Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Morning Line

As consequential as this election will be, there is, for political junkies, an element of pure fun in sizing up the horse race. It's much too close for comfort right now but, if someone were to put a gun to my head and demand I place a wager, here's what I would put my money on:

Kerry 299 to 239

For those handicapping at home, here's how I got there:

Start with the 2000 state by state results, with the Electoral Votes adjusted to reflect the new distribution. This gives us:

Bush 278
Kerry 260

Next, look at the most likely shifts. It would be too tedious to justify each one (and especially the absence of any others) in detail, so I'm only giving the Morning Program version (not the Racing Form version) below. But I'm basing these picks on my reading of the sum total of polls and analyses I've seen throughout October, against the background of the 2000 results:

Kerry takes away Ohio, Florida and New Hampshire. Ohio and Florida are both key targets for massive GOTV efforts by the enormously impressive America Votes coalition. Kerry has looked good in most Ohio polling throughout the month, with the exception of a couple of outliers. Florida looks tighter, but early voting there indicates a huge swell of support for the Democrat, and both there and in New Hampshire the Gore-plus-Nader vote in 2000 beat Bush.

Bush takes away Iowa and New Mexico. In Iowa, Bush has been sustaining a small lead with a relatively high (for him) percentage showing in a Midwestern battleground. Expert consensus seems to be that this is the most likely one to fall his way. New Mexico was the closest-fought state in 2000 besides Florida and, here again, Bush has taken what looks like a real lead, with a relatively high number, in late polling.

Factoring in these shifts we get:

Bush 239
Kerry 299

And that's my call. I still think Kerry could get over 300 -- maybe even as high as 350 -- if everything breaks his way. It's also possible that either Ohio or (more likely) Florida stays Red (by hook or by crook), and that Bush picks up another Midwest battleground (say Wisconsin, rather than Ohio), and/or holds on to New Hampshire, and thereby pulls off a narrow victory. But I wouldn't bet the farm on either of these alternative scenarios.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Candidate and the "Liberal" Press

The Rude Pundit is profoundly right: John Kerry is a political (not just a military) hero, who has been speaking truth to power for over thirty years. The fact that most Americans don't know this shows how witless our political discourse has become, under pressure from the Right's permanent smear campaign, and the cult of personality so carefully constructed around Bush.

And Michael Berube is right too (Link via Atrios): The so-called "liberal" members of the national press -- most of whom regard Kerry as, at best, a lame compromise for whom one needs to hold one's nose and cast a reluctant vote, if only because the alternative is marginally worse -- are themselves victims of these same Right-wing tactics.

Try to believe (as the estimable Bob Somerby might put it) that Slate's Timothy Noah, in "endorsing" Kerry, actually said this:

Although I'm impressed by Kerry's combat record in Vietnam, I can't suppress the uncharitable suspicion that what drew him there wasn't patriotism so much as a preppy passion for physical challenge and the urge to buff his future political resume.
Or that the same magazine's Jacob Weisberg, in his own tepid endorsement, felt justified in saying things like, "I've never seen [Kerry] demonstrate any real political courage," and in sharing the fact that on a "personal level" he finds Kerry "pompous" and a "windbag."

Think about the attitudes behind such words -- the presumption, the contempt, the disdain -- and then recall the big political battles John Kerry has fought in his career on behalf of truth and against entrenched power, so well summarized by the Rude Pundit: against the Nixon machine, to get Vietnam vets' real stories into the public realm and to stop a stupid and unjust war; against the Reagan juggernaught, to get the truth out about Contra drug running and the U.S. government's complicity in it; against the establishments of both political parties, to drag the BCCI scandal (with its nexus of money, arms, drugs and terrorism) into the light of day.

These digs from Kerry's reluctant endorsers in the "liberal" press don't represent carefully considered reservations, based on reasoned criticisms of his record; they are too wildly blind to the man's accomplishments, and too petty, to be that. They stem from nothing more than certain pundits' persistent refusal to acknowledge what John Kerry has done in public life, and therefore, politically speaking, who John Kerry really is.

