Monday, March 10, 2008

The Weapon of the Enemy

Fear was the year's biggest crop. It hung from the fruit trees instead of apples and peaches, and bees made fear instead of honey. In the paddies, fear grew thickly beneath the surface of the shallow water, and in the saffron fields, fear like bindweed strangled the delicate plants. Fear clogged the rivers like water hyacinth, and sheep and goats in the high pastures died for no apparent reason. -- Salman Rushdie

The Galadriel Test
Late in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo offers the Ring of Sauron to the beautiful elf queen Galadriel. Tempted, she conjures a vision of herself becoming as great and terrible as the Dark Lord himself. Using the power of the One Ring, she could rule Middle Earth instead of joining her people's retreat to the Havens in the West. "All shall love me and despair!" she prophesies. But then, temptation conquered, she refuses Frodo's offer. The weapon of the Enemy, she realizes, cannot be used for good. "I will diminish," she accepts, "and go into the West, and remain Galadriel."

Two weeks ago, reeling from a dozen consecutive losses in primaries and caucuses across the country, Hillary Clinton faced the likelihood that she would diminish, go back to the Senate, and never become president. Instead of accepting that fate, she chose to use the weapon that the Republicans rode to victory in 2002 and 2004, and hope to use again in 2008: Fear.

Her ad Children, though not nearly as overt as the Wolves ad Bush ran in 2004, carried the same message: The world is a scary place, so you don't dare risk change. You need someone safe and familiar in the White House. (Arianna Huffington characterized it as "making no real argument about preparedness to lead, only the shadowy insinuation that bad things will happen to your kids if you vote for Obama.") Clinton coupled this ad with a new low in rhetoric: She praised John McCain over Barack Obama. She and McCain, Clinton said, have the experience to be commander-in-chief. Obama, she implied, does not.

I'll let Gary Hart explain why you don't unfavorably compare a rival in your own party to the other party's nominee. But why shouldn't Clinton -- or any Democrat -- invoke fear? It's a good question, and (despite a good response by DailyKos' Bob Johnson), I'd like to take my own crack at answering it.

Sometimes things get clearer as they recede into the past. Let's go back to the 1996 State of the Union address, when Bill Clinton was gearing up for his re-election campaign. The big sound bite from that speech was: "The era of big government is over." It was a very well-written and well-delivered line, Clinton got some good press out of it, and of course he beat Bob Dole in the fall. But the Republicans held on to both houses of Congress and even increased their majority in the Senate by two seats. Any hope of progressive legislation in Clinton's final term was dead.

Why did that happen? Well, the phrase big government means more than the dictionary would have you believe. Republicans had been working on that phrase for decades, so by 1996 it evoked an entire picture: wasteful spending, lazy bureaucrats, welfare cheaters, and red tape that makes sure nothing is ever accomplished. When the leader of your party starts talking about big government, you can't segue into advocating national health insurance, it gets very hard to explain why you don't want to privatize Social Security, and you can't defend the kind of regulations that might have avoided the Enron debacle or today's subprime mortgage mess. With the progressive agenda off the table, it became hard to explain why voters should cast a ballot for any Democrat other than Bill Clinton.

That's what Hillary is setting us up for in the fall. "National security will be front and center in this election," she announced. "We all know that." Do we? Maybe by November the recession will be front and center, or the tumbling of dominoes in our banking system. Maybe it will be the trillions of dollars we're wasting in Iraq, or the tens of millions of Americans with no health insurance. Maybe our government's illegal spying. Maybe the environment. Maybe our energy policy. Maybe another bridge or two will have collapsed and our neglected infrastructure will be front and center. If the public is paying attention to any of those issues, not only will a Democrat win the presidency, but we'll toss out a lot of those Republicans who went to the Senate during the first fear campaign in 2002.

The only chance that McCain and the Republicans have is to make this a one-issue election, framed exactly the way Clinton is framing it now: Who's going to protect your children from the evil-doers? And the Republicans won't stop with the suggestion that you want someone safe and familiar (like all their incumbent senators), they're going to ask: "Who's willing to do whatever it takes?" Who's willing to torture? to gut the Constitution? to spy without warrants? to stretch our military to the breaking point? to attack more countries that haven't threatened us -- but might sometime in the future? They're going to tell you that any Democrat who isn't willing to do those things isn't serious about protecting your children. Democratic congressmen who are (for the moment) standing firm against telecom immunity are probably already wondering what will happen to them if Clinton gets nominated and keeps echoing the Republican fear-rhetoric.

