SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

"THERE IS NO CRACK"

The Democratic leadership’s hesitant response to Russ Feingold’s call to censure Bush is disappointing, but not surprising (as usual, Mr. Joementum outdid his Democratic colleagues with his claim that coming out against the President’s law-breaking and keeping America safe and free are somehow mutually exclusive). Same goes for the Republican leadership’s ostensible apoplexy. The Republican reaction is more memorable though. As easy as it is these days to become numb to flag-waiving and treason-baiting in response to criticism and defense of the indefensible, Bill Frist’s words are worth remembering:

here we are, the Republican Party, the leadership in the Congress, supporting the President of the United States as Commander in Chief, who is out there fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the people who have sworn, have sworn to destroy Western civilization and all the families listening to us. And they’re out now attacking, at least today, through this proposed censure vote, out attacking our Commander in Chief…

As I was listening to it, I was hoping deep inside that the leadership in Iran and other people who really have the U.S. not in their best interests, were not listening because of the terrible, terrible signal it sends…the signal that it sends that there is in any way a lack of support for our Commander in Chief, who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that we know is making our homeland safer is wrong. And it sends a perception around the world and, again, that’s why I’m saying as leader at least of the Republican side of this equation, that it’s wrong, because leadership around the world of our sworn enemies are going to say, well, now we have a little crack there. There is no crack. The American people are solidly behind this president in conducting this war on terror.

What Frist is suggesting, in no uncertain terms, is that the military strength of this country and the political strength of its President are inseparable. He’s willfully grafting the President onto the nation and the military as parts of a single coherent whole which all Americans are obligated to defend and support against those who would oppose it. Such logic – attack the President, attack America – makes loyal opposition a theoretical impossibility and makes American patriotism and Republican partisanship synonymous. There are names for an ideology that admits no distinction between the leader, the people, the military, and the nation. But it’s so twentieth century.

As Feingold said today:

Even more troubling than the arguments the President has made is what he relies on to make them convincing – the credibility of the office of the President itself. He essentially argues that the American people should trust him simply because of the office he holds. But Presidents don’t serve our country by just asking for trust, they must earn that trust, and they must tell the truth. This President hides behind flawed legal arguments, and even behind the office he holds, but he cannot hide from what he has created: nothing short of a constitutional crisis. The President has violated the law, and Congress must respond.

THE WEEK IN FEARING FEAR ITSELF

Big week on the not-trampling-over-all-of-our-values-and-freedoms-in-the-same-of-security front. I’m skeptical of how much difference the McCain ammendment committing us not to torture will make on the ground, but it’s a good sign that even after sending Dick Cheney out of his undisclosed location and onto Capitol Hill, Bush wasn’t able to keep Congressional Republicans on the reservation (the anti-anti-torture reservation, that is). The ultimate result, in which Bush met McCain much further than halfway from his original “waterboarding is freedom” position, shows him to be a weakened President and puts this nation back on record against willfully inflicting abusive pain on prisoners. The urgency of the issue, and the limitations of legal language like McCain’s in addressing it, are reinforced in Human Rights Watch’s announcement today on pervasive torture in secret US-operated foreign prisons:

Eight detainees now held at Guantánamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap, heavy metal music, or other sounds blared for weeks at a time. The detainees offer consistent accounts about the facility, saying that U.S. and Afghan guards were not in uniform and that U.S. interrogators did not wear military attire, which suggests that the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency…Some detainees said they were shackled in a manner that made it impossible to lie down or sleep, with restraints that caused their hands and wrists to swell up or bruise. The detainees said they were deprived of food for days at a time, and given only filthy water to drink. The detainees also said that they were held incommunicado and never visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent officials.

This “dark prison” report follows Friday’s New York Times revelation that President Bush has been authorizing the NSA to spy on Americans without even going through the secret courts designed for the purpose, which should shake any confidence one might have that better laws will fully set this administration straight. Bush apparently believes that he is authorized to personally designate Americans as surveillance targets based on the congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war in Afghanistan.

That Congress showed much less deference on Friday, when Bill Frist could only muster 52 votes for cloture on the Conference Committee’s version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, which took out all the civil liberties protections that Russ Feingold and others managed to get into the version passed unanimously by the Senate. In a striking victory for sensible privacy protections over fear-mongering, Feingold, Leahy, and company have kept the Senate from approving the Conference Committee Draft. It’s also a huge victory for Feingold personally, who has gone from being the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act to leading a charge to continue debate on the bill which saw more Republicans cross over to oppose cloture than Democrats crossing over to support it. Looks like the Democratic leadership, rather than marginalizing him, is now trying to pull him into the party establishment, handing him a seat on the Intelligence Commission.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, made the news for her own sorry contribution to the discourse on patriotism and freedom: a proposal to ban flag-burning. Hers is ostensibly a compromise position in that it’s a bill rather than a constitutional amendment, and it only applies on public property or when someone is intimidated. But legitimating speech restrictions based on how uncomfortable the speech makes other people feel makes a mockery of free speech. She should know better.

