When Wingnuts Tremble
The Palin circus has drowned out almost everything else, but you may have seen that the Obama campaign has pushed the Department of Justice to investigate the group behind the Ayers ads for possible violation of FEC guidelines. Meanwhile, The Politico reported late last week:
Barack Obama's campaign hasn't advertised this a great deal this week, but the campaign's "Action Wire" has been waging large-scale campaigns against critics. That includes tens of thousands of e-mails to television stations running Harold Simmons' Bill Ayers ad, and to their advertisers — including a list of major automobile and telecommunications companies.
And tonight, the campaign launched a more specific campaign: an effort to disrupt the appearance by a writer for National Review, Stanley Kurtz, on a Chicago radio program. Kurtz has been writing about Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers, and has suggested that papers housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago would reveal new details of that relationship.
The campaign e-mailed Chicago supporters who had signed up for the Obama Action Wire with detailed instructions including the station's telephone number and the show's extension, as well as a research file on Kurtz, which seems to prove that he's a conservative, which isn't in dispute. The file cites a couple of his more controversial pieces, notably his much-maligned claim that same-sex unions have undermined marriage in Scandinavia.
"Tell WGN that by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse," says the email, which picks up a form of pressure on the press pioneered by conservative talk radio hosts and activists in the 1990s, and since adopted by Media Matters and other liberal groups.
This comes via The Poor Man Institute in "Stanley K-Y" and "Wankpocolypse Now" and Thers in "The New Juice," all providing some good thoughts as well as links to right-wingers whose heads are predictably exploding over this. Thers nails it:
Because Ben Politico Smith is kind of a wanker, we get the line that the line about the file on Kurtz merely "proving that he's a conservative," which of course is not the point -- the file shows that Kurtz is a wingnut hack ideologue and nothing remotely close to a "scholar" or "researcher." The pretense that clowns like Kurtz are Serious People doing Serious Work (at the Very Serious Hoover Institution, no less) would be laughable were the Liberal Media not so prone to believe this sort of bullshit and lend it unjustified credibility by quoting them and giving them airtime...
Over here on the left we're all too familiar with the whole dreary process by which conservatives turn ridiculous bullshit into conventional wisdom...
The sniveling, hypocritical, hysterical response from NRO is also hugely entertaining, and that is in and of itself a plus. But the deliberate disruption of the Crazy Conservative to Conventional Wisdom sewer line is smart and necessary. More like this, please.
For my money, the best laugh line come from National Review's Guy Benson, who tries to sell this incident as a "stark and alarming wake-up call," and then implores, "For goodness sake, read Jonah's book." Benson at least knows his audience – Kurtz' "scholarship" is on a par with Jonah Goldberg's. And when you're trying to sell a bullshit scare over your bullshitter pal getting called on his transparent bullshit, the best way to back up yourself is to cite one of the most ludicrous pieces of bullshit ever penned.
Check out the Obama e-mail at The Politico piece, which points out Kurtz' wingnut pedigree, and if you dare, listen to the two-hour podcast of the 8-27-08 show in question. Kurtz is shoveling some awfully weak crap. His main argument's basically that Obama knew Ayers, Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground in the 60s, so Obama's comfortable with those views. Kurtz conveniently ignores that Obama was a kid at the time of Ayers' actions, Obama has condemned them, and Ayers is a professor now. By Kurtz' own standards, all the respectable Republicans on the same board also must also be far-left radicals or at least sympathizers. Kurtz' entire shtick is innuendo and guilt by association designed to scare conservative-leaning whites from voting for Obama. Kurtz also whiningly plays the persecuted martyr throughout. Of course, no one's trying to suppress his First Amendment rights (which don't include the right to be on a radio show); the callers are just exercising their own. Some of the callers could have been sharper, perhaps, but they're pretty civil, with only one guy getting heated. Host Milt Rosenberg seems like an amiable guy, Kurtz was booked last minute, and the program did try to contact the Obama campaign for equal time – although in the middle of the Democratic National Convention. Rosenberg does offer to have an Obama surrogate on a later date. The point is, Rosenberg should have done his homework, exercised some editorial judgment and upheld some basic journalistic standards. (A radical notion, I know.) Kurtz is an odious smear merchant who shouldn't be given a platform and credibility by any legitimate news organization, and the Obama campaign made a strong case to that effect. (I don't know who pushed the last-minute booking, but the trick to being a successful snake oil salesman is to get in and out before one's reputation catches up.)
