Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Corpse of Karl Rove

Karl Rove may or may not be indicted for outing Valerie Plame, obstruction of justice, or espionage. My gut feeling says Rove will get to do a perp walk, but I don't have any sources in Fitzgerald's office to confirm this. I do know, however, that the Rove formula for political success is dead. Much of Rove's success with George Bush has been in promoting the George Bush regular guy, strong leader persona. But now that Haditha, Brownie, Harriet, and three dollar gas have made Bush personally repugnant even to the constituents of Republican congressmen, Rove can't do anything to help Bush even if he does stay out of jail.

But let's face it Democrats, Karl Rove has a lot of political success working with fairly unpromising material in the person of George Bush. So we would do well to think carefully about the extent to how Rove's strategems worked and what lessons the Democrats might take from them. Rove isn't just about appealing to the Republican base. After 9-11, Rove focused on promoting Bush as a "strong leader," emphasizing the extent to which Bush stood for his principles and refused to compromise. The Democratic leadership, used to the "let's make a deal" atmosphere of Washington from Reagan and Clinton, was caught completely off guard and hasn't recovered. The emphasis on principle played well with swing voters who disagreed with Bush on most issues. The Democrats, with their constant efforts to please everybody, look unprincipled by contrast. Kerry's vacillating on abortion during the second debate made him look especially weak and killed him with a lot of voters. If the Democrats are going to recover, the Democratic leaderis is going to have to stand up for its own principles as much as Rush Limbaugh stands up for his. And this is not a bad thing.

Building on talk radio, Karl Rove also initiated an attitude of non-stop aggression toward the Democratic opposition. Talk radio pounces on just about every statement by the Democratic leadership, sometimes spending hours criticizing single sentences. In the same vein, Bush campaigned for his first tax cut in Daschle's home state of South Dakota and aggressively supported campaigns against Democratic incumbents like Max Cleland and Tom Daschle. The Democratic leadership hasn't recovered from this either. One of the reasons that you don't hear much from the Democrats on the war, gas prices, Tom DeLay, Plame, or the budget is that Democratic leaders know that speaking up will get them trashed for six hours the next day on Limbaugh and Hannity. So, they stay in their foxholes hoping the Bushies will blow it themselves. The seemingly permanent intimidation of the Democratic leadership is another successful element in Roveism. A successful Democratic party would have to carry the fight to the Republicans in the same way. The Democrats are far from having an effective fighting leadership, but that's definitely the direction we need to take.

The final piece of successful Roveism that is his approach to the base vote/ swing voter dilemna. The Clinton Democrats sought to govern from a business-oriented, conservative, DLC center. The balanced budget, NAFTA, welfare reform, Don't Ask--Don't Tell, and other Clinton policies were designed to appease business and conservative interests. If labor, blacks, middle-class white liberals, feminists, or gays didn't like these policies, they were stiffed. One of the major reasons Gore lost in 2000 was that enough left-wing voters peeled off the Democrats in New Hampshire and Florida to hand those states to the Republicans. To the contrary, Rove has focused policy on appealing to the party base, but the Bush White House also made concerted efforts to formulate their hard-core conservative policies in ways that spoke to the values and interests of swing voters as well. That's why the Bush administration framed initiatives like the invasion of Iraq in the liberal language of secularism, democracy, and women's rights.

In this sense, Rove's strategy was exactly the opposite of the DLC's. Where the DLC reached out from swing voters to slap the base, Rove reached out from the Republican base to appeal to swing voters.The Democrats need to do the same thing. They need to articulate policies on Iraq, health care, and other issues that speak to the principles of the Democratic base. At the same time, the Democrats need to articulate those perspectives in terms that speak to the values and interests of middle-class white swing voters. If the Democrats do not speak to the principles of the liberal base, swing-voters will continue to view them as the party of pandering rather than leadership. If the Democrats don't articulate a fundamentally liberal vision in language that speaks to swing voters, they will only be playing to the chorus. Right now, the Democratic leadership is losing on both counts. The base doesn't respect them and swing voters don't trust them. Until they start standing up for Democratic principles in a broad fashion, the Democratic leadership will continue to be a laughing stock.

Let me give a couple of policies and themes the Democrats can develop.


The Dems should admit that they were mistaken in supporting the war. They were fooled into thinking that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and they didn't take the Bushies seriously enough when they talked about an aggressive effort to remake the Arab world in our image. They didn't realize that the Bush administration would do such a poor job that Iraq is now a major home to global terrorism.Then, the Dems should say that they are going to stay in Iraq until we defeat that terrorist threat that has developed there since the invasion. By portraying the Bush administration as creating a huge dangerous mess, the Democrats will be speaking to both the base and swing voters. By portraying themselves as cleaning up the mess, the Dems would be speaking to a real problem in a voice of quiet determination that will appeal to swing voters after years of Bush blustering.