And it's easy to see why they would refuse: To do so would mean giving up (what's left of) their professional exemption from the kind of wholesale character assassination to which Kerry has been subjected for months. They adopt the core tropes of right-wing attack propaganda, so as not to have a similar barrage aimed at themselves -- or to provide cover for themselves when that barrage comes in anyway.

Politics, said Machiavelli, is fighting with laws. Right now, the whole team is under withering fire, but these characters aren't prepared to stand their ground and fight. Instead, they let John Kerry take all the incoming rounds alone -- and even frag him a bit themselves, the better to telegraph to the enemy their reluctance to do battle, and their readiness to accomodate defeat.

With "friends" like this in the press corps, the Left hardly needs enemies.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Iraq: Memory and Consistency

Matthew Yglesias is right again (he is right annoyingly often for one so young) that the worst thing about how the Republican Party and a compliant mainstream media have sought to frame the Iraq debate in this election, is that the events that transpired between October 2002 (when Congress passed the Joint Resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq) and March 2003 (when the U.S. and its coalition partners invaded) have been sent to the memory hole. The central attack on John Kerry -- which is to say the central excuse for George Bush's conduct of the war -- depends on everyone not recalling what lies buried in those five months of oblivion.

I take that attack to be, in substance, the following: John Kerry has shown himself irresolute on matters of national security, by changing his position on Iraq whenever it seemed politically opportune to do so. In the brain-dead vocabulary of our current politics, he "flip-flopped" on Iraq. The essence of the charge is that Kerry has had two different positions on Iraq over time, and is now effectively trying to occupy a third one, even as he clings to the second. First, he supported "the war" by voting for the Joint Resolution. Then, under pressure from Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries, he turned coat and became an opponent of the war, symbolized by his "voting against" the famous 87 billion dollar supplemental. Finally, he now wants to have it both ways, simultaneously saying the war was a mistake, and yet claiming that he is committed to succeeding in it, and can get more help from allies to do this. So, a triple flip-flop -- provided you don't look in the memory hole.

But suppose we do look? What then?

The first thing to recover comes right at the outset: the resolution itself was a product not just of the White House's designs, but also of the objections that had been raised to those designs as publicly stated, by (chiefly, but not exclusively, Democratic) critics in Congress. As a result, the resolution conditioned the use of force by defining, fairly strictly, the purposes for which, and circumstances in which, it was to be used. Specifically, the resolution's crucial Section III ("Authorization for the Use of United States Armed Forces") sanctioned the use of force for two kinds of reasons only:

1. To enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq, and

2. To defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq.

That section of the resolution also specified that the President was obliged, "in connection with the exercise" of this authority, to submit a determination that "further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone" would not suffice to achieve one or the other of these objectives. Also included was a codicil providing that any such use of force be "consistent with" our and our allies continuing to take necessary actions against the perpetrators of 9/11.

Next out of the memory hole is the speech John Kerry actually gave, on the Senate floor, in support of this resolution. In that speech, Kerry:

  • Took note of Iraq's track record of violating international norms of behavior, and of its then-reported possession of WMD, and stated plainly that this combination of factors, and this combination alone, made for a significant enough threat to justify war with Iraq, if war proved necessary to remove that threat.

  • Noted, with approval, that the grant of authority before the Congress was significantly narrower than what the White House had initially wanted -- specifically, that it disallowed "regime change" as a legitimate grounds for war, and limited the scope of any use of force to Iraq, rather than the entire region.

  • Cited the enforcement of the "relevant" U.N. resolutions, which Secretary of State Powell had conceded meant only those regarding WMD, as being the proper vehicle to achieve the purposes envisioned by the resolution, and as providing the proper test of necessity for an eventual use of force.

Kerry then issued the following warning:

If the President arbitrarily walks away from this course of action--without good cause or reason--the legitimacy of any subsequent action by the United States against Iraq will be challenged by the American people and the international community. And I would vigorously oppose the President doing so.

