Kyle's Republic
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
Bad Words, 2

"Snarky" to mean snide. That's baby talk.
That Little Punk

I thought of a name for Bush! It starts out as a splutter, which isn't good, but ends as a sneer, which is better. And it sums up why I've decided, finally, that I just don't like the guy.
A Straw to Lean On

Bush won the New Hampshire GOP primary with 85.5%. Not bad, but on the other hand not good. For example, President Clinton won 95% in his party's primary back in 1996.

And of the 14.5 percentage points that Bush missed, almost half went to candidates from the Democratic side. That is, 4,479 presumably Republican voters wrote in the supposedly hated names of Kerry, Dean, Clark, Edwards, and even Sharpton. Even Kucinich, for that matter.

The Non-Ham Sandwich

David Kay's appearances in the press have re-triggered the "imminent threat" debate. That works for me because I get to use an argument I worked out after the first go-round on this business.

Bush never said "imminent threat," Nixon never "secret plan." And if I said I planned to put a piece of ham on a piece of rye bread, cover it with mustard, and then put another piece of rye bread on top, any reporter covering my daily life would probably say I meant to make a ham sandwich. But, listen, I never said it.
Portents, 1

From the Washington Post, on Kerry's turnaround:

"Proxies often helped him tell his story. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) appeared, he always talked about Kerry's relationship with his wife and daughters."

Ted Kennedy as your family man proxy. I'm not arguing this says anything bad about Kerry. I'm just saying it feels weird to read it.

My guess is Kennedy must look very grandfatherly these days.

Time passes and things keep changing.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
New Hampshire Says No to Mannerism

Kerry's win looks handsome enough to rule out any finagling about a silver lining for Dean. So we're spared the feared final torque in the expectations spiral.

Still it is odd to think the kickoff primary went to today's version of Ed Muskie. How times have changed. Judging by the Iowa polls -- which found the voters cared most about electability -- political coverage has soaked so deep into our consciousness that a big part of the electorate acts as freelance campaign analysts. They don't go for an individual. They step back, take in the big picture, and apply their vote like technicians.

Of course, the voters polled in New Hampshire didn't talk so much about electability. But I think they were full of it. There's evidence I like and evidence I don't like, and I can tell the difference between the two.
Monday, January 26, 2004
The Turn of the Screw

It's official: two big-name bloggers (Josh Marshall and Tacitus) are wondering how close Dean will have to finish behind Kerry to claim a victory of sorts in NH. That is, they wonder if Dean could do better than expected.

That's a scary thought. Because if he does, our campaign rhythm will have accelerated to where the dark horse can become the frontrunner, the old frontrunner can become the new dark horse, the new dark horse can show up the new frontrunner, and the new frontrunner can go back to being the dark horse in time to beat expectations against the former and now once again frontrunner. And all this is for the first primary in a 30-primary (or so) process.

Somehow the scenario lacks the classic simplicity of McCarthy vs. Johnson during the Tet winter of 1968. In fact it suggests a sort of decadence, a political version of the late Baroque sculptures where the grape leafs in a nymph's hand had more ripples and curves than any art lover could find time to look at. Our primary season has gone Mannerist.

Frontrunners and dark horses are created by reporters' attempts at guessing what will happen when people vote. But if Dean does beat expectations on Tuesday, it will show those attempts have failed. We get these turnarounds because the professionals' expectations keep proving wrong. I assume national reporters aren't selected for ineptitude, so the problem lies with what they're trying to do. Predicting is an impossible task, and individually the reporters and analysts are bound to fail. Yet their individual failures add up to a huge advantage for their industry. The media is able to produce a drama out of some semi-unknowns jostling for a few votes. The trick is for reporters to guess what's going to happen and to act as if their guesses matter. They don't do this out of salesmanship; my theory is they just have the pro's normal vanity of thinking he knows the angles. But the attempts flop as angle-guessing and succeed as hype. If they could call elections reliably, everyone would be too bored to care. In fact that's what happens in those contests where everyone knows what's going to happen: Reagan vs. Mondale, Clinton vs. Dole. The reporters themselves are bored by those (Witcover and Germond's book on 1984 was called Wake Us When It's Over).

