Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. So goes the song, at any rate. I learned a bit about politics watching The Apprentice.

This show, if you're not familiar with it, is Donald Trump's "fifteen week job interview", on which Trump assembles a bunch of potential candidates for an executive position, and fires one each week. The "boardroom sessions" where people get bounced are brutally edited, even in the extended replays they're showing on Saturdays, but you get at least a little flavor for how Trump makes his decisions. And the most striking feature to me is that candidates who voluntarily choose to put themselves at a disadvantage are almost invariably bounced. Quickly. As in last week's show, when a candidate who had done an excellent job gave up an exemption from that week's pink slip, out of fairness to his the other team members -- and got fired, in effect, for putting himself at risk, with nothing to gain for it. If you don't stand up for yourself, how are you going to stand up for anything else? Anyone who would do something like that is a wimp. Trump doesn't hire wimps.

The Republicans seem to think that a lot of voters think like that. So they put Dubya in staged situations where he gets to look strong, manly, and forceful. And some of their partisans do seem to think like that. Like the guy who showed up on the comments to this post, who spoke in tones of outraged dudgeon about how weak the Democrats would be in the War on Terror:

Even if Iraq were the wrong place to hit, (I think it was exactly the RIGHT place to attack, I've listed my reasons here) that's OK with me, at least we are fighting. We'll just have to try hitting a few other vile terror-supporting scumbag tyrannies, and see how that works. I value Bush for the same reason Lincoln valued Grant; he's willing to keep fighting until the enemy is destroyed.

And I despise you so-called Democrats because you always have a thousand twisty arguments that ALWAYS add up to "it's wrong for the United States of America to fight for its freedom and safety, and to crush our enemies into the dust.

One might point out in response that the folks we're crushing in places like Falluja were not our enemies before the war, and had nothing to do with international terrorism, whereas they are now at least a pool of eager potential recruits. And that as to governments, our "anti-terror" efforts might be better directed at vile scumbag tyrants like Qaddafi and the Saudi ruling family, who have been directly implicated in terrorism against Western targets (though you wouldn't know it by Dubya's cordial diplomatic relations with them) -- instead of Saddam Hussein, a vile scumbag tyrant to be sure, but one who was hanging on by his fingernails before the war, and had too much trouble within his own borders to go looking for more elsewhere. But that's just like a liberal. No one wants to hear about those kinds of nuances. Not these guys, at any rate.

And to appeal to these guys, Dubya's handlers are perpetually putting him in situations where he gets to look tough and manly -- most famously, the "Mission Accomplished" photo-op. But as Paul Waldman points out, situations where he might actually have to stand up for himself are a different thing altogether:

  • When the September 11 commission wanted to question the President, he ran like a little girl who just saw a spider. First, he said he wouldn't testify. Then he said he'd talk to them, but not under oath, and only for an hour. Finally he agreed, but only so long as no one recorded the session, and Dick Cheney came along to bail him out if things got uncomfortable. ...
  • Bush has held only twelve solo press conferences in his presidency, fewer than any other modern president, and you can rest assured there won't be another one between now and November. A real man would take questions from the press, even if some of them are going to be confrontational.
  • At his last disastrous press conference, Bush couldn't bring himself to admit to a single mistake he had made in office. Real men admit it when they're wrong.
  • No undecided voters - let alone Democrats - are allowed into Bush campaign events, lest the farcical "Ask the President" events include a question that is not accompanied by fulsome praise of Bush's greatness. A real man would have the guts to encounter voters who don't already love him.

Now, a whole lot of liberals tend to think that wanting tough leaders is just dumb, and beneath us. But if you look at Dubya's record, you can start to see a certain amount of wisdom to it. Let's take this spring's abortive fight in Falluja. In that case, American forces, acting (so far as anyone can tell) on direct orders from the White House, decreed a major attack on a city, even though the commander on the scene, Marine Lt. General Michael Conway, thought that was a mistake. And it's not because Marines are sensitive wimps; when the commanders saw that Falluja was fighting back, and ordered his force back out, he thought that was an even bigger mistake. But it's the same pattern we see in domestic politics: striking a pose, and then running and hiding when it looks like it might be a little hard to follow through.

And then there's North Korea, where Dubya began by decreeing Clinton's policy of hard-headed negotiation to be too accomodating, and that he was going to be tough. The toughness proved to be nothing more than tough talk -- and we're now back to more or less the Clinton policy, except that the Koreans now almost certainly have a few nukes.

And this is what he's like even in private. His interviews reveal that that's how he runs the administration as well, in as much as he does -- silencing or firing anyone with an argument against his policies, so he doesn't have to face down their arguments. So he keeps the toadies who tell him what he wants to hear, and fires the ones who tell the truth -- Shinseki, who told the truth about how many troops we'd need; Larry Lindsey, who told the truth about how much money. Because George W. Bush just isn't tough enough to handle the truth.

So, wanting leaders to be tough isn't an entirely irrational way for voters to behave.

Now, what does this mean for the election?

First off, if I'm right about this, then Kerry's stemwinder speech on Iraq yesterday, defending his vote on Iraq, attacking Dubya's record, and laying out his own plan, is about bloody time. If he won't stand up for himself, a lot of voters must be thinking, how the heck is he going to stand up for the country?

(The defense of the vote is particularly long overdue. He's reminding people that he trusted Dubya's personal assurances that a war would only be fought with international backing, to counter incontrovertible evidence of WMD, only to see those promises broken. Which was a perfectly reasonable policy, except that, as I said at the time, and as Kerry has discovered since, Dubya cannot be trusted to keep his word).

More importantly, though, Kerry needs to talk up his life experience, because it proves, on a personal level, that he is tough. In a way, he's the opposite of Dubya -- someone who has taken tough stands and a great deal of heat, but somehow gets portrayed in public as a milquetoast. How much have you heard about his first job out of law school -- as a hardcore D.A., who expanded the prosecutors office, and took down one of the state's most notorious gangsters? Then in the Senate, he faced down the both Reagan administration and senior members of his own party (Clark Clifford, Claiborne Pell) to expose the Bank of Credit and Commerce International as the financial institution of choice for drug runners and terrorists worldwide. (The Bush clan involved themselves in this affair in a somewhat different way; Harken energy, with Dubya as a director, took their money). Kerry surrogates: more of this, please.

Lastly, I hear there are long-time Democratic Party operatives on the air saying that Kerry is screwing up by not appearing "likable" enough. They're saying that sort of thing in September in a public forum, which is already enough to make you doubt their competence at winning elections. But there's more: "likable" is almost the opposite of "tough".

One final note: it's common Republican cant these days is to tell Dubya's critics how they should just shut up and support the troops. (I'd like to see them say it to General Conway). It may help to remind them that Republicans were remarkably shrill in condemning Franklin Roosevelt's preparation for World War II, and that FDR won that election not by shrinking in fear from his domestic critics (imagine facing down Hitler and Tojo after that!), or questioning their patriotism, but by answering their charges directly in the devastatingly derisive "Little Dog Fala" speech. If Dubya can't take the heat, he should get out of the White House.

One last note, to any Bush partisans reading this: why no, it does not take courage to order troops into battle -- not if you're going to suppress photos of the coffins, underreport the count of the wounded, and hustle their grieving mothers out of your campaign events, all so that you can pretend that nothing bad that you might be responsible for is actually happening.

Waldman piece via Michael Froomkin.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concise summation of Dubya's career.


10:57 PM  

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