Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Somebody who thinks like me"

If Democrats want a stronger hand in guiding America's future, they need to strengthen their brand identity among busy and beleaguered American voters.

For decades, too much emphasis has been placed promoting programs and policies -- or attractive personalities -- over deeper brand identification. There are a lot of folk myths about the 1950s, and maybe this is one of them, but I think I remember a time when brand loyalty made for Democrats' success. A time when, if someone mentioned a candidate's name, the first question someone might ask was, "Is he a Democrat?"


"That’s all I need to know." And that meant another vote for the Democrat.

Democrat meant, he thinks like me. He believes what I do. He’s on my side. You didn’t need to know his or her position on snail darters or NAFTA or gay rights. Or even his name. Democrat meant something.

But how many events have you been to where someone starts talking about what Democrats stand for? And they unroll a laundry list of programs and policies anywhere from forty to seventy years-old. It’s like a K-tel commercial for Democrats’ Greatest Hits. “Can anyone forget the rocking, G.I. Bill?” Proud accomplishments, okay? But they don’t say anything about the beliefs behind those programs, nothing about our passions or ideals, about who we are.

Coke, the Chicago Cubs, Nike, the Marines. Images, feelings and associations are more important in brand loyalty than particular features, and Democrats have neglected brand-building for too long. Behind the argument echoed in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? -- that many working class voters vote Republican against their own economic interests -- is the assumption that economic interest is (or should be) the basis for casting a ballot and for party identification.

One of the disconnects in American politics between Democratic activists and typical voters arises from activists' focus on the wonky details of programs and policies that busy non-wonks haven't the time to master, even if they have the interest.

Early primary voting is underway here in NC, and yesterday my wife went out to vote with a group of friends. They turned to her to tell them who they should vote for on the down-ticket races. To some degree, they just wanted to vote for Clinton or Obama and the other races were afterthoughts. They wanted, at minimum, to do their civic duty, but were too busy be more informed. For that, they trusted her to advise them.

Why? Because they respect her, trust her judgment, believe she's like them and on their side. They identify with her. As a party, Democrats have to rebuild voters' confidence that that is just as true of the party as a whole.

Democracy isn't supposed to be easy, but with more and more Americans feeling as if they are treading water amidst a flotsam of bills, soccer practice, commuting and longer work hours, throwing them a candidate survey or a stack of position papers isn't helping. They need a lifeline. Like it or not, many voters just want some way to participate that doesn't require that they master the arcana of the legislative process. That's what they have representatives for. They just want some shorthand way of choosing candidates who will legislate in their best interests. A party they can trust. A party who thinks like they do.

That’s all they want to know.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A stark choice

A friend in the clergy just forwarded a noxious e-mail along with comments expressing his frustration and anger. The e-mail labeled that went out to NewsMax readers was labeled Christian Response (to Barack Obama). It was anything but (and not worth dignifying with a link). But then, what would you expect from the fine people who brought you the famous Willy Horton ad?

Future GOP leaders may see this year's attack ads as their "Civil Rights Act" moment, when they lost every minority voter in America for a generation.

Tactics like this one and the one mentioned above could easily backfire. The Roves and the Attwaters of the GOP have been feeding their attack dogs under the table for decades. But as these ads show, they won't be able to control them in 2008 if Obama is the Democratic candidate. Attacking a minority presidential candidate without alienating every minority group in our increasingly multiethnic country requires a scalpel. These guys carry bludgeons. They don't have much finesse.

Do we?

The trick for Democrats may be to not overreact. This is a change election and these tactics are anything but. It will take great confidence to stare down such opponents without becoming like them -- confidence the White House of Bush clearly hasn't shown in dealing with suspected terrorists. Democrats have to show integrity and strength in responding firmly, but also strength of character in not responding in kind. We may have to hold fire until our opponents begin to collapse under withering public outcry and plummeting poll numbers. With the GOP flogging the GWOT for all they're worth, it may look a bit "Gandhi" to frustrated activists itching for a fight, and to nervous pols anxious about looking tough for November.

But standing in the middle of the ring and drawing more blood than our opponents doesn't win elections. Winning over the crowd does. Americans are sick of the "fear and smear" politics of the last decade. If they are seeking a better alternative -- if enough are, that's the catch -- we have to show them we are it. Accentuate our positives, illuminate (but not flog) their negatives, and let the stark contrast speak for itself.

Let's hope it doesn't get much more stark than this.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

“Psyops on steroids” - Col. Ken Allard

Awhile back I posted a letter at Salon about an article I'd received from David Horowitz's FrontPageMagazine. In June 2005, a week after Sen. Dick Durbin made a well-publicized criticism of conditions of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu (Ret.) was flown to Cuba on Vice President Cheney's plane with other retired military officers as part of a "Department of Defense trip." Upon returning, he wrote "What I Saw at Gitmo" -- consisting largely of what he'd been told at Gitmo.

The New York Times has a lengthy, front page piece this morning that mentions that flight in the summer of 2005:

Some of these analysts were on the mission to Cuba on June 24, 2005 — the first of six such Guantánamo trips — which was designed to mobilize analysts against the growing perception of Guantánamo as an international symbol of inhumane treatment. On the flight to Cuba, for much of the day at Guantánamo and on the flight home that night, Pentagon officials briefed the 10 or so analysts on their key messages — how much had been spent improving the facility, the abuse endured by guards, the extensive rights afforded detainees.

These ' “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” ' in Pentagoneze were part of an "information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance," the Times finds.