As long as reporters are wrong, they can keep producing their line's fastest-moving item: the dramatic horse race. There's something profoundly disjointed about all this, and it's tempting to think that the Kerry-Dean spiral has brought it to a point of exhaustion -- people can't keep caring about dark horses and frontrunners when the designations keep peeling off the people supposedly stuck with them. But any sane observer would have thought nothing could top O.J. Simpson in the last decade's run of tabloid crime. And nothing has, but the run sretches comfortably into our own decade.

In the end, horse race coverage gets to be like the Royal Family. If the Brits would just stop caring about the Windsors, it wouldn't matter if the monarchy was abolished or not. But the Brits can't stop caring. And we can't stop wanting to know how a given group of voters will behave on a given calendar date that is weeks or months ahead. We'll settle for any absurd substitute for knowledge, and we'll be thrilled when it's shown up as a substitute. A racket where the thrill is in finding the gold brick is a fake: that's a racket fated to last through the ages.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Dowd and Judy Dean

"... some reporters thought that thrust into her first national television interview, Judy Dean seemed as fragile as Laura in 'The Glass Menagerie.'"

Yeah, right.

"You know who she reminds me of? ..."

"Yes. From 'The Glass Menagerie.' Stella."

"Not Stella. It's Lisa ... Laura."

"And Stanley breaks those glass horses. Or whatever. Let's get that in."

Nobody mentioned "The Glass Menagerie" in connection with Judy Steinberg Dean until Dowd had a column to write. And she wouldn't have if Julia Roberts — or even Meg Ryan — had ever made a movie about someone shy.

All in all this seems like one of the dumber personal-life controversies to come up during a campaign. Dowd says the couple seems "so far from mainstream American life." How? Mrs. Dean works for a living and takes her job seriously. That's in the American mainstream, I hope. What isn't is to get drafted as an instant celebrity because your husband wants to be president.

Reporters have fallen on the word "shy" for Mrs. Dean. And maybe there's an article somewhere mentioning how she avoids eye contact with her receptionist. But from what I've seen "shy" is being used here to mean she doesn't like sitting through political dinners, speaking to five crowds a day, or going on national television. What percentage of the population does?

It's like the way the press calls someone reclusive because he doesn't give interviews. He may have friends, family, people in the neighborhood he says hi to — but he's a recluse because he doesn't sit down for conversations with people carrying tape recorders.

Has anyone suggested that Mrs. Dean doesn't like her husband? Or that she doesn't think he stands a chance? Or believes he shouldn't be president? If so, I haven't seen a mention. And while these ideas are all possible, they seem less likely than the commonsense explanation: big-deal politics is not a fit life for normal human beings, and this woman is a normal human being.

Characteristically, Dowd circles around to something like this proposition after first taking shots at the Deans for not playing the game. Two sentences after suggesting the couple is somehow odd — "so far from mainstream American life" — she gives Mrs. Dean a pat on the head: "But I found Judy Dean, gussied up with unfamiliar lipstick and blush, charming. She seemed as antithetical as possible to the notion of a first lady — and that ain't all bad."

This represents two of Dowd's perennial reflexes: point a finger at those who don't fit in, but also suggest that you stand above the game and can fault it from on high. That she can't see her own contradiction shows Dowd should stick to the easy stuff, like noticing that it's bad for the White House to lie about a war.

The respect the press gives Dowd's more involved notions of right and wrong is just additional evidence that Judy Dean has made the correct call: avoid the whole mess.

Thursday, January 22, 2004
Bad Words, 1

"Trump" to mean beat: "Street cred trumps establishment backing."

"Toxic" to mean bad: "I object to George Bush's toxic patriotism."

"Weirdly" to mean very: "Cheney is weirdly oblivious to the implications of this."

"Breathtakingly" to mean very: "The administration is breathtakingly oblivious to the implications of this."