When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region. I will vote yes because I believe it is the best way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. And the administration, I believe, is now committed to a recognition that war must be the last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we must act in concert with allies around the globe to make the world's case against Saddam Hussein.

As the President made clear earlier this week, "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable." It means "America speaks with one voice."

Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

In giving the President this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days--to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with our allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out.

If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent--and I emphasize "imminent"--threat to this country which requires the President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.

Thus John Kerry on the eve of his "Yea" vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

The next thing to recall is that the new U.N. Security Council resolution envisioned in the Joint Congressional Resolution in fact came to pass, about a month later. That resolution provided for an "enhanced inspection regime" under UNMOVIC and the IAEA, including "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access" to anything or anyone the inspectors required in order to complete their work. While the resolution did not define an automatic trigger for the use of force, it did warn Iraq of "serious consequences" for continuing in "material breach" of its obligations to the U.N. -- diplomat talk for war.

To continue with this exercise, we would have to now reconstruct that entire tug-of-war between the U.N. inspectors, led by Blix and El Baradai, who were trying to, and by their own accounts, mostly succeeding in doing their jobs of examining all known and suspected WMD sites, and Powell and the American legation, which was trying, simultaneously, to argue that the inspection process was failing (or had already failed, or couldn't possibly succeed) and that a further resolution was therefore required, to immediately authorize the use of force. Glen Rangwala has given us a fine analysis of the details of that tug-of-war, complete with links to primary sources. For the high-level summary, however, Yglesias's remarks as good as any I've come across:

Bush and his defenders like to point out that "everyone" thought Iraq had WMD stockpiles and more active nuclear and biological programs than he turned out to have. As of October that's not quite right, but it's an oversimplification rather than a lie. The conventional wisdom really was that stockpiles existed and that the nuclear and bioweapons programs were more advanced than they turned out to be. This defense overlooks various points at which the administration went well beyond the consensus view and the ways in which they shaped the consensus by pressuring the intelligence agencies, but still there's a basic kernel of truth here. A kernel, that is, as long as you're talking about October 2002, which isn't when the decision to go to war was made. By March we had additional information on the WMD question thanks to the inspectors. This information demonstrated definitively that there was something wrong with the intelligence Bush thought he had -- they weren't finding any weapons and they weren't being denied access to any sites. The War Party chose to construe this as evidence of corruption and/or ineptitude on the part of the inspectors, and they were wrong.

To complete our little excavation of the recent past, we need only add that it was perfectly clear to most of the world, by March, that the War Party was wrong about the inspectors, and hence very possibly wrong about the WMD. It was therefore also perfectly clear, by then, to most of the Democrats who had supported the congressional resolution, that any outcome short of war was not going to satisfy the White House -- even if it might have a chance of satisfying the terms of that resolution.

It became clear, in other words, that the White House had always regarded itself as entitled to treat the congressional resolution as what John Kerry explicitly denied it to be: an unconditional declaration of war. The coercive diplomacy made possible by the resolution had not been exhausted, but the Bush Administration's patience had been. The last resort envisioned by the resolution had not been reached, but the Bush Administration's willingness to delay their desired war any longer, had been. And the war came.

What can be said, in light of this recovered history, about the charge laid out above, that John Kerry "flip-flopped" his way through the Iraq debate? For me, the charge stands exposed as a particularly vivid example of the classic demagogue's trick of preemptively accusing an opponent of the very thing of which one is oneself most guilty.

Bush, not Kerry, has turned coat on Iraq. Bush began the Iraq debate as a proponent of the unprecedented doctrine of "preventive war," a believer in the need for wars of "regime change," and in discredited theories about Iraqi culpability in 9/11. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, some Republicans, ex-four stars and (worst of all) members of his father's foreign policy team, he then became an overnight multilateralist and patron of the U.N., a believer in sober, national interest type justifications for the use of force, and a strong advocate for the strategy of coercive diplomacy that had worked in Bosnia and Kosovo.

