The New Republic syndrome

A mentality that repeatedly admitted wrongdoing, reversed itself and spawned great destruction nonetheless continues to dominate the Democratic Party.

Published June 23, 2008 11:46AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

The number one problem facing the Democratic Party is that, as events of the last week demonstrate, it continues to be plagued by The New Republic Syndrome, one of the most fatal political afflictions that exist. In 2002 and 2003, The New Republic was one of the leading crusaders for an attack on Iraq, railing against what it called "the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics." In a February 2003 Editorial, they decreed that "the United States must disarm Iraq by force" and declared war opponents guilty of "abject pacifism."

TNR's Jonathan Chait appeared at events with Ken Pollack in 2002 to advocate the so-called "liberal case for war." On March 10, 2003, Chait appeared on Hardball, said the imminent attack was a "just war," and proclaimed: "I don't think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq won't demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people." Peter Beinart was the media's designated Democrat to rail against weak, subversive liberals who refused to accept the imperatives of the Bush administration's case for war.

In 2004, TNR expressed regret because "the central assumption underlying this magazine's strategic rationale for war now appears to have been wrong," but they still insisted that "if our strategic rationale for war has collapsed, our moral one has not." But by December 2006 -- hundreds of thousands of dead bodies later -- that very partial acknowledgment of wrongdoing turned into this: "The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war."

Also in 2004, The New Republic endorsed Joe Lieberman for the Democratic nomination for President, using its endorsement to attack Howard Dean and his liberal supporters as suffering from "an old Democratic affliction: an excessive faith in multilateralism and an insufficient faith in the moral potential of U.S. power" and said that Dean supporters were "dangerously out of touch with a country that feels threatened by terrorism, not Donald Rumsfeld." According to TNR, only Lieberman was Serious and Responsible enough to save the Democratic Party from the weak, pacifist liberals who were too shrill and extreme in their opposition to the Bush administration:

Dean has helped create this mood of self-righteous delusion, and his competitors have, to varying degrees, accommodated themselves to it. Only Lieberman -- the supposed candidate of appeasement -- is challenging his party, enduring boos at event after event, to articulate a different, better vision of what it means to be a Democrat.

Three years ago, that vision seemed ascendant. Today, it is once again at the margins. It may take years, or even decades, for Democrats to relearn the lessons we thought, naively, they had learned for good under Clinton. But one day, Joe Lieberman's warnings in this campaign will look prophetic. And the principles he has espoused will once again guide the Democratic Party. It will be the work of this magazine, to whatever small degree possible, to hasten that day.

In 2006, TNR's Chait denounced those who were trying to defeat Lieberman in the Democratic primary as "a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals" -- "exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s." But just a few weeks ago, Chait himself expressed shock that "there's hardly any sense in which Lieberman is an independent figure" and is now nothing more than "a cog in the Republican message machine" -- exactly the basis for the primary challenged mounted by the people whom Chait was villifying as left-wing screeching radicals, and exactly the basis for the derision directed at TNR when they said in 2004 that their mission in life was to have Democrats be guided by Joe Lieberman's political principles.

By any metric, that is a humiliating track record. More importantly, it's a perfect museum exhibit to illustrate how the Democratic Party failed completely to provide any meaningful opposition to the extremism, excesses and abuses of the Bush years, instead enabling and endorsing those abuses when they weren't standing by meekly and quietly allowing it all to take root. Throughout the Bush era, the Democratic Party has been dominated by The New Republic Syndrome -- Democrats who are either petrified of meaningfully opposing the right-wing agenda that has dominated our country or who support virtually all of it, while eagerly volunteering to serve as the most vocal demonizers of those who want our country to have a real opposition party.

Despite those forced mea culpas and reversals, TNR never actually learns. Today -- in a post bearing the very sensible and Serious title: "Keeping FISA in Perspective" -- TNR is here, via Josh Patashnik, to tell you that there's nothing truly disturbing about the FISA bill that is about to pass. What's more, those who think there is, and those who want to oppose Democrats who support the bill, are -- just like war opponents of 2003 and Lieberman opponents of 2006 -- nothing more than shrill, hysterical radicals who are irresponsible and even insane:

There's no question the FISA compromise is very disappointing in a few respects, most notably because it means there will (apparently) be no judicial pronouncement on the legality of Bush's wiretapping program. I'm torn as to how I would have voted on the bill, were I a member of Congress. But it is most certainly not a threat to constitutional government in America, and to suggest that it's of such extraordinary, overriding importance as to merit primary challenges from the left against Democrats in center-right districts is, quite simply, nuts.

It's not "nuts" to give the President vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers, permanently conceal Bush's lawbreaking, or give amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms. It's "nuts" to oppose those corrupt measures and try to defeat politicians who support them.

Patashnik also cites this post at Democracy Arsenal -- which defends the FISA bill; says that "Greenwald and others need to get a grip"; and pronounces that those who want to defeat supporters of the FISA bill "need to have your head examined" -- and then argues:

The Democrats were able to get some real concessions (compared to what was on the table in February) from the administration concerning protections for the international communications of Americans; the politics of the issue do not favor the civil-libertarian position; and allowing wiretapping orders issued under the Protect America Act to lapse would have genuinely hampered intelligence-gathering efforts.

I've already addressed these issues in great detail over the last week -- the idea that this was some sort of "compromise," that Democrats won "concessions," that they faced political doom if they failed to give Bush the bill he wanted, that warrantless eavesdropping is necessary to save us from The Terrorists, etc. etc. -- and the commenters to both of those posts do more than an adequate job of refuting all the points that are made. I'm not going to re-hash those points in order to respond to a litany of Democratic excuse-making cliches copied from Nancy Pelosi's talking points.