If enough free-floating dread gets generated, it might save my senator here in New Hampshire, John Sununu, who is well behind in the polls. It might save New Mexico's Pete Domenici, Minnesota's Norm Coleman, Alaska's Ted Stevens, and all the other endangered Republicans.

The weapon of the enemy has been carefully forged to achieve the enemy's purposes, whoever wields it. Galadriel understood that. If only the Clintons understood it too.

The Art of the Empty Scandal
In the days leading up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, I kept hearing about Obama's "ties" to a shady businessman named Tony Rezko, whose trial for something-or-other started that Monday. But the stories never spelled out exactly what Obama was supposed to have done, so I made a mental note to check it out before writing this week's Sift. As so often happens when I make such notes, Glenn Greenwald beat me to it:
I spent several hours yesterday morning reading every "Rezko" article I could find in an attempt to understand as much as possible about the allegations. The point isn't that there is no credible evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Obama, although that's unquestionably true. It's far beyond that. There aren't even any theoretical allegations or suggestions as to what he might have done wrong at all. ... The only substantive connections Obama and Rezko have is that the latter was a contributor to Obama's campaign and was a partner in a standard residential real-estate purchase which nobody suggests, at least in terms of Obama's conduct, was anything but above-board.

... It's precisely the empty nature of the "scandal" that makes it impossible to resolve. The more he addresses it, the more he fuels it; conversely, the more he refuses to address it, the more he will be accused of "stonewalling" and not being forthcoming. It's just illusory innuendo that, by design, can never be satisfactorily addressed because nobody can ever apprehend what the substance of the "scandal" is.
Glenn compares this to the Clinton Whitewater "scandal" which was investigated to death by Ken Starr without any charges being brought. The Clintons were never even accused of profiting, yet the term Whitewater appeared in countless news articles as if it referred to some specific accusation of corruption on their part.

Glenn references a Digby post that explains what empty scandals all have in common:
They are based on complicated details that make the casual reader's eyes glaze over and about which the subject has to issue long confusing explanations in return. They feature colorful and unsavory political characters in some way. They ... tend to be written in such a way as to say that even if they aren't illegal they "look bad." The underlying theme is hypocrisy because the subjects are portrayed as making a dishonest buck while pretending to represent the average working man. Oh, and they always feature a Democrat. Republicans are not subject to such scrutiny because a craven, opportunistic Republican isn't "news." (Neat trick huh?)

No single story will bring down a candidate because they have no substance to them. It's the combined effect they are looking for to build a sense [of] overall sleaziness. "Where there's smoke there's fire" right?
Glenn examines the double standard in more detail. Enron's Ken Lay, a major Bush supporter,
committed one of the most massive frauds in American corporate history. The President's own brother, Neil, has been involved in numerous accusations of serious impropriety and yet continues to be paid by multiple sources for virtually nothing other than being George Bush's brother. The central cog for the GOP fundraising machine, Jack Abramoff, is now imprisoned as a serial felon. Led by his involvement in the Keating Five scandal, John McCain has been linked to some of the sleaziest figures around.

Yet somehow, the standard in those cases is that, in the absence of specific allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the political official, merely being linked -- even intimately -- to thieves and felons won't be held against the political official.
And that's the same standard that should apply to Obama and Clinton. Any time someone tries to tell you about some "scandal" involving either candidate, ask for a specific allegation. If they can't come up with one, look down your nose at them and walk away.

Oh, and the "NAFTA-gate scandal," where Obama was supposed to have told the Canadians not to take his anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously? That doesn't check out either.

Short Notes
Glenn Greenwald reports that the House is about the cave in to Bush on telecom immunity and pass the Protect America Act. Julian Sanchez takes apart a Weekly Standard editorial line-by-line to demonstrate that even an aggressive spin of the truth isn't sufficient to support Bush's PAA position -- you have to get the facts egregiously wrong to have any hope of justifying it. In a comment on the Sanchez post, a telecom engineer remembers his training in the 1980s and says: "There is no question in my mind that everyone at the phone companies who gave away all the information without even warrants from a secret court did knowing full well they were breaking many many Federal and State laws governing communications." And a new report by the Department of Justice's Inspector General says that the FBI has been regularly abusing the powers given it by the Patriot Act. Glenn is shocked: "If unchecked power is vested in government officials, they're going to abuse that power ... who could have guessed? How come nobody warned us about the dangers of 'unchecked government power' and the need for checks and balances?"