This change of heart lasted until the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force was in hand, and until it became clear that Colin Powell was not going to be able to deliver a U.N. resolution explicitly authorizing war. At that point, the detour to the U.N. had served its purpose, and the war was on. Unfortunately, it was also at this precise point that it had begun to dawn on everyone else that Hussein was considerably less serious of a threat than he had seemed in the fall of 2002. And so Bush became, once again, a unilateralist, a disparager of the U.N., and an asserter of the right of the U.S. president to, in effect, make war at pleasure. More recently, it appears that the conjunction of a presidential election and a guerilla war in Iraq have once again temporarily made him a fan of diplomatic solutions to pressing emergencies involving WMD, for instance, in Iran and North Korea. How long this new enthusiasm will last, no one can say.

It will be objected that this characterization of Bush is too generous to Kerry, that Kerry certainly should have known what Bush's intentions were in the fall of 2002, when he voted for the congressional resolution. I readily admit that it was possible to discern Bush's true intentions at that time: Howard Dean may have done so; a number of liberal bloggers certainly did so (Atrios, Kos); Robert Byrd did so with uncommon eloquence on the floor of the Senate (though he staked his great series of dissenting speeches primarily on matters of constitutional principle); and, unless my mind is playing tricks on me, even I did so.

But, in the first place, I have no problem crediting Kerry's defense that he believed then, and believes today, that this was the right authority for a president to have. It may be that the model of coercive diplomacy, which on balance served us well in the Balkans, requires such a grant of authority. Kerry may have been thinking as much of future conflicts and crises and the precedent being set. Moreover, a model in which the Congress grants such authority, under certain conditions -- and in which the Congress and the public then hold the President accountable for adherence to those conditions -- may not be a bad compromise between the constitutional responsibility vested in Congress, for deciding matters of war and peace, and the constitutional responsibility vested in the President, for safeguarding nation's security.

In the second place, this kind counter-argument, while it may cut some ice with left-wing Democrats and progressives, is hardly flattering to Bush. It says, in effect: Kerry was wrong to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. He ought instead to have assumed that Bush's statements -- that he was prepared to forego war if the limited, pragmatic goal of WMD disarmament could be reached without it -- were deceptions made for the moment, and he ought to have staked out his own position accordingly. In other words, Kerry ought to have taken a position that could be judged consistent on the assumption that Bush was lying about his reasons for seeking the resolution. If this were presented as a defense of Bush's position I should think even Bush himself would say: Thanks for nothing.

The most generous interpretation of Bush's wandering path on Iraq would be to say that he started out with a mistaken set of beliefs and assumptions about the issue (preventive war, forced regime change, unilateralism), then corrected these erroneous beliefs and assumptions under the pressure of criticism, leading to the revised language of the congressional resolution and to the U.N. effort. Unfortunately, though, the story doesn't stop there. By March, if not sooner -- even on this generous view -- Bush had completely retreated to his earlier mistaken positions and, on that basis, launched the wrong war, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

One final aspect of the anti-Kerry flip-flopper charge still needs to be dealt with, and it looms up just know with this talk of mistakes. Kerry believes the Iraq war was a mistake. Yet he supports its continuation (or at least opposes its abrupt end) and has claim he will bring more allies to our side. And this is the man who once famously asked, about another foreign policy disaster, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Isn't this all hopelessly inconsistent?

I don't think it is, for two kinds of reasons:

1. Iraq is unlike Vietnam in this respect, that the folly of our ill-advised involvement there will not be confined to the neighborhood, but threatens to have much larger negative consequences for the region as a whole, and for our national security. After Vietnam, the "dominos" famously did not fall. After a hasty retreat from Iraq, we might well see a king-sized Lebanon develop in the heart of what remains the most volatile and dangerous region in the world, from the point of view of our struggle against pan-Islamist terrorism. Iraq was not by any means a hotbed of terrorism before our invasion, but parts of it have become that since, and the fate of both Lebanon and Afghanistan (after the Soviet defeat) suggests that the problem could easily grow far, far worse, were the country simply abandoned to its fate.

