Just Above Sunset
April 17, 2005 - Inventing a Loyal Opposition

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Last week in Liberal Wimps: The Allure of Calm Reasoning With the Powerful Right a number of Just Above Sunset readers weighed in on how to form and effective opposition party to the current conservative, evangelical Christian Republican right that now runs the country.


The dialog continued while the editor was in New York and offline.


Last week’s dialog ended with Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, commenting –


It doesn't really matter that polls show that most Americans agree Bush has blatantly screwed so many things up, it's that when it comes to a horserace, people want to vote for the strongest horse. He walks and talks like a winner, and that's why he needn't pay no mind to the likes of Sy Hersch, much less your or me.


And that's my overall take on the recent thread about "Liberal Wimps" -- it's not so much that the Democrats necessarily did anything wrong in 2004, it's just that more people voted for the strong-looking guy, period.


(By the way, since the term did not appear anywhere in any of the originating articles, need I ask what particular media-wise brainiac came up with that "Media Wimps" slug, purposely designed to seek out the "outrage" amongst us and get our blood boiling?  Yeah, yeah, you know who you are!  Those manipulating marketing wizards seem to be cropping up everywhere, don't they?)


But to continue, if you took all the comments and questions of this group on this liberal thing and put them into one mouth, you would have a better answer than the ones found in those abstract and overly-philosophical articles cited in the open volleys of that thread.


I really think everybody who cares enough to have been complaining and working and writing and talking to whomever has to keep doing what they've been doing. Hopefully, it will work -- what the hell, these things do seem to go in cycles, mostly because the folks in the middle periodically get fed up and switch sides for awhile. It's not a pretty picture, but maybe that's the most we can hope for. And if these efforts don't work, then you always have one of two choices: [a] Try harder next time, or [b] Give it all up and go on with your life. (Personally, I vote for [a].)


By the way, I take distinct pleasure in reporting that, the day before yesterday, while I was manning the pump at the gas station, I noticed a car across the way with a bumper sticker that said "Jesus was a Liberal!"  I guess words do get around!


And readers were referred back to August 8, 2004: Rehabilitating the word LIBERAL - and Elvis? for that.  


Vince in upstate New York then added this –


Rick and others –


You make a comment that W walks and talks like a winner - and I see whiner whenever I watch his stupid Howdy-Doody goof smile of his that he flashes continually.  The guy doesn't know HOW to turn it off.  Even in solemn situations greeting cardinals as he exited his public viewing of the Pope this past week - he had that truly idiotic inappropriate self-conscious "grin from a silly frat-boy" on his face.


MY biggest problem is WHO in this country - regardless of intellect or political inclination - takes that "face of our president" as the reflection of a winner?  Since when are cartoon characters imbued with presidential integrity?


Ah, if I suppose some people like the old Howdy-Doody Show - and if Bush is Howdy-Doody, then Rumsfeld is Yosemite Sam.  Perhaps folks do think of this in cartoon terms.


Rick replies to Vince.


Who in this country - regardless of intellect or political inclination - takes that "face of our president" as the reflection

of a winner?


I'm not sure exactly who they are, but one thing I'm pretty sure about them is that there were more of them voting on Election Day than there were people like you and me.


But wait! I just realized I do know a few of them, they being the various parents of my six-year-old daughter's best friends, and nice people all.


Harper's family has a "Support Our Troops" sign on their lawn -- not that surprising, given that her dad is an ex-MP from the Army. I've made a point of not discussing politics with them, mostly lest they decide not to take Molly off our hands on the occasional weekend playdate, but also because I know breath would be wasted on trying to change the minds of such hard-and-fast true believers.


On the other hand, Margaret's mom told me on the day before the election she wasn't sure who she was going to vote for, since she didn't know or care much about the issues but was "really annoyed" with what she saw as the "hysteria" of friends on both sides who were trying to get her to back their guy. Maybe I should have preached to her but chose not to at that point; she later told me she ended up voting for Bush.


In looking forward to the next election, though, I do hope that the Democrats don't choose someone with an eye toward appealing to conservatives and Republicans, such as picking someone because he has a record of being an actual soldier who served his country, rather than a make-believe one who didn't. If there are lessons we can take away from 2004, I would think one is that there is no way of tricking the hard liners of the other side into thinking our guy is, at heart, really one of them. In fact, the Republicans don't buy it -- and also, in fact, the swing voters don't really care.


