Championing mainstream political thought while pretending to oppose it

Many good Democrats refuse to recognize the core flaws in their candidates.

Published December 22, 2007 12:39PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Ezra Klein purports to respond to Thursday's post about the similarities between the pro-life positions of Harry Reid and Ron Paul by offering a completely dishonest description of my argument: "I find Glenn Greenwald's defense of Ron Paul's anti-abortion record deeply bizarre."

Basic reading comprehension would preclude this description. Not a word of what I wrote or have ever written had anything to do with "defending" Paul's position on abortion, nor did I state or imply that abortion rights were unimportant. Rather, the post I wrote was about the obvious double standard being applied to Paul's candidacy.

Klein devotes most of his post to raising trite strawmen that he knows will be pleasing to his TAP readers but have absolutely nothing to do with a single thing I said. As I have made clear more times than I can count, I am not supporting Ron Paul's candidacy. The only candidate I have ever encouraged anyone to support is Chris Dodd, and even that was limited to a desire that he be rewarded for his specific efforts in defense of the rule of law. I'm not in favor of any candidate or urging that anyone support any of them.

Positive discussions of Paul's candidacy, at least here, aren't about who will be the next President. To put it mildly, I highly doubt that Paul will be the GOP nominee. And personally, I don't think there's any more important political priority than completely removing from power the Bush/Cheney-type Republicans, whom the GOP nominee will almost surely embody. Indeed, my next book, coming out in April, timed purposely for the General Election, is devoted to the manipulative political tactics the GOP has used for decades, and will use again this year, in order to win national elections. In my view, preventing the continuation of rule by Bush/Cheney Republicans is paramount, at least in terms of short-term priorities.

But Ron Paul's candidacy is valuable -- irreplaceably so -- because, other than Kucinich's shell of a presidential campaign, he is the only one raising critical issues that would otherwise be ignored. As Klein himself concedes, undermining his whole rant against what I wrote:

As it happens, I think this [debate over Paul's abortion view] is all a bit beside the point, as Paul isn't going to win and thus his abhorrent positions on issues secondary to his candidacy don't strike me as terribly dangerous. He's a protest candidacy, and a useful one at that.

Precisely. The issues obsessively cited in order to demonize Paul are completely secondary to the vital critiques which Paul -- and, among the viable candidates, only Paul -- is raising. That's why his campaign offers unique value -- not for issues that are secondary, but fundamental.

* * * * *

Nonetheless, Klein's fabrications about my argument, along with the rest of his self-righteous tone suggesting that I'm indifferent to abortion rights and other dubious positions advocated by Paul, does unintentionally illustrate the point I was actually addressing, a point I think is important well beyond Klein's post.

People like Klein will pretend to find aspects of our political system deeply troubling -- I'm so upset that we keep going to war; we're allowing an erosion of our constitutional liberties; the rule of law is being disregarded -- but will then cling exclusively to the most mainstream-acceptable ideas and will view as legitimate only the most mainstream-acceptable political figures, all of which will do nothing about those purported concerns other than ensure they continue. That way, he can applaud himself for being so very concerned about all the right things and for having all the good political values, but never actually have to say or do anything that Chris Matthews would find strange, offensive or out of place.

There's no question that abortion -- whatever one's views on it are -- is a vital, even central issue of individual rights, and contrary to Klein's false description of my argument, I said exactly that. But abortion isn't the only important issue (Paul's opposition to gay equality, including his support for the deeply pernicious Defense of Marriage Act, is just as steadfast, and constitutes significant restrictions on my own individual rights, not just in the abstract but in very concrete, oppressive ways, but that quite obviously doesn't mean that I am somehow indifferent to those issues or am de-prioritizing them by recoginizing the important value of Paul's candidacy).

If people who support a candidate with the wrong position on abortion (or gay rights) can be accused of being indifferent to the rights of women or gay people, then -- by the same exact "reasoning" -- those who end up supporting candidates who affirm America's right to act as an imperial power or who want to continue many of Bush's executive power abuses [as Hillary Clinton certainly does and as even Barack Obama and (to a lesser extent) John Edwards do] should be accused of being indifferent to constitutional liberties, the rule of law, and the lives of millions of innocent Muslims.

