Once upon a time, not too long ago, the president of the United States declared that the war on terrorism was the most important issue in this year’s presidential campaign.
Then every time his opponent brought up this most important of issues, George W. Bush cried foul, accusing John Kerry of hindering the war on terrorism. (America might be a democracy, but that doesn’t mean the Democrat has a right to campaign.)
The president’s campaign enlisted the taxpayers’ servants as agents of his re-election, with Secret Service officers submitting attendees at Bush rallies to ideological X-rays, and election officials systematically suppressing the franchise of groups most likely to vote Democratic. Meanwhile the president, who earned some 500,000 votes less than his opponent, busied himself ramming through a radical legislative program as if he had won by a landslide—his congressional deputies all but barring deliberative input from the opposition party in order to do it and gaming the legislative apportionment system in ways, as the counsel to one Texas representative bragged in an e-mail to colleagues, that “should assure that Republicans keep the House no matte[r] the national mood.”
In Washington, it has turned some once calm souls into apocalyptics.
Thomas Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, noted for his deliberateness of manner, his decency, and his near religious devotion to the ideal of bipartisan comity. Now, he says, “I see the damage to our system and our sense of ourselves as a democratic people as really quite substantial. . . . The consequences of both the policies and the processes have been more destructive of our national interest and our democratic institutions than any president I know.” When someone as level-headed as Tom Mann begins to worry for the future of our democracy, that’s news.
Here’s something that’s even more newsworthy: Spend three days talking to movers and shakers around this town and you’re hard-pressed to find anyone who agrees. Even those who think the president is stealing our democratic birthright are eloquent in their excuses for why we shouldn’t do anything much about it at all.
Democratic insiders use politics to explain their inaction away. They’ve seen the focus groups: Accusations of a president draining the lifeblood from democracy just won’t play in Peoria. “It’s what the folks in this business, we call an ‘elite argument,’ ” says Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton and whose firm, West Wing Writers, develops messages for some of the most prominent Democratic campaigns. “It pitches too high to reach the mass electorate.”
Julian Epstein, another Democratic consultant and frequent talking head, puts it more simply. “People will think you’re whining,” he says.
Peter Fenn, a Washington advertising guru who frequently represents the Democratic side on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, says reaching voters on this point is hopeless: “Their eyes glaze over when you deal with process kind of issues.”
Yet the “process,” by many accounts, is not just broken but shattered, intentionally ground into dust by Karl Rove and his Republican campaign machine. “What these guys do every day, as a matter of course, without thinking twice about it, would be dramatic transgressions even under Nixon,” Jeff Shesol admits from his Dupont Circle office, crowded with paraphernalia from Democratic triumphs past. He’s just amazingly quick to dismiss the notion that there’s anything a Democratic presidential campaign can do about it. “It is very hard for most people to look at Bush and see him as an extremist,” he says. “It is very hard to make that charge stick to a guy who seems so down-home, so commonsense, such a decent man.”
It’s a telling formulation: Highly placed D.C. Democrats accept Bush’s public image as a fait accompli—a kind of semiotic unilateral disarmament. So they don’t even bother to case the weapons in their arsenal. I remind Shesol of the NBC report last spring—never effectively rebutted by the White House—that revealed the most Orwellian face of the administration imaginable: that “before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out” the terrorist operations of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but didn’t because it “feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.”
“Wow,” Shesol responds, with a breath of surprise. George Bush sold out our security in order to pull off a sales job; that, certainly, is not an “elite” message. That’s not a “process” story. So why don’t we hear it?
“I—don’t—know,” Jeff Shesol answers. He sounds defeated, as if Republican traducing of democratic deliberation was something like the weather, beyond anyone’s power to change. “How is it that a month’s worth of airtime is sucked up by the Swift Boat Veterans?” he asks, bewilderment in his voice. “How is it that a month of our national attention is consumed by this, and not some of these other questions, is a very difficult thing to explain. And until we can really understand how that happens, I don’t know that we can effectively respond to it.”
Epstein called arguments focusing on injury to democracy a “sideshow”: better to focus on executive mismanagement. He adds, “Most people would rather vote for the guy that stole the other guy’s lunch money, rather than the guy who complained that his lunch money was stolen.”
So much for using the Democratic presidential campaign as any kind of check on the corruption of the democratic process. The consultants have spoken; they’ve decided it’s not worth the fight.
Democrats’ self-fulfilling defeatism is not the only factor that keeps Republican brigands rolling around in the rest of our lunch money. There’s also the media to blame.