I do think the candidate should, first of all, be one who will stay true to what Democrats stand for -- and not only not be afraid to admit it, be ready to argue strongly for it -- but secondly, have a strong enough personality -- at least stronger than whomever the other side puts up -- to inspire the confidence of the mostly "undecided" Margaret's moms of the world.


But yes, although I really do believe the election finally came down more to the personality of the candidates than necessarily of what we like to call "the issues," this is not to say I think Bill should give up his activist activities. He's been fighting on the front lines of keeping the argument alive that intelligence and moral responsibility do count for something in this world, and especially in a country you and I have at least as much right to call our own as all the flagwavers who accuse us of "blaming America first." (Hey, Ann Coulter, get this straight! I don't blame America at all, I blame conservatives like you!)


One could move to Canada, but better that one should stay here and serve one's country by doing what Bill has been doing. As frustrating as it may be not to find that silver bullet to just make it all happen, it's work that needs to be done, and that will eventually be rewarded with success.


That may not sound like a ringing note of optimism, but in fact, I'm really a very positive person who has always believed that life is hard and we do our best with it, and later we die and forget the whole thing ever happened.


Dick in Rochester has a question for Rick –


Would you be referring to "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?”


I am sure Alan has some place in his archives surveys, during the last apocalypse, of the number of people that fairly solidly preferred Democratic positions---but voted Republican anyway. It is going to be very difficult to cope with "I have always voted Republican."


And Rick has an answer –


Not really. Although I had problems with Dean on many issues (I disagree with his stand on capital punishment; he's for it), I still think he might have put up a good fight, although he failed to prove it when he didn't overcome that so-called "scream."


In truth, though, there is way more than a "dime's worth of difference" (as was once claimed) between the two parties.


Whoever takes the Democratic lead next time just needs to make very clear what the Democrats stand for. If the candidate loses, so be it, but in truth, if they make a strong case, and the folks in the field get out the vote, the Democrat just might win.


And Vince has a comment for Rick –


One could move to Canada, but better that one should stay here and serve one's country by doing what or activist has been doing?  You say that as frustrating as it may be not to find that silver bullet to just make it all happen, it's work that needs to be done, and that will eventually be rewarded with success.


And despite being an optimist myself most days, to this plea I'm tempted to rejoin with the latest news coverage on new government regulations contemplated for our banking system (much to the dismay of more and more bankers), that Patriot Act, and (red herring issue?) the potential prevention of future terrorist activity justifies the current powers in DC to begin tracking 100% of all individual international banking transactions.


The idea is unfettered investigative access to every individual's financial transactions will allow accurate identification of the next $50,000 or $250,000 destined to fund a terrorist action...  EXCUSE ME?  Identifying what in daily activity are inconsequentially tiny transactions among the billions?  With what methods might I ask?


Or does this really just smack of a new found ability to track the actions of "mine" enemies?  Let's bring Herbert Hoover back to run our intelligence community why don't we?!!


With moves like these being initiated week after week?  Four from now Canada won't be far enough removed to provide sanctity of life.   I'm thinking more like New Zealand - but then, that's just talking thru my hat - since chances of me moving off my comfortable couch get slimmer each year I sit here!


Rick replies –


Let's bring Herbert Hoover back to run our intelligence community why don't we?


Hey, bringing back Herbert could be bad, but J. Edger would even be worse!  (But since both of them are dead, I'm pretty sure they would do an equally deplorable job.) Just joshing, of course. I know what you mean.


But in any event, I still say, Fight Back!


At best, you will win, and at worst, you will have done the right thing!




Of course you know what I meant - the Freudian Herbert reference was just too good... eh?




No, no! In fact, I think I'd really rather have Herbert! (A no-brainer, as they say?)


In fact, as I recall, Herbert Hoover campaigned in 1932 in favor of doing all those what later became known as "New Deal" type things, with FDR campaigning against them. The big switch, as I understand, happened after FDR was elected -- pre-shades of GWB, I'd say, who did the same goddam thing with "nation building."


What goes around...


And Dick in Rochester picks up on a key phrase -


Although I do not know if Nader truly believed there is not "a dime's worth of difference" between the parties I think he would be not too far off in saying that is true on how the parties have presented themselves. 


The Dems have been so damned concerned about "Middle America" that they did not gave many of the moderates to left of moderate Democrats anything to vote FOR, only the other side to vote against.  That's a hell of a campaign slogan: "I'm not George W".


