The elections are over, football season is in full swing, and winter is on the way. As the seasonal change takes full effect, it is my intention to be rid of the writer’s block and general political burn-out that has so afflicted my output over the last two months. In the weeks ahead, The Rational Middle will adopt a new weekly post line-up. Monday Musings is doing well, so it will start the week and be followed by commentary on the political media (Tuesday), Mike On Sports (Wednesday), domestic policy (Thursday), and foreign policy (Friday). I have spoken with a few potential guest contributors, and am always willing to hear from more. All that is required is your registration with the blog and an article, submitted via email, that matches the tone and mission of the RM.
It is my hope that the more formal schedule will allow the members of the RM to engage in more rigorous and regular commentary on the issues. The original point of this space, as an antidote to our broken political media, was to foster communication amongst peoples with divergent views. Nothing in this last election cycle has indicated to me that the political media is any better. With this in mind, please feel free to engage the columns on this blog via our comment section or on our Facebook page. Almost 10,000 of you have remained faithful through my struggles of the last few weeks, and I thank you for that. But I would like very much to read more of your opinions.
What are we really voting on next Tuesday? The major issues in our democracy have been obscured behind layers of political white noise and an avalanche of innuendo. Long gone are the days when you could simply support or oppose abortion, supply-side economics, the nuclear triad, or welfare for the poor. The last two years have seen mounting campaigns against phantom enemies; conservative political operatives in particular have learned well the lessons of airborne electronic warfare. In that martial field the production, via chaff or digital signals, of false targets is a principle way to hide your own airplane.
And so politicians in this new American theater of operations have mastered the art of the straw man. Build him up and tear him down; just so long as the public doesn’t know the difference between the real subject and the red herring. The mythology of this midterm cycle began with, and has been mastered by, Republicans. But Democrats have fought back, usually clumsily, with their own brand of subterfuge. Regardless of who takes the tactical battles this Tuesday, our democracy has been dealt a stunning strategic setback this cycle. A brief summary of this campaign’s myths and legends follows after the break…what follows after the election is anybody’s guess.
George W. Bush was applauded by conservatives and mocked by liberals for his pronouncement of an Axis of Evil. Consisting of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the Axis of Evil was a construct designed to sell the war in Iraq to a skeptical America. Speechwriter David Frum knew that Americans needed to see a larger than life threat, similar to the one framed by FDR prior to WWII, in order to commit to a new war in the sands of ancient Babylon. He knew, in other words, that we Americans are still imprisoned by the same mindset that came of age through successes in WWII and Korea, and came to maturity in the decades long struggle of the Cold War.
As our nation has matured, we have settled very near the mindset that lost the British their American colonies. As Americans, we are the children of insurgents. We are nothing less than the first successful guerrilla warriors to throw off their colonial masters. We were terrorists in 1776, cutting down Redcoats from cover with our Kentucky Rifles, fighting traditional formations with non-traditional tactics. The erstwhile revolutionaries that are our ancestors earned their freedom (with the help of the French) by outlasting, frustrating, and annoying the British until they finally returned home. But we have reached a point in our national life-cycle where we are the traditionalists. We understand set-piece warfare that results in unconditional surrender. We ignore the realities of unconventional warfare. We forget that other nations, and their citizens, are disinclined to accept the “freedom” of outsiders.
The modern practice of politics is, too often, the art of attaching blame. Whether or not a politician is popular depends, not on his or her policies or tactics, but on the way their tenure is framed by the political media. Barack Obama rode to the White House on a wave of positive feeling; his campaign was more positive than negative and the media embraced his personal story. Once in office, he experienced the other side of that media embrace; the side where the media grows tired of positivity and embraces the vitriol and controversy that sells ads.
There is no room for quitters or whiners in politics. It is for that reason that Sarah Palin should go away, and Robert Gibbs should stay away from lame criticisms of left-leaning media. The public is fickle; they may not understand all of the intricacies of policy, but they know weakness when they see it. You can blame media conspiracies for only so long before the public realizes that you are simply searching for an excuse. When it comes to scapegoating, the public is prepared to accept only that application of blame that is sanctified by the media, not directed at the media. Politicians that are successful over the long term happen on that success by virtue of their ability to get the media to sanctify their scapegoating.
If I asked you which of these presidents, George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, spent a higher percentage of the federal budget relative to GDP on defense, what would your answer be? The “weak on defense” Carter committed an average of 25% of all federal spending to defense, W.’s father committed an average of just over 22%. In the eyes of the public, the strength of a president is often measures in the perception of dollars spent combined with public statements towards and about perceived enemies. Reality is often far removed from that perception.
Most of the important work on national security takes place behind closed doors and over secure channels. Public messaging in that arena is largely reserved for massaging public opinion in preparation for a new strategy or threat. But Americans vote largely on gut feeling. President Carter killed the B-1 program because it was an airframe loaded with developmental problems that was being designed to fill a role occupied by other systems. President Reagan used Carter’s ending of the program as a hammer in the election of 1980, then promptly restarted it when he took office. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, planners were hard at work finding targets to show off their systems. The B1 was conspicuous in its absence. The loss of that airframe didn’t slow down the political sideshow though. Contractors during Desert Storm, gave a good example of their standard operating procedure: they consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of their products, and were supported in this subterfuge by the D.O.D.
With all of the talk about bias in the media and the decline of American journalism, I think it is important to point out how difficult it is to decide what to cover. Sports is easy; just print box scores and stories that summarize the games from major professional sports and the local high school and college events. The opinions flow from previous games, upcoming games, or upcoming seasons. To be certain, there is garbage in our sports coverage now, mostly as a result of writers doing their best to keep up with the hyperbole of ESPN. News, and politics in particular, have become a very different animal.
The difficulty with covering our democracy lies in the difference between actual actions and behind the scenes maneuvering. The House of Representatives is in almost constant activity, operating as they do without the procedural encumbrances of the Senate. The House actually votes on issues, and majority rule directs the outcome. The Senate, at least in view of the public, works on one or two issues at a time. In today’s climate of Republican obstructionism (that isn’t a political label, it is a fact), bills take months to reach an up or down vote. The space in between is filled by commentators, ex-politicians, and opinion-makers who prognosticate and pontificate on what is really happening. Writing or producing a story that accurately summarizes the major facts of a given issue boils down to figuring out which voices to record, and which sources to believe.