In a Congressional Quarterly cover story published this week, reporter David Nather attempted to determine the extent to which eight of the leading presidential candidates -- including Clinton, Obama and Edwards, but excluding Ron Paul -- would reverse the most radical Bush executive power policies. After submitting detailed questions to each of them, this is what Nather concluded:

For the past seven years, George W. Bush has expanded presidential power in ways that no one could have predicted when he took office. . . .

Bush administration officials launched a secret warrantless surveillance program that operated outside the federal law that governs spying programs. They refused to ask Congress to authorize military commissions to try suspected terrorists, although the Supreme Court later forced them to do so. They declared that the president alone could decide how to detain suspected terrorists and which interrogation techniques to use. . . .

However, the records and statements of the eight major candidates -- the three Democrats and five Republicans who have had double-digit support in the most recent national polls -- show that the 2008 presidential election is not likely to start a huge shift in the balance of power away from the White House.

That doesn't mean the top candidates would continue all of the Bush administration's practices, and most aren't likely to take the same kind of deliberately confrontational approach to Congress. Also, an upset victory could still go to one of the few candidates whose victory would represent a clear rejection of Bush's overall policies. But there is enough evidence of a preference for strong executive power in the backgrounds of most of the field to suggest that, more likely than not, there will be no U-turn under the next president.

Clearly, when Nather refers to "an upset victory [that] could" actually bring about "a clear rejection of Bush's overall policies," he's referring (at least in part) to Ron Paul. That's because Paul does fundamentally oppose Bush's policies in those areas.

By stark contrast, Klein's favorite candidates -- and those of others who insist that Paul isn't fit for good company -- wouldn't bring about "a clear rejection of Bush's overall policies" in these areas. Quite the contrary. The views and intentions of those presidential candidates are, in key respects, more similar than different when compared to the most damaging Bush abuses on executive power and civil liberties.

And that's to say nothing of the fact that the three leading Democratic candidates affirm the core premise that America has the right to attack and wage war against other countries even if those countries haven't attacked us. Klein himself previously pointed out that Hillary Clinton all but urged the bombing of Iran if they seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, and he even noted that neither Edwards nor Obama has ever "taken issue" with that view. Indeed, both Edwards and Obama have both suggested their willingness to bomb Iran even in the absence of an Iranian attack on our country.

Thus, Ezra Klein -- along with virtually all of the other people suggesting that Paul supporters are willing to "sell abortion rights down the river" -- supports and, once the Democratic nominee is chosen, will continue to support as President someone who believes in the fundamental premises of America's war-making and militarism and who affirms the basic executive power framework implemented by Bush and Cheney. But he opposes and writes off as beyond the pale the only candidate who fundamentally opposes those disastrous and destructive approaches.

* * * * *

Therefore, if I wanted to invoke the same manipulative tactics and verbatim phrases that Klein used in pretending to respond to what I wrote -- and I don't and won't -- that would mean that I would write self-righteous posts citing Clinton's years-long support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, her multiple actions to encourage the idea of a military attack on Iran, her refusal to repudiate many of the worst executive power abuses under Bush and similar statements from other Democratic candidates including Obama and Edwards, and then prance around saying things like:

Klein's efforts to suggest that progressive have to choose between civil rights, imperialism and militarism, on the one hand, and choice on the other, is deeply misguided.


Unlike Ezra Klein, I'm not willing to sell the lives of millions of innocent Iranians and other Muslims or the core civil liberties of American citizens down the river.


"Look over here, Clinton/Obama are pro-choice" doesn't exactly respond to concerns that, in a Clinton/Obama world, tens of millions of Muslim families will be in danger of being bombed and incinerated and detained and millions of Americans will continue to be subjected to the erosion of the rule of law and executive power abuses which characterized Bush/Cheney -- not that Ezra Klein seems to care about that in the slightest.


As a white American safe and protected in the U.S., it isn't Klein and his family who will have bombs dropped on their homes or have their Middle Eastern countries invaded or will be at risk for lawless detention, so of course he doesn't care about those things and de-prioritizes them because they don't directly affect him.

This just isn't how elections work. You don't get to create your ideal candidate by slapping together all the important beliefs you have. You have to pick from the ones who are actually running. And since every candidate has some views on some critical matters that are bad, even horrendous -- even the good progressive Democratic candidates -- that means that everyone will end up supporting a candidate with horrendous views on some important issues.