The connecting thread is that these are attempts at being clever by people who aren't clever. Most of magazine writing is made up of such attempts, and with Maureen Dowd we've seen the disease spread to newspaper writing about public figures. Spy did a very good job (a weirdly good job) of policing this sort of material in the 1980s, as when they mocked the now-dead constructions of "blank from Hell" and "blank on acid." Now the magazine is gone and we're left unprotected. More later, I suppose.
Worse Than the Yell

Dean in USA Today:

"I might as well go back to being who I really am."

Than what was he before?

Like a lot of Dean "gaffes," this one becomes wiggly as soon as you look at its context. Placement in the USA Today article suggests he meant getting away from the nasty back-and-forth of the last days of the Iowa campaign. But somehow the placement also suggests he meant getting back to his middle-of-the-road record as a governor -- in contrast, one assumes, with the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" sales pitch that made him famous. So the article, needless to say, was not too well written.

But leave it to Dean to come up with the unadorned words that invite the worst interpretation. "I might as well go back to being who I really am." In conversation that probably had a droll, self-deprecatory fillip. Maybe he said it with the understanding that, of course, he'd never chosen to stop being who he was, that his job now is to clear away misunderstandings created by the media and his rivals. Or maybe not. We'll never know because we'll never experience the remark as part of its original conversation.

It seems to me Dean has made this mistake again and again. He likes to show off and has a weakness for letting out good ones. That at least is spontaneous -- you know nobody writes these things for him. But a good one depends on its audience, and the most important audience for a presidential candidate is not the people in his immediate range of vision. Something that was quite a sharp thrust in its room of origin can become a hideous clanger when transmitted to the rest of the population.

In fact the more effective a remark was originally, the more dangerous it may be the next day: the hints of boldness, of unorthodoxy, of originality provide the material for misinterpretation. Kerry and other by-the-book types plane away those hints to erase handholds for enemy use.

For all we know, Dean's concession speech yell and roll call of primaries went over quite well with the crowd listening to them -- judging by the clip I saw, that's not even a guess. But if you weren't in the room, what you saw was a man having a fit. It's a tough lesson for a clever individualist to learn: your dull competitors are dull for time-tested reasons.

Of course, maybe Dean really did want to say it was time to stop being a firebrand. In that case he's well and truly dead. We've got lots of centrist governors, and they're from bigger states than Vermont. Take away the gimmick and you've got Kiss without makeup.
The Yell
This is the problem with not having a TV. I read about Howard's yell a dozen times and finally viewed a jerky, stop-motion Internet clip that presented the moment like a pinned butterfly steeped in formaldehyde. That is, I got a clear idea of what everyone was talking about, but I never came near the experience itself. Now at least one blogger who was holding out for a Dean resurgence has been shaken loose because of the yell. If he's right, I'll add in an earlier prediction of my own: in the shorthand analysis with which journalists will sum up the campaign, Gore's endorsement will be remembered as the first nail in Dean's coffin and the yell as the last.
Clark's Obsession
For the first time Clark has done something I really don't like. To wit:

"Clark referred to Kerry as a 'junior officer,' a reprise of his crack Monday night that while Kerry was a Navy lieutenant, 'I'm a general.'"

Pulling rank is never charming, but the real problem here is a hint of strangeness. Clark seems transfixed by his military background in a way no voter could be. It's as if we had two candidates from Yale Law School and one of them kept comparing their class ranking. To anyone who hadn't been to Yale Law (and some who had), the obsession would just seem odd.

Clark struck the same tin note when he said that he, unlike some others, stayed in the service after the war. So what? There's a lot to do outside the military, and in our country electing career soldiers has always been the exception, not the rule. For most people it's easy to take military service as one factor in judging a person. Clark can't seem to make that adjustment.

You hear remarks like these and you start to realize the general has spent his adult life in a society different than ours. No wonder there were so many public issues he never thought about until his 50s. Kerry is rich, but he's a rich man who has spent his life trying to keep up with what ordinary voters wanted. Clark has had very different concerns, ones that as a civilian I probably couldn't understand. The problem is he's just now getting a clue as to ours. And at the moment he seems to be fighting the process.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
I started this blog the day Gore endorsed Dean. My first post argued that saturation media coverage had mutated the rhythm of presidential campaigns, sped up their metabolism so that a dark horse could become a frontrunner before anyone voted. I suggested that this newly minted frontrunner, once voting day arrived, would face the same problem that had sunk so many old-style, establishment-anointed frontrunners -- namely, that he could never do as well as the press thought he should.

