptly reschedule the public unveiling to attend Mr. Bush’s briefing on his triumphant trip to Baghdad.
Talking points alone are not enough. Agendas are not enough. George Lakoff’s “framing” technique, with which I essentially agree, is not enough, either. And it may be that standing up to Bush and the wingnuts is not enough, either, as long as their stories are better than ours. But it’s a start.