2. The idea that Iraq is the kind of mistake for which no one else should be asked to die (or no more Americans anyway), rests on an implicit double historical analogy between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, on one side, and George Bush and John Kerry, on the other. Nixon rather spectacularly failed to clean up Johnson's mess in Vietnam, despite promises to do so. Indeed, he in many ways made matters worse, even as he was withdrawing troops. And that, along with multiple revelations of government deception regarding the conduct of the war, constitutes the main reason why Vietnam veterans like Kerry, and millions of ordinary Americans, were livid with their government by 1971, when Kerry gave his famous testimony before Senator Fulbright's Foreign Affairs Committee.

It is, of course, possible that a President Kerry will fail in the effort to clean up President Bush's mess in Iraq. After all it's, you know, "hard work." But I don't think it's very likely that Kerry would make matters worse, as Nixon did, by continuing, and even stepping up, the most self-defeating aspects of his predecessor's policies. I have been struck more and more lately by the feeling that there is something uncanny about this particular conjunction of politician and historical moment. If anyone on the contemporary political scene has a decent chance of keeping his head straight about what is we need to accomplish, in order to get out of Iraq with the least amount of damage to the region and our own interests, and what it is we absolutely most avoid doing there, John Kerry is the one.

For Kerry, Vietnam was the defining political event of his youth. Someone who saw the necessity of opposing that war when young, might now feel the urgency of extricating us from the Iraqi quagmire especially strongly. But such a one might also lack sufficient feeling for the reality on the ground, and for the practical hurdles to a successful disengagement, to be able to pull it off. Meanwhile, someone who chose to fight in Vietnam when young, might now have a clearer sense of what military success and failure look like. But he might also lack any understanding of the political prerequisites required to sustain support for the military effort at home and abroad. In John Kerry's skin lives both the veteran who volunteered to fight, and the dissident who stepped forward to call for peace. Given the special nature of the Iraqi problem -- a mistake that retreat would only compound -- it may take both sensibilities, to get us out of this particular jam.

Monday, October 11, 2004

What the "War on Terrorism" is About

Matthew Yglesias is right that Matt Bai is right that the key strategic difference between Bush and Kerry on the "war on terrorism" is that Bush regards trans-national terrorism as an epiphenomenon, and Kerry does not. For Bush, such terrorism is essentially a manifestation of the interests of state actors ("rogue states"), and it is to be dealt with in the ways one deals with threatening states. For Kerry, trans-national terrorism is one of the dark manifestations of globalism and, while one must deal with states to get at it, the threat has a life of its own, beyond any state sponsorship, and indeed flourishes most in the wake of state failure.

One of the consequences of this difference -- one that Bai picks up on, but Yglesias does not -- is that Kerry's approach to the "war on terrorism" lends itself much less readily than Bush's does to grandiose ideological statement. For Bush, terrorism looms as an ideological opponent, like Soviet communism during its Cold War heyday. Rhetorically, therefore, all the pathos and competitive zeal of ideological opposition is available to him.

I think this was largely the reason so many liberals initially supported the Iraq invasion. Like pro-war diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, they accepted Bush's framing of Iraq -- however murky the specific grounds for war -- as part of a larger, world-historical struggle between, well, liberalism and a mortal ideological enemy bent on liberalism's destruction. This exemplifies, I think, an unfortunate tendency among liberals to aggrandize the threats to liberalism -- a tendency that unites them with the neo-conservatives and separates both from traditional realists in the Kennan-Morgenthau mold.

Now Kerry obviously knows that al-Qaida, its imitators and offshoots, are illiberal in the extreme, and that they wish the establishment of a theocratic empire to compete with, and ultimately destroy, the Western model of liberal democracy, insofar as that model remains at all attractive to the Islamic world. In these senses, the Cold War analogy fits Kerry's view of the "war on terror" too. But it doesn't tell the whole story, because it fails to capture the fact that we are nowhere near such a phase of the conflict and -- unless we are exceptionally foolish -- we are unlikely ever to get there.