Thoughtful Uncertainty and the Grand Scheme
This particular incident isn't terribly important in the grand scheme of things, but when I first read about it, I wondered if it presented some ethical dilemma, the sort liberals (like me) often fret over but which seldom give conservatives pause. There's a saying that education is the process of moving from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty, and those two approaches sorta capture stereotypes of conservatives and liberals, respectively. (Those stereotypes don't go very far, though, and leave out authoritarian malice.) The Poor Man Institute's spent many a post discussing the fine art of ratfucking, and the Democrats' reluctance to engage in the sort of dirty tricks Republicans have often used to win elections. What's effective and not, what's ethical and not, the best angle of attack, the right mix of positive and negative, the perceptions game – all these are issues much discussed in campaigns, on television talk shows, and on blogs. I think it's safe to say that the "ethical" issue is of far greater concern to bloggers, who also tend to focus far more on actual policies than the average citizen or political reporter. But discussions of approach have intensified with the Democratic National Convention, the current Republican one, and certainly with McCain's virtually un-vetted pick of Palin. (More on Palin and these issues in another post, perhaps, although it's pretty well covered on many a blog, including BH.)
To return to the Kurtz incident, especially after listening to the actual show, I have to say the wingnut squawking on this is just ridiculous. This wasn't the Swift Boat campaign, or the Brooks Brothers riot, or jamming phone lines at party headquarters in New Hampshire, purging voter rolls in Florida, a whisper campaign about a white candidate's black child born out of wedlock, an e-mail campaign claiming a candidate is a Muslim or disrespected the troops, or a late-night break-in at the other party's headquarters (can you spot the through-line?). The Obama supporters weren't harassing the guy outside his house or something -- they were calling a show that solicits call-ins. They were civil. They could have been a bit sharper and more effective perhaps, but they were concerned volunteers, not trained surrogates. Any Nixonian dirty tricks came from Kurtz and his backers. Kurtz was spreading lies and innuendo, whereas the information the Obama campaign provided was accurate. (I should also note that Bush administration and RNC talking points sometimes lie to their own party members.) It's simply a good thing to challenge a professional smear merchant who's paid to lie, to hold him accountable, and to make the whole gang behind him squirm a bit.
I'd say true "ratfucking" entails a smear, lies or deception, and/or disruption of the other campaign's operations, especially through infiltration -- 60s strategies brought to mind by the police misconduct in the Twin Cities. I don't think the response to Kurtz qualifies, except that it did disrupt the other party's campaign, albeit the public propaganda effort of an ally with deniability. Regardless, the Obama volunteers took concrete, organized action, and that part is definitely good, because liberals traditionally haven't been able to combat the extremely organized and loud right-wing echo chamber. Meanwhile, when it comes to true ratfucking, I tend to agree with Hilzoy (writing here on the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy):
If the past is any guide, some people will respond to this post by saying that the Republicans would not hesitate to use Democrats' teenage children to score political points. That may be. Three responses: first, so what? Just because they do it doesn't mean that we should. Second, any argument for going there would have to assume that this would, in fact, be a political winner, and thus that not using it would entail some sort of political sacrifice. I am not at all convinced that that is true. Most importantly, though, there are some lines I'm not willing to cross no matter what the other side does.
