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, August 27, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: The political ground is certainly shifting and today’s shows are a good indicator of that shift. It’s all about recalibrating relative to the war, whether you’re a politician who’s up for re-election in this cycle, talk show pundit, or a presidential contender. John McCain’s a presidential contender. He’s been a supporter of the war. Question: Are his presidential ambitions wrecked by the shift to a majority of Americans opposing the war? Chris Matthews did his Matthews Meter – asking his 12 regulars that question – and it’s 12-0 that McCain’s still alive, that his position on the war doesn’t wreck his presidential ambitions. Yes, he’s got to distinguish himself from the Bush position. On the plus side, he was outspoken against Bush on the torture issues; the consensus is that he can keep going. I’m assuming that you agree with the 12-0 vote.
Newman: How could his position on the war kill his candidacy? Every person who’s going to run a major campaign for the presidency has been a supporter of the war, one way or the other.
Newman: I’m sure what McCain’s people think is that everybody has been a supporter of the war, but he is the one who doesn’t have to play games with that. And, as somebody pointed out, it appeals to the Republican Party conservative base that he hasn’t changed his positions on anything. That’s what conservatives like. In the context of the entire field being supporters of the war, it doesn’t affect McCain particularly.
Salit: The media still thinks he’s charming. And he’s got more going for him than other politicians, because he came by his pro-war positions honestly, as opposed to it being a political calculation.
Newman: I don’t agree with that.
Salit: With what?
Newman: I respect what you’re saying and it seems plausible. But I don’t think McCain looks in any way less calculating than any other politician at this point. He’s sort of a nice guy and “The Chris Matthews Show” commentators agreed that he’s one of the few politicians of that stature who will give interviews. But less calculating? No, he’s a politician, he’s playing the game.
Salit: And the game is changing. The war is indefensible – that’s the message of today’s shows.
Newman: The war was a colossal mistake, whether you have a left analysis, a right analysis, a center analysis, an economic analysis, a military analysis, a humanitarian analysis. It was a huge mistake, and no one is being called to account for it, with the possible exception of Joe Lieberman.
Salit: Poor Joe.
Newman: Poor Joe. You almost feel sorry for Joe, who’s not a very easy guy to feel sorry for.
Salit: I agree.
Newman: But you can almost feel sorry for him. At the moment, he’s the only one who is paying for it. Otherwise, there’s no political accountability.
Newman: And the magnitude of the mistake. Even Mort Zuckerman got into it. The magnitude of this mistake is almost unimaginable. There is no accountability. No one’s going to pay for that stuff. Why? No third party. No independent movement. That’s what would make them accountable. But, it doesn’t exist. So, are there people out there looking to engage that very issue? Yes. And I support them all and I work for them, as do you and as do so many other people who read this report. But at the moment, it doesn’t yet exist and so we can’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire. If we could spend what they spend every day on the war in Iraq to build an independent movement, we could run a reputable campaign to hold them accountable.
Salit: That’s $271 million dollars a day.
Newman: But we don’t have that. Will the press do this? No, neither “Meet the Press” nor the press altogether. Arguably, the war in Iraq was the biggest mistake in American political life since Seward’s Folly. I’m joking, of course. But, I don’t even know what to compare it to. Vietnam looks rational compared to this thing in Iraq.
Salit: Well, the U.S. adventure in Vietnam was consistent with an overall U.S. foreign policy.
Newman: Yes. We lost that war and it was a bad war and so on. But, it was rationally characterizable as part of the war against Communism. I didn’t support that position, but it wasn’t irrational. But what’s happening in Iraq is ludicrous on every count.
Salit: It is not a rational component of a policy to contain and defeat terrorism.
Newman: I mean, you don’t want to be ultra-left, but you want to say Who made this whole thing up? The arms manufacturers? Who’s making money off of it? I don’t get it.
Salit: If most people made a mistake like this, they’d get buried in an hour and a half.
Newman: But these people are too big to be getting buried. It was an exercise in stupid, ridiculous thinking. Misplaced values. It’s almost unbelievable.
Salit: That makes it somewhat hard to have a conversation about the realpolitik consequences of it because you’d like to be able to stay with what you were just saying and let that in.
Newman: I think it’s in. That’s what we saw on the shows this morning.
Salit: And the White House and Congress, the Republicans and the Democrats were all involved.
Newman: Well, it’s the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” If everyone is involved, then it’s hard to see that they’re stark naked. But the whole government is exposed. How could they make a mistake like this? Well, it’s the consequence of a whole lot of things, but right smack in the middle of the things it’s a consequence of is partisan politics. There’s no one who’s able to step away and say some honest things about the scale of the mistake. At least no one who’s capable of getting any kind of coverage.
Salit: That no mainstream player is sufficiently independent to point that out is itself an important message to get out.
Newman: It’s an important message for the independent movement. Because partisan politics is what we’re independent of. Partisan politics is not good for the American people. It contributes to the dumbing down of America, which, sad to say, was well underway before George Bush arrived. Some people want to say We used to be a smart country, but then George Bush arrived. I don’t think so. Was the country being smart when it elected Bill Clinton? No, America can be politically dumb, even though the American people have good instincts and insights. But, they have no vehicle to give expression to those insights. And that makes you dumb.