"A REGULAR THING FOR ME"

“Not an intentional attempt to change the nation.”

That’s Bill Frist’s ahistorical description of Rosa Parks’ December 1, 1955 civil disobedience. I take on this and a few other peculiar gems of punditry on her life in an article for Campus Progress on-line here:

Unfortunately, much of what’s been said by politicians or journalists has been deeply misleading or flat-out false. It’s reinforced the 50-year-old myth that Parks was an apolitical woman who one day ambled into history out of simple physical exhaustion and then promptly ambled back out of it again. Such a myth only encourages needless knee-jerk skepticism of contemporary activists who are public about strong political convictions, work through political organizations, and formulate careful media strategies – all of which describe the real Rosa Parks, not the Rosa Parks most Americans remember.

More on this here and here.

SEPARATED AT BIRTH, REUNITED AT THE FIRST DEBATE?

My hard-core jealousy of the people of Wisconsin for having the representation of Russ Feingold (D-WI) is no secret here. Neither is my (significantly diminished for ’08 in light of his recent divorce news, but still springing eternal) hope to see him run for President. If somehow he did seize that nomination, there’s a decent chance he’d be squaring off against another Senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS), who in the wake of Bill Frist’s filibuster semi-implosion and Rick Santorum’s likely ’06 defeat has an excellent claim to the loyalties of religious conservatives. A Feingold-Brownback face-off would be a delight to watch, not only because we would win, but because it would provide a real clash of alternative visions and ideologies which, if you haven’t noticed, is not the main thing for which US Presidential elections are famous. But it would also be memorable (remember, you heard it hear first) for another striking but as-yet un-remarked upon (until now) reason.

Russ Feingold and Sam Brownback look like the same person.

That’s right. What they lack in ideological similarity, they make up in similar appearance. Sam Brownback looks like a slightly more awkward, slightly less attractive Russ Feingold.

Don’t believe me? Decide for yourself:

Feingold and Brownback: You can tell their abortion stances apart – unlike their har-cuts. Just remember: You saw it here first.

The right has been heaping outrage on Senator Durbin for saying this Tuesday night about an FBI account of torture at Guantanamo Bay:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, this is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course. The President could declare the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the war on terrorism. He could declare, as he should that the United States will not, under any circumstances, subject any detainee to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

It’s a shame that President Bush, Senator Frist, and the Right-Wing Blogospheric Noise Machine can’t summon the same level of outrage they’ve mustered over Durbin’s comments over the account he read in the paragraph before – or the countless others like it:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold…On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been ssince the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

You won’t find that paragraph, unfortunately, in the news accounts of the latest from the GOP’s manufactured outrage machine. And don’t hold your breath for a word from Bush or Frist this week to condemn the use of starving and freezing as interrogation techniques.

Instead, they’re accusing Senator Durbin of comparing all of America’s servicemen and servicewomen to Nazis, a charge as willfully inaccurate as Frist’s claim that Durbin called Guanatanamo a “death camp” (that’s what happens when you get all of your news from the (Washington Times). While Durbin’s phrasing is awkward, his plain meaning is clearly not that America is a Nazi state but rather that torture is a practice which better befits an oppressive regime than the United States. Leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves, Durbin reminds us, is a violation of the values of this country. The obvious question, then, for Durbin’s critics is this: Do you see leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves as as expression of the values of this country. Only a truly perverse definition of patriotism would demand, when we see unamerican crimes perpetrated under the American flag, that we change our values as a country to justify our behavior rather than the other way around. There’s no need to mention Nazis in order to make this point. But there’s no justification for reading it as a smear of the US as Nazi Germany or men and women in the service as Nazis.

The latter – the accusation that Durbin attacked Americans in the military – is even more insidious than the accusation that he attacked America itself. The implication is that anyone who criticizes a policy military personnel carry out is expressing scorn, distrust, or murderous rage towards every American in the service (this is analagous to the strategy Thomas Frank documents in One Market Under God of dismissing criticisms of business as expressions of elitism towards the American consumer). It’s a strategy we saw in the Presidential debates, as Bush implied that criticism of our Iraq policy showed a lack of faith in our troops in Iraq. It’s a strikingly tendentious rhetorical move and a pox on a discourse we desperately need to be having as a nation.

Most of all, pretending to hear criticism of the policy as an attack on the troops is a show of incredible cowardice. Faced with much-deserved rhetorical volleys, George Bush is essentially dragging American soldiers in front of him as an unwitting buffer between himself and the rest of the American people. In this rhetorical draft, American soldiers are called to act as a symbolic first line of defense against justified outrage over the administration. Never mind the number of those soldiers and their families who share that outrage, or who have no interest in being drafted -voiceless – into ideological warfare on behalf of the chickenhawks and policies which lead to needless death. Critics of torture and critics of war are taking on our leaders, not our troops. That those leaders, rather than defending their choices, make a show of rising to defend the honor of the troops just shows how little shame they have.