Changing The Storyline To Benefit Democrats
It was a given that any good news from Iraq would be seized upon by the White House and their mouthpieces in the media to not only push the “Bush In Recovery” narrative, but also the “Democrats are Confused and Weak” storyline that has served this White House so well. Peter Daou summarizes this morning how this is playing out today, with a spate of stories trumpeting a “Bush is Back” theme while flouting the difficulties the Democrats face in coming up with a counter-argument on Iraq. Note specifically Kevin Drum’s great point that the White House is being credited by the media for meeting low expectations. Daou rightly worries that the Democrat may squander their 2006 opportunities if they don’t respond smartly.
As Daou has noted previously, the GOP uses the media to repeat a storyline that becomes inserted into the mainstream media’s bloodstream, and Democrats and their strategists fail to not only notice this but also fail to see that challenging the storyline is more important than challenging the story itself through a “blame the media” response. Democrats should question the basic assumptions that underpin the storyline rather than get involved in fighting individual battles about whether a story was correct or not.
Democrats would do well to heed that danger going into the midterms. The anti-left and pro-right narratives are unbroken, they've simply been muffled by Bush's plummet in the polls. This recent spate of articles is evidence that the storylines can be revved up at a moment's notice.
Soft, divided, whining, troop-hating, over-eager Democrats battling tough, determined Republicans basking in the glow of Bush's rebound -- that's the storyline we could be dealing with heading into November. Are we ready?
We have fresh examples today that prove Daou’s point. Of the several new stories out today about how divided Democrats are on Iraq, Adam Nagourney’s piece in the Times, Dan Balz’s piece in the Post, Marc Sandalow’s in the San Francisco Chronicle, and James Kuhnhenn’s for Knight Ridder all made a good deal about how Hillary Clinton and John Kerry don’t agree about what to do in Iraq, yet none of these stories mention that the GOP is not of one mind on Iraq either. Do Chuck Hagel and Bush agree on Iraq? Nope.
It is fun to blame the media here, but there was no way they weren’t going to cover the disagreements on full display yesterday over Iraq between two possible 2008 presidential candidates. The problem is that Democrats don’t do enough to challenge the storyline.
The challenge here is both micro and macro. The micro problem within the party is well-documented: the base wants us out now, and is seething about how we got into Iraq in the first place, and didn't want to go in at that time, if ever. The Beltway Democrats, save Feingold and a few others, didn't read the intelligence closely enough nor challenged it just before the 2002 midterms. With the exception of Edwards and now Kerry, they are now is afraid to admit mistakes that make them look inept and weak.
The macro problem is quite simple: the GOP has developed a reinforcing storyline that the media seems to follow every time, which is that the Democrats are divided on Iraq and weak on national security and terrorism. The Democrats are in a no-win position here: if they respond to this storyline by asserting themselves on what to do in Iraq, they get blasted by the media and the White House for not being of one mind. If they then shut up and say nothing about Iraq, they get blasted by the media for offering no alternatives, and by their own base for continued spinelessness. The GOP has set the frame up very effectively here for the Democrats to be clubbed back into their whack-a-mole holes no matter what. Add to that the looming presidential race, where Kerry, Edwards, Hillary, and others will now jockey for position, and you have the recipe for this no-win situation to continue.
I would rather the Democrats speak out and build their own storyline. At least we have debates about fixing Bush's quagmire, and that at least the Democrats don't suffer from groupthink. I would also prefer that the Democrats reach agreement on some simple basics that should be beyond dispute, such as:
·The Guard and reserves should be returned home and back to their communities for homeland security, hurricane season, and border work immediately; the Pentagon can figure out how to backfill.
·There should be an immediate rejection of Bush's desire to maintain 50,000 troops in Iraq for a decade and for permanent bases; that should be a nonstarter and contrary to the will of the new Iraqi government.
·Democrats should be supporting what al-Maliki wants, which is for Iraqis to start immediately taking over more and more of the security responsibility for each province, on their timetable not ours, so that by the end of 2007 we are almost totally out of the country, again per al-Maliki's wishes not ours.
·To make this work and to make Murtha's redeployment proposal work, Democrats should be calling for an immediate regional security conference with the Security Council and Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, for the purpose of sealing Iraq's borders (Iran already supports this), and to invest Iraq's neighbors with the responsibility for regional security by showing them the risks to their own regimes of not doing so. No delays by Bush on this should be tolerated.
·Democrats should be reframing this debate away from Iraq and towards Bush’s failures in Afghanistan and now Somalia. Democrats should be arguing that the real choice is between committing our forces to an open-ended campaign in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqis, or real wars on terror, like cleaning up Bush’s mess in Afghanistan and preventing Bush’s own “Mogadishu” in Somalia. Democrats should be demanding to know why Bush is negotiating with Al Qaeda in Somalia instead of sending thousands of Special Forces and an aircraft carrier battle group there to snuff them out. In fact, if a foreign policy neophyte like Mark Warner was looking for an issue to demonstrate some anti-terror chops that would't alienate the base, this would be it.
These at least should be the basis for a common Democratic position on Iraq that even the hawks in the party can support, even though they are loathe to separate themselves from Bush on national security in an election year. For example, I think that even Ben Nelson could support the above steps, as there is nothing in there about an immediate withdrawal or about cutting and running. Polls have shown that there is no broad support for an immediate withdrawal, but nor is there support for Bush’s position of a long-term commitment either. There is more than enough room in that space in between for Democrats to stake out a position like the one I outline above that shows a real difference with Bush, and can change the storyline at the same time.