Katrina (Not the Hurricane) Blows the Establishement Cool.

April 6, 2008

Katrina (Not the Hurricane) Blows the Establishement Cool.

Sunday, April 6, 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, April 6, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: There was another round on how the Democratic nomination process is wrapping up. The Chris Matthews panel had an elaborate discussion about the psychology of the situation, the Clintons’ sense of entitlement, the popular idea that the Clintons don’t ever lose. Andrew Sullivan had some stuff to say, which was not uninteresting, about Bill Clinton’s sense of himself as being the person who saved the Democratic Party, having dragged it back from political exile.

Newman: What did he save us from? George Bush?

Salit: What did he save us from? Ironically, he saved us from four more years of the older Bush, but then the legacy of his presidency gave us the younger Bush. The discussion of the psychology of how the Clintons think and how they operate didn’t seem particularly relevant to anything. I’m not looking to be critical of the discussion. But it just seemed irrelevant.

Newman: You can be critical of the discussion. The rule of thumb, it seems to me, is that when there’s nothing else to talk about, talk about psychology.

Salit: Exactly. The Democrats have a process that’s been mapped out. It’s going to go the distance, through nine states and Puerto Rico. Then there will be a delegate count. Howard Dean said in his interview with Stephanopoulos, ‘The sorting out process could be complex, but it is straightforward. These are the issues in Florida and Michigan. This is how we’re working on it. We will get to a finish line.’ In other words, there’s not that much to talk about.

Newman: Right.

Salit: Then I won’t belabor that point. With respect to the discussion about the Iraq war, General Petraeus is back in the U.S. He’s going to be testifying this week. Maybe there’s not that much to talk about on this score either. Jim Webb and Lindsay Graham, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, both of whom are members of the U.S. Senate with strong military backgrounds were on Stephanopoulos. They have distinctive takes on what’s going on and what needs to be done in the region. But, ultimately, as Andrew Sullivan said on the Matthews’ panel, if the issue in November comes down to the war, then the American people will have a simple choice to make. If they want to continue the war, as you’ve said many times, they’ll vote for the Republicans. And, if they want to change direction on that front, they’ll vote for the Democrats. There is endless nuance and endless things to be said about Iran, about U.S. policy in the region, all of which is obviously going to be an issue for the next administration, whoever is elected president. But, if Americans want to expand the war, they will vote for the Republicans. If they want to get out and reposition our commitments in Iraq, and presumably our perspective on militarism, they will vote for the Democrats. And that’s how the race is being defined.

Newman: That’s basically where it’s at, yes. Webb pointed out that the American presence is an occupation and has been for some time. And so, that sharpens the question. Does the U.S. want to be an occupying force around the world for the indefinite future? And, of course the counter to that is that we’re not an occupation force, we’re at war with Al Qaeda and the terrorists. However, in my opinion, that’s not a war. It never has been a war. The 9/11 attack was a hideous criminal act and these are hideous criminals and we should go after them as criminals and catch them and deal with them as criminals. But we should not have that determine our policies, our war policy, our foreign policy throughout the world. That is the tail wagging the dog.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: That’s an alternative position to the U.S. playing the role of global mediator in a military fashion. And that debate will likely be what the general election comes down to. But, we’re not having a general election right now.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, it’s too early for that to emerge. But on the other hand, it’s too late for any more primary issues to emerge, even with nine states and Puerto Rico still to happen.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, we’re kind of in “no man’s” or “no woman’s” land.

Salit: Well put.

Newman: But as they say in the theatre, the shows must go on. And so, the pundits keep talking, even though there isn’t anything to say.

Salit: I was struck by what I took to be the friction, even animosity, on the Stephanopoulos panel between George Will and Cokie Roberts, on the one side, and Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation on the other. Katrina’s on the air a lot though she tends to be on cable shows more than on network shows. She’s the editor of The Nation magazine and a leftist. But, this time she was in a hardcore network setting, and that’s a little unusual. I thought that Cokie and George, both bastions of the network establishment, started out mocking her, smirking and rolling their eyes as she picked up on Jim Webb’s description of the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupation. They were very snarly about it and about her. I was struck by this, maybe by the symbolism of it. Now, I read The Nation. We’ve had some strong disagreements – even fights – with The Nation over the years. The Nation has not been particularly sympathetic to independent politics and certainly not to our brand of independent politics. Katrina and I had some words about this on CNN some years ago. But, I still read the magazine and I respect her. When I saw how worked up George and Cokie were, I realized I was watching the establishment having to deal with a new political playing field, one in which the Left has a voice. I don’t want to get overly interpretive about one television show or one booking. But I was wondering if you had a similar experience.

Newman: I agree with you, but my experience of it was a little bit different. From a psychological point of view, I think that George Will’s position was I’m too old for this. I don’t have to talk to these people. I don’t want to participate in this discussion. And he did stay out of it for the most part.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But, I agree with you. Barack Obama, interestingly enough, does open the door for more and varied left analyses. Which is not the same thing as saying he’s a leftist, but what he articulates does open a lot of doors. And The Nation, quite legitimately, understands that and endorses Obama. So there is a shift here and I think that’s what you’re picking up on. People in prominent positions will have to figure out what to do with that. I don’t know that you can infer from this one show that there’s going to be a general pattern, though I think we have more evidence than just this one show. Your views are being solicited by the media more frequently than before, and you’re a leftist. In some ways, that’s at the core of the Obama/Clinton debate. Clinton doesn’t so much stand for the past, whatever that’s supposed to mean. She stands for centrism. Obama stands for a center-left perspective. And that’s a big difference. The outcome will – at least for a time – define the Democratic Party, and that’s big. That’s why there’s a debate going on and why Howard Dean is on the air. There’s a big debate and they’re going to have to complete it. Ultimately, they’ll have to pick a candidate. Unless the Democrats plan on backing Ralph Nader, I suppose they’ll ultimately pick a candidate.

Salit: At the end of the discussion, the issue of political process came up. Vanden Heuvel, of course, brought it up from the vantage point of changing the political process inside the Democratic Party. There was no discussion about independents and independent voters’ role in helping to catalyze and shape a progressive agenda, but I understand that. The Nation is not connected to that movement.

Newman: That said, it’s also arguably old news. It’s already played out.

Salit: I’ll grant that. But, it was interesting to me that she did go to a discussion about changes in the process that she feels have to come off of this year. She talked about the end of the top-down primary. She asked ‘Can we abolish the super delegates? Can we move to a shorter primary season?’ It is notable that The Nation is pushing those issues. As progressives in the independent movement we’re involved in process issues very deeply. The experience of independents this primary season likewise puts a number of reform issues on the table. Open primaries fueled the Obama campaign very significantly. Independents in closed primary states were upset that they couldn’t vote. What are the kinds of structural political reforms that independents want? How do we reinforce nonpartisanship in the political process? It was interesting to me that the process conversation is in the mix and it’s coming from the left.

Newman: I think that’s been one of the consequences of the independent movement and I think that’s a good thing. You’d like to think that’s because the Democratic Party is now more concerned with democracy for the people. I must confess to a slight cynicism. I actually think that they’re more concerned with having greater control over their own party for sectarian reasons. But if they find that some political reforms enhance their appeal, that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t be pessimistic, but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic. So we’ll see. But I think it’s good for the general public to be hearing more about process issues.

Salit: Yes. Thanks, Fred.