There's sincere disagreement on these issues, and I don't think that's a bad thing on its own. However, to take Palin as an example, there are many ways to critique her on both issues and character without going after her daughter. Palin's extreme anti-abortion views (no exceptions even for rape and incest) are of course fair game, as is her abuse of power and lying in "Troopergate," and her decision to lie in her first press conference as a VP pick about being a reformer who opposed the "Bridge to Nowhere" is kinda relevant. So too is her almost total lack of the experience and knowledge necessary to be president, a job she might have to take over given the health issues of John McCain. Regardless, Hilzoy's second point is key – going dirty can be effective, but it isn't necessarily so, and can backfire. Ideally, the Swift Boat campaign in 2004 would have been fact-checked and exposed, and the Republicans would have paid a steep price for it. We obviously don't live in an ideal world, and that didn't happen. It would be naïve to suppose that dirty tricks never work. Plus, typically the press will rescue Republicans but savage Democrats. Yet the Obama campaign's "action steps" mobilizing volunteers to challenge lying hacks, and their site to Fight the Smears, are extremely encouraging. The right-wingers have shown, predictably, that no matter what Obama does, they'll attack him. So he might as well fight back and at least say his piece. That also helps the 'meta-narrative' Josh Marshall wrote about years ago regarding Kerry and the Swift Boat campaign. With Kerry not fighting back immediately and forcefully, the right-wing was able to imply that Kerry was weak, so that even if the specific charges didn't stick, they were able to inflict damage. So far, the Obama campaign has pushed back aggressively on smears, and action by volunteers is very important because, as the Poor Man points out, "You-Don’t-Run-The-Obama-Campaign and The-Popular-Media-Doesn’t-Care-What-You-Think."
Be that as it may, news and campaign analysis, issues and ethics will always be hot topics for liberal bloggers. And while speculation at big blogs such as Daily Kos might make the news, smaller blogs are less likely to be combed over and cherry-picked, and can perhaps be more candid. It's also important to note the different levels at work: the campaigns themselves, their official staffers, their surrogates, their allies, their supporters, the candidate speeches, the official statements, the ads, the behind-the-scenes operations – including possible dirty tricks, the Astroturf organizations, the attack dog allies with deniability, bloggers... I remain most interested in the many games to public discourse, on blogs, in debates, and probably most of all on political talk shows. Media analysis has always been a key part of the liberal blogosphere, but with more bloggers appearing on political talk shows, it's even more relevant.
Stop Moving So We Can Shoot You
Seeing the right-wingers flip out over the Kurtz incident made me think back a few years. Remember the parade of former Nixon aides when Mark Felt was revealed as Deep Throat? It was unreal. All of a sudden, convicted felons, former conspirators and general scumbags were running around, often meekly challenged if at all, talking about how Nixon was a 'serious president for a serious time,' and Mark Felt was dishonorable, and he should have brought his concerns to the White House if he was so bothered. Really. They said that crap. Rove and other Bushies used a similar line this year on Scott McClellan -- if he was bothered, he should have spoken up, of course we'd have listened, as is the Bush White House style. But McClellan, while a dupe initially on Plame, wasn't a complete dunce. He knew, and had witnessed first-hand, exactly what would happen if he spoke up. And Felt was far craftier than McClellan.
Felt didn't bring his concerns to the Nixon gang because he knew he wouldn't be handing a decision to a thoughtful and ethical superior, he'd be handing them opposition research on himself, and they'd use the advance warning to try to destroy him. And if they had, Nixon might have stayed in power. Felt's motives might not have been entirely noble, and apparently one factor was that familiar D.C. beast, a turf war. But what I find ironic is that Nixon's plumbers were amateur spies, trying to destroy their enemies. Felt was a real spy, and extremely good at it. The Concern Trolls for Nixon attacking Felt years later were in large part just expressing professional jealousy – he beat them at their own game. And America is better for it.
Facing Off with Scoundrels in the Blather Wars
Bruce Reed has a great essay from 2004 called "Bush's War on Wonks" that delves into the divide between wonks and hacks, and also touches on some of the same territory as Ron Suskind's "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." Many pundits, but almost all conservative pundits, are hacks. There are honorable, honest conservatives out there, for instance the rule-of-law type such as Alberto Mora and many of the JAGs pushing for due process and actual justice for Guantanamo prisoners, guilty and (the many innocent) alike. There are some Eisenhower Republicans still around - but these days they're speaking at the Democratic National Convention. The authoritarians of movement conservatism in power now are a completely different breed. For them, the only sin of Watergate was getting caught. Ever since, they've worked hard to avoid that happening ever again. Cheney and Rumsfeld practiced their dark arts in the Ford administration. The Reagan crew committed Iran-Contra and largely got away with it, with pardons from Bush the elder and justification from then Congressman Cheney, who complained that one just doesn't question the Imperial Presidency. And of course we now have many of the same Concern Trolls for Nixon in the current administration and carrying their water in the media. The neocons and their fellow authoritarian conservatives push disastrous policies without any scruple, their incompetence and corruption are (as Digby puts it) features, not bugs, and they will never, ever stop voluntarily. They have to be exposed and discredited.
