Carville/Greenberg strategists and national security

Party strategists -- still afraid of seeming weak on National Security -- summon the debunked playbook of the past

Published March 11, 2010 1:12PM (EST)

FILE - In this April 29, 2009, file photo, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks during a television interview at the White House. No-drama Obama was bound to get fireworks for choosing the expletive-spewing, hotheaded, never-at-rest Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff. The only question was when _ and how big. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File) (AP)
FILE - In this April 29, 2009, file photo, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks during a television interview at the White House. No-drama Obama was bound to get fireworks for choosing the expletive-spewing, hotheaded, never-at-rest Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff. The only question was when _ and how big. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File) (AP)

Earlier this week, a new poll and accompanying "strategic analysis" was released by Democracy Corps (the Democratic firm founded by James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum), co-sponsored by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner ("GQR") and the "centrist" Third Way.  It spat out decades-old, warmed-over, fear-driven conventional wisdom:  Democrats are in danger of being seen as Weak on National Security and Terrorism, etc. etc., and specifically warned of the dangers from abandoning Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies (while suggesting ways for Democrats to appear Strong when they do).  In response, Andrew Sullivan rightly urged caution about taking seriously any such analysis from this inside-Washington, "centrist"-Democratic faction, because -- as he put it -- "they always, always reeked of fear"; have been dominated by a "refusal to stand up against the Cheneyite right on critical matters such as national security and American values"; and "very few represent that kind of politics more than Jim Carville, Stan Greenberg and, yes, Rahm Emanuel, still traumatized after all these years."

Today, Jeremy Rosner of GQR wrote an email strenuously objecting to Sullivan's claims ("I have never, ever believed or advised that Democrats should 'cede national security' to the Republicans, and neither has my partner Stan Greenberg, or my friends James Carville and Rahm Emanuel").  He quotes from several memos issued by that faction -- mostly from 2006-2009 -- urging Democrats to exploit various national security weaknesses of Bush and the GOP, along with one from late 2003.  Obviously -- as support for the Iraq War crumbled and the public began doubting the GOP 's national security approach -- these strategists advised Democrats to exploit that change in public opinion (November, 2007:  "For the first time in decades, national security has become a potentially winning issue for Democrats").  A child would have known to do that; that oh-so-bold advice proves nothing.

But when it actually matters -- back in 2002, as Bush was pushing for the invasion of Iraq, and now -- James Carville and Stan Greenberg (along with chronic loser Bob Shrum), as part of Democracy Corps, did exactly what Sullivan described (and what Rosner astoundingly denies they ever did).  Contrary to Rosner's claim that Democracy Corps' memos are available online, all memos prior to 2007 are archived on a site that appears to be not publicly accessible, but no matter:  for years, Digby has been chronicling the central (and quite effective) role played by Carville/Greenberg in urging Democrats to capitulate to Republicans on national security. 

In 2002, shortly before the Congressional vote on Iraq, Carville/Greenberg/Shrum distributed a memo to Democrats advising them that the most politically productive course would be to support the AUMF so that Iraq was off the table for the midterm elections, and the focus would instead be on domestic issues, where Democrats were stronger -- exactly the fear-driven, profoundly immoral and excruciatingly stupid advice which Congressional Democrats followed.  From their 2002 memo:

This decision [the Iraq vote] will take place in a setting where voters, by 10 points, prefer to vote for a Member who supports a resolution to authorize force (50 to 40 percent).2 In addition, we found that a Democrat supporting a resolution runs stronger than one opposing it.  For half the respondents, we presented a Democratic candidate supporting the resolution. Among these voters, the generic congressional vote remained stable, with the Democrats still ahead by 2 points at the end of the survey. In the other half of the sample, we presented a Democrat opposed to the resolution. In this group, the Democratic congressional advantage slipped by 6 points at the end of the survey.


The debate and vote on the resolution will bring closure on the extended Iraq debate that has crowded out the country’s domestic agenda as Congress concludes.  But there is substantial evidence, as we indicated at the outset, that voters are very ready to turn to domestic issues. It is important that Democrats make this turn and provide a compelling reason to vote Democratic and turn down the Republicans.

In this survey, we tested two message frameworks – one offers a transition to the domestic agenda ("We need independent people in Washington who will be a check on what is going on and pay attention to our needs at home") and one focuses on corporate influence ("Washington should be more responsive to the people and less to big corporate interests").  Both frameworks defeat the Republican alternative that begins with support for the President’s efforts on security.

The memo did say that the Iraq vote was one of conscience and provided some strategic advice for those who intended to vote against it, but most key Democrats (including Carville's patron, Hillary Clinton, 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and vice presidential nominee John Edwards) followed their advice perfectly -- they "supported the President's efforts on security" by voting for the invasion of Iraq.  In fact, it is clear that both Edwards as well as John Kerry -- guided by Shrum as his campaign manager -- voted for the Iraq War at least in part due to this strategic advice:

 The 2004 election proved that the Democratic Party needs leaders -- not poll-driven consultants, who too often sacrifice principle for what appears expedient.

For example, Kerry voted for Bush's Iraq war resolution, following the "guidance" offered by Democracy Corps, a non-profit "dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people."

On October 3, 2002, prior to the Iraq war resolution votes, Democracy Corps (founded in 1999 by James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum) advised Capitol Hill Democrats: "This decision [to support or oppose an Iraq war resolution] will take place in a setting where voters, by 10 points, prefer to vote for a member who supports a resolution to authorize force (50 to 40 percent)."

