Too Clever By Half?

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No doubt the John Roberts attack strategy outlined by Eric Columbus in the New Republic today is quite ingenious:

[T]o date [the Democrats have] paid surprisingly little attention to [Roberts’] support for perhaps the oddest legacy of the Rehnquist Court: its unprecedented expansion of the “sovereign immunity” doctrine to greatly restrict the ability of private citizens to obtain money from states that violate their federal rights. Raising the issue at next week’s Senate confirmation hearings won’t, of course, sink Roberts’s nomination. But it just might give Democrats a rare opportunity to claim the mantle of anti-government reform at a time when the whole nation will be watching.

But when I hear “claim the mantle,” it’s time to stop up short. First, and somewhat beside the point, why on earth do the Democrats want to come out in favor of “anti-government reform”? If anything, a master strategy for liberals should work to persuade people that, in fact, government works quite well, thank you very much, and those who take the kneejerk anti-statist approach, rather than try to fix the problems that exist, are usually wrong. But set that aside. What sort of “mantle” are they going to claim, in all reality? How many people will actually pay such close attention to the Roberts’ hearings—so close that they would notice and be swayed by Democratic positioning on a rather complicated issue—besides the usual band of pundits, journalists, and political junkies? Very few, I would guess.

Digby wrote something similar last week, in a rather brilliant piece of analysis that nevertheless still seems completely far-fetched to me. (And I’d be happy to be proven wrong.) He noted that yes, Wesley Clark’s recent suggestions for fixing Iraq, as outlined in the Washington Post, probably don’t stand up on the merits. But, he says, that’s besides the point:

Clark’s piece should be seen for what it is — laying a benchmark for Bush’s failure. By the time any Democrats have a chance to implement any real plans for Iraq, Wes’s plan will be moot. The doors that he sees as still being slightly open are closing very rapidly. The state of play in 2006 and 2008 is going to be very different. But it’s useful for Wes Clark, retired General, to be on the record with an alternative in 2005 that clearly lays blame on the Bush administration and sets forth in exactly what ways they’ve failed — militarily, politically and diplomatically.

“Damn,” I thought, “that’s good stuff! Clark’s a clever one…” But no, wait a minute, who on earth is paying attention to what Clark’s saying right now, besides political activists, the chattering classes, and the small handful of people who pore over the Washington Post? On the broader issue, Digby’s absolutely right: trying to persuade Bush to shift course on Iraq is an exercise in futility at this point, and Democrats should worry only about how best to position themselves politically over the war, in order to crowbar the people who dragged us into this mess out of office. It’s slimy, but necessary. But is there such thing as too clever?

As it happens, I suspect that the Democratic establishment has glommed onto a strategy of sorts for Iraq: lay out Clark-style critiques right now that argue that Bush isn’t doing everything in his power to win the war, and then, come 2006, say, “Well, he blew his chance to win this thing, it’s time to leave.” Rally the base. But is anyone going to buy it? Is anyone paying attention? I don’t know. I do know that there are an awful lot of people in this country who follow politics for maybe a week every two years—right before the election—and the only way for a party to claim any sort of “mantle” is probably just to pick some very basic things to stand for, repeat it over and over again ad nauseum (I recently saw someone suggest that the Democrats introduce a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the “right to privacy”—good stuff), and hope the basic message filters down to voters when it counts. Subtle political strategizing and positioning makes for a fun read, but it’s hard to believe that this is what wins elections.


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