That'll get the hardcore Dems racing to the polls.  There were things about Dean that I, too, did not like - but at least he energized a lot of people who were willing to run with the "FOR" illusion.




Interesting: that "dime's worth" quote I was thinking of came from George Wallace, I think in 1972; if Ralph Nader said it, he's older than I am so he must have known where it came from!


Personally, what I think what Democrats should stand for is a sort of "moderate liberalism" that says all Americans own America, not just rich people or poor people, not just born-agains or athiests, but this country belongs to all of us, and this country should be what we all, not just some of us, want it to be.


Pushing that may not be a winning political strategy, but it has the advantage of being honest, true, and fair. And if my party can't handle being those three things, then heaven help it because it won't deserve to win.


Although I must admit "I'm not George W" was good enough for me, it apparently wasn't for everyone. So for all of that, I guess Howard Dean would indeed have been a better choice. We might still have lost, but at least we would have gone down fighting.




Right! You might as well go out in flames - or a bang, not a whimper.


I believe the most difficult thing for Democrats to do is the massive undertaking of no longer letting the Republicans define what democrats/liberals are. 


I am 59 and going back at least to Nixon versus Humphrey (maybe earlier but either I did not notice or care or forgot) Republicans have been able to make liberalism equal all that is bad in the world. most classically with Dukakis. 


This results in always being on the defensive.  Instead of touting the great things that have happened under liberal (or even moderate) administrations -  social security, voting rights and all the rest – Democrats apologize.


That ain't the way to energize your support base.


And Phillip in Georgia jumps in –


I remember it was George Wallace who said it as well, though I give you credit for knowing it was in 1972.  I think the Iowa caucus decided who the candidate would be for the party, and it was based on getting a good feeling for Kerry in a smaller group setting.  Kerry seemed to get weird in front of a huge crowd with a lot of cameras on him.  The big stage wasn't his forte and he wasn't comfortable with it, but appeared willing to trudge through it anyway.  He also answered simple questions in complex ways too much. 


Dean didn't have a natural show biz demeanor either, in fact none of the candidates did, and now stage skills are clearly part of the job.  But what performing artist wants the private life scrutiny that comes with politics, much less all the policy wonking?


You are right Rick in that we need to get to message out (the "moderate liberalism" message is fine) in a way that is believable.  Just coming across that democrats are nicer guys would be a good start, but the shrill opposition defines what we are for us.  Ultimately (to agree again) I voted for "I'm not George Bush" as well.




Nixon versus Humphrey?  That’s when liberals started to be called bad?


It must have been Nixon-Humphrey, since that was my first vote, and I'm 60, turning 61 end of May.


Oddly, before that, the Republicans never quite did have their act together, what with the Nixon-JFK debates, and later, the LBJ folks casting Goldwater as an early Doctor Strangelove.


In fact, I would say 1968 was the turnaround election for the GOP, the one in which they tried on their new shit-kicking boots for the first time and found they fit just fine. They were especially effective that year in defining Humphrey as "The Happy Warrior" with commercials that superimposed his laughing round face over news footage of soldiers fighting for their lives in Vietnam.


The Republicans' success could be largely credited to an old boss of mine, Roger Ailes (then News Director of TVN, now head of Fox News Channel) who earlier, as a producer for Mike Douglas in Philly in the mid-1960s, got to talking backstage with Nixon while he waited to go on the show. Roger told Nixon pretty much how he had fucked up 1960 by not taking TV seriously, and that if he ever decided to make another White House run, to give him a call so he could show him how it's done. The rest is history.


(I think I've told this story before, so I'll just allude briefly to how embarrassed I was that day in 1975 that Roger and one of his right-wing cohorts strolled into the newsroom, laughing as they read my resume out loud, specifically the part where I mentioned that I had co-produced a campaign commercial for the Hubert Humphrey campaign in 1968. "Geez, Denny," he said, "maybe we should have actually read Rick's fucking resume before we hired the bastard!  Whataya think?"


Still hysterical, they walked out the other door and down to Farrell's Bar & Grill on West 58th.  I know that's where they went because I saw them there later, still laughing.  Or at least when I noticed them glance over at me, they were still laughing.)


One can find a fairly good chronicle of how it all went down back in 1968 in John Osbourne's columns, called "The Nixon Watch," published in The New Republic magazine, and later as a book under the same title.


