THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

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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.

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.

THE WRONG WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.

As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.

That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.

A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.

What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.