THIS IS YOUR LIFE

There were a lot of spooky moments in the two presidential debates this week (“Mitt, you say you’ll protect us from the Hispanic invasion, but we caught you talking to Spanish-speakers! How can you defend yourself?”). The most spooky non-substantive part had to have been the moderators describing the “regular people” to themselves: “Your name is Josh Eidelson. You live in Sacramento. You have two siblings. You sometimes will eat a mango, dried mango, and mango sorbet in the same day. Is that right? And I hear you have a question for the candidates about taxes.”

It was a lot like those Sesame Street episodes where different kind of produce are on a talk show about how they were made.

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.

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

Quick take on tonight’s debate:

An underwhelming affair altogether. For a domestic policy debate, there were a fair number of non-domestic or non-policy questions. Kerry made the case for better homeland security well but didn’t go after Bush too strongly on creating a gigantic “tax gap” through tax cuts for the rich instead of paying for security for the rest of us. Reviving Bush’s quote about his lack of concern about bin Laden was a good move, and Bush’s description of the verbatim quote as an “exaggeration” was so obviously false even Fox News chose to air the original tape Kerry was quoting.

It was striking how eager Bush is to redirect all questions about the economy to the education issue, however dubious his record there. Funny how as a Republican he can get away with touting the spending increase as huge without drawing fire from the right and then turn around and charge those who push for more spending as tax-and-spend liberals. Kerry had a good line is saying the point wasn’t spending but rather results. But he seemed uncertain whether to tear into Bush on education, go back to the original question, or charge him with changing the topic – so he did a little bit of each. The politics are tricky, insofar as Bush is right that education’s key to improving living standards and growing the economy, and Kerry and most Americans agree. So making the case against Bush has to include his broken promises on education. But education doesn’t determine the health of the economy alone – taxes, trade, and the minimum wage are all crucial issues on which we deserve a real debate. Because as “compassionate” as re-training may sound, it offers more potential at the beginning of your career than towards the end. And because educated professionals are losing their jobs. And because we will never have an economy without a service sector or an industrial sector, and those jobs need to be dignified, living wage work. A minimum wage that’s half the poverty line if you’re supporting a kid is shameful. Also shameful is a government’s breach of faith with that parent and that child when it comes to funding education. By the way: Where was the right to organize in that debate? Why did unions only come up in terms of Kerry refusing to make promises to them?

On social issues, Bush was much more “wishy-washy” than Kerry, and more ambiguous than he should have gotten away with. Kerry’s failure to pin the Republican Platform’s call for a constitutional ban on abortion on Bush was a huge missed opportunity. His answer on abortion was better this time than the last debate though. On gay rights, Kerry’s saddled with his own bad policy of opposition to equal marraige rights, but at least managed to come down against the idea that gay folks just chose it. As for what they learned from their women, well, if the question had in fact been, as C-SPAN displayed it at first, “What have you learned about the women in your life?” it might have been more interesting.

Listening to last night’s Obama-Keyes debates, it seems clearer than ever how rhetorically effective, persuasive, and moving a consistent stance against the Iraq War can be, and how consistent with a clear commitment to defend Americans from real threats. Shame Kerry never got a chance to get some pointers from Obama on this…

Live-blogging the debate:

0:01 “A few” things is all you want to change about the PATRIOT ACT? Gonna be a long night…

0:03 Bush doesn’t see how you can lead this country if you change your mind…I think a lot of Americans are coming to realize you can’t lead the country so well if you never change your mind…

0:05 Touting that 75% of Al Qaeda leadership captured figure was probably more effective before Condi admitted we don’t know how many Al Qaeda leaders there are. That must be some amazing math…

0:06 “I wasn’t happy when we found out there wasn’t weapons there.” I understand, electorally, why that would be the case, but on some moral level, shouldn’t that be a relief?

0:09 No, he didn’t say “we must pass a global test before we use force” – he said we must pass one after we use force. Not much to tout from that first debate for you, is there?

0:10 Kerry appealing to what voters see about Iraq on TV is much more effective, somehow, than Bush appealing to what he sees about Iraq on TV…

0:13 Bush saying he’s more optimistic than Kerry about Iraq: Effective rhetoric. Bush saying Kerry’s copying his plan: Not so effective rhetoric.

