"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.

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This is what we’ve been reduced to? Osama bin Laden cares what happens in Iraq, and so those of us who aren’t fans of Osama bin Laden should support the continuation of the same broken policy? If Bush is going to quote bin Laden as the man best suited to explain why we should stay in Iraq, he could at least offer the whole quote:

I now address my speech to the whole of the Islamic nation: Listen and understand. The issue is big and the misfortune is momentous. The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate. The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation. The nation today has a very rare opportunity to come out of the subservience and enslavement to the West and to smash the chains with which the Crusaders have fettered it.

Shouldn’t be a surprise, even to the folks in the Pentagon and the think tanks who planned this war, that Osama bin Laden sees it as a fantastic opportunity to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims and recruit more jihadists. The question is why we gave it to him. And to answer by quoting bin Laden, with the implication that the world, or at least the American political scene is divided between backers of Bush and backers of bin Laden, only compounds the outrageousness.

Shorter Bush Press Conference:

Question: How can Russia become more democratic?

Bush: Putin should have supported the war in Iraq. Also, the WTO.

Question: What does Rumsfeld have to do to rebuild trust?

Bush: Nothing.

Question: What did you learn from Bernard Kerik’s failed nomination as Secretary of Homeland Security?

Bush: He would have been an awesome Secretary of Homeland Security.

Question: Why are Americans so anxious about your plans in Iraq:

Bush: It’s those Iraqi troops’ fault for running off the battlefield whenever things get tough. Also, the media for some reason seems to think that bombings are more newsworthy than small businesses.

Question: Some people are worried that your social security plan will force millions of Americans to retire into poverty. What’s the deal?

Bush: Keep in mind, I also wannt to strip your right to sue big business and shut down more schools for getting low test scores. As for social security, don’t bother trying to trick me into telling you what my plan is. For now, I’m just focusing on whipping the public into unsubstantiated panic. And keep in mind, FDR is dead.

Question: How many more Christmases are American troops going to have to spend in Iraq?

Bush: I’m too clever to set policy goals that’ll you’ll just turn around and criticize me for when I abjectly fail to meet them. Also, I know how to use the expression “in toto.”

Question: What are you going to do about Iran and North Korea?

Bush: Saddam Hussein, he was a bad guy. He violated a lot of UN resolutions.

Question: Why don’t you veto some of these spending bills?

Bush: Because I told Congress what to put in them.

Question: Whose benefits are secure?

Bush: Killing Social Security would be a lot easier if those old people didn’t keep getting so panicked. It’s not their checks I want to reneg on – just everybody else’s.

Question: How is it no one seems to agree with your immigration plan?

Bush: I know immigration. I was Governor of Texas.

Question: Where the hell is Osama bin Laden? And what’s with the violations of international law at Guantanamo Bay?

Bush: Well, we’ve killed a bunch of people other than Osama bin Laden. And clearly the world community isn’t paying enough attention to our Supreme Court decision.

Question: Why doesn’t Rumsfeld sign condolence letters to the families of troops he’s sending to get killed?

Bush: I know he seems gruff, but believe me he’s a real teddy bear inside.

Question: How did the war in Iraq affect prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Bush: Everybody’s got a lot of responsibilities. Also, Yasser Arafat and Colin Powell are both out of the picture now. Now, on to high school football…

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.

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?

Some quick thoughts on the debate, before hearing many talking heads:

I thought John Kerry did a very, very strong job. He managed to appear erudite but not snotty and resolute but not haughty. He even smiled and laughed a little. He managed to repeatedly hammer home a few points (more of which I agree with than not) without sounding repetitive: The war on terror shouldn’t be fought and won’t be won alone. Hussein was a threat based faced by the President with the support of Congress and the international community, and Bush misused the former and squandered the latter. Iraq wasn’t central to the War on Terror until Bush made it a training ground for terrorists. Being resolute isn’t enough if you aren’t right. Screwing up the war is worse than screwing up the words. Bush has been crimminally negligent in shoring up Homeland Security and fighting nuclear proliferation. Of course, I would have liked to see Kerry taking a stronger, more progressive stance on Iraq going back years now, I’d like to see him fighting harder for an immigration policy which doesn’t treat immigrants as terrorists, I’d like to hear more about fighting terrorism by fighting poverty, about AIDS as a threat to international security – the list goes on. But this was a much stronger case for Kerry as commander-in-chief than we got at the Convention, and I think a good chunk of the genuinely undecided will agree.

The best I could say for Bush is he certainly managed to project a sense of sincerity. Arguing that your opponent is a flip-flopper packs a lot less punch in real time in a debate than in retrospect in a newspaper article. And he didn’t find many particularly creative ways to say so. While Bush argued hard (and seemingly unnecessarily) for the chance to rebut several of Kerry’s rebuttals, much of the time it was to dodge the actual question. We heard the word liberty a lot from Bush, but we didn’t get much of a case for his presidency and we got less of a plan for it. And the outrageous moments were hard to count: Bush repeatedly implying that criticizing military policy during war disqualifies you to set it; Bush arguing that protecting America as well as Kerry wants to would be too expensive; Bush confusing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (isn’t that why they rehearse); every cut away of Bush smirking or looking petulant.