Georgia on Their Mind(less).

August 10, 2008

Georgia on Their Mind(less).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president 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 10, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: George Will had some interesting things to say today. There was his commentary about the John Edwards affair. He tried to take the discussion in a slightly different direction saying, in the days when Franklin Roosevelt was president, or was running for president, the talk was “We’re going to build roads and we’re going to create jobs. Then we’re going to set up the WPA” or whatever and that’s basically what the job of the president was. But now, Will says, the presidency has become a position where a certain kind of moral leadership is required – being a “national pastor” – as opposed to just a president. I thought the implication was, why don’t we just have a president who knows how to run the government and conduct relations with foreign countries and do the things that you’re supposed to do as president and dispense with all of this other stuff?

Newman: As Cokie Roberts pointed out, Will’s antecedent that it is a new thing for morality to enter the public square is incorrect. How about the issue of slavery and Abraham Lincoln? Moral questions have always been of extraordinary importance, both in getting someone elected and in the presidency itself. I don’t know that this Edwards issue rises to that level. First of all, he’s not going to be the president. And, the “issue,” so-called, is halfway between a presidential one and just plain gossip. It’s a hybrid, in some sense.

Salit: Good point.

Newman: But if Will thinks we shouldn’t be discussing something, the least he can do is shut up.

Salit: That would be a good rule to follow.

Newman: That’s my posture.

Salit: Fair enough.

Newman: Now I’ll shut up.

Salit: I’ll bring in another George Will remark. They’re talking about the fighting that broke out between Russia and Georgia at the end of last week. Putin and Bush are both in Beijing for the opening of the Olympics. Will says, ‘Putin goes home to deal with the situation. Bush stays in Beijing for the Olympics.’ And Will says, ‘Bush should have gone home and run the West’s response.’ A strange remark because it ignored the diminishment of the U.S. position in the world. Not to deny that the U.S. is a huge power, a huge military power, a huge economic power, even a huge swimming power. And, as was pointed out in the discussion today, the back story is all about the issue of oil and the proposed building of a pipeline through Georgia, which Putin is presumably trying to jettison. It’s not clear what kind of operation Bush would go home to run.

Newman: Is Will suggesting that Bush and the White House haven’t been aware of the tensions leading up to this? And that they haven’t made whatever moves they could? What does it mean to go home and run things…independent of the degree of influence? I don’t think the conflict is unimportant. But I don’t have any reason to believe that’s it’s the start of World War III. So to compare South Ossetia to Sarajevo at the start of World War I, as Will did, is far-fetched. What that does is make me certain that we should never elect George Will president of the United States.

Salit: OK.

Newman: Most of the discussion on this seemed like jumping on a propaganda wagon to turn Russia back into the Evil Empire. There’s much that’s wrong with Russian policy. There’s much that’s wrong with French policy. There’s much that’s wrong with other major powers’ policies. There’s ongoing dialogue to try to figure out what to do about it. So I don’t think that a grandstand play by Bush is what’s called for here.

Salit: Maybe this is some form of wishful thinking on my part, but I thought that the discussion about the Russian/Georgian conflict was very below par, very non-nuanced. It was all about how Obama accused McCain of shaping his response based on an advisor’s lobbying connections and how McCain accused Obama of being an apologist for the Kremlin. It was ridiculous. The discussion on ABC News, at least, was so calcified around presidential politics and the partisan debate that an event like this occurs, which is not the hugest thing in the world but also not inconsequential and has all kinds of ramifications, and they couldn’t shift gears into having a more substantive discussion about the politics of Russia, the region, NATO, etc.

Newman: For seven years the United States has been conducting a war, outside of our direct sphere of influence, with little or no moral support from the rest of the world. Given that, what credibility do we have to be dictating terms to Russia on its move in Georgia? There’s an insensitivity to the fact that the U.S. is not the only outfit that’s “allowed to” be aggressive. I think the actions are wrong, probably in both cases. But still, if you’re going with unilateral intervention then it doesn’t give you a whole lot of room to take a high ground position relative to what Putin does.

Salit: Maybe that’s why Bush didn’t come back from Beijing. Maybe somebody was smart enough to tell him You don’t have enough credibility to do anything of that kind.

Newman: …No less the popularity.

Salit: Exactly. He can’t fly back to Washington to take command of this political/military crisis. He doesn’t have the support of the American people to do that. Matt Bai suggested that when a party or an administration loses the confidence of the American people, and a world crisis arises, it tends to re-enforce their unpopularity. This was a counter to the argument that the events in Russia and Georgia are going to “help McCain” because, the conventional wisdom says when that kind of thing happens, the American people still gravitate towards the Republicans, the party of national security.

Newman: At the risk of sounding dreadfully naïve, it probably depends somewhat on what happens there. It’s only a couple of days in. I do buy the argument that it shows the extent to which U.S. foreign policy is unable to have a great influence on things. Putin and Bush were supposed to be friends. It doesn’t sound as if U.S. influence was very substantial there.

Salit: Going back to The Chris Matthews Show, they had a segment on bipartisanship. Chris Matthews cites the statistics and the evidence that the American people don’t like partisanship and they think it’s had a negative effect on the political process, and on government, and on problem solving. The pundits and the politicians derive from that that the “voters want the parties to work together.” That’s an obvious position for the Democrats and Republicans to take, since it preserves the status quo. I come at this as someone who speaks to independents of all kinds around the country on a regular basis. I rarely, if ever, hear from them, or from independent-minded Democrats and Republicans, that they want the parties to work together, other than to say that they think the parties should work together because that’s what you’re supposed to do in government. But they don’t talk about that as the new approach to problem solving and all of that. How do you unpackage this?

Newman: Oy, vey. I think the parties are working together. This is how parties work together in the kind of political situation that we’re in, with close to a 50/50 split. What’s so unusual about what’s going on? I don’t think it’s so unusual. Parties function this way. They’re highly competitive, highly partisan. And that’s what the American people want when they vote for this party over that party. They want the party that they vote for to win. Yes, I think there is some indication that the American people are starting to get more disillusioned with the concept of parties. That’s true. But I think it’s a long way off before there’s a major shift and parties are marginalized. The parties have such enormous control. Is there a massive move to do away with parties? I don’t see it. I think independents, a sliver of independents, of which you are probably the head, want that. But that’s not close at hand.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.