The corollary of this is pretty obvious: the candidate upsetting the new-style frontrunner would be, of course, the guy he had pushed aside, the former frontrunner, the man with no expectations whatsoever. In other words, the contender who would stun everybody by defeating Dean (or, all right, "doing better than expected") would be the forlorn and abandoned John Kerry.

And the idea occurred to me, but I figured it was a bit over-ingenious. At any rate, I was also toying with the notion of John Edwards catching fire, just because he's a plausible character. And of course Clark was the safety bet as far as dark horses went. In the end I resisted undue specificity (the trap of showoffs) and stuck to my sense of underlying tectonics.

But, boy, do I wish I'd put that in.

(Note: I thought Dean's judgment day would come in New Hampshire. I assumed organization would carry him through in Iowa and the caucuses would prove once again to be a dead end. Right now, I have no idea who will win New Hampshire. But I'd been kind of assuming it would be Clark, which means it will probably be ... never mind.)
Prophecy Fever
The hardest task I've ever faced as a blogger? It's not typing the sentence below:

Dean is finished.

Obviously, we just found out once again that predictions are a stupid thing to make. And Iowa has rung up some failures as a bellwether: Bush won it in '80, Dole in '88, Harkin in '92.

Still ... The only thing that keeps me from believing Dean will lose New Hampshire is the memory of all the failed predictions I've heard and read during 26 years of following politics.

Nobody ever gets good at predicting elections -- the state of the art never advances. Yet people never stop trying. I've never heard of anyone with a proven track record of calling political outcomes. And I've never heard of anyone, and certainly not a journalist, who has said making these calls is a waste of time. In the end it makes the most sense to think of political predictions as props for the psyche, delusions designed to reassure the ego that the world makes sense. What else are we getting from them?

Right now I have to remind myself of this faith, like St. Anthony remembering God as he looks at Satan's temptations. That's how real Dean's defeat next week feels to me. On the other hand, Kerry's victory next week doesn't feel real at all. And neither does his victory yesterday. I just can't believe in Kerry winning, which may be a result of brainwashing by the past six months of the conventional wisdom.

But with Dean ... I always felt like Dean was getting foisted on me by a crowd of people who liked him a lot more than I could. He'd done some smart organizing and he'd opened his mouth at the right time, but I couldn't like him and couldn't see him as president. He seemed more like a warm-up act. But he had the supporters when everyone else was tanking, and that made him the most likely nominee. Now the pressure's off. People aren't voting for Dean after all, and that means I can put him behind me. I feel free. Doesn't everyone else feel the way I do?

Maybe not, but it's as good a reason for a prediction as any.

Wait a minute
It says here Carter didn't endorse Dean. Dean just showed up on his own initiative to have his picture taken with Carter.

The hell with it then.
Monday, January 19, 2004
The Truth About Democrats
It's quite a rollcall. Gore, Bradley, Carter, Harkin ... "Dean even ended up with more congressional endorsements than Gephardt, who led the House Democrats for more than a decade" (that's according to William Saletan at Slate).

This brings home once again the lesson of America's past 36 years: Democrats know shit about getting elected.

The bigger the Democrat, the worse he seems to be at this stuff. It's as if the trait is a given, fundamental, and just gets stronger the more room a Democrat takes up. At the top of the tree you find Jimmy Carter, who made it to president just so he could demonstrate what a really bad reelection campaign looks like.

The exception, as always, is Bill Clinton. I never trusted him, but that's probably in his favor. A part of his soul is Republican, in the sense that winning and taking are his food and drink -- he'd starve without them.
It's not a lovable trait, but it's one more Democrats could do with. Sometimes they're idealists who sink with their banners flying. More often they're just good students afraid of breaking the rules handed down by their campaign consultants. But they don't know how to line up their eye with victory and then launch themselves at it.