For there just is no internal struggle, in the West, between liberalism and radical Islamist fundamentalism. In fact, there is no such competitor, in any real sense, for the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of people in the world. Instead, the ideological struggle is specifically within the realm of Islam, and its direct manifestation (fantasies of reviving the Caliphate aside) is therefore not a challenge from one block of states to another, but a challenge to the state system itself -- especially (but, unfortunately, not exclusively) to states in that part of the world where Islam happens to be the majority religion.

Technically speaking, trans-national terrorism is at war with the state system, because such terrorism constitutes a rebuke to the minimal claim made by every state, to monopolize the legitimate means of violence within its territory. For Bin Laden and his acolytes to succeed, they will have to overturn that claim, and thereby unmake that system. What would follow would be a return to something the world has not seen since pre-modern times: a world religion militant and armed, politically united across a vast empire. One doesn't need to be a fan of all, or even most, actually-existing states, or of the use of the 19th century European nation-state as the model of what a state should be, to regard this prospect with some alarm.

But what are the strategic implications of facing such an enemy? The bad news is that such an enemy does not need to capture states to keep its struggle going and, since it has no real stake in the present state system, cannot be dealt with using the normal interest-based incentives that can be brought to bear on state actors. The good news is that this same opposition to the state system, makes the ground we can stand on, in standing against such an enemy, far broader than any ideology. Kerry got this duality in a nutshell in his Temple University speech:

I begin with this belief: The war on terror is as monumental a struggle as the Cold War. Its outcome will determine whether we and our children live in freedom or in fear. It is not, as some people think, a clash of civilizations. Radical Islamic fundamentalism is not the true face of Islam. This is a clash between civilization and the enemies of civilization; between humanity’s best hopes and most primitive fears.

And later on in the same speech, he zeroed in on the enemy's true aims, and how much those aims center on the complete destruction of actually-existing political order:

To destroy our enemy, we have to know our enemy. We have to understand that we are facing a radical fundamentalist movement with global reach and a very specific plan. They are not just out to kill us for the sake of killing us. They want to provoke a conflict that will radicalize the people of the Muslim world, turning them against the United States and the West. And they hope to transform that anger into a force that will topple the region’s governments and pave the way for a new empire, an oppressive, fundamentalist superstate stretching across a vast area from Europe to Africa, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

It sounds odd to say it, amidst all the neo-conservative inspired Bushian rhetoric about "freedom" and "democracy," but it is important to remember that one doesn't have to be a liberal or a democrat to want to defeat an ideology that believes in murdering innocents in order to precipitate the downfall of the existing political order. And this is a very good thing, because the world happens to contain (and will continue for the foreseeable future to contain) a whole lot fewer liberal democrats than would be required, if we were forced to rely on them alone, to win a war against an adversary who needs no army and no captial and no borders, to be able to wreak terrible harm on innocents everywhere.

If liberal democracy were really under assault by a competitor within the state system, then the Bushian rhetoric would be more apt. But what is under assault is something much more basic -- namely, the right to live in the political system in which you find yourself, without being blown up because you happen to live there, and because someone wants that system to collapse.

In other words, the struggle against terrorism is not, except incidentally, a struggle for "freedom" or "democracy." It is a struggle for order. One would have thought that so-called "conservatives," of all people, would understand this.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


I just caught, and was pleasantly surprised by, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry -- the George Butler documentary based loosely on Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty. It is not as hagiographic as one might expect: Butler is clearly a professional documentarian (his best-known credit is Pumping Iron), rather than a maker of campaign commercials -- even if this film inevitably ends up functioning as an extended one in the context of the present campaign.

Those seeking insight into Kerry the man will see that he has changed in small ways. In his twenties, he was still unembarrassed in his use of the Boston Brahmin lockjaw -- "talks just like Kennedy," as someone (Colson?) says on one of the Nixon tapes that Butler plays. But in larger ways the public character we see now was close to fully formed even then: a joiner, a listener, a born doer with a penchant for mildly meandering contemplation, a moderating influence in the heat of political battle.