2. A More Just Society

The Dems should seek to redress the increasing imbalance between the wealthy and the middle class. This theme covers a lot of issues--reigning in the humongous salaries of top corporate management, increasing taxes on the top income groups, encouraging investment in the U. S. rather than overseas, and adapting a reasonable health care plan that benefits the patients and businesses that pay for health care first. The Democratic leadership could promote these kinds of policies through a theme of "restoring the balance" between the interests of business, consumers, and the middle class. This is a theme that would doubtlessly resonate with the base, but would also appeal to middle-class swing voters who feel burdened by health care costs, outraged by corporate corruption, and uneasy that the pendulum in American politics has swung so far toward business interests.

The Democrats could develop other themes that would be consistent with Democratic policies. "Restoring Responsible Government" and "Building Stronger Communities" would be good examples. The goal, however, is to develop policies and rhetoric that speak from the party base to middle-class swing voters.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Taliban Toast--More Than A War Crime

The report of American soldiers in Afghanistan burning the bodies of Taliban soldiers and using them for impromptu propoganda is circulating around the blogs. The primary crime in this incident was desecrating the enemy's dead. The report states the the soldiers burned the bodies for "hygienic purposes," but that's a thin generalization. What the troops were doing was torturing the corpses, representing to our enemies and ourselves that the Taliban are defeated, impotent, ragdolls and playthings for American troops. Vaunting over fallen enemies is as old as Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the city of Troy in Homer. The French boasted that they would sell the fingers of English soldiers for a sou apiece as the armies were drew up around Agincourt in 1415. Perhaps this kind of behavior is universal.

The crime was amplified by making the burning a religious issue. American "Psy-ops" forces in the area insisted on broadcasting American troops boasting about the burning and abusing the Taliban for letting their men die facing west (toward Mecca) and being embarrassments to Islam. As propoganda, this exercise was not only immature and adolescent, it was an embarrassment to American propoganda skills. In addition, the whole exercise was a war crime. The Geneva Conventions clearly ban corpse abuse and this kind desecration of enemy bodies is something that Americans identify much more with the Nazis, Soviets, and Khmer Rouge than we do with our own soldiers.

But it's also more than a war crime. It's a symbol of the incompetence and futility of the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first bad sign is that American soldiers were celebrating the killing of TWO Taliban soldiers. Why celebrate such a petty victory. As triumphs go, killing two enemies is a long way from winning the Battle of New Orleans or Gettysburg, or taking of Okinawa from the Japanese. Having failed to stabilize the occupation in Iraq or suppress the Taliban in Afghanistan, our troops are now celebrating the most minor of victories. If the troops were giving a big high-five to themselves by burning corpses, I wonder if they're actually winning these little battles very often. Doesn't seem like it.

The burning of the corpses also gives yet another lie to the idea that we could make Iraq and Afghanistan into Westernized democracies at the point of a gun. When the U. S. invaded Iraq, we became responsible for the electrical system, dams, schools, telephone service, oil production, and the other major physical infrastructure. We've failed so badly with these systems that they are either barely even or behind their functioning under the blockade bound Saddam Hussein regime. American contractors make super-profits and corrupt Iraqi officials build up their Swiss bank accounts, but the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy goes nowhere. These failures have been compounded by lapses in discipline like the burning of corpses. Abu Ghraib, bombing wedding ceremonies, rounding up men of military age, shooting up cars when they approach checkpoints wrong--it all undermines the faith of our allies, creates fresh motivation for revenge by relatives and tribal measures, and provides new propoganda for terrorist recruiters in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. American troops do a lot of good work in Iraq, but these almost inevitable lapses are perpetually undoing all of that good work. The Bush administration wants Iraq to become more like a Western nation, but the Iraqis see the American occupation and imitate us by becoming more intolerant, more violent, and more committed to defeating the occupation at all costs.

The final element of American failure here is the "psy-ops" operation. Armchair advocates of a smaller, faster, more technologically sophisticated military have been pushing "psy-ops" as a leading element in American counter-insurgency. Nobody has heard much about what "psy-ops" forces do, but it's pretty obvious that they're not psychologically sophisticated, not intimidating the enemy, and not contributing to the success of the war effort. This "psy-ops" operation not only embarrassed the military, but was an embarrassment to psychology. Few societies concentrate as much psychologial expertise as the United States. Advertising, political spinning, and psychotherapy are probably better developed in the U. S. than anywhere in the world. However, despite all our concentrated expertise, all we can come up with is a particularly dumb version of playground taunting. What an embarrassment!