That's more a Republican thing, God help us.
Thursday, January 15, 2004
TV viewers who type
Why did the press keep reporting "fibs" and "exaggerations" by Al Gore (the Internet, Love Canal, etc.) that Al Franken and various bloggers have told us were nothing of the sort? Because: 1) Gore got the nomination with distortions of Bill Bradley's record and positions; and 2) even when telling the truth, Gore has the mentality and demeanor of a liar. He may be a fine person overall, and I do believe he's a capable officer of government, but his personality has got some serious bends to it. I've touched on that point before (see my first post) and may do so again. What counts here is one effect of those twists: Gore is odious on television. Everyone knows this. It's a simple and vivid reality, and it overpowers any sifting of fine points regarding his individual statements. Of course the press should do that sifting; it should not pass on urban legends as fact. But don't think reporters are carrying water for the right -- they're just not too good at critical thinking. Add Gore's on-the-record stretchers regarding Bradley and it becomes easy to find him guilty until proven innocent on anything that relates to truthtelling.
Consider that Dan Quayle was the one national Republican to get the press tying cans to his tail. He said some dumb things and he looked stupid on television (that blond, blinking pipsqueak face), so when he talked about Murphy Brown the newsroom intellectuals had to laugh. You can say that was fair to Quayle, since he was dim, but it wasn't fair to the speech. Agree or diagree with the argument, it's not outlandish to favor two-parent families or to believe that TV programs influence behavior. The joke was that the speech came from the dark genius himself, William Kristol, an intellectual macher with more brains than 98% of the shmos who fill column inches for us.
I watch CNN at the gym, where the sound's turned off and you get by with the set's closed caption feature. This has some impressionistic but mysteriously apt spelling. In playing a Kucinich commercial about Iraq as Vietnam: "We don't want to fall into that crap again."
On a less relevant note, Bill Schneider apparently pronounces Iowa as "Eye Ware."
When you know you're not James Baker
From the O'Neill book: "'You're the chief of staff,' Bush said. 'You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?' Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room."
Of anyone who's ever run for president, Clark looks the most like Franz Kafka. Not the expression, just his ears and the shape of his face.
Position Taken
Maureen Dowd tells us Bush "wants to become the national yenta."
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
More About Soldiers
If I could figure out how to edit published posts, I would go back and change a sentence in my item on the troops. Not to soften it, just to speak more clearly.

The point I wanted to make was this: foreigners, who have no sentimental attachment to our soldiers, sometimes raise uncomfortable points about them. Our press should look into those points and see how much is there. The big papers do report on individual incidents, but I haven't come across any attempt to connect the dots. I haven't seen any takeouts on how good or bad our troops actually are and whether they're doing more harm than good. And, really, this should be a big, ongoing issue just because what the soldiers do is our responsibility. Remember, this was a war of choice.

Also, the individual incidents don't get as much play over here as they should. For example, Calpundit links to this article from London's Guardian for today:

"The international news agency Reuters has made a formal complaint to the Pentagon following the 'wrongful' arrest and apparent 'brutalisation' of three of its staff this month by US troops in Iraq.

"The complaint followed an incident in the town of Falluja when American soldiers fired at two Iraqi cameramen and a driver from the agency while they were filming the scene of a helicopter crash.


"Although Reuters has not commented publicly, it is understood that the journalists were 'brutalised and intimidated' by US soldiers, who put bags over their heads, told them they would be sent to Guantanamo Bay, and whispered: 'Let's have sex.'"


"The US troops, from the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Falluja, also made the blindfolded journalists stand for hours with their arms raised and their palms pressed against the cell wall.


"The US military has so far refused to apologise and has bluntly told Reuters to 'drop' its complaint.


"The journalists were all wearing bulletproof jackets clearly marked 'press'. They drove off after US soldiers who were securing the scene opened fire on their Mercedes, but were arrested shortly afterwards."

And so on. The military says it has sworn testimony the soldiers in question had just come under enemy fire, though presumably not from the journalists. The journalists' captivity is alleged to have continued for three days.