The reason these posts are worth noting is because they so perfectly capture the mindset that needs to be undermined more than any other. It's this mentality that has destroyed the concept of checks and limits in our political system; it's why we have no real opposition party; and it's why the history of the Democrats over the last seven years has been to ignore and then endorse one extremist Bush policy after the next. It's because even as The New Republic Syndrome has been proven to be false and destructive over and over -- even its practitioners have been forced to recognize that -- it continues to be the guiding operating principle of the party's leadership.

The defining beliefs of this Syndrome are depressingly familiar, and incomparably destructive: Anything other than tiny, marginal opposition to the Right's agenda is un-Serious and radical. Objections to the demolition of core constitutional protections is shrill and hysterical. Protests against lawbreaking by our high government officials and corporations are disrespectful and disruptive. Challenging the Right's national security premises is too scary and politically costly. Those campaigning against Democratic politicians who endorse and enable the worst aspects of Bush extremism are "nuts," "need to have their heads examined," and are "exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s." Those who oppose totally unprovoked and illegal wars are guilty of "abject pacifism."

It's exactly that mentality that has brought us to where we are as a country and a political system today. It's not at all surprising -- and wouldn't have surprised the Founders in the least -- that a radical and corrupt political faction (the Bush-led Right) has been able to take over parts of the Government and sought to consolidate political power. The expectation was that this would happen, and the solution was to devise a litany of checks -- the Congress, the media, opposition parties -- that would stand up to and vigorously oppose that faction and prevent it from running rampant.

It's primarily the failure of those institutions, rather than the emergence of a corrupt and lawless faction, that has made the Bush era so unique and distinctively destructive. Those institutions have failed because they have been, and continue to be, defined by the meek, amorphous, principle-free New Republic Syndrome, which thinks that its restrained tolerance and complicit embrace of patent Bush extremism is some sort of mark of political sophistication and Seriousness.

Hence: vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers -- with no connection to Terrorism -- are being vested in the President? His and the largest corporations' deliberate lawbreaking is being concealed and forever excused? All of that is being done by Democrats? Anyone who thinks that's worth getting worked up over -- just like anyone who got worked up over other reasonable, good faith policy disputes such as the Iraq War, pre-war lying, torture, Joe Lieberman -- are a bunch of shrill hysterics who "need to have their heads examined."

Good, smart, adult Democrats -- like the sober, Serious geniuses at The New Republic who have been so right for so long, and like Steny Hoyer -- understand that these matters are very complex and difficult and it's best if the Right not be opposed with too much vigor, if they should be opposed at all. It's precisely that mindset, and those who are guided by it, which needs to be targeted if the guaranteed Democratic majority is to mean anything other than an endless perpetuation of The New Republic Syndrome.

* * * * *

Following up on the newspaper ads to begin running this week in The Washington Post and virtually every paper in Steny Hoyer's district, a massive robocall campaign is also beginning this week in Hoyer's district, and will reach huge numbers of that district's most critical voting blocs. The robocalls -- designed by Blue America and Color of Change -- will be narrated by Rev. Lennox Yearwood, a highly respected pastor and activist in Hoyer's district. A corresponding video to accompany the robocalls has been produced. Rev. Yearwood's narration will be put on the video once it is ready -- and I'll post the robocall audio when it's available -- but for now, the video (narrated for the moment by someone else) shows the robocall script and underlying themes:

As indicated, the Hoyer campaign is just a small start. The vast bulk of the funds that continue to be raised -- now close to $310,000 -- will be aimed at Rep. John Barrow (who has a primary challenge on July 15) and Rep. Chris Carney (who is very vulnerable in November), depending on which strategies work best. We also expect that this target list might grow as the Senate likely disgraces itself this week (Joan McCarter -- here -- posts all the necessary information and some important thoughts about how to fight the Senate's likely passage of the FISA bill, including encouraging Barack Obama to keep his promise to filibuster any bill with telecom amnesty). The prime goal of this campaign is to prevent the Democratic Party -- which is assured of continuing to control Congress -- from continuing to be dominated by the fatal New Republic Syndrome.

UPDATE: Apostropher at Unfogged has this exceptionally good diagnosis of what is ailing the Democratic Party, along with the reasons why merely increasing their majorities -- without doing something fundamentally to alter their behavior -- will achieve nothing good at all.

Christy Hardin Smith at FDL has all of the key information for pressuring swaying Senators to keep amnesty out of the FISA bill this week. Personally, I think the only remotely plausible pressure points are demanding that Obama complies with his filibuster promise and doing the same with Chris Dodd, and by "remotely plausible" I mean "something that is, in theory, not absolute zero." Still, even battles that are almost certain to end in a loss are worth waging until the bitter end.

UPDATE II: Speaking of The New Republic Syndrome, USA Today's Mark Memmott and Jill Lawrence today mock the "journalism" of one of the Syndrome's leading practitioners, Joe Klein -- who, needless to say, thinks that the FISA "compromise" is superb (that's "needless to say" because Klein's ghost writer on FISA matters, GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra, voted for the bill). With apologies to the important writers at TNR, one must acknowledge that Klein was one of the earliest and most relentless pioneers of the TNR Syndrome and, to this very day, continues to be one of its most faithful evangelists.

UPDATE III: Russ Feingold spoke today at the New America Foundation and answered several questions about the FISA bill. Raw Story has the full text of Feingold's speech here, and in the video below, Feingold explains why the surveillance provisions of the bill are so dangerous, assesses the prospects for defeating it in the Senate, and outlines why it is vital that we not vest the President with powers of this sort, no matter who the next President is or what party he belongs to:

By Glenn Greenwald

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