Feeling poorer this year? According to the Federal Reserve, the total net worth of American households dropped by $533 billion in the fourth quarter of 2007, an annual rate of 3.6%. Adjusted for inflation, household net worth dropped for the entire year of 2007. In 2007, the equity Americans have in their homes fell below 50% for the first time since such statistics have been kept, to a low of 47.9% by the end of the year.

Josh Marshall stays on top of the McCain/Hagee issue.

There's been another case where a female Halliburton employee is being forced to arbitrate her rape accusation because of the agreement she signed when she was hired. The rape allegedly took place in a Halliburton barracks in Iraq, so it's an internal corporate matter. FireDogLake imagines the Halliburton sexual harrassment briefing: "Now folks, we're not encouraging you to commit sexual assault, but if you do, please have the decency to do so on company premises."

Think more Americans should vote? Researchers have discovered a way to increase turnout by 8.1 percentage points, but you may not like it. It relies on the fact that whether or not you voted (not who you voted for) is a matter of public record. So the experimenters sent letters to voters listing whether their neighbors had voted in the past two elections -- and implying that the neighbors had all gotten similar information about them. The letter promised that a follow-up letter would go out after the next election. Neighborhoods that received the letter had a 37.8% turnout compared to 29.7% in the control group.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a frequent TV talking head on legal issues, wrote an L. A. Times article about Mukasey's Paradox, which he describes like this: "Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers." He derives this paradox from two instances of Attorney General Mukasey's testimony before Congress. Turley concludes, "Mukasey's Paradox, if adopted, will result in administration officials being effectively beyond the reach of the law."

Democrat Bill Foster won the special election to replace Dennis Hastert in Congress after the former Republican Speaker of the House resigned. Foster is a physicist and we can expect him to be a pro-science vote in Congress. Glenn Greenwald points out what should be the obvious lesson: Opposing telecom immunity (which Foster's well-funded opponent tried to make an issue) does not hurt a Democrat at all, even in a red district. Glenn concludes: "There is not, and there never has been, any substantial constituency in America clamoring for telecom amnesty or warrantless eavesdropping powers." [Disclaimer: I gave money to the Foster campaign and I've eaten at an ice cream shop owned by his opponent Jim Oberweis. It was good ice cream.]

The little girl in Hillary Clinton's Children ad turns out to be Casey Knowles. She's 17 now, and the Clinton campaign got the footage of her sleeping from Getty Images, which has owned it for years. Clinton wouldn't have gotten it from Knowles: She was an Obama precinct captain in the Washington state caucuses. She's hoping Obama contacts her to make a counter-ad.

The Onion News Network reports what we all suspected: Bullshit will be the most important issue in the 2008 elections. "What a candidate wears at public appearances," ONN's expert gives as an example, "is crucial to the bullshit-conscious voter." Thanks to the Internet, he notes, there are pages and pages of bullshit on all candidates. And the anchor inquires: "How can we in the news media do a better job focusing on bullshit and really hounding candidates on these petty issues?" In another report, ONN wonders if the government is doing enough to keep the nation's 1.5 million paranoid schizophrenics safe. Perhaps round-the-clock video surveillance is needed, or monitoring devices implanted under their skin.

Answer to the February 25 Sift challenge: The title Fear Strikes Out came from the 1955 autobiography of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, who suffered from bipolar disorder. It was made into a movie of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. Several people got it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Doug,

Not that it's terribly pertinent, but I thought I would mention that Pete Domenici will not be running to retain his senate seat. He has a brain disease and has announced that he will resign at the end of his term. It's big news here in New Mexico, because there is a domino effect as our House members go after Domenici's senate seat, leaving their own positions up for grabs.


Doug Muder said...

Thanks for the correction. I should have checked before just assuming that senators whose terms were expiring were running. Or maybe I should have just said that free-floating dread might save Domenici's seat for the Republicans, which is the more important point.