Continuing the End of History
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, November 19, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: Now comes the question, what’s our Iraq policy going to be? Political backdrop: Democrats win, the vote is a mandate to change course, the generals come to Capitol Hill to say ‘The sectarian violence is continuing, we have to do something to address this.’ There’s a discussion about troop level: ‘We need more troops. But, we can’t get more troops.’ And, ‘The troop levels we have are okay. We need 4-6 months to make further progress in tamping down the sectarian violence.’ The question now for the government, with the Democrats in control of Congress and Bush still in the White House is where do we go on Iraq?
Newman: We’re getting out. That’s not the issue. The issue on the table is a political issue, namely who’s going to take responsibility and how is it going to be shaped. That’s the political question on the agenda, not whether we’re getting out.
Salit: Alright, here are some of the political scenarios being discussed. Declare victory, say we got Zarqawi, we got Saddam. There’s a government that’s been democratically elected. We’re done, America won, we’re out of here. That’s one version. Another version, and this falls under the rubric of what’s expected to come from the Baker-Hamilton task force: Call a regional conference, get all the parties involved, open up channels (which have already been opened up) with Iran and Syria. Get everybody to the table. Effect a multilateral agreement about future governance, phase out U.S. troops.
Newman: I haven’t seen the Baker-Hamilton report, obviously, but I suspect a key element will be the role Iran and Syria are going to play in this whole thing. That’s who’s dealing right now, and what they’re saying, I would guess, is ‘Here are some things we want, we want direct talks, we want regional determination, and if you give us all that, and the recognition and legitimacy that goes with that, we’ll do everything we can to settle this thing in Iraq in a way that everyone can live with.’
Salit: If that’s what they’re saying, they’ve probably spoken the truth. Iran and Syria probably could settle it.
Newman: I don’t know where the process is at, in this regard. What explanation is the U.S. going to use when we pull out? Here’s one good argument to use, and they might even be clever enough to figure it out. They could say, You know the evidence is strong that the American people don’t want us there and that the Iraqi people don’t want us there. So how can you go up against those two things? We have no choice but to go.
Salit: We have no choice but to go and so we go and try and leave in place some kind of regional agreement that stabilizes the situation.
Newman: And, that the most important role that we can play now is not doing any more for Iraq. We’ve done all we could do. Now it’s up to the regional powers.
Salit: And that’s now the backdrop, a backdrop to the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Let’s talk a little bit about what those dynamics look like. “The Chris Matthews Show” focused on John McCain today. McCain has been a hawk on the war, or a “smart hawk” as one panelist on Chris Matthews described him. However, his position that the Iraq war is winnable and necessary has been rejected by the vote on November 7th.
Newman: I think both McCain and Hillary have the same strategy here. I think they both think – and it’s not out of the question – that Iraq will not be a major issue in ’08.
Salit: That it will be off the table. I presume that’s wishful thinking on their part, but perhaps it’s true. The Iraq war raises contradictions for both of them. In McCain’s case, the more he appeals to conservatives, to “stay-the-course” hawks, the more he risks losing independents.
Newman: He’s too hawkish for independents. That’s his problem. And Hillary’s too passive for independents. So, if the issue is off the table, they’re both happy about it. Hillary can become strong and powerful on the healthcare issue and domestic issues.
Salit: Okay. And McCain continues as a reformer?
Newman: And also as a patriot. It enhances his position as a patriot if there’s no actual war going on. He can go back to being a prisoner-of-war, so to speak.
Salit: Let’s talk about post-election bipartisan consensus. Nancy Pelosi holds a press conference where the Democrats declare their victory. She says ‘It’s time for healing, let there be peace. We’re going to bring peace.’ I want to ask you a question about this, but I neither want to ask it cynically or foolishly. How would you interpret the vote on November 7th relative to the issue of partisanship and a call for something other than that? The parties say they want bipartisanship. Maybe the voters want nonpartisanship. But, how do you hear that aspect of the voters’ message on November 7th?
Newman: Strategically, the vote relative to that question is very important. Tactically, the issue of partisan politics is a non-issue, because in the final analysis, everyone in Washington will give it lip service and nobody will do anything except play the partisan game. Now, in the long haul, couldn’t the people who get elected in this or that sweep, do some things that mean something to the effort to change the political culture, to empowering the independents? Well, they could. It depends on what people do. But, tactically speaking, in a totally partisan political situation, you can’t have a party engage in a debate on partisanship. What kind of debate is that?
Salit: So, how does that environment get changed?
Newman: On the ground.
Newman: If at all.
Salit: Did independents gain greater political strength off of the results on November 7th?
Newman: There’s an old saying in politics, Jack, that I’ve gone by: Power is what power does. If you don’t exercise it, there is no power. Power as an abstraction means nothing. So, the answer is, it depends on what independents do.