0:15 “I’ve made some decisions that have caused people not to understand the great values of our country.” What? Whose fault would that be? I mean, is that just because the great values of our country are really hard to understand?

0:17 True, people love America who don’t like America’s decisions. That’s why so many of them are hoping Kerry wins. But doesn’t acknowledging the difference between criticism and America-hating remove one of your justifications for ignoring the criticism?

0:18 Calling Bush on broken promises from 2000: Key. Keep at it. And combining that with the firing dissenters angle is a key move too.

0:19 “The military’s job is to win the war. The President’s job is to win the peace.” Amen. Stick it to him for claiming criticizing the policy demoralizes the troops.

0:21 “…Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat,” is probably a poor turn of phrase after repeating that you agreed there was a threat.

0:22 Nuclear proliferation in Russia – hammer on this one. And commititng to halt any kind of development of any kind of weapon during a Presidential campaign is, to Kerry’s credit, a more courageous move than some Democratic Presidential nominees have made.

0:23 So now being a partner to the world, according to Bush, means renouncing nuclear aspirations. Someone should tell that to, I dunno, maybe President Bush…

0:26 “We need to be lighter and quicker and more facile.” More facile? Well, Bush is doing all he can for that goal…

0:27 OK, Kerry, we get that you’ve got a lot of military support…

0:28 Reagan’s foreign policy? Come on.

0:28 George Bush sure does love Poland. Which is heartwarming, especially now that they’ve said they’re backing out.

0:29 Anne is really excited to be at this debate. And not to have been attacked by terrorists.

0:30 “What was it, 1993 or so?” Way to make the Democratic Party’s job harder.

0:31 Slam him on saying tax cuts for the rich are more important than security for everyone. Clobber him. Please. Yes. Keep going.

0:32 “We’re doing everything we can to defend the homeland.” Really?

0:32 “If Iraq were to fail it would be a haven for terrorists.” As supposed to now, when it’s a, well, a…

0:34 “…the tax cut for the middle class.” First-class chutzpah. Did you just say you’re only concerned about working Americans being targeted by terrorists?

0:36 If Bush is for generic drugs, does that mean he’ll be reforming his AIDS policy?

0:37 “The President just didn’t level with you right here again.” Yes. “…into the pockets of the drug companies, right out of your pockets.” Yes.

0:38 Somehow, one President who managed to erode Medicare isn’t an impressive comparison to one Senator who didn’t completely positively transform the Medicare system.

0:41 Is there really polling out there that says that the only Doctors women are concerned about are OB/GYNs? Cause these two sure make it sound like it.

0:42 Did you just call him Senator Kennedy? Much like confusing Saddam and Osama – is this a screw-up or a subliminal message? Or maybe my reception just isn’t so good.

0:43 If “defensive medicine” means being extra careful to stay within regulations, maybe there are worse things Doctors could do.

0:44 Compassionate conservatives: Neither compassionate nor conservative. Disucss.

0:45 “We have a deficit.” How in touch of you. But wait – it’s all Bill Clinton and Osama 0bin Laden’s fault.

0:46 Bush citing today’s economic report? I come from the school of thought that calls that chutzpah (also the one that says if you want to increase demand by giving people money, it has to be the folks who are low-income enough to change consumption habits based on the extra money).

0:48 Kerry channels Robert Reich’s argument that real patriotism requires sacrifice. Or rather, he dances around it. So close…

0:50 Kerry calls Bush on the broken promise of $5 million jobs. And Enron. Nice.

0:51 Kerry’s long stare at the camera to promise never to raise taxes on folks making $199,000 a year, even if necessary to get healthcare for those making a hell of a lot less, is anything but comforting to me. And, I suspect, to a bunch of the low-income folks I registered this summer to vote.

0:54 Has Bush read the jobs report he’s citing?

0:55 Funny thing is, actually he did, by statistical fluke, get named the most liberal Senator because he missed so many votes.

0:56 Bush is actually citing the “Clear Skies Act” as if it helped, you know, clear skies. And now the “Healthy Forests Bill”! He should be slammed for this in, say, 30 seconds.

0:58 Instead, Kerry’s touting how many Republican/Clintonian things he voted for. Oy. Now he’s slamming him though. Somewhat.