Recently, when John Kerry suggested, mildly, that a speech delivered by Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi to the U.S. Congress represented an attempt to put the “best face” on a failing reconstruction effort, Bush won a news cycle by railing that Kerry was sabotaging a crucial alliance in the war on terror. It turns out that what the media let Bush effectively forbid was Kerry’s criticism of a Bush campaign speech: According to The Washington Post, “a representative of President Bush’s re-election campaign had been heavily involved in drafting” Allawi’s remarks.
Ideally, our top-drawer journos would represent a check on an anti-American hustle like this. Reached by phone while preparing for the town hall debate in St. Louis, however, Jeff Greenfield, CNN’s senior political analyst since 1998, swears off the role. “I just regard this as what happens in a campaign,” he says, calling the idea that this election is anything other than a fair fight between two equally aggressive opponents an “essentially conspiratorial view.”
“In my view,” says Greenfield, “if The Washington Post is able to report the fact that the White House worked on it . . . people are perfectly free to say, ‘This is bullshit.’ ” Kerry “in a nationally televised debate can turn to the president and make that argument.” Both sides thus will have spoken; the media’s responsibility has been discharged. “I don’t expect campaigns to adhere to what I call the George Orwell level of intellectual honesty.”
Ever since the days of Joe McCarthy, the claim that a made-up charge by one side is no longer an outrage if the wronged party gets a chance to refute it has been an easy refuge for journalistic scoundrels. When Republicans accused someone of being a Communist, newspapers reported it, true or not; then they reported the victim’s outraged denials, the day’s work done—no matter that the person’s life might now be ruined by the merely invented accusation. With a setup like that, the side willing to say anything to win will win every time.
Greenfield disagrees. “McCarthy won for about two years, and then the tide turned,” he says. Nowadays, it would happen even faster, what with blogs and all. “When somebody starts really playing with the facts, there are so many people on every side of the issue ready to jump on you,” he says. “Call me an optimist.”
I call him an idiot. This is a country where 42 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks, where telling lies before the truth has time to put on its shoes—lies that won’t have time to get exposed before the votes, whether the electorate’s or the Supreme Court’s, get counted—has been Karl Rove’s modus operandi since he stole the election for chairman of the College Republicans National Federation in 1973. Punks like Greenfield are Rove’s best friend: He’s already decided in advance that both sides are equally bad.
Big Ruling, Little Notice
It’s easy to vote absentee in Illinois if you meet certain qualifications, like being out of your home county on Election Day. It’s also easy if you don’t meet those qualifications: You just lie. In fact, greasy machine pols have been known to exploit the present system to cast “votes” for their entire block. Juliet Alejandre is one person who didn’t qualify, and who wasn’t prepared to lie. Going to school full-time and working nights, the single mother says that the last time she tried to vote she left much of the ballot incomplete because she was terrified her unminded toddler would fall off the stage upon which the booths sat. So with three other working moms, Alejandre sued in federal court to order the state legislature to revisit its horse-and-buggy absentee statute to make reasonable provisions—whether by extending voting hours, changing absentee requirements, or instituting a universal vote-by-mail system like the one that’s worked well in Oregon.
This past Friday, Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, a prominent conservative intellectual and vocal Bush supporter, handed down a capricious, flippant dismissal of the complaint, ignoring key portions of its argument and simply inventing others. (The plaintiffs wanted the court to “decree weekend voting,” he fantasized, wondering whether a federal court would soon “have to buy everyone a laptop, or a Palm Pilot or Blackberry?”)
Bad enough if it only affected Illinoisans. Here’s the scary part: Posner worded his ruling in such a way to make it difficult for anyone to challenge any voting statute passed by any state legislature anywhere.
The decision is diabolical—a perfect counterpart to this season’s Republican strategy of drowning voting-rights complaints in a sea of moral relativism. One example: A goal of the plaintiff’s case was to stop existing fraud by making Illinois’s vague and antiquated absentee regulations more uniform and fair. Instead, Posner argued that the plaintiff’s commonsense request for a second look at the statutes opened the door to fraud.
The bottom line: Posner’s precedent gives much more discretion to states like Ohio and Florida to take action to restrict voting opportunities, especially for working people. And it was handed down, conveniently, two weeks before Election Day. —R.P.
Both sides are not equally bad, and any reporters who don’t recognize that conservatism’s very core has become shot through with a culture of mendacity should turn in their press badge. For example: The former head of the Arizona Republican Party and Christian Coalition, Nathan Sproul, in an operation paid for by the Republican National Committee, has set up “voter outreach” efforts that register Democrats, then allegedly shred their registration forms.