What John Adams called "the passion for distinction" was certainly there from an astonishingly young age, but so too was the sense of responsibility. Though sprung from uncannily similar social roots as Bush -- and with no doubt similarly daunting parental expectations -- Kerry early on adopted the role of the good son, the grown up. I feel more than ever that it is not an accident that he has found his way into a contest with this particular President.

But the reason the film is worth seeing is less for what it has to say about Kerry, than for the timely reminders Butler has assembled about an era in American political life that still shapes the present in ways both direct and indirect:

  • Max Cleland reminding us of how Americans in Vietnam couldn't help but be struck by the weird conjunction of "beauty and horror." This as we watch a mesmerizing overflight of lush Vietnamese rice paddies and hamlets turn nightmarish as the nepalm bombs detonate far below.

  • Numerous veterans of the Swiftboats reminding us of how Admiral Zumwalt's Operation SEALORDS (the use of the boats to conduct search-and-destroy missions up the free-fire zones of the Mekong Delta) perfectly typified the strategic stupidity and moral blindness of General Westmorland's strategy for "denying the population" to the guerrillas.

  • The archival footage of the "Winter Soldier Investigation" in Detroit in January and February of 1971, reminding us that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was born largely in the anguished testimony of young men for the first time finding words to describe the unspeakable horrors they had seen and, in many cases, done.

  • Pete McCloskey reminding us that the Republican party once had ideological room for a vigorous opposition to a war led by a sitting Republican president, as he welcomes the VVAW to Washington D.C. -- urging them, from the steps of the Capital, to buttonhole members of Congress to get a hearing for their cause.

  • The Vets themselves reminding us of how deeply they seethed with anger at what they considered a betrayal by their commanders, and of how much it cost them, to raise the voice of protest against that war -- most indelibly shown by the long line of them, waiting their turns to throw medals and ribbons over a hastily-constructed fence around the Capitol; doing so, often, with rage in their voices, as they called out the names of fallen comrades; and finally descending the platform with tears streaming from their eyes.

Throughout it all, Butler offers us a sort of running narrative reminder about what we went through as a country in those years -- and about the marks that trial left behind. With bits of old footage and voice-overs, he shows how sharply the country's attitude toward the war had changed between 1965, when Kerry and his classmates made the decision to volunteer, and 1968 when the Tet Offensive, and Johnson's subsequent resignation, gave the lie to the optimistic fantasy that our government had been feeding us. It is hard to imagine, now, the bitterness of those who were asked to continue the fight after such a terrible and bloody reckoning with reality (the U.S. lost 1,500 dead in Tet -- more than have yet been lost in all of the Iraq war), and how that bitterness must have mounted as that fight went on and on, throughout Nixon's first term and into his second.

Above all, it is sobering to be reminded of how bitterly riven, and so-to-speak spiritually exhausted the country as a whole was by 1971, when the VVAW began their anti-war activities. Vets like Kerry stepped up at a time when this country was close to the edge of political and moral madness. They tried to pull us back from that brink. To the extent that a majority of the American people remain convinced that the Vietnam War was both a mistake and unjust, I think we can say they (along with their comrades in the anti-war movement) succeeded, for which we should all be grateful.

But it took decades to undo the damage that war did to the country's spirit -- everything from racial bitterness to rampant crime to the loss of trust in major public institutions was somehow rooted in it, or exacerbated by it. It sapped our political culture of something vital, and introduced something corrosive in its place. Even today, we have not undone all the domestic harm that was then done. Let's hope we don't have start all over again, tomorrow.

Butler shows us the concluding remarks from Kerry's testimony before Senator Fulbright's Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They are worth holding in memory today, as we try to think about where we do, and do not, want to go with our effort in Iraq:

We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? We're here to ask where are McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatrick, and so many others? Where are they now that we, the men they sent off to war, have returned? These are the commanders who have deserted their troops. And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war. The Army says they never leave their wounded. The marines say they never even leave their dead. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude. They've left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun in this country....

