Tim Russert, Trotskyite.

June 18, 2006

Tim Russert, Trotskyite.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

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, June 18, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: We have at least two conflicting opinions from the talk show pundits as to where the country is at on the Bush war policy.

Newman: And who cares about either of them?

Salit: Okay, but I’m going to pursue it. On “The Chris Matthews Show,” they cited polls showing that 54% of Americans say that they would vote for a candidate who supported an exit from Iraq. Chris Matthews summarizes by saying that the country is to the left of where the Democrats are at. On “The McLaughlin Group,” Bush and the Republicans were pronounced the big winners. Their poll numbers are up, off of what McLaughlin described as the five big developments of the last ten days – getting Zarqawi, getting the Iraqi government on its feet, Bush’s trip to Baghdad, the congressional resolution in support of “staying the course” and Rove not being indicted. Now, you might want to restate your earlier comment, “Who cares?”

Newman: Alright. Who cares?

Salit: Okay. But, is there anything to say about that? Are those two things contradictory? Is one a story about where the American people are at and the other a story of “insider baseball” politics inside the Beltway?

Newman: They’re both stories about polls.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: There’s no way to know how those polls hold up. All of those findings might be regarded as inconsequential by next week. Because that’s how history is. History is more powerful and more important than polls. Yes, there will be elections in November. But, even elections only tell us where the people of this country are at on a particular Tuesday in a particular November.

Salit: Even within those fluctuations, do you think that the American people, generally speaking, don’t like the Iraq war, don’t like the fact that we’re there and would like to find a way for us to get out?

Newman: I think that’s clear. That doesn’t mean they’ll vote for it.

Salit: Certainly that’s what the Republicans are hoping. Their question is: Can they win in November even with public sentiment turning against the war? The Democrats want to make the mid-term elections a referendum on the Bush war policies. But, the Republicans’ position is that the elections aren’t a referendum, they’re a choice – between two distinct policy approaches about the war. Their framing is “Don’t get caught up in the referendum idea. You have to make a choice.’ Tell me your reaction to that framing.

Newman: They have to go with that. The war is their policy.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: The Republicans tried to bring in some other issues like Social Security but you can’t do that now. The war is the whole thing. Now, the Democrats’ position is, in some ways, a foolish position. But that’s the one they’re stuck with. If I were advising the Democrats, I’d say the point to be made about Iraq is not whether we’re going to win the war. It’s whether the United States of America should be playing the kind of role in the world that is manifest in the role that we are playing in Iraq. That’s the serious question.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: The Democrats hardly ever raise that. They’re tied up with how the war’s been conducted, with the winning or the losing of the war. If that’s the issue, it only helps the Republicans. Which is why the Republicans win on it every time.

Salit: They do.

Newman: At some point, there’s going to be a pull-out. After we pull out, how does the United States respond to what goes on next in Iraq? Suppose we pull out and three days later, the civil war breaks out in earnest. What do we do then? Do we take a side? Do we allow the insurgency to win? The Bush Administration has taken the position that the U.S. is the sole superpower policeman of the world. That’s what has to be engaged. Maybe I’m not seeing something or I don’t appreciate the realities of politics. But, the Democrats don’t seem to take any position on that issue. But that’s the big issue. Is unilateralism to be the American position? Because the war will come to an end at some point. If the Democrats would take that up, I think they’d have a more stable position.

Salit: And what about the downsides of that position?

Newman: The Democrats are afraid that they’re going to be identified as the party of peace, as too conciliatory, as too progressive-minded. They believe they have to hedge on that strategic position, so they speak nonsense on the question of the war. They can’t even get their act together on that.

Salit: Not even close.

Newman: The Iraq war is not the issue. I mean, it’s sad. And, we all know the right things to say: Too many people are dying, it’s costing too much money…. But, the real issue to confront the Bush Administration with is the position of the United States as a dominant international player. It would be good if there were a national vote on that in ’06. But the Democrats won’t frame it that way.

Salit: What should the Democrats say in response to Karl Rove saying, “Oh here go the Democrats again. It’s all about “cut-and-run”?’