... members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.

A few expressed regret for participating in what they regarded as an effort to dupe the American public with propaganda dressed as independent military analysis.

“It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,’ ” Robert S. Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News analyst, said.

Kenneth Allard, a former NBC military analyst who has taught information warfare at the National Defense University, said the campaign amounted to a sophisticated information operation. “This was a coherent, active policy,” he said.

As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, Mr. Allard recalled, he saw a yawning gap between what analysts were told in private briefings and what subsequent inquiries and books later revealed.

“Night and day,” Mr. Allard said, “I felt we’d been hosed.”

You can find photos of Lt. Col. Cucullu being hosed here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bill Kristol's gift for spiritual discernment

In his NYT editorial, Kristol dissects Obama's "guns or religion" gaff. Quoting Marx and explaining how Obama's "mask slipped," Kristol peels away the layers of exoskeleton for us - a la Independence Day - to uncover the "real" Obama.

Andrew Sullivan punches back,
"Kristol is deliberately distorting to paint Obama as a cynical manipulator of religious faith for political ends, rather than as a genuine Christian. He's calling him a lying, Godless communist.

[. . .]

A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his own faith. That's where they've gone to already. And it's only the middle of April. What are they so scared of?"
Perhaps with "manipulator," Sullivan is lumping Kristol in with the likes of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff-associate, Michael Scanlon, who reduced the GOP's attitude towards conservative Christians in America to this little nugget:
"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees," Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them." The brilliance of this strategy was twofold: Not only would most voters not know about an initiative to protect Coushatta gambling revenues, but religious "wackos" could be tricked into supporting gambling at the Coushatta casino even as they thought they were opposing it.
Please, Bill. The mask is off, all right. And it's yours. Allen Raymond, one of your own, put it better than I could (after getting out of jail):
"When it came to playing in the gutter, we were the professionals—the Dems weren't even junior varsity."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What did you expect?

From corporate-bred politicians who view governing through a corporate lens?
WASHINGTON - Bush administration officials from Vice President Dick Cheney on down signed off on using harsh interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists after asking the Justice Department to endorse their legality, The Associated Press has learned. (Emphasis mine.)
And the president approved, telling ABC's Martha Raddatz on Friday,
"Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people." Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."

As first reported by ABC News Wednesday, the most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the CIA.

The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
Glenn Greenwald cautions against placing too much emphasis on John Yoo's as the author of the just-released "torture memo" referenced at the top of the post. Yoo was doing what he was asked, to deliver a legal justification for illegal acts.
Yoo wasn't opining in a vacuum. He knew that these techniques were already being used and that the highest level of our Government wanted him to create legal protections for what had happened and to enable more of what they wanted to do. He bears substantial culpability, but certainly not exclusive or even principal culpability. (Emphasis mine.)
There is a pattern here.

Greenwald points to Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin's observation that the 2006 Military Commissions Act "effectively insulated government officials from liability for many of the violations of the War Crimes Act they might have committed during the period prior to 2006."

There is a pattern here.

It is the triumph of corporate thinking applied to governing. The corporation exists -- as a style of organizing a business -- to shield its principals from personal responsibility for actions they take on its behalf. Why wouldn't our CEO president and his board members take the same approach to their roles in the executive branch?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Spam, spam, spam, spam . . .

Friends at the Asheville Citizen-Times get lots of spam:
Now, people can believe what they want to believe; got no problem with that. The problem I do have is that the wild claims in chain e-mails keep popping up in letters to the editor or in calls to the newsroom carping, “Why aren’t you printing this?’’

Short answer: ’cause it isn’t true. Tracking down rumors about whether Barack Obama is Muslim or Target is unpatriotic is a public service, I suppose, but it eats up a lot of hours in the day during the political season, especially for letters editor Dave Russell.
I couldn't resist responding:
The saddest thing about what I call "right-wing spam" is that people who forward the e-mails don't care that they're lies. They have no skeptical "Sixth Sense" and don't want one. They only see what they want to see.

The irony is that in less time than it takes to attach that buddy list to the forward, you can debunk the majority of these things ... if the truth still mattered. Sadly, truth has become a casualty. Facts have such a way of messing up good propaganda.

I've seen a couple versions of Obama-the-Muslim-sleeper-agent. I expect any day now to get Obama's-Christian-church-hates-America -- forwarded without a hint of cognitive dissonance by the very same people who forwarded Obama-the-Muslim-sleeper-agent.

Outside the Bill Clinton event last week, two women in line told my wife that if Obama won the nomination, they would vote for McCain. See, they didn't like Obama's church because the choir wears African garb. His church isn't American enough.

[My wife] asked if they'd voted for Kennedy. They had. She didn't point out that, like him, I grew up in a church where the services were in a dead language and the clergy wore sacramental gear dating back to thirteenth-century Italy. They only see what they want to see.

[. . .]

One more thing. Have the people who forward these things never heard of a blind copy? Some of the mails I receive have as many as 75 addresses attached in the multiple forwards. And they wonder why they receive so much spam.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Limbaugh fans join Earth First and the Merry Pranksters

(I wonder who brought the drugs?)

A radio campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last year called voting "as sacred as the Constitution." Now Rush Limbaugh is using the public airwaves to urge listeners to join "Operation Chaos" and corrupt Democratic primaries. 4,000 Americans dead in Iraq to "plant democracy" in the heart of the Middle East. Limbaugh and his listeners honor that sacrifice by demonstrating to the world how sacred they think democracy is.