Needless to say, the Democrats' support for Bush's "security policies" hardly "brought closure" to the Iraq debate, nor did it move the focus to domestic issues.  Instead, the Republicans in 2002 and 2004 ran -- and resoundingly won -- by depicting as Weak on Terror even Democrats who voted for the Iraq War (such as Max Cleland), and even more effectively, by bashing the muddled, confused, contradictory and unprincipled national security position of leading Democrats (I voted for it before I voted against it -- yes, I voted for the invasion of Iraq but. . . .).  It was that deep-seated fear of taking a stand, which voters could easily smell, far more than any specific policy position, that made (and still makes) Democrats appear so pitifully "weak."  Indeed, that's why George Bush made this brilliant line the centerpiece of his 2004 GOP Convention acceptance speech when seeking re-election:

This election will also determine how America responds to the continuing danger of terrorism, and you know where I stand. . . . In the last four years -- in the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.

By that point, the country had developed serious doubts about the Iraq War specifically and Bush's national security policies generally, but rather than back away because of polling weakness, Bush stood his ground and made that a selling point of Strength and Principle:  "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand." 

The reason that worked is because his two Democratic opponents -- Kerry and Edwards -- had (following Carville/Greenberg/Shrum) cast blatantly cynical and opportunistic votes on Iraq and related matters.  One minute they were national security hawks cheering for Bush's invasion (when that was popular) and the next minute they were anti-war candidates self-righteously criticizing the invasion (when the war became unpopular).  Whether one agreed with their original view or their election-year view mattered little; what was clear is that they were poll-driven opportunists with no core beliefs who were eager to shift with the slightest change in wind.  That -- far more than any specific position on war and Terrorism -- is what makes Democrats appear to be weak losers, and it's what they've been doing -- and what the Carville/Greenberg faction -- has been urging  for years and years.  

That's the same mindset that led Democrats to pretend to want to end the Iraq War so that they could win the 2006 mid-term election by exploiting anti-war sentiment, but then, once they won, continue to fund the war without limits or conditions because they were politically afraid to follow through on their alleged convictions (and like clockwork, there, in 2007, was Democracy Corps predictably warning Democrats not to equate opposition to the war with a desire for Congress to actually end the war).  Agree or disagree with whatever national security position Democrats happen to be espousing at the moment, what rational person would look at behavior like this and view such individuals as anything other than weak, mewling cowards?

* * * * *

Refusing to accept Jeremy Rosner's self-serving revisionist history on behalf of his good friends Rahm, James and Stan is particularly critical now because Democrats are poised to do this yet again, and this same tired faction is providing the "intellectual and strategic" ammunition.  When running for President, Barack Obama emphatically pledged again and again to overturn -- not continue -- the Bush/Cheney template on Terrorism and civil liberties.  He railed against the notion that we need to abandon our "values" (due process, the rule of law, civilian courts, habeas corpus, transparency) in order to stay safe.  And he won -- resoundingly.

Yet from the start, he takes a half-step forward in that direction followed by two fearful steps back.  He grants civilian trials to a handful of detainees while ordering military commissions and indefinite detention for most.  He trumpets new transparency guidelines while invoking "secrecy" to block courts from reviewing Bush crimes and re-writing FOIA to allow the suppression of torture photos.  He vows to close GITMO and then plans to re-locate its defining injustices to Illinois.  He praises habeas review for GITMO detainees while seeking to deny it to those shipped from around the world to Bagram.  He lauds the beauty of due process while compiling hit lists of American citizens to be murdered with no due process, far from any battlefield.  He hails the centrality of the Rule of Law while demanding that Bush crimes be suppressed in the name of Looking Forward, etc. etc.

As I detailed the other day, this muddled, inconsistent, completely unprincipled approach makes it impossible to offer any coherent defense of the few instances where Obama deviates from the Bush/Cheney template.  He's bound himself in exactly the same self-created knots as Democrats who tried to defend their ever-shifting, confused national security beliefs during the Bush era:

Well, yes, I am against the Iraq War even though I did vote for the Iraq War, but that's because I was tricked, or because I didn't read all the reports, or I didn't think he'd really invade, or I thought he would do it better, or I thought he'd try harder at the U.N. first, etc. etc. 

Identically, we now have Obama trying to explain why civilian trials and closing GITMO are so necessary and just at exactly the same time he sets up military commissions and systems of indefinite detention.  He tries to explain why transparency in releasing OLC memos is so vital at the same time he guts FOIA to allow the concealment of torture photos and blocks courts from adjudicating the lawsuits from torture and eavesdropping victims, etc. etc.  It's not nuanced, smart or "pragmatic"; it's craven, unprincipled, cynical and weak.  And it's not hard to see.  For that reason, aside from being loathsome on the merits, it doesn't work politically; quite the opposite.   How many times do Democrats need to learn that lesson before it seeps in?  On national security, civil liberties and Terrorism, could Barack Obama possibly deliver this line credibly:  "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand"?  Please.

At exactly the time when the Obama White House is clearly signaling its intent to move even further toward embracing the Bush/Cheney Terrorism/civil liberties template, up pops Carville/Greenberg to warn that they are appearing Weak on National Security, and simultaneously up pops a slew of articles warning that Obama's problems are due to his failures to follow Rahm Emanuel's Centrist advice, including on Terrorism.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, which is why it's so crucial not to allow Jermey Rosner and his Democratic strategist friends to re-write it in order to glorify themselves.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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