Saturday, September 30, 2006

If Democrats Had Spine (or were Thinking like Republicans)

Stephen Griffin

The passage of the Military Commissions Act is far from the end of the debate over how we should handle suspected terrorists. The debate now is just as much over how the Act will be perceived as it is a legal struggle. Democrats should be thinking about how to frame the debate and I have a few suggestions. In what follows, keep in mind I'm trying to think like a Republican (Karl Rove or Frank Luntz perhaps, although I can't tell whether they were involved with the Act).

First, (and this is a minor point) Democrats need to stop parsing the Act as if they were lawyers. Many Democrats in the Senate, of course, are lawyers, but this does not help make a case against the Act. Rather, it results in framing the issue is primarily a legal one and thus for the courts. This legal approach immediately disables Democrats from scoring broader and more effective political points. Stop thinking legally.

Second, the Act must be renamed and the debate thus reframed. "Military Commissions Act" is far too anodyne. The Act must always be referred to as the "Military Dictatorship Act of 2006." Further, never refer to the Act as having to do with "detainees" or Guantanamo. The Act should be said to threaten "citizens" and "valuable residents who are your neighbors and friends."

Third, the person identified as the dictator or, perhaps, chief of the new police state is Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is far more unpopular and questionable than President Bush. Do you want to put Don Rumseld in charge of who is imprisoned without trial? That should be the way the issue is framed.

If Democrats had spine, they would stop playing defense and start playing offense. Offense in today's political world means immediately proceeding to the worst case scenario. Stop talking about violations of habeas corpus and moral principles. Start talking about suspension of the Constitution and how we just delegated all power to the Secretary of Defense.


That's far short of what's needed. Democrats need to look deep inside and find their political fortitude. Voters look at the Democrats and say, "Hell, these people roll over anytime the GOP says, "Boo!" -- so how can I expect them to defend us from the terrorists?" I'm not endorsing this (very emotional) reasoning, but its existence is, I think, incontrovertible.

And that raises a deeper issue. Effective political rhetoric engages the emotions. The GOP has learned this, and the Democrats have not. Karl Rove sleeps with a copy of Aristotle's _Rhetoric_ under his pillow every night, reads it every morning, and puts its lessons to work all day by giving every issue an emotional frame: e.g., "cut and run," "with us or against us."

Democrats, meanwhile, drone on about "enabling resolutions" and "S.3491."

This is not to demean rational content, an area where Democrats do much better than the GOP -- although not as good as they ought to. It is to point out that Democrats rarely give the public a good emotional hook to hold onto. And that is the most important reason they have a difficult time at the ballot box, even though the GOP's policies are mostly abysmal failures.

Democrats need to dig deep, locate their principles, and stand strong for them even when the odds are against them. This will have the paradoxical effect of making the odds far better. How do you think George W. Bush is still in office? It's not just biased media and a GOP congress. No, it's that he sticks to his principles -- as rationally empty, misinformed, dangerous, and un-American as most of them are -- like glue. Part of this is, of course, the Big Lie Technique, which Democrats (and everyone who cares about truth) should shun. But part of it is dogged adherence to principle. And that's what Democrats need to adopt. Until they do, every new rhetorical flourish -- like the one suggested in this entry -- will produce only limited, temporary gains.

As I noted before, the GOP will always swiftboat the Democrats, irrespective of what they do. They only way to handle swiftboating is to forge a coherent philosophy and stick to the principles that arise from it, even when the odds look bad.

Not "Military Dictatoship Act" -- GWB is a civilian.

This was the Torture Act.

Like most political events under our legal structure, effects, as you forecast, take time. It is a well tempered system which adapts to inputs before generating response. To me the first opportunity to address MCA will occur when one of the mistaken captures brings an appeal to a sentence. Then the political strategizers will have to face the balance afforded by the judiciary, Sen Graham, Rep. King, and others notwithstanding. Meanwhile there is the aristotelian catharsis anticipated from the pageant of war crimes tribunals and executions, which Karl and associates will use to rally voters. Look for the first trial and sentence of the worst just before voters go to the polls.

