Keep Trying

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Tolerating the Truth

From the looks of it, the only issue that will be clarified in the presidential election is what degree of falsehood the America people will tolerate.

Last week, Dean advisor David Weinberger stated the following:

But just for the record: Our president systematically lied to us in order to get us to go to war; we were told we were in imminent danger when we were not. We went in without a plan for getting out or realistic expectations about what we were letting ourselves in for. We have sold the official looting rights to the administration's closest friends. It all was a cynical distraction from the failure of our war on terrorism. Our unilateralism sets a dangerous precedent and makes us less safe. And we will not know even if the ends justifed the means for years when the ultimate fate of Iraq and the region is clearer.

I am wondering if the systematically lying allegation, that David hurls, would ever be an impeachable offense? Maybe an email to the Volokhs will shed some light.

Thomas Friedman's Moment of Truth column in today's Times was much more charitable to the President but took French President Chirac to task:

I believe the French president, Jacques Chirac, knows something in his heart: in the run-up to the Iraq war, George Bush and Tony Blair stretched the truth about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction” but they were not alone. Mr. Chirac also stretched the truth about his willingness to join a U.N.-led coalition against Iraq if Saddam was given more time and still didn't comply with U.N. weapons inspections. I don't believe Mr. Chirac ever intended to go to war against Saddam, under any circumstances. So history will record that all three of these leaders were probably stretching the truth” but with one big difference: George Bush and Tony Blair were stretching the truth in order to risk their own political careers to get rid of a really terrible dictator. And Jacques Chirac was stretching the truth to advance his own political career by protecting a really terrible dictator.

Is stretching the truth withing the rules of acceptable political discourse? In my read, Friedman seems to find it acceptable. But there is evidence that many people are in fact losing patience with Howard Dean's tendency to speak with a disrepect for truth. In fact Washington Post writers, Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Finer report that

Howard Dean's penchant for flippant and sometimes false statements is generating increased criticism from his Democratic presidential rivals and raising new questions about his ability to emerge as a nominee who can withstand intense, sustained scrutiny and defeat President Bush.
Dean's remarks, his critics say, are in keeping with his history of making statements that are mean-spirited or misleading. He has distorted his past support for raising the retirement age for Social Security and slowing Medicare's growth. He has falsely said he was the only Democratic presidential candidate talking about race before white audiences. And he made allegations -- some during his years as governor -- that turned out to be untrue.

It seems that Dean's disrespect for truth could be a result of his get-angry strategy. Mark Steyn thinks the angry pacifist strategy of Howard Dean is focused on the wrong issues. In The Bike-Path Left he writes:

So what does get the Dean juices going? A few days later, the governor was on CNN and Judy Woodruff asked him about his admission that he'd left the Episcopal Church and become a Congregationalist because "I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church over the bike path." I hasten to add that, in contrast to current Anglican controversies over gay marriage in British Columbia and gay bishops in New Hampshire, this does not appear to have been a gay bike path: its orientation was not an issue; it would seem to be a rare example of a non-gay controversy in the Anglican Communion. But nevertheless it provoked Howard into "a big fight." "I was fighting to have public access to the waterfront, and we were fighting very hard in the citizens group," he told Judy Woodruff. Fighting, fighting, fighting.

And that's our pugnacious little Democrat. On Osama bin Laden, he's Mister Insouciant. But he gets mad about bike paths. Destroy the World Trade Center and he's languid and laconic and blase. Obstruct plans to convert the ravaged site into a memorial bike path and he'll hunt you down wherever you are.

...when Howard Dean, shortish and stocky, comes out in his rolled-up shirtsleeves, he looks like Bruce Banner just before he turns into the Incredible Hulk, as if his head's about to explode out of his shirt collar. Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus, but Dr. Dean is Venusian in a very Martian way. He's full of anger.

But only for peripheral issues. Ask him serious questions about the president's key responsibilities--national security and foreign policy--and the passion drains away as it did with Chris Matthews.

And it is clear that Dean's lack of enthusiam about foreign policy has hurt him. In reference to the National Democratic picture before and after the Hussein capture, this article points out that a CNN-USA Today poll "had Dean at 27 percent, down from 33 percent in a poll concluded just before the capture." That is about an 18% drop.

But all is not lost for Dean's foreign policy. After taking a little swipe, Daniel Drezner was generous enough to provide some level-headed criticism of Bush's foreign policy:

There are three ways to criticize the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy. The first way is both simple and simple-minded: Bush is the evil creature of corporate interests, pursuing militarized disputes merely to reward his cronies. Adherents to this line suspect there may be something to the conspiracy theory that Bush knew something about the Sept. 11 attacks before they took place. Most serious people, with the possible exception of Howard Dean, reject this line of argumentation out of hand.

The second kind of criticism is more substantive. It holds that the costs of Bush's pre-emption doctrine weakened international legitimacy, fraying alliances, increased global public hostility to the United States are greater than the benefits. Click on any Democratic candidate's Web site (including Dean's) and you'll find a version of this criticism. It will be with us at least until November 2004.

A third criticism has slowly emerged over the past six months. It agrees with the logic of Bush's grand strategy, but questions whether the policy implementation has been up to snuff. This line of argumentation has less to do with substance and more to do with process. To sum it up, Bush's management of foreign policy has been too detached for his own good. The president would proudly admit that he's not a detail guy, preferring to enunciate firm principles and let his subordinates hash out the specifics. However, this disengagement has encouraged bureaucratic rivalries to fester, diverting the attention of officials from the actual substance of foreign policy.

It remains to be seen whether truth and foreign policy issues are important to Americans or whether Dean can succeed with his raging mob strategy and the hatred it will create in its wake.