Only those who are manipulative will use that fact to suggest that the person supporting a particular candidate must share the horrendous views or must be indifferent to the issues in question. The truth is that everyone has to decide what issues should be prioritized and weigh them. If those who support Paul are guilty of deprioritzing abortion rights, then those who support (or will support) Clinton or Obama are guilty of deprioritzing issues of America's militarism and executive power abuses. And while abortion is a critical issue, so are those issues.

Anyone -- like Klein -- who grants themselves license to weigh conflicting priorities while denying it to others is acting hypocritcally, to say the least (and, just incidentally, the fact that Klein completely distorts Paul's abortion position -- he believes that the federal government has no role to play and it should all be left to the states -- is besides the point, since it would change nothing even if Klein had bothered to describe Paul's position accurately).

* * * *

I really wish it were the case that other viable presidential campaigns besides Ron Paul's (and Dennis Kucinich's, if one wants to count him) were making substantive critiques of America's imperialism and fundamental departures from our constitutional framework. But they just aren't. I wish it were the case that other candidates besides Ron Paul were injecting into our political discourse vital questions of America's role in the world that are otherwise ignored completely. But they aren't. I wish it were the case that the mainstream, pro-choice liberal candidates to whom Klein is so attached cared more about these issues or were brave enough to challenge the orthodoxies which shape them. But they aren't.

Thus, those who think it's vital that those issues be addressed don't really have any viable presidential campaigns to highlight other than Ron Paul's (or, to a much more limited degree, Chris Dodd). Pro-choice individuals who welcome to our political debates those contributions from Ron Paul are no more guilty of "selling abortion rights down the river" than Ezra Klein and Shakespeare's Sister are guilty of selling the lives of Muslims and our constitutional framework down the river by virtue of their support for good, mainstream Democratic candidates who are bad or horrible on those issues.

The kind of acceptable mainstream dialogue that Chris Matthews and Joe Klein think are legitimate and are willing to air simply excludes many -- one should probably say most -- of the most pressing matters that need to be aired. Unfortunately, in order for those issues to be addressed, one has to go outside of the MSNBC and Time Magazine framework and outside of mainstream Democratic Party policy, often by seeking out political factions that are deeply imperfect in other respects. Those who want to confine themselves to Chris Matthews' realm are free to do so, but really shouldn't feel superior as a result or try to smear those who don't with the sort of tactics Klein uses.

At least in theory, presidential campaigns -- especially during the primary season -- are a once-in-every-four-years opportunity to have a national discussion about our political principles. The fact that the mainstream Democratic candidates are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to challenge so many destructive orthodoxies is at least as much of a problem as Ron Paul's abortion views, and -- to use Klein's words -- I find it "strange" and "deeply bizarre" and "deeply misguided" and I'm "astonished" and "disappointed" that those who claim to oppose those orthodoxies are so simultaneously uninterested in, even hostile to, the only real efforts to challenge and undermine them.

UPDATE: As Bamage reminds me, I neglected to mention Paul's vehement opposition to the indescribably devestating War on Drugs, something which no mainstream Democratic candidate will or could express. Thus, one could also, if one were willing to use Ezra Klein's rhetorical tactics, accuse anyone who supports a Democrat but opposes Ron Paul of being completely indifferent to the plight of tens of thousands of Americans unjustly imprisoned and the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered for nothing other than increasing the powers of our police and surveillance state and decimating basic civil liberties. I guess anyone who opposes Paul's candidacy in favor of a candidate who supports the War on Drugs is, using Klein's standards, guilty of selling "all of that down the river."

UPDATE II: For those who are interested, Klein has responded here. His own commenters do far more than what's necessary in pointing out the obvious. One in particular writes: "The crux of Glenn's argument is simply that if one is going to dismiss someone's candidacy because they fall short of progressive ideals on any one issue, you'd better be prepared to apply the standard across the board." One can fail to comprehend that point only by virtue of a desire not to comprehend it.

UPDATE III: Ezra has a further reply here. He says, and I agree, that "our role as writers" is "to use our megaphones to push the debate into a better space, and candidates into wiser stances." I think that's precisely one of the principal benefits of Paul's campaign -- injecting into our public discourse crucial positions that no Democratic candidate will touch, either because they don't believe them or lack the courage to advocate them. I wish a fraction of the energy that progressives devote to criticizing Ron Paul was devoted instead -- at least during the primary season -- to criticizing their own viable candidates for the gaping deficienices identified here, ones that are likely to have a far greater impact than any of the perceived flaws of Ron Paul.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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