However, it really offers no comment on Democrats, who, after all, are a patriotic lot, if more nuanced. We would like the safeguards built into the process upfront. Not with this congress.

I liked the bipartisan spirit Rep. Wilson captured in her measure to assure each person on the intell committee in both chambers receives briefings, not simply the FISA-8 who are sworn to secrecy; yet, her 'modernization' measure earned Harman's Nay vote. So we are going to revisit the secret government philosophy of this again in the wiretap legislation.

I think there is ample ground upon which Democrats can agree such modernizations will keep the checks and balances in government without accepting the brickbats of Republicans who would like to frame the debate in more classical jingoism concepts. But I worry a lot about sending elected representatives like those to a proposed constitutional convention; they are making some pretty unseemly laws as it is.

Raven is right -- this was the Torture Bill. I'd like to see an ad something like the following:

Camera pans over instruments of torture (there are such images from the Khmer Rouge and probably others). A narrator says, "Dictators in every age have abused human rights by torturing people. Waterboarding [show one] makes the victim believe he's drowning. We prosecuted the Japanese for war crimes because they did this in World War II.

Now a victim appears and describes how awful the process was. If there is no victim readily available, use a written description and the narrator.

The ad ends with the narrator saying, "Torture is not an American value. X voted for torture. We don't need Senators/Representatives who do what dictators do, we need Senators/Representatives who will stand up for America."

This ad could be varied with other forms of torture. It could also be run as a candidate ad with the Democrat at the end looking into the camera and saying, "I'm X. I'll never vote for torture."

I don't understand this "if the Democrats had backbone" meme. Doesn't it seem plausible that the majority of senators and congressmen actually agree with the majority of American voters in supporting the legislation?

Meanwhile, I'd like to limit the discussion to people with credibility. I'd like to suggest that discussion of GWOT issues be limited to people who never believed any of the following:

1. The Rosenbergs are innocent.
2. Alger Hiss is innocent.
3. The Soviet system is not too different from our own, and is not going to collapse any time soon.
4. If we would just negotiate with the PLO, Mideast peace could be achieved.

If you ever believed any of these things, I, and most Americans, will never, ever, ever listen to you, so don't bother.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Griffin and others,

Please take your advice! You will only ensure permament minority status for Democrats for years to come.

The reason why Dems lose elections is because they get tied to statements like yours.

The "Military Dictatorship Act of 2006." Oh my God, seriously, where do you come up with this stuff? Even if you actually believe that, you will only look like fools to the American people. But, be my guest, I'm not in the habit of correcting the political idiocy of the "loyal opposition."

I would offer somewhat different advice to the Democrats.

1) Understand where the support for this bill is coming from. We just suspended habeas corpus in a whole class of cases, virtually abrogated the Geneva Conventions, and endorsed torture officially. Why? The only reason I can see is fear. Many Americans have enough free-floating fear of 10-foot-tall Arab terrorists that they'll endorse all manner of brutality against them.

2) Come up with a palatable way to tell people that they don't have to feel so afraid. Yes, there's a threat, but it's not limitless. We are scoring victories against Al Quaida without gutting the Constitution. We can show a little fortitude in the face of what danger we do face. (This is the hardest part. John Kerry tried and failed here. It's a matter of appealling to "the better angels of our nature," the opposite of the Bush/Rove technique.)

3) For heaven's sake, drop the idea that you can agree with Bush on GWOT and then win an election on domestic issues. Short of a severe recession at home, it won't work.

Spine is not the problem. Rhetoric is the problem. Dems get too hung up talking about the details and whenever they might have a detail they could score a point on the GOP simply denies that detail exists. This was exemplified on NewsHour the night the bill passed where Bruce Fein (against) and another former Reaganite debated the bill. Fein would criticize some part of the bill and the other guy would just deny the bill did that. Dems cannot win that kind of debate on issues involving terrorism. Dems need to have their own principled position on all aspects of the war on terror and talk about it as if it matters to them. If people come to trust that the Dems have a real strong position on fighting terrorism then they might actually successfully oppose this type of legislation because people will be willing to accept that their position is still an anti-terrorist position and possibly a better one and then standing up for principle actually becomes a way of demonstrating toughness. Terrorism is the only thing that keeps Bush going as the facts undermine him on every other issue and they would undermine him on terror too if enough people believed we dems had a STRONG position on it.