0:59 “The halls of Europe”? Wonder what those look like.

1:01 “How can the US be competitive in manufacturing and maintain our standard of living?” “A reviewed, muscular, transnational labor movement.” Sorry – just fantasizing.

1:04 If anyone doubted that Bush’s plan is for the US to compete with third world dictatorships for deregulation and exploitation of labor, well, why did you ever doubt that?

1:05 I’d say “That’s news to me” is one of those expressions Bush should be careful about using, joke or not – it’s a little close to home.

1:06 I really, really wish that we had a Democratic candidate who could do more to comfort the man who’s worried about his rights being watered down than the incumbent is doing right now.

1:09 Well, this is a somewhat better answer on the PATRIOT ACT than we got from Kerry at the beginning. And good call on not letting terrorists re-write the constitution. But when you mention Dick Durbin, my main thought is, “Shouldn’t he (or, say, Barack Obama) be running for President?”

1:11 “Parapeligic” shouldn’t be such a hard word for Kerry to say. But framing the research as a sign of respect for life is a good, George-Lakoff-approved move.

1:13 “Science is important, but so is ethics.” Since when is that the choice?

1:16 If by “allowing personal opinion to enter into constitutional process,” you mean allowing the constitution to enter into the constitutional process, then yes?

1:17 Dred Scott? Newdow is our generation’s Dred Scott? Screw you. And sorry to break it to you, Mr. President, but the mid-nineteenth century constitution wasn’t exactly ideal when it comes to equal rights for African-Americans. Nice to hear Bush doesn’t actually think property rights always have to trump human liberty though.

1:20 Good that Kerry’s tying abortion to class and to international family planning. Don’t particularly need him or his wife counseling me out of abortion.

1:21 If by “reduce the number of abortions in America,” you mean reduce access to safe and legal abortion, then yeah.

1:23 When Kerry explains the problem with Bush’s argument, and Bush responds by saying it’s actually simple and not responding to the criticism, I wouldn’t say straight-shooter is the term that comes to mind.

1:24 Is Bush’s biggest mistake an appointment he made?

1:25 So now, contra Cheney, there may have been little military mistakes made – they’re just not that important.

1:26 And it was apparently a mistake to appoint people principled enough to call him out on his mistakes.

1:27 Ah, the $87 billion. How we’ve missed hearing about it.

1:28 “He wants you kids to pay for it. I wanted us to pay for it.” True that.

1:29 Please don’t screw this up, John.

1:31 Well, no memorable sound bytes in that one for us or for them. And “respected at home and stronger in the world” still makes me groan. But optimism is recommendable.

1:33 Nothing so memorable from Bush’s closing either. Fitting, maybe, for a debate which had fewer “moments” than the two before or, likely, than the last one next week. My immediate reaction is that Bush failed to halt Kerry’s momentum going in. Bush was certainly much, much better than the last time – meaning he wasn’t a train wreck. But Kerry did more to respond to his opponent’s arguments, and to the audience’s questions, than Bush, and did so more effectively. Still, he missed a good share of opportunities – or dropped them half-way. And my last question before signing off would have to be: Right now, walking off the stage, is this the first time in the campaign that Bush is walking into a crowd he couldn’t vet first?

As I see it, what Kerry needs to do tonight is call George Bush more strongly than ever on his out-of-touch mentality and non-starter agenda on the economy, healthcare, housing, homeland security, and foreign policy (really shouldn’t be hard to do given the mountains of evidence and the damning lived experience of Americans, so he better not screw it up), and connect personally with the voters in the room and thus vicariously with the ones on TV (doesn’t seem to be his strong suit, but I’m rooting for him).

Good news is, Bush can’t just make hopeful, earnest promises this time around. Unless, that is, he manages to convince America that he’s been born again again since the last debate, and so his record from his first term, like the way he spent the early part of his life, is off-limits. I honestly think a partial acknowledgement of some mistakes, domestically or abroad, would humanize Bush and pull some of his 2000 supporters back onto the reservation. But his strategists, based on the two debates so far, seem to think that would bring down the whole house of cards. So his marching orders seem to be denying all errors and pinning all problems on terrorism or Clinton. Which offers some great opportunities to John Kerry to take him down – if he knows how to use them.