Benchmarks or Stenchmarks: It's all a Matter of Semantics
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, October 29, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: The debate on “The McLaughlin Group” was over what’s happening with Bush and Iraq: is U.S. policy changing course or is Bush introducing new semantics to describe the same old policy? Here’s how Pat Buchanan put it: the president’s trying to put a new imprint on a policy that hasn’t changed. For the future, he’s basically got three options. He can send in more troops and try to change the situation on the ground, he can stay the course, or he can start to introduce “benchmarks” – a concerted effort to put more targeted political pressure on the Iraqi government, the prelude to getting out. Buchanan says that the first two choices are not real choices. He can’t send more troops and he can’t stay the course. Thus, benchmarks are the only option. My opening question to you is are we seeing semantical, but not substantive changes in policy?
Newman: There’ll be no changes in policy until after Election Day. Therefore, it must be semantics.
Salit: All right. After Election Day, let’s assume that we’re going to see the benchmark policy. The policy is not changing before Election Day, but some of the foundation is being laid for it now. Does the introduction of benchmarks constitute a change in policy?
Newman: It seems to be reasonably interpreted as part of a plan for withdrawal.
Salit: Tony Blankley said that too much was being made of this, in terms of how the benchmark orientation represents a change in policy. His argument was that this is the next step that Bush would logically take, given the course of the war. So, it’s not accurate to call it a change in policy. It’s just the next thing that we’re doing, having won a military victory in Baghdad, having established the U.S. presence, having the Iraqi government formed. There may be sectarian fighting and so forth, but this is the next step.
Newman: Look, here’s a basic truth of language and its relationship to reality. Every event, of which there are an infinite number, has an infinite number of descriptions. Indeed, an infinite number of true descriptions. So, you can describe things however you choose. And you can interpret those descriptions however you choose.
Newman: So, is it a change in policy or is it simply the next step in what was the existing policy, given that there are new things happening? You can have it either way. And, to the woman or man in Iraq who gets shot and killed, it makes no difference.
Salit: So, what is the difference then?
Newman: It’s a difference in description.
Salit: So, the different descriptions are a function of different political viewpoints, different political interests, different agendas…
Newman: Different vocabulary, different attitudes, different culture, different intents. They’re a function of what it is you’re trying to effect with language. How successful are they? Well, that remains to be seen. They’re oriented towards Election Day. And, in this case, we’ll find out in a relatively short time which were the more effective ones. Because there will be a vote next week.
Salit: They’re oriented towards Election Day…
Newman: …in this case.
Salit: In this case, okay. So, the description that goes ‘We’re going to establish benchmarks setting the stage for withdrawal of U.S. troops,’ coming from Bush, is designed to do what?
Newman: To say the course has been basically correct. We’re winning. Now we’re ready to take the next step and begin putting into place the conditions for withdrawal.
Salit: The political message, then, in terms of Election Day, is if you were thinking of not voting Republican because you thought the Republicans were going to continue the war, you don’t have to be concerned about that because we’re now on a course to withdrawal.
Newman: And, moreover, we’re on a course to withdrawal on the plan that we used and that plan has led to this stage of things, which indicates we’ve won the war.
Salit: And, those who are characterizing this, relative to Election Day, as a change in policy, or as a future change in policy, want to establish that Bush had put the country on the wrong course. We were following the wrong course. It was a mistake. It was badly executed. We have to get out. He’s admitting defeat and we’re getting out.
Newman: And that he’s doing that in response to the pressure from the Democrats.
Salit: QED, vote for the Democrats.
Salit: All right.
Newman: The vote could be very close a week from Tuesday. They’re not so far apart.
Salit: Those two positions.
Newman: If you listen to the pundits now, they want to make it sound like there are real differences between the two positions. But, obviously, there are not. Both parties supported the war. They supported all the appropriations. There never was much of a difference between them on this question and there still isn’t.
Newman: So, contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the deciding factor in this vote is going to be the Iraq war. I think the deciding factor is going to be George Bush. George Bush is the issue in this election, not the Iraq war. How does that translate? I don’t know. His poll numbers are rather low. But he does have a kind of popularity. He does relate to the American people in a certain sort of way, and establishes a kind of trust. I think it’s all going to be about the president, which is not so uncharacteristic of midterm elections. Yes, there are all the local issues relative to the particular candidates running for the Senate or the House. But, it’s about Bush, not the war.