I remember one particular piece that showed how the Nixon campaign would routinely allow a small number of the protesters that were waiting outside into his rallies, and would seat them in a prominent place in the stands so that when they acted up and heckled, something they always did, he could stop his speech and point to them as examples of what he's up against in his fight to serve his country -- or some such thing. I thought that was brilliant -- in an evil sort of way, of course. In fact, I later heard that Nixon thought Osbourne was brilliant, too -- very impressed with his reportorial observations while still knowing full well that nobody who reads The New Republic will ever make a dot's worth of goddamn difference to his election chances.


Dukakis? Don't get me started! I was so pissed at Bush after he capped off what must have been one of the nastiest campaigns in history with a victory speech on election night in which he said he was now hoping for "a kinder, gentler America," I almost busted my TV. I actually considered starting a campaign in favor of trying to persuade Bush electors in the Electoral College to switch their votes to the Duke.


That 1988 Bush campaign, of course, was largely the brain child of the late Lee Atwater, giving me the perfect chance to now continue my cavalcade of name-dropping brushes-with-fame with a story about the day I met him face-to-face.


It was at the Republican primary debate in Atlanta, which apparently established that frontrunner GHW Bush was so far ahead that he need not have paid no more nevermind whatsoever to all those other dwarves on the stage.  My wife, hiding out in some control truck on the other side of the building somewhere, was producing the broadcast, and I think the event itself, for CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


In the spin room, I approached a group of reporters gathered around a little guy with a twang, and realized it was Atwater. During a lull in questioning all of the other guys seemed to have run out of things to ask -- I piped in with, "So, Mr. Bush is doing so well, you've decided to forego all the other debates? I mean, I hear you're passing up Tennessee next week."


To this day I'm not sure why, but the man looked nervous! "Well," he said, "we've got lots more places we need to be, and there isn't that much time to attend every little debate."


I nodded my head slowly and pretended to write something down. (I wasn't really there to cover the politics, just the media, but I thought it wise not to blow my cover.)


I noticed all the other reporters craning their necks to read my name tag, which had me listed as working for "TV NEWS JOURNAL" -- little suspecting, I hoped, that it was this tiny weekly newsletter I published out of our condo's second bedroom on my midget Macintosh and its peanut-butter-slow laser printer.


I looked up and caught Atwater staring right at me. He did not look well. I didn't know what else to do, so I just smiled and nodded my head slowly again. I think he wanted me to follow up, but I didn't. This seemed to make him even more nervous.


"I mean, there are so many places," he started, "so many places we have to be, and Tennessee is just one of them.…"  He stopped, possibly realizing that he might not want to belittle a whole state getting ready to cast its vote on Super Tuesday, and maybe not knowing for sure whether or not I had any influence up there.  "Not that Tennessee, of course, is that ... um ...you know..."


I smiled again and looked at him. "No, I understand," I reassured him.


This seemed to put him at ease, at least until he noticed all those other reporters scribbling into their reporter notepads. At that point, the circle broke up and we all went in different directions to see what else was going on.


I thought this was so great! I went home and told my wife that night. As I recall, she being the journalistic woman of the world that she was then, and still is, didn't find any of it all that funny.


But it is.


So what is the opposition to do?


We could turn to the founder of the Republican Party. 


From Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Speech 1860 -


But you say you are conservative - eminently conservative - while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by "our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;" while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. . . . Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge or destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations. ... Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.


. . . Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.


From Markos Moulitsas Zúniga - who was the first commentator to point to Lincoln.


First, we are in the minority. We do not have any control over the agenda. For that reason, Dems are necessarily in a reactive mode. Dems must react to the initiatives of the majority GOP on legislative matters. There simply is no other way. I hear much talk of how Dems must lay out a positive agenda. My reaction is - not yet. Why? Because the election is next year. No agenda proposed by the Democrats has any chance of even being debated (other than "compromises" with the GOP, see Nelson, Ben, Lieberman, Joe), much less voted on. It will be less than meaningless - because you give the GOP a chance to react to what you will propose.


Second, the Democratic Party has for some time lost the image battles with the GOP. Dems fight a negative image in most respects while the GOP has escaped the negative consequences of their extreme Right Wing agenda and constituencies.


But opportunity knocks. With the Schiavo travesty, the DeLay scandals and now with Frist's Nuclear Jihad, the unmasking of the extreme Right Wing fringe-controlled Republican Party is a real possibility.


Who are the extremists?  The Frist Jihadists.


So, are the times changing?




A parting comment from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta –


I assume those folks Lincoln was referring to were the Democrats, in particular from the South, who saw the Constitution as a non-binding bargain entered into by the various states, any of who, for any reason, could always back out of the deal whenever they thought they weren't getting their way.


