Decision Time.

March 18, 2007

Decision Time.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

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, March 18, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: I’m going to start with Richard Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, one of four panelists on “Meet the Press” discussing the war in Iraq. One would like to say he’s the last of the neo-cons, but probably not. Tim Russert asked him ‘Has the investment in Iraq been worth it,’ and Perle says ‘That’s the wrong question. You can’t ask that. You have to ask what do we do now that is in the interests of American security.’ Later, in an exchange with Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, a retired Navy Admiral, who has argued that the surge policy is a failure, Perle says ‘We’re only 30 days into the surge. You’re not giving it a chance.’ What incredible arrogance! Perle was one of the main architects of the decision to go into Iraq, and there he was, refusing to be accountable for a policy that he was the author of, saying ‘You can’t ask me whether it’s been worth it. You can only ask me what we should do now, etc.’ Good Lord! How did he strike you?

Newman: He struck me like Richard Perle. We know his position. We knew what he was going to say. It’s nothing new. Here’s a question. When do you judge a policy? This is a policy that’s been in effect for four years. The American people have turned against it. What he’s saying is preposterous. You judge a policy – certainly in a democratic society – you judge a policy whenever it’s necessary to judge it. You judge a policy depending on the circumstances.

Salit: Like if your military strategy is causing more instability…

Newman: …it might be a good time to judge it then. The way to deal with Perle is not to point out how right-wing he is. It’s to point out how stupid he is. It’s not a right or left question. It’s just ridiculous. The truth is that he’s really dumb. He tries to bait you into the Right-Left thing. Because then he can say, ‘Well this is my position. You have another position.’ But, it’s just a cover for what has been complete stupidity.

Salit: We saw how desperate he was to prove his smartness by falling back on the position that the most important thing was getting rid of Saddam and ‘That’s what I recommended,’ he said, ‘That was the core of my policy thrust. I was happy to get rid of Saddam. Saddam was a clear and present danger and we did that. And that was the right thing to do.’ Basically, everything that followed from that which may or may not have gone well, which may or may not have produced a civil war, which may or may not be winnable from a military point of view, is ultimately other peoples’ problem. That’s a hell of a position for a guy who was one of the main architects of the whole adventure.

You said at the start ‘This is Richard Perle. We’ve seen him for years now. We know what he’s like. We know what his policy view is. We know what his persona is like and this is more of the same.’ That’s true. Part of what we’re also seeing are the changes in the political environment in the country. The American people have spoken out, including in the midterm elections, about how they feel about the war policy. The polls show 70% of the American people want out, think the policy has failed, etc. It’s interesting that it wasn’t so long ago that the neo-cons, whether it was Donald Rumsfeld or Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney, had a level of credibility and authority that are now gone. Even some of them are gone.

Newman: That happens when things don’t go the way you said they were going to go.

Salit: You and I read the Time Magazine piece “How the Right Went Wrong,” an examination of the failure of conservatism, which as one journalist observed, other than the “interregnum” of the Clinton years, has basically been the driving political movement in the country since 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: Time Magazine says conservatism has lost its hold on the country and the failure of the war has been a big part of that. Conservatism has hit a wall, or played out its “moment.” Do you think that’s true?

Newman: It’s hard to say. Conservatism has been around for a long time, and despite the fact that conservatives claim it’s an eternal position, it gets changed again and again and again.

Salit: It does.

Newman: And that makes sense. So does liberalism, so does any political approach. I think it has changed to make it more relevant to the actual time that you’re in.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, I don’t think it’s a question of conservatism being played out. I think the conservatives have done an extraordinary job, they have out-flanked and out-foxed liberalism. That has as much to do with liberalism’s backing off of its principles as it has to do with conservatism’s popularity. I think these two go together.

Salit: But even so, would you say conservatism has played itself out?

Newman: I don’t know what that question could really mean. Is it gone forever? No. Do I think it will come again? Yeah, I think it will come again, in a different political form. How successful will it be then? I have no idea.

Salit: Some conservatives say the search for a political figure who can shape a more relevant form of conservatism is part of what’s animating the Republican primary on the presidential side. But so far the candidates who are not conservatives – like Rudolph Giuliani – are doing the best. Pat Buchanan said on “The McLaughlin Show” today, perhaps out of wishful thinking about his former role in Republican politics, there’s a “huge alley” for a right-wing social conservative presidential candidate in the Republican Party. But that candidate hasn’t surfaced yet.

Newman: I don’t know if I’d agree with Pat’s statement. I think it has more to do with what Pat would like to think than what’s actually true on the ground. The two candidates who are popular and who are making a run in the Republican primary, Giuliani and McCain, are not conservatives.

Salit: They may be playing for conservative support, but they’re not themselves conservatives.

Newman: Right. So what do you do with that? Isn’t that evidence of something? It’s one thing to say that there are no hardcore conservatives running who are viable, but that’s just a negative side of the characterization. It might mean that it’s not a year for conservatives.