Salit: Nonetheless, the American people have managed to express their change of heart on the war.
Newman: I think the American people were skeptical about the war from the get-go. But it takes time to be revealed. Just as it takes time for the light from a distant star to reach earth, it also takes time for majority opinion to unfold. And now the majority oppose the war and there’s no questioning that.
Salit: Alright, so you have this situation where everybody in positions of power goes along with the war. They have different relationships to it, they have different reasons for doing so, but nonetheless, they go along with it. Still, there were a handful of voices at the time the war began.
Salit: Out of the mainstream voices. Susan Sontag. Lenora Fulani. Dennis Kucinich. Gore Vidal.
Newman: That establishes my point.
Salit: Okay, we went to war and the war policy turned out to be a complete disaster. Now everyone from liberal Al Hunt to conservative Kate O’Beirne, and all points in between, is acknowledging that. So the American public has gone through this experience and now they want us out of Iraq. I thought it was a somewhat poignant moment when someone on “Meet the Press” said ‘The American people want us to leave, but not prematurely’ and Bob Novak responded ‘Hey, look. The American people want us to leave. Of course they’re going to say they don’t want us to leave prematurely. Who would say “yes” to the question “Do you want to leave prematurely?” No one says yes to that question. The point is that people want out, they want us to leave.’
Newman: Right. And the point is that 35% of the American people didn’t support the war before we went in – at least 35%.
Newman: With no way of giving public expression to that.
Salit: Alright, but there’s been a change and that has been expressed. The failure of the war and of our war policy and the growing opposition on the part of the American people has been expressed sufficiently to bring things to this point. Would you agree with that?
Newman: I guess. The American people are in the awkward position of being smarter than the Talking Heads in Washington. But since they have no vehicle to express this on their own, they had to convince the imbeciles…
Salit: Also known, unfortunately, as the opinion makers…
Newman: …in order for it to make it on television.
Salit: That’s well put. So, they’ve succeeded in doing that. Now everybody is against the war.
Newman: Even McCain is going to find a way to be against the war, despite the fact that he says ‘I’m a good conservative because I’ve been saying the same thing all along.’
Salit: No doubt. And as Al Hunt pointed out on “Meet the Press” today, public figures can have a position which says we should have a phased withdrawal, or a position that says we should send 75,000 more troops, march across Iraq and draw a line in the sand against Iran. But you can’t have the policy ‘stay the course,’ which is still the Bush policy. So, I guess your point about the lack of a third party, the lack of a well-organized, large scale independent political movement is that there’s no way for the American people to speak directly for themselves on their own behalf.
Newman: The possible exception at the moment is the bloggers up in Connecticut.
Newman: Now, that leaves open the issue of whether the blogosphere can sustain any nonpartisan independence. Still I think the Connecticut thing was relatively extraordinary. But as Jay Carney pointed out on “The McLaughlin Group” today, the Democrats are not going to pay much attention to Connecticut now, because they win in Connecticut no matter who wins.
Newman: They’ve got two Democrats running.
Salit: And whoever wins, votes with the Democrats in the Senate. So on other fronts, what happens with the disaffected conservatives who are a kind of political Achilles heel for the Republicans? This is Novak’s argument: you’ve got disaffected conservatives for whom Bush’s performance on their issues is below par, and they’re not going to vote for a Democrat. They’re going to stay home in November and that helps the Democrats.
Newman: That’s going to be generally true, in my opinion. In a particular race they might have some other reasons for coming out to vote. But, in general I agree with Novak. I think they’re going to stay away. Which is not so surprising in a midterm election.
Salit: How’s Hillary doing with the shifting political sands? She’s sent her top guy to work for Lamont in Connecticut.
Newman: She’s sent some guys to work for Lamont and she’s trying to get Rumsfeld fired and I guess she’s doing the feminist version of Triangulation. Again, normally you’d say, Well, I think she’s finished. Except the field in which she’s operating is one where anyone of significance or importance was part of the same stupid decision.
Newman: So, I think her reasoning might be like McCain’s. They probably discussed this over a drink together.
Salit: In Baghdad.
Newman: They might agree that under these circumstances, this utter and complete stupidity can’t eliminate them.
Newman: But the American people are much smarter than all of that.
Newman: Still, they’re inhibited, structurally inhibited, by partisan politics.
Salit: Tim Russert interviewed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. My general reaction to the interview was that Tim Russert must have gone on vacation with Attila the Hun. He came back from several weeks off with such a right-wing axe to grind.
Newman: How so?
Salit: Going after him on the crime issue, going after him about the comments that he made on “60 Minutes” and going after him on who is the “they” he was talking about relative to the failure to respond properly to Katrina when it’s clear who he was talking about – he’s talking about the federal government.
Newman: Well, Russert was intent on putting Nagin in a tough spot, because he can’t name the federal government as the culprit because he needs money from the federal government for rebuilding New Orleans.Salit: Indeed, he does. Thanks Fred.