Monday, August 23, 2004

Fire with fire

1. An Opening Rant

Some time in the last fifty years, I'm not sure when, the Republican Party decided that it's more important to be devoted to the Party than to uphold the truth or the public good. More and more GOPers decided they want to be Republicans first, Americans second, and decent human beings third.

The last couple of weeks have seen the nadir of this repellent ethos. Yup, I'm talking about the SwiftBoatLiars, a collection of resentful hacks who put out an ad that got picked up by right-wing pond scum. (Background: The NY Times story tracing the history of the group and the ad; a good background summary of the evolving press coverage thus far; a good summary on the facts/rebuttals on the SwiftBoatLies.) But you gotta hand it to the GOP: They're utterly shameless, and they know how to game the media and fool the American public time and again. Here's how they do it. First, they've got the propaganda machine. These right-wing bottom-feeders, including Limbaugh and other talk radio loons, the Moonie Times, Faux News, Drudge, blogging hacks like Instapundit and Hugh Hewitt, have emerged to inundate the media with right wing talking points and to advance the most scurrilous garbage. Unfounded rumors gain currency through zealous repetition.

2. What Liberal Media?

As we saw with the SBL story, the relentless right-wing coverage creates enough buzz to force the story into the mainstream media. This is where the Republicans have gotten clever. Through a decades long right-wing whine campaign, the cowed media is now bending over backwards to avoid any hint of "liberal bias." Instead of calling a lie for what it is, the political coverage now practices a kind of transcription service to cover their ass. "Balance", instead of truth, has become the overriding value. Political stories document he said/she said, with very little, if any, independent evaluation of content (e.g., "At a speech at NASA, President Bush told the assembled scientists that the Earth is flat. A number of scientists and the Kerry campaign dispute Bush's claims."). Knowing that reporters favor this kind of contrived "balance" above all else, the Republicans simply play a game of equivalence, even when the actions aren't comparable. Of course, this is not an original critique. Eric Alterman has been saying it for years. More visibly, Jon Stewart recently called out Ted Koppel on it at the DNC. But the media, ever so clueless, just keeps getting snookered. Look at this well-researched Washington Post story, the definitive summary of the story thus far. As Josh Marshall points out, the substance says nothing supports the SwiftBoatLiars. Most of the available evidence supports Kerry. But the reporter slips in some editorial "balancing" to keep so-called journalistic objectivity. And why the fuck are idiots like Wolf Blitzer making equivalences between MoveOn and the SwiftBoatLiars? They're not equivalent. If the Dems lie, the media's duty is to call them out. But stop pretending every story has two sides.

This one doesn't. By any standard of evidence, legal, journalistic, otherwise, the SwiftBoatLiar story has no credibility whatsoever. How hard is it for editors and reporters to understand this? In a campaign where the incumbent will likely be one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, a guy who fucked over a couple of countries, aiding terrorist recruitment, busting the budget and trashing the environment, we have a media frenzy over a bunch of transparent lies?

Kerry thought this story will get vetted and die down, but he's got too much faith in the mainstream media and underestimated the power of wingnut slimeballs. Now he's hitting back...hard. It's the right response: repeat that these are lies, and pin everything on Bush and make his gutter-dwell tactics an issue. But it's two steps too slow. We know Dubya is a class-A coward. He takes responsibility for nothing. He hides behinds his handlers at the first hint of trouble. He ducks out of a war he supports. He pins the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the military. He lets the CIA take the fall for mistakes that's result of his own dogma and misjudgments. He's not a man any fair-minded American who observes this administration closely should even respect, let alone vote for. I wouldn't let him or his cronies serve me fries at Jack-in-the-Box, these bastards. But I'll hand it to him. Bush knows he's in deep shit, and somehow got the dumbass press to change the subject. And Kerry, stuck in liberal la-la land, again fails to understand that ugly, low-blow tactics work. .

3. Where Does the Story Go from Here?

Still, the damage will probably end up to be less severe than what most political junkies like myself have feared. (This Clinton speech-writer has a good view of where it may go.) Yeah, there were some pretty depressing poll numbers on the short-term effect of this. (Though the effect may be exaggerated, as this post argues.) But it'll die down soon. Like Bush's AWOL story, Abu Ghraib, and 9/11 Commission, and even Iraq. The attention span of the American public these days is about two weeks, and this horse is just about on its last legs. The Republicans don't dare feature this radioactive stuff at their convention, and the much more important (in the long-term) jobs report arrives a day after Bush's nomination-acceptance speech. And even now, much of the SwiftBoat nonsense is being drowned out by the Olympics.

Still, the key is to win the "impression battle." For partisans, it's bound to have little effect. If the blogosphere is any guide, this "controversy" has riled up the partisans on both sides. It cancels out -- if it doesn't in fact rile up liberals more. I've never seen center-left types so angry. But the real danger of the SwiftBoat ads is to poison the impression of Kerry ("was Kerry's war service questionable?") in the minds of the swing voters who aren't paying that much attention. It's just there to sow doubt. Kerry's only way to win is to turn it around. A home run would be to create the sense that Bush is so dirty he's questioning a guy who risk his life for his country while he hides out. At this point, I'd just settle for, "does Bush have anything to offer besides smears?" to be the central point from this battle. (Some folks envision a huge backlash against Bush, opening up the battlefield for Kerry to lob grenades against Bush's Nat'l Guard absences and campaign tactics. I don't see how Kerry will gain the advantage. At best, Kerry can hope for a negligible effect from this story.)

4. A Closing Rant

It'd be tempting to pin Bush's sorry ass to the board. But there's still no need to air as such rumors as "Bush funded his lover's abortion in the 70s" story, or his wild coke-party/orgy stories. It's not that one shouldn't ever sling mud. But Bush can be hit harder above the belt. After all, this is the worst president in the last 100 years, jacking up everything he's touched, lies and misleads repeatedly with impunity. All of this has been documented over and over again. Bush is a failed president, a failed leader, and a pathetic little twit. Make Bush's leadership the story. The problem is Kerry should've made the contrast clearer from the start. His "cautious" strategy on the Iraq Invasion has neutered him on a subject that, should by all rights, be the single biggest advantage for him right now, as Joe Klein says.)

Anyway, if anybody's as 1/10th as outraged as I am about this shit (I don't remember ever being so outraged about a campaign tactic), donate. I just forked over some cash again, and it felt good.