Those mid-19th-century Democrats saw themselves -- much as Nino Scalia sees himself today -- as "originalists" who thought they were merely living up to the principles of the document the founders signed. But, as Lincoln pointed out, they were actually rewriting history to suit their own situation, that in fact the writers of the Constitution (later backed up by "We the People of the United States" when we ratified their plan) did so because that loosey-goosey Confederacy idea had already been tried, and we found that it didn't work. In fact, the Articles of Confederation allowed states to secede, while the Constitution that replaced it did not.


In other words, you slave-holding secessionist Democrats, despite what you claim, aren't the real conservatives, says Lincoln, we free-soil unionist Republicans are.


But wait! If that little bit of historical irony doesn't flip your mind upside down, remember that today's "progressives" look back to the Lincoln Republicans, even the much-maligned "Radical Republicans" in Congress, for inspiration. After all, those were the guys with the guts to finally not only free the slaves but to fight against allowing slave-holding states to leave the union so they could do whatever they wanted to do, including owning slaves.


So in other words, despite what Lincoln may have thought of himself back then, he turned out to be not so much an early adapter of Conservative Republican philosophy as one of the founding fathers of modern day Liberalism.  And a Republican, at that!   Go figure!


Regarding Kos's "I hear much talk of how Dems must lay out a positive agenda," I absolutely agree with him that we put too much stock in all that stuff. It's not that we should stop being "negative" -- outsiders can't help doing a certain amount of that, just to stay alive -- but it should eventually become obvious to everyone that, even as insiders, the Republicans are pretty negative people themselves.


The most obvious examples are media darlings Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. Can you imagine where these guys' careers would go if somebody snuck ground-up nice pills into their coffee every morning? But even some in Congress seem to get most of the air they breathe from beating up on their political opponents. Nobody likes a bully, and at some point, I think Americans will realize that if some one party has to monopolize Washington, it might as well be Democrats, since back when they held all the cards they at least were gracious enough to allow some input from the other side of the aisle.


And as Clinton reminded Katie Couric last week on the Today Show, all this talk about the Democratic filibusterers being obstructionists and spoilers shows itself to be patently ridiculous once your head clears and you realize that the GOP blocked far and away many more of Clinton's judge nominations than the Democrats are doing to Bush today.


Have you seen that pro-Bush TV ad that essentially says "President Bush wants to fix Social Security, and wants ideas from everyone on how to do it," then asks if you know of any such ideas from the Democrats, and then shows a stop watch clicking as we wait to hear what they are?


I think the Democrats should run a commercial that includes this one, but stops the clock as a voice says, "First of all, President Bush does NOT want to fix Social Security! If he did, would he be pushing this multi-trillion dollar 'Private Accounts' plan obviously designed to sink it? George Bush assures you that you will get your benefits when you retire, but then he says the government trust fund that's supposed to make sure this happens, in his words, 'doesn't exist'!  Well, it DID exist when he came into office, and if it doesn't exist now, he sure has a lot of explaining to do!  Call President Bush and tell him to stop talking trash, and to stop trying to dismantle Social Security!"  At which point, the stopwatch starts up again, hits ten seconds, and suddenly stops. "And tell him that his time is running out!"


My instinct says the Democrats should not be just sitting on their brains while those Republican ads are showing up on TV screens. Then again, maybe the Democrats should save their money, since the public doesn't seem to be buying into Bush's Social Security ideas anyway.


So I think Kos is right on the mark in saying the Republicans are cruising for an inevitable bruising, since their false assumptions that most of America is conservative, for some reason, always seem to lead them to overreach. Think the so-called "Contract With America" of 1994, but also the more recent Terri Schiavo case and Tom Delay's ham-fisted resistance to ethical accountability. And I suspect this business of the legislative branch going after the judiciary might just develop enough "blowback" to whoosh all these bug-killers and whatnot back under the rocks from which they originally crawled. Or maybe it's just that I hope so.


In truth, we aren't really the conservative country some would have you believe. As I learned last week, polls have shown consistently for over forty years or so that about 40% of Americans identify themselves as "moderate," about 36% call themselves "conservative," about 18% call themselves "liberal," with the rest undecided. So although their numbers might be twice that of liberals, conservatives have generally been, and are still, a minority in this country.


Cold comfort, I suppose, but when opportunity knocks -- as it surely will -- any comfort is better than none at all.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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