I think that's right, it's the Torture Act. And I think it may be true that Democrats voted for it because they agree with it.

It is not clear to me, however, that most Americans agree with it - or would if they knew what it meant.


If you want the discussion limited to "people with credibility," your statements just disqualified you. Nice seeing you. Drive home safely.

It's the "Terrorists have Won Act."

The freedoms they hate us for? Bush just handed over those freedoms on a silver platter.

Or, how about the "Fear in America Act".

And a useful slogan? "We had America the Beautiful; Bush has given us America the Torturer."

For the religious right: "Who Would Jesus Torture"?

Anyone still have info on those nice, middle-class girls who were rounded up for protesting the RNC and denied access to lawyers, etc?

Thinking of THOSE folks in Gitmo might help clarify the issue for people.

Also, although this plays on prejudices, "Why are we trying to get more like Syria?" ...Maybe better to find some of Reagan's old "Evil Empire" speeches about the [then-]Soviet Union.

Whoo, that's some act of courage, making that post under your real name when you're living in a freshly minted military dictatorship. It was nice knowing you, enjoy the prison camp!

The American people are rationally ignorant about political matters, but not, on average, all THAT stupid. We are, obviously, not yet living in any sort of dictatorship, and that sort of overheated rhetoric won't help.

Try explaining why the bill is bad. Shouldn't be that difficult, given that it IS bad, and the voting public might be pleasantly suprised at the novelty of politicians trying to persuade them by rational argument.

The people are scared?
The people did not come up with this act, and the people did not vote for it.
The people are being bombarded by fear messages and messages that Democrats want to appease the terrorists, and that Republicans are Steely Eyed Rocket Men. While the Democrats simply don'[t have the microphone.
Do they buy this? The polls say no.
Are the people scared?
Do they look scared?
Do they act scared?
And I don't mean do they sit still for Republican handwaving: I mean activity.
The answer from my perch is no.

Rhetorical strategies?
"Where's Osama?" to start with.

How about "If a criminal is holed up in a building, how about going in and getting him instead of blowing up a nearby warehouse because it MIGHT have weapons that he MIGHT use?"

How about "Iraq is the central front of the Global War on Terror? Mind telling us where the other fronts are, and what's being done about them? Is North Korea a front in the Global War on Terror? How's that front going? Are we advancing on it?"

How about: "What if it hadn't been Katrina, but an Al Qaeda operative with a suitcase nuke that had blown the New Orleans levees. Would the Republicans' response to the disaster have been any different--any better? Let's occcupy another country and pour in 800 billion--BILLION dollars--but inspect the containers coming into our ports--too expensive. Defend our chemical and nuclear facilities with military security? Too expensive. Replace a seasoned expert in disaster relief with an incompetetnt party loyalist? Priceless."

How about "Iraq is the central front of the war on terror. What flaming idiot of a general keeps pounding away at the central front? Shouldn't we be sweeping around the sides, attacking the flank of the opponent.

You know the last folks who used that strategy? The French in World War I. Just keep throwing men at their strongest point. Just keep sending them right into themachine gun fire--because using anything like flanking maneuvers is just 'cut and run.'

Iraq is not the central front of the war on terror--it's the TRENCH WARFARE of the War on Terror.

Think about it. You know that it's true.

And it takes a bunch of guys who've never commanded forces in battle--who've never even SEEN combat--to think that that the French General Staff is a fine model for their war."

OK, I'll stop. But there's a huge amount that we can hit them on.

The main thing is, we need the microphone for that, and we don't have it. If we grab it--the way the Big Dog did--they snatch it back and begin talking at top speed about how crazy that was, how irrational, how shamefully unbalanced--and look! Football season!

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
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