We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission - to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more. And more. And so when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say "Vietnam" and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Grasping-At-Straws Time

Shorter Gallup Poll:

Bush didn't loose as badly this time so it was a draw.

Well, I guess that's one way to characterize what the respondents actually said:

Overall, 38% of viewers said they felt more favorably toward Kerry as a result of the debate, while 20% felt less favorably -- a net positive of 18 points. By comparison, Bush received a net positive of 11 points -- 31% of viewers said they felt more favorably and 20% less favorably toward Bush because of the debate...

In the first debate, Kerry received a net positive score of 33 points on the more favorable vs. less favorable ratings, compared with just 4 points for Bush, a further indication of how much better Bush did in this debate than the first one.

Meanwhile, the most important numbers -- the ones that had to be kept out of the headline to make room for the script-friendly declaration of a "standoff" -- are in the party-affiliation breakdown:

Democrats rallied behind Kerry's performance by 87% to 8%, while Republicans rallied behind Bush's performance by a slightly smaller margin, 83% to 10%. But independents chose Kerry by a 16-point margin, 53% to 37%.

The reason the overall figures show only a slight advantage for Kerry, despite his greater margin among his own party and winning the independent vote, is that the sample of viewers had more Republicans (38%) than Democrats (32%) or independents (30%)...

So, Kerry won narrowly in a sample disproportionately weighted in favor of Republicans, and he won handily among the sub-sample of Independents -- but the debate was a "standoff?" I would expect to see such shameless spinning from the mainstream media outlets, but since when did Gallup start pre-spinning its poll results on behalf of the Bush campaign?

Friday, October 08, 2004

Laughing Myself Green

It just isn't fair, that a scary-smart economist like Brad DeLong is also (next to John Stewart) one of the most laugh-out-loud funny political jokesters on the current scene. But then, as economists keep reminding us, life is not fair.

(Have I mentioned lately that Democrats in general suck on the issue of "outsourcing?" Democrats suck on the issue of outsourcing. But not as hard as Bush sucks on the issue of free trade, so let's just say we're all square. As it is written in the Krugmanonicon, there is time to take up this argument once the grownups are back in power.)

Let us say it, then, in all modesty:

Aaaiii! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh DeLong R'lyeh wagn'nagl fhtagn! Aaaiii!!!! Aaaaaaaaiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!

I only wish I knew the superlative form.

I just love "the internets."

Round Two to Big John

Having, as usual, listened to (rather than watched) tonight's debate, I'd say that Kerry won this one handily, on the basis of his performance in the first half-hour.

Those tuning in late (once Bush calmed down a bit) might have heard it as a draw. Kerry did quite well on fiscal reponsibility (as indeed he should have), but only moderately well on jobs (despite the abundant ammunition provided by today's disappointing jobs report and Bush's generally abysmal record on the issue), and quite poorly on environment and stem cells, where Bush, despite his enormous substantive liabilities, arguably bested Kerry on rhetorical grounds alone.

But during the crucial first part of the debate, with Iraq and the "War on Terrorism" once again on the table, Kerry utterly dominated the exchanges. Bush was (even without the visuals) defensive, repetitive and (dare we say it, Brad?) shrill. Kerry, meanwhile, was simultaneously calm, authoritative and yet, more often than not, vigorously on the offensive. In other words, Kerry continued to press the advantages he capitalized on so well in his first encounter with Bush, where the most compelling issues (i.e., foreign policy ones), and the unavoidably damning facts behind those issues (which continue to mount up almost daily), gave him the decisive edge.

Like round one, this was also a good reminder for Democrats of why John Kerry is such an effective politician, and how he got here. It is hard to imagine any other Democratic contender from this year's primaries (with the notable exception of the late-entering Wesley Clark) doing this well in the face of Bush's determined onslaught of political irreality.

Kudos also (indeed, especially) to our citizen-questioners, who came up with a far better set of interrogatories than did the largely script-driven professional journalists who controlled the agenda in round one and in the Edwards-Cheney matchup.