Salit: There seems to be some notion that slot is open. Mitt Romney is trying to get that slot, but he’s had to remake himself politically in order to go for that niche. He’s running at 9 or 10% in the polls.

Newman: That’s not a conservative thing to do.

Salit: To remake yourself to be a conservative? That’s true. Let’s turn to the scandal or confrontation over the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.

Newman: I think it’s best to call it a news item.

Salit: Alright, news item. It gives the Democrats the opportunity to hammer the White House while claiming that they’re not being political. This issue, they say, is about the rule of law, it’s about justice “without fear or favor,” it’s about the neutral and objective application of the Constitution and the upholding of federal law without regard to politics. And they’re quick to point out that they have Republican support for their criticism of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. So you call this thing a news item. I’m tempted to ask you whether this works for the Democrats? It’s like when a prizefighter is in the ring and he keeps jabbing at his opponent. It’s not the knock-out blow, but those constant jabs can weaken the body.

Newman: Look, nothing big is going to happen here. They don’t have the time or the votes to impeach this president. Nothing more is going to happen. So they’re making headlines. What’s happened has happened.

Salit: What’s happened has happened. The Democrats have taken control of Congress.

Newman: They have a one vote majority in the Senate. Bush’s popularity has dropped to nothing. And the war is the war.

Salit: So, the pundits debate over does Gonzales go, does Gonzales stay, does the White House stand up for him, not stand up for him, cut him loose, whatever, it’s not really of importance.

Newman: The pundits are playing the game, too. They have to pump things up in order to have things to talk about.

Salit: Then, here’s one picture: You’ve got Richard Perle and Tom DeLay on “Meet the Press” defending the war policy. That in and of itself tells you how far down support for the war has gone that it’s Tom DeLay and Richard Perle on the talk show circuit defending it! You’ve got these discredited right-wingers who are defending the failed policy that they were the architects of. You’ve got the Democrats on the offensive against the Bush White House, largely to make headlines and keep the story of Republican corruption out there. Okay. But the Democrats have still not figured out how far beyond that, i.e. exposing and hammering away at the stupidity and the corruption of the Republicans – how far beyond that they have to go. Meaning, do they have to express a vision for a new direction for the country?

Newman: They don’t know how to do that.

Salit: That’s a debate inside the party. Senator Schumer, as you know from having looked at his new book, is on the conservative side of that debate. ‘Let’s not go too far. It’s not about vision. It’s about giving ordinary middle class Americans what they need in order to raise a family and promoting policies that do that, and that’s really kind of the beginning, middle and end of what the message from the Democratic Party should be.’ Other leaders in the party feel differently about that, the most obvious one being Barack Obama, who feels it’s just not enough to criticize the bankruptcy of the war policy or the corruption of the Bush Administration, that the American people are hungry for a new politic, a new vision of what our country needs to be like in the world, relative to its own people and so forth. So, going back to what you were saying before, if it’s “already happened,” which is to say, the Bush fiasco has happened, it’s on the record, it’s there, then what happens next?

Newman: You run the ’08 presidential campaign in ’07. That’s what you do. And that’s what’s happening. They have to. Because everything is done. Bush is about as low as you can get. The Democrats barely won, but nonetheless won, the midterms. There are the so-called scandals, but none of the scandals are going to topple anybody, even if Gonzales ends up leaving. There’s nothing left. It’s time to vote. The Constitution requires that the vote take place in 2008, rather than now. If we had a parliamentary system, we’d be voting right now.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Now, where does that leave our commentators? Essentially, speechless. There’s nothing to talk about. Is Cheney going to resign? That seems preposterous. Is Bush going to get impeached over Gonzalesgate or whatever? No. Nothing’s going to happen. What’s going to happen in the war? That’s a little more difficult to say. There are people on the ground fighting, and the outcome of that fighting can turn events in different directions.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But even in Iraq, why would we presume that anything radically different than what’s been happening will happen in view of the fact that this is, if not a civil war, a tribal war that’s been going on for centuries.

Salit: Of course.

Newman: Could the militias, the terrorists, whomever, sustain a civil war by moving to other places for a time and then come back to Baghdad after that? Of course. You don’t have to be a West Point general to figure that one out.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Are both sides going to try to characterize the military situation in ways that make it seem that they are winning? Of course they will.

Salit: And there are several different definitions of winning.

Newman: Yes. The other side can claim they are winning in part because they succeed in getting the U.S. tied up in a situation from which there is no obvious extraction. So, they’re going to try to maintain that situation. The U.S. is going to try to create more favorable outcomes in Baghdad and then claim they’ve turned the tide, so we can leave.

Salit: And, this all goes on while everyone is waiting for an election.

Newman: Yes. They’re waiting for an election. The Democrats want to keep the offensive going on Republican scandals.

Salit: Right.

Newman: And the Republicans want to keep the focus on the war, and perhaps at some point be able to say that it’s improving.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Still, I don’t think much is happening. It’s a decision-making time. But it’s not time for decision-making.

Salit: Thanks.