Salit: Are independents in a position to demand greater access?
Newman: If you’re outside, you’re never in a position to demand greater access. You demand it without being in such a position. How effective will that demand be? I don’t know. It depends on how unified it is, how clever it is, how persistent it is.
Salit: Okay, the Democrats win. Now there are some new people going to Washington. “Meet the Press” featured two new Democratic Senators, Jon Tester from Montana and Jim Webb from Virginia. At one point, Tim Russert asked Tester ‘Are you a new kind of Democrat?’ Now Tester didn’t exactly answer that question. He said ‘I’m going to do the things that I told the voters I’m going to do.’
Newman: He answered that question as a freshman.
Salit: What do mean by that?
Newman: If he says he’s a “new kind of Democrat,” can you imagine what happens to him when he shows up at the Senate?
Salit: Alright, let me ask you that question then, since you’re not going to be showing up at the Senate. Is there a new kind of Democrat?
Newman: There’s a Democrat who is more sensitive than most of the older Democrats to the presence of the independent movement. That’s the new kind of Democrat. I don’t think it’s either strategic or positional. I think it’s attitudinal. And, the attitude is We have to be aware of where the independent movement is at. At the moment, it seems to be veering left. We have to be sensitive to that. That could change tomorrow.
Salit: One of the framings that numbers of commentators have been using in analyzing the election is that there’s a new pragmatism in American politics, ideology is passé, ideological labels are passé.
Newman: That, by the way, was said 20 years ago by a whole host of people, including the neo-cons, including Francis Fukuyama.
Newman: That’s what The End of History thesis is really about. That’s back when Fukuyama was still a neo-con.
Salit: Yes. Before the neo-cons became passé.
Newman: Or, put another way, before the neo-cons became history.
Salit: Right. Is there a trend towards pragmatism in America?
Newman: I can’t answer that because it depends on what you mean by pragmatism. The folk philosophy of America is pragmatism. But, what version of pragmatism are you talking about? How are you using pragmatism? When they speak of pragmatism, I don’t know what they’re talking about.
Salit: The new Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, talked about the economic divide in America between the elites and the average American.
Newman: He talked about it rather strongly.
Salit: Yes, he gave an indictment of the arrogance of America’s economic elite, the 1% that own 16% of the country’s wealth and the need to address that disparity and that gap.
Newman: And they control the 16% that controls the other 84%, too. Because there is a particular 16% that they hold.
Salit: This whole issue is what the pundits call economic populism. And there was an element of that in the Democrats’ win.
Newman: Well, going further back, economic populism was a theme of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. But, the popular opinion at the time was that it was a position that cost Gore the White House. Though I never quite agreed with that. I think it was the fact that he brought it in badly and fairly late that cost him the election. It should have been right on top.
Salit: And even with all that, he still won the popular vote. But, not the electoral vote.
Newman: But, he should have won that election. It was his to lose. And he did.
Salit: Back to the future, meaning to 2008. Say that Hillary and McCain get their wish. The Iraq war is off the table for 2008 and there are new issues coming to take its place.
Newman: That doesn’t mean the war is totally off the table as a subject to be talked about, but it won’t have the immediacy that it has in ’06.
Salit: Alright. So, do you see the Jim Webb-style indictment of the arrogance of capital, to use Kevin Phillips’ term, going anywhere? In other words, will the struggle to address the huge disparity in wealth within the United States, not to mention between the United States and the rest of the world, make it to the floor of the Senate?
Newman: The Senate is a fraternity. And, how much Webb is allowed to be heard, how much he’s allowed to influence, depends on how much his stature does or doesn’t grow inside that fraternity structure. The answer to your question turns more on that than anything else.
Salit: To what extent do you think the labor movement gains – the words that come to mind here are momentum, influence, whatever? The A.F. of L. has made statements about the new power of labor in the newly elected Democratic Congress.
Newman: It depends on what they do with it. Again, I think it’s important to understand that old adage. You can’t try and understand power abstractly. Power is what power does. If they make intelligent moves, if they make good moves, there’s no doubt they could gain from this. If they take this opportunity to revert back to their thinking of 1935, they’ll make stupid moves.
Salit: Andy Stern’s people from the Change to Win Coalition, the breakaway coalition from the A.F. of L., said ‘Well, everyone said when we left the AFL/CIO that we would be dividing the labor movement and we would split the power of labor and the opposite actually turned out to be true.’ Any thoughts about that observation?
Newman: I think that the labor movement split was one of the best things that they’ve done in recent years, so I don’t think he should go negative with that, and still be defending himself. They don’t know yet if it’s hurt them. And, all they know so far is the Democrats have done well off of it.
Salit: Very good point. Thanks.