Newman: Nobody is talking about “cut-and-run.” The issue is why this country is committed to a long-term strategic position that has us putting ourselves into situations around the world which keep us in a continuous debate on “cut-and-run” vs. “stay the course.” It’s inattentive to what the American people are actually saying. What the American people are saying, it seems to me, is they don’t want to be in this position in Iraq. Which is not the same thing as saying that they want to leave. They’re saying “We’re not happy about being in this position.’

Salit: So, isn’t that the referendum framing? This is an election where the statement can get made: We’re not happy with the direction that the Bush Administration is taking things in. So, we’re going to vote the Republicans out of control’.

Newman: But the point is not We’re not happy with the direction that the Bush Administration is taking. It’s We’re not happy with what the Bush Administration is advocating to be the long-term strategic position of the United States.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: The Bush Administration will come and go. He’ll be gone in two years. You’re naming something that won’t exist in 24 months. But the United States of America will still exist in 24 months, presumably.

Salit: And the issue is what will its policy be?

Newman: The Democrats should be taking that position. If the independents were in this race, I would strongly urge that that be our position. Do the American people want to be the policemen of the world? If they do, that’s the direction we should go in. But, I don’t think that’s the popular position.

Salit: Do you think the Bush people are still committed to that path? I mean, they’re stuck in Iraq. We have 130,000 troops there. We’re spending $300 million a week or a day. Whatever the number John Murtha quoted.

Newman: It’s probably an hour.

Salit: An hour, okay. I guess I’m asking, are they still committed to that position?

Newman: I believe so. That’s why it would be good to have a national referendum on it. What they’re doing now is backing down from some of the tactical blunders that they made in carrying out that position relative to Iraq. But I don’t see any reason to believe that they’ve given up on the position.

Salit: Interesting.

Newman: But that’s what the Democrats should be addressing. And I think the people of this country would like to have a referendum on that question.

Salit: Well, speaking of polls and the war, “The McLaughlin Group,” cited a poll done of Iraqis about who they most trust to provide security to them. The Iraqi police rated in the 40s. The Iraqi army rated in the 30s. The insurgents rated at about 6%. And the coalition forces were identified by only 1%, as who the Iraqis relied on to protect and secure them.

Newman: How could you expect anything else? That poll reveals what Bush and Washington D.C. is just discovering. The Iraqis like Iraqis better than they like Americans.

Salit: Big surprise.

Newman: And, it doesn’t seem to make a difference what the Iraqi in question is doing.

Salit: I figure that the 1% that said they rely on the Americans, or the multilateral forces for protection, is the Iraqi government which, as Murtha pointed out, is inside the Green Zone. They’re not out around the country. They’re inside the most highly secured and protected citadel in Iraq.

On “Meet the Press” they had three CEO’s from the oil industry. O’Reilly, Hofmeister and Mulva from Chevron, Shell Oil and ConocoPhillips.

Newman: That sounds like the player roster from the 1937 Boston Braves.

Salit: They were sort of a left-center-right coalition all unto themselves, at least the way I handicap it. I put Hofmeister from Shell on the left, Mulva from ConocoPhillips at the center, and O’Reilly from Chevron on the right. Russert started the segment with a poll which asks the American people how they feel about oil companies, negative or positive. Seventy-one percent said negative.

Newman: If I were an oil industry CEO, I would have said, have you taken a poll on how Americans feel about shoe companies? You’d probably get the same results.

Salit: You don’t think that oil companies have an image problem?

Newman: When oil and gas prices are high, they have an image problem. When shoe prices are high, the shoe business has an image problem.

Salit: Their explanation was, “The industry’s not doing a good job of letting the public know exactly what they’re doing, the level of investment that they’re making to create alternative sources of energy, how difficult it is to keep up with demand, that demand now outstrips supply, and that they have a responsibility as an industry to find ways to increase production because that’s what the American consumer wants.’

Newman: And, that’s how capitalism works.

Salit: Yes. And they argue that the American consumer is actually paying less per gallon than Europeans are.

Newman: Which they are.

Salit: Which they are. So, the problem, say the CEO’s, is that they basically haven’t told their story to the American consumer. Then Russert says, “Well, why aren’t the oil companies saying This summer instead of making 60% profits, we’re going to only make 30% profit and we’re going to pass that profit reduction along to the American consumer by reducing the cost of the gas at the pump.’ Russert said, “Why don’t you guys do that?’

