Monday, January 30, 2006

Tragedy, Aisle 1. Farce? Aisle 2.
Two articles this morning nicely illustrate the state of things in American politics. First is Michael Kinsley on, pointing up again the Democratic Party's unfailing aim at its own feet, and how the broad contours of the political culture serve to enlarge the target.

It seems to be time once again to play Kick the Democrats. Everyone can play, including Democrats. The rules are simple. When Republicans lose elections, it is because they didn't get enough votes. When Democrats lose elections, it is because they have lost their principles and lost their way. Or they have kept their principles, which is an even worse mistake.

Democrats represent no one who is not actually waiting in line for a latte at a Starbucks within 150 yards of the east or west coastline. They are mired in trivial lifestyle issues like, oh, abortion and gay rights and Americans killing and dying in Iraq, while the Republicans serve up meat and potatoes for real Americans, like privatizing Social Security and making damned sure the government knows who is Googling whom in this great country. Just repeat these formulas until a Democrat has been sent into frenzies of self-flagellation, or reduced to tears.
...Obviously the party that has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and now the courts needs some new ideas and new energy. But it seems undeniably true to me—though many deny it—that the Republicans simply play the game better. You're not supposed to say that. At Pundit School they teach you: Always go for the deeper explanation, not the shallower one. Never suggest that people (let alone "the" people) can be duped.

I think Kinsley (perhaps intentionally) fails to acknowledge that everybody knows the Republicans "play the game better." But this might be so in part because Democrats--the activists, at any rate--have a pronounced aversion to "the game." The Alito confirmation is a classic case study of this. Liberals are enraged and despondent at the thought of this toadying careerist, with his decades-long record of right-wing activism and absolute deference to corporate power and the notion of a dictatorial executive, sitting on the Supreme Court until 2030. So they push for a filibuster that's almost certainly doomed to fail--and then the punditariat seizes upon that failure as further confirmation of liberal weakness. (And in the case of Bull Moose, whom I'm expecting to rejoin the Republicans by the end of this year at the outside, it's a sign of character failings as well.)

So the dilemma for Democrats is whether to acquiesce to Alito's confirmation--thus alienating the activists whose time, money and enthusiasm are absolute necessities for any hope of Democratic wins in 2006--or to stage the doomed filibuster attempt and invite the sure mockery of the media boobs.

While the Democrats dither, the Republicans in power continue to transform the country, in its character and the application of its Constitution, into something nearly unrecognizable. This outstanding Newsweek piece details internal Bush administration clashes over the notion of presidential power in wartime. What bothers me most about it is that, yet again, we see dedicated public servants all but run over by the ideologues in power and their functionaries--yet again, mostly operating out of the office of Super Dick Cheney.

Feb. 6, 2006 issue - James Comey, a lanky, 6-foot-8 former prosecutor who looks a little like Jimmy Stewart, resigned as deputy attorney general in the summer of 2005. The press and public hardly noticed. Comey's farewell speech, delivered in the Great Hall of the Justice Department, contained all the predictable, if heartfelt, appreciations. But mixed in among the platitudes was an unusual passage. Comey thanked "people who came to my office, or my home, or called my cell phone late at night, to quietly tell me when I was about to make a mistake; they were the people committed to getting it right—and to doing the right thing—whatever the price. These people," said Comey, "know who they are. Some of them did pay a price for their commitment to right, but they wouldn't have it any other way."
These Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, Goldsmith and the others fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors. These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men.

Newsweek's take on the story is a lot more optimistic than my own. The last line of the story reminds me of the conclusion of every PowerPuff Girls episode: "...thanks to a few quietly determined lawyers, a healthy debate has at last begun." But let's go back to Kinsley's assertion, that Republicans play the game better. While polling remains ambiguous on public support for wiretapping, the media story is already solidifying: "Americans will trade some civil liberties for greater security against terrorism." The panel on yesterday's Tim Russert show--all right-wing operatives, by the way, aside from the senile David Broder--said so themselves.

Last Tuesday night I saw the author Taylor Branch speak in Philadelphia, supporting the newly released final volume of his three-part Martin Luther King, Jr. biography, At Canaan's Edge. Branch recalled how the civil rights activist Diane Nash took the blame for the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover and others within the government who opposed racial progress and tried to destroy its champions. "Hoover was our fault," Branch remembered Nash saying--and he went on to suggest the same could be said of us with the Bush administration today. I am forced to agree.

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