In academia, in court, in good blog communities, when they're all at the best, there are standards of intellectual honesty and conduct. In honest discourse, there can be sincere points of contention as well as agreement, smart people of good faith will sometimes make mistakes but will own up to it, and the spirit is more one of exploration and discussion versus a humiliate-your-opponent, Thunderdome match to the death (which is what I was hoping for in McCain's VP pick process, actually). However, in those venues, it's also considered a virtue, not rude, to prove a point, to disprove a falsehood, and if necessary to call out a liar. That's not the case on most political talk shows. Many of the Democrats on TV aren't all that liberal, but beyond that liberals are often at a disadvantage debating conservatives because the key precept of liberalism is being fair, while the key precept of conservatism is power. Appear on PBS' NewsHour and you'd best call bullshit without profanity, but liberals can sometimes be gulled by concern trolls that it's somehow unfair to call bullshit at all, most of all forcefully, and that they should shy away from being fighting liberals. Conservatives can't win many arguments on the merits – they don't have much other than head games and language games, and they've gotten very good at those. Our mainstream media does not like to call out liars, nor to make qualitative judgments, pretending instead that all speakers are equally credible and that all ideas are created equal (much more on all this in two older, lengthy posts, "The Bullshit Matrix" and "False Equivalencies"). Back in 2004, Josh Marshall noted a NYT article that struggled to report how the Bush campaign was issuing lies and distortions in number and magnitude that far outstripped anything the Kerry campaign was doing (emphasis mine):
Yet by the rules of daily newspaper and television journalism it's not possible to quite say that -- a blind spot of the profession which Mike Kinsley has spoken about eloquently for many years…
They can't get themselves to say it, even though the authors of the piece, Nagourney and Stevenson, are seasoned political reporters who know the relevant facts perfectly well enough to make the judgment themselves.
This isn't an indictment of these two reporters. It's a recognition of the system they're working in, and the tactical advantages it gives to liars.
That dynamic sure hasn't gone away. And while The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are really funny, of course, they're also popular because they actually call bullshit, whereas far, far too many in the mainstream media do not.
Jamison Foser has a great piece from August on the media repeating McCain smears. Foser focuses in on an interview where Andrea Mitchell has McCain campaign manager Rick Davis dead to rights on a lie, yet lets him off the hook. I'd argue that commercial motives and social and professional norms are part of the problem. Regardless, do you think Patrick Fitzgerald would let that pass if he had Davis on the witness stand? Would Rachel Maddow, if Davis dared to come on her new show? Another guest could potentially challenge Davis, but then we're often into he-said, she-said territory, and hacks everywhere try to run out the clock and, as Dan Froomkin puts it, "win the half hour." Even with an actual liberal facing off with someone like Davis, it's likely going to be with a referee like Andrea Mitchell, or worse. This makes prepping for any face-offs all the more important. Obviously, if you're going to debate Davis, it's not going to play well to come right out and call him an evil, lying hack. But if you go into that debate not realizing that Rick Davis is indeed an evil, lying hack, you're gonna be in trouble. And you should know the material cold, plus study tape (as they say in the NFL) to know some of the evil lies he's bound to tell. It's also wise to know the most common logical fallacies and bullshitter's techniques, and practice how to rebut them quickly and effectively. There's a place for Kant and his categorical imperative in this world, but if I'm going into a debate, I want Socrates on my side, a guy who was wicked smart, but also one helluva smartass, brilliant at exposing his opponents (perhaps not the best approach to a capital trial, but a very effective one in debate).