Newman: Because this is not socialism. It’s not their job to do that. They have stockholders. Their job is to make money.

Salit: Indeed. Their job is to make as much money as possible.

Newman: Maybe you’ll regard this as preposterous. I hope I don’t lose my decent reputation in Talk Talk by saying this, but here goes. I don’t know that there is a gigantic furor over the price of gas. Yes, it’s the right thing to say, and it’s believable. It’s true that if you asked Americans: Do you like gas prices this high or would you prefer them at a buck-fifty? Everyone would choose $1.50 a gallon. But is this a profound inconvenience for the American people? I think you can make out the case that the American people will put up with it. And, when you point out to them that gas prices are vastly higher elsewhere, like in Western Europe, I think they’d say “Oh, I didn’t realize that, but I guess you’re right.’ So, I don’t want to minimize polls, but polls are funny things. The very formulation of a poll, characteristically becomes the answer. And one way in which it does that is the issue questions are being asked about becomes an issue. If someone is paying for the poll, they’re the ones who are contributing to it being turned into an issue.

Salit: Sure.

Newman: The American people don’t take a vote on what should be included in the polls, so I think Russert’s premise is a little bit disingenuous. Though it’s not uninteresting. But, I don’t know what he expected to get from these three CEO’s, other than what they said. Yes, there is a legitimate debate to be held on what kind of energy policy should be adopted by the United States – not by the oil companies – but by the country. That’s a debate that should be determined by the American people. Not by the oil companies.

Salit: And not by “Meet the Press.”

Newman: But, the oil companies set the ground rules, because that’s the system that the American people have adopted as their own, economically speaking.

Salit: So, this is what it is.

Newman: This is what it is. It’s a supply and demand for-profit system. And it gives us a very high standard of living.

Salit: Yeah, well as you say, the thing about polling is that the question itself shapes the answer.

Newman: Not just the question, but the having of the poll.

Salit: Because it turns something into an issue that may or may not be an issue.

Newman: Right.

Salit: Part of my reaction to this segment – and I hope this doesn’t make me unpopular with Talk Talk readers is – it’s kind of a throwback to 1970s-style left, anti-the oil companies stuff. And I’m not speaking as an advocate for the oil companies. But it was very “retro” – politically speaking.

Newman: Led by Tim Russert as the Trotskyite.

Salit: That’s what was kind of weird about it. Because the CEO’s presented what they take to be the mandates of their position and of their business.

Newman: Right. It’s what’s best for them to do, given capitalism.

Salit: Yes. They’re making a huge amount of money on crude oil. They’re taking the profits from that sector of the business and they’re investing that in exploration. I mean, if you build a platform out in the middle of the ocean to drill for oil and you have to staff it up, you’re talking about significant amounts of money. Now, they’re making significant amounts of money. But that’s the point of what they’re doing.

Newman: It’s not a money question, Jack. It’s a policy question. It’s “Who do you want to control that?’ I mean, if the government were to take over the oil industry, which would be a move in the direction of something vaguely identified with socialism, and if you had fair elections and national referenda, you could make a decision to drop all of that oil exploration and invest everything in wind energy, or whatever. That could be a decision. But the issue is who makes that decision. As long as you have the situation which we currently have – which has been very good to us and which puts the American people – by and large – in a very positive position economically, where the choices are based on the profit motive, then the answers are going to be determined by that. It’s about who makes the decisions.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Should the American people get a chance to vote on that? Well, the answer could be either “Yes, they should,’ or “They already have,’ time and again. What we have is what they’ve voted for. And, so that’s where we are. You can’t mix those things in the way Russert was trying to mix them.

Salit: That’s exactly right.

Newman: He says, “How come you’re behaving like a capitalist?’ Answer: “Well, I am a capitalist, what do you expect me to behave like?’ And what’s more, the American people prefer capitalism, they’ve benefited profoundly from capitalism, and so one thing that follows from capitalism, is that the gas prices may be three bucks a gallon. That’s the deal. And you’re still way ahead of what they’re paying in Europe. My hunch is that most Americans will say, “Alright, I guess that’s what we’ve got to pay.’

Salit: Alright, thanks Fred.