One (as the British say) is torn here. The story has a lot of unnamed, unofficial sources. The U.K. press is reputedly less careful than ours (God help them), and left-wing British papers like the Guardian make the pursuit of American wrongdoing something of a sport. But they were right about the WMDs, weren't they?

American leftists and liberals have a longstanding trope of pointing to the fearlessness of the British press compared with our browbeaten variety. But, as far as I know, nobody here has more than a stray word to say about foreign reports of blundering or outright brutality by our soldiers. Our war critics are bending over backwards not to return to the days when Vietnam vets were called "baby killers." But some of our vets were baby killers, literally and at close range -- remember My Lai? Those manning bombers were also baby killers. It was, shall we say, a fair issue and an important one. It was not a reason to revile all our soldiers, but in the end that was not as important as investigating the massacres and facing up to what the air war had done.

It would be nice if we could wade into ugly topics like this without triggering hate speech. It would be nice if all public life could be conducted without hate speech. But I'd rather have hate speech than pretend that crucial parts of our public life do not exist. And that is our situation right now. The war's opponents don't mind lavishing regret over what Bush is doing to the planet's nerves. But what about what the troops are doing to actual people? Those carrying guns for us deserve our gratitude, but we have a responsibility to the rest of the world for what they do.

My guess is that the war opposition is not only terrified of this issue but also genuinely reluctant to treat our men and women as enemies -- which is the automatic risk of criticizing any group whose errors or misdeeds would mean innocent deaths. No doubt the same goes but more so for the press. And it's good to see that people respect sacrifice. But respect and deference aren't the same.

I have no idea whether the stories from abroad are wrong or right. I just don't think they should be pushed aside. War critics should be asking why the press doesn't take a look. (In fact everyone should, but I've given up on the right ever showing basic morality or common sense.) My own sense is that when you have a whole lot of money flowing through an area -- as with drug money flowing through Mexico -- you automatically get corruption. When you have a whole lot of fire power getting sprayed about, you automatically get abuses. That's not a reason to accept the abuses; it's a reason to be on the lookout for them.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
The Armageddon Answer
Why a moon base and then on to Mars? Yes, there's a lot of pork for Texas, but what's the public popularity angle?

Look to Armageddon for an answer. It's made by Jerry Bruckheimer (who thinks Democratic wimpiness caused 9-11) and stars Bruce Willis (one of Hollywood's Republicans). In 1998 the movie brought in about $200 million, and most of that wasn't from Blue Country -- after all, do you know anyone who liked it?

Willis is a tough oil driller drafted to save the planet: there's a big asteroid that has to be stopped or the world is over. But he's appalled by the long-shot, hail-Mary, 1-chance-in-a-1,000 plan brought to him by Billy Bob Thornton and his scientists. "That's it?" Willis asks. "That's the best you can do? But you're the government. You're Nasa! You put a man on the moon, for crying out loud." (This quote is correct but not faithful, if you know what I mean.)

The point of the speech is that the government, as usual, is not enough. A few individualist, private enterprise roughnecks have to risk their lives to make the whole thing work. This causes Willis to squeal; in fact the line reading is probably the highest-pitched of his career. Why? Because unfairness is the note most often sounded by today's American individualist. Limbaugh listeners aren't Howard Roarks straining to bestride the world; they tend to be whiners. They figure they could afford season tickets like the big boys if property taxes hadn't gone up seven years ago. So Willis can't just sneer and say, Yeah, what do you expect, government is useless.

But given that he plays a self-made oil-drilling magnate, given that the audience is waiting for the private-enterprise, individualist mavericks to pull out everyone's chestnuts, how could he be disappointed? What got his hopes up in the first place? What is one thing a red-blooded type could point to as an example of government's competence and grandeur? The space program.

We're talking about the very narrow intersection of two sets: operations that only the government can perform, and operations that strike red-blooded males as worthwhile. The shared set contains the military, security, and shooting big things into space. The first two are getting a workout. Now for the third, which is the smile face of the trio. Moon bases sound like a vacation when you consider the shit we've had here on earth the past few years.

