Tough Smart, Tough Stupid



Glenn Greenwald, who along with
George Carlin would get my vote for Living
National Treasure
if America offered such a designation, has a
terrific post today on Unclaimed Territory: “Conceding
John McCain’s ‘Toughness’ On National Security
.”



Greenwald discusses the dangerous
fallacy of buying into your opponent’s premise: in McCain’s case, the
premise that national security and militarism are the same thing; that victory
against Islamic extremists is best served by an endless occupation of
Iraq. When McCain claims that he’s strong on defense, I hope the
Democrats will have a response moderately more clever than “We’re strong,
too!” Hint to Democrats: here, “more clever” means
something along the lines of, “Strong? We’ve lost 4000 men and women
in Iraq, we’ve already blown a
half trillion dollars
on a war the Republicans promised
would cost fifty
, we’ve given al-Qaeda an
ongoing recruiting bonanza
, and you want to keep at it for another
hundred or even ten thousand years
… and you call that
‘strong’? That’s not strong. It’s stupid. We need leadership
that’s strong and smart.”

Theoretically, either Clinton or
Obama could properly frame the debate by attacking Republican premises, but in
practice Clinton’s attempts would be less effective. After all, she voted
for the Authorization
of Use of Military Force in Iraq
, and has been trying
to defend her vote ever since
. Her strategy, therefore, will be
to agree with McCain’s premises regarding how much of national strength has to
do with war (if you doubt this, watch the video clip in Greenwald’s
post). Obama, who opposed the war by noting, “I
am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars
,” will be
much better positioned to reject McCain’s premise that continued war is the
same as continued strength.



Again, the key to winning the debate
is to convincingly reject the premise of the other side’s argument. Obama
failed to do this against Hillary in the South Carolina debate (instead of
denying that he’d said anything nice about Republicans, he should
have said
, “What’s your point? We’re not allowed to say a
single nice thing about the other major American political party?”).
He’ll have plenty of opportunities to rectify that oversight in the general
election, in which the Republicans will call every Democratic proposal for a
more sensible allocation of resources in the fight against radical Islam
“retreat” and “defeat” and “surrender.”
(For a sneak preview of Republican talking points, see Mitt Romney’s concession
speech, in which he declares
defeat and surrenders
while accusing the Democrats of doing the
same).



In fact, I’d like to see Democrats
widen their campaign against Republican premises by questioning the antiquated
Republican mantle of conservativism. The party of George Bush is many
things, but conservative is not one of them. You can’t legitimately claim
that a president who has done what Bush has done to America’s
finances
, whose foreign policy is so radically millenarian that it
includes “the
ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world
,” and whose
philosophy and practice of governing can most kindly be called authoritarian,
is a conservative. And when did conservatism come to mean, “We’re
from the government, and we’re here to protect you
?”



The Republicans have used a traditional
conservative wrapping to package a product that is anything but. Exposing
the disparity shouldn’t be all that difficult. As part of this campaign,
Democrats might want to enlist the aid of actual conservatives like Dwight
Eisenhower
:

Crises there will
continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small,there
is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could
become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in
newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure
every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied
research-these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself,
may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.



But each proposal must be weighed in
the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among
national programs-balance between the private and the public economy, balance
between cost and hoped for advantage-balance between the clearly necessary and
the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a
nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance
between action of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good
judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and
frustration.

Whether the Democrats can succeed in
exposing Republican fictions is largely a question of Democratic communication
skills (I’m not sure this is cause for optimism). After all, the public
seems to be tired or increasingly immune to demagoguery. Look what
happened to Clinton in South Carolina after her campaign of distortions
there. And look what happened to Rudy Giuliani, whose chief legacy as a
candidate is to have functioned as the canary in the Republican coal
mine. The most fear-mongering candidate of the party whose current brand
slogan might be summed up as “Be Afraid” flamed out spectacularly
(think “fear-mongering” is too strong a description? Take a
look at this campaign
video
, and its hilarious
parody
).



Hawkishness is a means, not an
end. And like any other means, it can be used stupidly, or well. If
the Democrats don’t understand and articulate this, they stand a good chance of
blowing another election. Doing so would cost them the presidency, and
the Republicans the opportunity and impetus to return to conservative
principles. The biggest loser on both counts, of course, would be
America.