This brings us back to matters over style and approach versus substance. Take McCain apparently not knowing the number of his houses – as Brad at Sadly, No, says, "The Reasonable Intellectual in me understands how silly it is to attack someone running for president for owning too many houses…But the Spite-Filled Hater in me can’t get enough of this shit." The reality is we live in a sound bite culture, with horribly superficial political coverage. I don't begrudge anyone for objecting to that or wanting to push back, because it needs to happen. But the world is also not as I would wish it. There are "gaffes" where someone's clearly just misspoke, and should be given every opportunity to clarify, or even admit error. The media's obsession with incorrectly labeling everything a flip-flop and with playing "gotcha" journalism is maddening. But I'm less troubled by someone smacking around McCain on his houses, as long as it then moves into the more serious stuff – McCain is out of touch, and his policies on taxes, health care, and the economy in general are horrible, and here's why. The sound bite is the shiny bauble for the press to distract and entertain them while the serious points are made. It is the tribute they demand. Plus, ridicule, when backed by a substantive critique can be very effective. Consider Obama's rebuttal of the tire gauge attack. He made serious points, he fact-checked the GOP, and he also justly ridiculed them. It was much more effective than an angry rant. And the ridicule was key, especially considering how much members of our press corps yearn for social approval and want to feel cool. Obama framed his rebuttal so it was cool to laugh at the Republicans – and that to be cool, one should laugh at the Republicans. Typically, our press corps ridicules substance, but Obama made it cool to ridicule bullshit. That's a minor coup.
The upcoming debates may provide a venue for more serious discussion, but it's not wise to count on it, given the terrible quality of the primary debate questions. Some of the candidates provided good answers, but largely despite the questions, not because of them. (I think the only decent debate was the Democratic one on NPR, which allowed for longer answers and discussion.) The debates as ran were little more than joint press conferences. The town hall format can be good, but also lends itself to sound bite answers and dodges. McCain does decently in those formats because he does have an amiable persona, and he's a decent bullshitter. But he's not at all superb. Longer formats and good, tough questions with follow-ups tend to fluster him and get him angry, with a recent Time interview merely one example. I'd love to see a real debate, with the principle of charity observed. I'd love to see both candidates pressed, and by actual, real-life, good reporters asking good questions and follow-ups. Long interviews by the same caliber of reporter would also be great. George Bush performed horribly when pressed by Irish reporter Carol Coleman and by NBC's Richard Engel. The same would happen to McCain if he were pushed on almost any issue at length. John McCain's statements and policies on Iraq range from the inaccurate to the incoherent to the incredibly bad. A substantial debate or sustained interview would expose him.
Meanwhile, in several recent cases with the press, McCain's gotten increasingly prickly. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis recently said that "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." It's the most honest thing we've heard yet from a Republican this election. While Davis went on to say issues play a role, the truth is, McCain has always mainly been selling his persona. Any format, any question or discussion that forces him beyond that will help Democrats. (The only danger with demolishing yet another unqualified politician is that a professional concern troll like Bob Herbert might rush to the hapless one's defense, and tell us why competence isn't admirable, but a refusal to point out another candidate's deception, ignorance or lack of qualification somehow is. But hey, it's not as if the stakes are high.)
Those Diabolical Nixon Concern Trolls
Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy supposedly performed a parlor trick of holding his hand over a flame until the flesh burned. According to the story, after he performed it at a dinner party, he was asked what the trick was, and he replied, "The trick is not to mind." It's a story repeated in Jane Wagner's play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, most famously performed by Lily Tomlin (and consider this a Spoiler Alert if you haven't seen the play/film). Near the end of the play, Tomlin tells the Liddy story, then tries to hold her hand over a flame a few times, pulling back each time with an "Ow" or flinch. It's a funny bit that turns poignant when she says, "I do mind," and the lights go out.
Part of being a liberal, or at least a wonk versus a hack, is minding, is caring, is giving a damn - for principles, and for other people besides one's self. The defining characteristic of the current administration, and movement conservatism in general, is that they're holding someone else's hand over that fire. They run things disastrously, they raid the Treasury to give money to their buddies, they do horribly immoral things, they lie - and if caught, they blame others, including their own victims, for the mess. They seldom fear the consequences of their actions and rhetoric. Reasonable people can disagree on which circle of Dante's Inferno various members of the Bush administration merit, but one thing's for certain -- it's long overdue that in this mortal world, they feel the heat of their own flame.
(Edited slightly for typos and clarity.)
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)