Karl Rove's reasoning: let the Democrats talk about how we don't have the money. To Bush's base and a lot of swing voters, that will be like saying you're against good news, not to mention adventure and the frontier spirit. When you come down to it, the Democrats will be saying they're against letting men be men. After all, today's standard way to be a man is paying a lot of money so someone else does something dangerous.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Thoughts on PC and the Military
I don't know whether anyone has formulated this before. At any rate, when I was in college "politically correct" took in the whole sweep of approved left-wing attitudes: bikes instead of cars, rice and tofu instead of red meat, organic vegetables instead of factory-farmed (if the issue was around back then). But after the media fuss of the early '90s the term quickly came to mean one thing to the public mind: sensitivity to minorities. Or, more precisely, over-sensitivity -- touchiness. That's the meaning I want to discuss here.

The dynamic of this PC is that a minority should never suffer any sense of injury and that, of course, only members of the minority can decide whether they have this sense. So the rest of the population is let in for a game of Simon Says in which blacks, homosexuals, Latinos, people with AIDS, etc., get to decide our vocabulary for us. Your strings get pulled and there's nothing you can do about it. Resist and your good-person certificate gets revoked.

I think that's how the general population views PC, and there is some point to the complaint. Give people power, even as petty as this, and some will always overstep. But even aside from overstepping, it's uncomfortable to have someone else's instincts decide your behavior. You start to feel like no tiny detail of your life is safely your own. "You can't even say ______ anymore" goes the complaint. Of course, people said that back when "colored" and "darkie" got forcibly retired. There is a reason why PC exists: the majority, being the majority, does not naturally take up the minority's point of view and has to be brought to heel somehow. But of course the process is going to gripe.

I never really felt that until the Shays-Johnson tiff over Times Square safety (see a few posts below). You can't even decide whether or not to risk your life because of the feelings of some group. In this case the group is soldiers, but the old PC dynamics are the same.

A couple of thoughts on that.

First, it's not intellectually healthy to have groups protected from adverse views. If any group ever deserved a free ride from American opinion it would be blacks, but trying to enforce that has fostered a stubborn undercurrent of majority resentment. (The trick is to recognize both white guilt and black self-accountability, and a few people have done so. The only examples I can think of are on the liberal side of the spectrum, but maybe some Republicans also qualify.)

Soldiers are now a protected group in American opinion. The right loves them and always has; the center and left-of-center aren't inclined to criticize any group making such a real and recognized sacrifice. A politician, of course, would be dead meat if he said an uncomfortable word about the troops. But even opinion journalists and bloggers have to watch their step. Not being for the soldiers is enough to get yourself ruled out of any debate.

I don't know whether the soldiers are doing a good or bad job. But it's unhealthy to have the topic ruled so far out of grounds that it can't even be formulated. The foreign press makes a lot more of our friendly fire deaths than we do. And it seems like a reasonable topic, especially when so many of the victims have been allied troops. So I'd like to know: do these deaths (and the civilian bombings in Afghanistan) represent poor performance by our military? And by "military" I mean not only the Pentagon (already discredited) but theater commanders, field officers, and grunts.

Maybe everyone below the level of Wolfowitz is doing just fine. But if our press has given the question a real look I haven't come across it. If there is a problem, better we should find out now than later. And that's so even if the soldiers' feelings are hurt.
Bradley for Dean
His heroes are Jimmy Carter, Woodrow Wilson, and Mikhail Gorbachev ... and now he says the Dean movement is the best thing to happen in U.S. politics for decades.

That's why Bradley's endorsement adds to my creeping sense of a messy nomination on its way. If Bradley just accepted Dean, that would be one thing. But his enthusiasm disquiets me.

Bradley is the one presidential contender ever to lose out to Al Gore. And, as his hero list shows, he has an instinct for losers. If he likes Dean, well ...

This is based more on Democratic self-hatred than a reading of insider evidence. In fact I have no insider evidence, just a gut shriveled by watching decades of wrong-headed Democratic moves. The exception was Clinton, of course, and the one thing he taught me is that I'm tired of losing.
Saturday, January 03, 2004
There's a bit of a liberal blog pile-on regarding David Brooks. But he deserves it, so I'll add my mite.