It used to be that we could count on the conscience of conservatives to protect ourdemocratic institutions. The modern conservative movement was founded by idealists, who defined themselves in opposition to the one man most indelibly associated with the anything-to-win, image-is-everything excesses of the Republican Party’s moderate wing, Richard Nixon.
One of those idealists was Richard Viguerie. He pioneered the use of political direct mail back in the days of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. He’s still at it. “A nine-hour day at age 71 is a short day for me,” he says in his Manassas, Virginia, office. He admits that, yes, some Bush campaign tactics have been downright Nixonian; shown the famous flyer with “BANNED” stamped on an image of the Bible, then the words “This will be Arkansas . . . if you don’t vote,” his face curls in disapproval. “I mean there, there is so much material—legitimate, credible, honest material—to use against the Democrats.” That flyer was put out by the Republican National Committee, though he’s quick to assure that movement conservatives—the idealists—would never do such a thing.
There are two problems with this picture. The first is that plenty of such material is sent out from return addresses belonging to Viguerie’s direct-mail customers (“That kind of stuff is his stock-in-trade,” Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates laughs, before faxing the Voice a letter from the Traditional Values Coalition, with which Viguerie has a five-year, multimillion-dollar contract, that claims “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood Clinics”). The second problem is that, sadly, it’s hard to take any protestations of good faith from a conservative seriously these days.
“Evangelicals are trained to recruit from the cradle,” observes one witheringly astute expert on Christian conservative culture. Call this informant Deep Faith: A Ph.D. student in divinity, he grew up in the rural South in an intensely pious Pentecostal community and still believes its creeds after five years at an Ivy League university. He has not, however, kept faith with his ministers’ injunction that evangelicals must devote themselves to building a Republican America. The notion, in fact, horrifies him. In college, the first time he spent extended periods outside evangelical circles, he says, “I realized the main thing that separated us evangelicals from them was that they believed in dialogue and compromise. And we believed in taking no prisoners. . . . Democracy can’t function in an environment where one party will not sit down and play by the rules.”
He uses a saying of the apostle Paul, beloved of evangelicals, to drive home the point: “Be all things to all people.” A missionary, he says, might interpret that to mean that it’s OK to swear on a visa application that she’s not a missionary: “Technically, it’s illegal and you’re lying. But if you honestly believe that you’re going to save somebody from eternal torture and damnation, and deliver them into a life of eternal bliss, then you’re going to do what you have to do.” So, he thinks, might people who claim to be “registering” voters—for such means-justifies-the-ends thinking now also marks evangelicals’ political attitudes.
“Whenever you think that there are eternal, apocalyptic stakes, and that you can make a difference, you can rationalize a whole lot of stuff to yourself,” he says. “I think evangelicals really don’t like democracy much at all, especially when it’s not going their way.”
That kind of decomposition would help explain the rot of right-wing political culture at the grassroots. A website called bushcountry.org (“promoting the ideals of conservatism”) suggests, after the school massacre in Russia, a banquet of reforms for the U.S.: “Any criminals are to be rounded up and locked up the day they are identified”; “Anyone on the terror watch list is put into solitary confinement immediately”; “Anyone who registers as Muslim should be required to take a loyalty oath. The U.S. or Islam.”
And at altitudes one might have presumed loftier than that fever swamp, U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo thanks author Michelle Malkin for initiating “our first national discussion on the wisdom and fairness of interning 100,000 ethnic Japanese during World War II,” a “reasonable” policy that shouldn’t be ruled out for Arabs now.
These are the people whose candidate just might win this election. If he does, he will have proven but one thing: Those who are willing to do anything to win can win.
George Bush is not a fascist. He really isn’t. And thank goodness for small favors. For what if he were? The people who run Democratic campaigns might dismiss his suspension of constitutional provisions as yet another boring old “process story,” not fit to upset the voters with. The talking heads would assure themselves that the truth would out in a couple years anyway—faster still, now that we have the Internet.
Many among our Republican rank and file would have a hard time noticing anything amiss. These are the people who can say, as Richard Viguerie told the Voice, “If there’s vote suppressing, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be Democrats.”
A coup? Deep Faith is convinced some might even welcome it. “It makes me wonder, if something really bad happened, and the Bush administration was able to have a coup and be in permanent charge,” he tells me, sinking into his living-room couch, scaring the hell out of me, “who among my folk would seriously protest, if they could get a slice of the pie? ‘We could go in there and reverse all this judicial precedent we don’t like!’ ”
That Kingdom of God they keep talking about, he reminds us, the hunger for which is now the fuel of the Republican engine, “is not a democracy.”