Monday, September 18, 2006

If Not Now, When?

I wrote this post as part of a discussion/debate I was having in the comments section of Matthew Yglesias’s blog . I was responding to another commenter’s argument that I was wrong to suggest that Democratic leaders were making a huge mistake by sitting on the sidelines while Republicans fight out the Geneva Conventions issue among themselves. The other commenter’s view was, to paraphrase, that you have to pick your battles, that the Geneva Conventions issue is for Democrats what the minimum wage or Social Security issues are for the GOP (namely, bad issue terrain), and that it doesn't make sense to get involved when the Republicans are busy committing fratricide anyway. (I think that sums up the argument pretty fairly, but I’ll be glad to revise the description, or quote from the text of the other commenter’s argument, if that conveys the thrust of the argument more fairly– I’m pretty new to this and don’t yet have a handle on the etiquette of quoting other peoples’ comments from other peoples' blogs). Anyway, with that background in mind, here is what I wrote:

It is true that “indiscriminate fighting” is not a good strategy. But the fighting in this case would hardly be indiscriminate! To be clear, the issue at hand is national security and the conduct of the War on Terra, which (like it or not) ranks as one of most important issues to American voters in this election, along with Iraq. This issue has occupied the front page of every major newspaper for the past week, and will likely do so for at least another week. The Sunday shows last weekend were completely dominated by this issue. I’m betting they will next week, too.

If we can change the subject to Iraq, great. I would prefer to fight on that ground, because it is more favorable to us. But wishing does not make things so: if we can’t change the subject to Iraq, then we need to fight on this issue. It isn’t going away.

It’s wrong to think that the national security issue is to the Democrats what the minimum wage or Social Security issues are to the GOP. The apt analogy is to the issue of the economy in 1992 – I’m sure the Republicans wished it wasn’t a key issue in that election, but it was. And there’s another important difference: whereas the Republican positions on the minimum wage (hold it down) and Social Security (gut it) are deeply unpopular, the Democratic position on national security (we refuse to give up the bedrock American values of freedom and fairness) is far more popular than the fear-and-torture snake-oil the Republicans are selling. Just look at the latest Pew polling data cited by Glenn Greenwald last Friday. Americans flatly reject the idea that we need to transform ourselves into a police state in order to win the War on Terra. Democrats are on the right side of this issue.

So national security is a central issue in this election, and it’s an issue on which more people agree with our position than with theirs going into the argument. Given this, why not fight? The argument is that the Republicans are fighting among themselves, and since this is all to our benefit, why get our hands dirty?

Two reasons. First, it isn’t at all clear that Democrats benefit when our leaders sit on the sidelines while so-called independent Republicans make a show of standing up to Bush. Sure, Bush’s disapproval numbers may go up as a result, but what about the endangered Republicans who associate themselves with McCain and his effort to rein in Bush? My sense is that they are effectively inoculating themselves against the otherwise extremely effective charge of being “Rubber Stamp Republicans”.

The second, and more important, reason for Democrats to join this battle, aggressively and unabashedly, is that shrinking from confrontation with a White House run amok, failing to say out loud what we truly and genuinely believe in our hearts, on the most important questions of the day to boot, reinforces the worst stereotypes about Democrats as weak and calculating.

If not this, then what? If not now, when?

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