Salit: How would you frame what the judgment is that people will make? Not which judgment they’ll make, but how they consider this?
Newman: I think it’s a question of whether you want to continue with one party rule in Washington, with the partisan politics and all of that. Are you put off by that or do you want to continue to have that? In so far as the national situation impacts on local elections, that’s what you’ll vote on. If you have the most wonderful person in the world running against an utter idiot, the national issues probably won’t be a factor at all. But, in so far as it’s a factor, that’s what it’s going to be about, I think. Not the war.
Salit: There’s been discussion about the “turn out question,” as there is always before an election. On the Republican side, Kathleen Parker on Chris Matthews introduced the category of voter called the “broken glass Republican,” which, as the term suggests, is the Republican who would crawl over broken glass to get to the polls in order to stop the Democrats from gaining political power. That’s not equivalent to the Christian Coalition, the social conservative voter, or anything like that. It’s more a Republican partisan who simply does not want the Democrats to take control.
Newman: It’s exactly like the “broken glass” Democratic voter who has some direct or emotional interest in not having Republicans in office. And they’ll do anything for the party. It doesn’t make a difference what’s going on. And it’s more than a handful of people…
Salit: Then there’s the question of the black vote. Where is black America at, where are black voters at, with respect to this election? There’s been some expectation that black turnout is going to be low because there’s a general disillusionment with black participation in the political process. John McLaughlin speculated this morning that one of the reasons for the “October surprise,” meaning Barack Obama going on “Meet the Press” and doing a national tour is to try and inspire black voters and so forth. But Obama notwithstanding, it’s the usual stuff that gets discussed relative to the black vote weeks before the election.
Newman: I don’t think that they even bothered to get a new script writer this year. It’s the identical stuff. Still, it’s not uninteresting that there appears to be a correlation between the increasing number of high profile black candidates and the probable fall in the black vote.
Salit: Like Harold Ford in Tennessee and Michael Steele in Maryland and, of course, Barack Obama, who’s not a candidate this year but may be a candidate for the presidency.
Newman: Both Democrats and Republicans.
Newman: Here’s a speculation. For a long time, the standard thinking was that what motivates the black community would be more black leaders in office, and so on, because they would associate that with profound changes for black people. But maybe you can only motivate people with that if you don’t have any black people in power. As soon as they start gaining power, you realize the same stuff is going on.
Salit: That it doesn’t change things.
Newman: That was a big part of the David Dinkins phenomenon in New York City. People thought that now we have our first black mayor, there’s going to be profound changes and so on. I’m not blaming Dinkins. Dinkins could only do what a mayor could do. Whether you’re black or white or Jewish or purple, it doesn’t make a difference. A mayor was doing what a mayor can do. It’s structural. But nonetheless, he was regarded very quickly as a disappointment.
Salit: And then he lost his re-election. Was there anything interesting in the Ben Cardin/Michael Steele Maryland Senate debate?
Newman: No, not very much. I kind of liked the debate, though. Cardin and Steele both seemed partisan, in the way that everyone’s partisan, and kind of reasonable about seeing something of value in the other side. So, Steele says ‘I’m not a right wing guy on stem cells,’ and Cardin was trying to say ‘I’m not an ultra-leftist on these matters. I understand practical politics.’ I thought they were reasonably competent at carrying it out. Who’s favored in the race right now?
Salit: Cardin is ahead. By as much as 10 points, in some polls.
Newman: He’ll probably win.
Salit: That’s one of the states where the narrative about black disillusionment gets talked about. As Tony Blankley pointed out, Cardin won the Democratic nomination by defeating Kwesi Mfume. That was a very, very close election. The argument goes, there’s disillusionment among black voters off of that loss. Then you have Steele, who’s African American, running as the Republican. Does that depress a strong black turnout for Cardin?
Newman: What it probably adds up to is that the Democrats won’t nominate an African American who is too progressive.
Salit: Like Mfume.
Newman: Like Mfume. The Republicans, given the “Nixon goes to China” phenomenon can nominate any black candidate they like. But it’s not clear that she or he can get herself or himself elected. So you have sort of a political paralysis around that question. A question of interest is whether it’s going to come to pass in our lifetime – a black or, indeed, a white candidate who has a really different voice, a progressive voice – can get elected. You can have influence as a progressive, in both parties. But, can you win anything? Unclear. That’s Al Sharpton’s dilemma, too.Salit: Interesting, Fred. Thanks.