He says he can't respect the Democratic leadership because they aren't slandering Howard Dean. (Really, that's his argument.) Through the Lewinsky mess, Democrats kept saying Republicans practice the "politics of personal destruction." Now Brooks allows that, yes, this is the Republican approach. Not only do they respect personal mudslinging, they do not respect its absence. Judging by Brooks's column, they feel this is the way government should be conducted by anyone worth taking seriously.

And Brooks is the "literate," "civilized" conservative who qualified for a showcase on the Times op-ed page. Does he read what he writes?
Shoshana Johnson's feelings are hurt because Chris Shays didn't want to visit Times Square for New Year's Eve. What does this have to do with anything? I don't know how good or bad a terrorist risk it is to mix in crowds on high-profile occasions. But I do know my decision won't be influenced by whether or not someone winds up feeling underappreciated.

Also, there's no reason to think that the bravery and sacrifice of Johnson and our other soldiers in Iraq have done anything to make an NYC New Year's a safer bet. If Johnson feels like her ordeal was for nothing, there's a good reason and it's not Chris Shays. The war was and is an exorbitant sideshow launched by a leadership whose head was up Paul Wolfowitz's ass.
Friday, January 02, 2004
"When it comes to peace and war, the American people believe their president deserves the benefit of a doubt. I, and many others, found out that this president does not."

This quote belongs to no one, but John Kerry and, I suppose, John Edwards are welcome to use it. The issue seems simple to me: most voters do instinctively believe that a president won't lie them into a pointless war. If he's talking about sending soldiers off to die, he must at least have a respectable case -- that's our automatic position. For a lot of people, if the Democrats know how to play it, the issue in Iraq is that this was not so.

A fence-sitting candidate who came down for the war resolution can say, in effect, that he did what any citizen would have done and he got burned just like his fellow citizens. This gets the focus back on Bush. And it takes a bit from Dean, because being right from the start -- and bragging about it -- doesn't count for as much as being in step with voters. That may be sad, but it's also true.

And something Democrats have to keep reminding themselves: being in step with the voters does not mean supporting Bush. The President, not Bush the man, received many people's trust during a time of crisis. He abused that trust. I bet a lot of people are pissed, and rousting out Saddam Hussein won't change that.

Sometimes you get taken because of your worst instincts, sometimes because of your best. The resolution Democrats can at least argue that their best instincts were their weakness here, and they can say -- very truthfully -- that Bush is to blame for this. So, yeah, don't forget the nonexistent WMDs and those eight months of scare stories. If Kerry and Edwards have been having second thoughts, so have a lot of other Americans. And for the same reason: Bush is a liar. That's the issue. Stick to it.

Thursday, January 01, 2004
Can't anyone here play this game?
The NY Times tells us that leading Democrats are worried because the candidates haven't produced a big theme, the sort that's supposed to win presidential elections. Then this:

"General Clark's communications director, Matthew Bennett, called back later to say that the general would soon break the ice. 'Wait one week and we'll have a big idea coming out,' Mr. Bennett said. 'I can't give it out yet, but it's not quite cooked.'"

This is a bit like when Bob Dole said Americans would rather trust him than Clinton if their kids needed a babysitter. A reporter asked him why. His answer (approximately): "I don't know. The guys told me that's what the focus group said."

In other words, Matthew Bennett is giving us the sort of candor that reveals a lack of authenticity. A big policy idea is expected to be cooked more than a week before we're let in on it. It's supposed to be based on convictions developed over decades and ideas developed over years. It's not supposed to be done up in response to the latest Washington buzz.

At the very least, Clark's people might have phrased themselves a bit differently. Or they might have kept quiet for a few days rather than flinch in the face of a Times piece about worried political kibitzers. The determination to give the kibitzers what they want is a bit like the way Gore kept changing gears as his debate reviews came in. In other words, not a good sign.

Republicans never seem to listen to experts. That has its drawbacks, as we've seen, but in some ways it's less embarrassing than the Democrats' counter reflex.
Overheard at a party for people in their 20s:

" ... you know, Maria Shriver's father -- Colonel Shriver."
Everything the others don't get

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