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August 12, 2005

Soapbox Strategies

Looks like NARAL's pulling their ad. Fair 'nuff. I think, after Leahy rebuked them, that we can safely judge that one a flop. But the discussion it created was interesting, and raises some issues we should be thinking about. The ad, for those who don't know, linked Roberts to violent antiabortion protesters because he defended them in a nonviolent context. It was hardball, to be sure, but nothing batters haven't seen before. The shock, awe, and surprise came mostly because the Roberts nomination washed such a warm glow of comity and calm over all involved, and so NARAL's frontal assault caught both the left and the right unawares.

For my part, I figured it par for the course. The one danger was that Roberts, who almost certainly will be confirmed, would take it personally. Much of what we've seen seems to show him a fair-minded jurist willing to seriously consider opposing arguments. But if NARAL really enrages him, it's possible he'd take it out on their cause during later trials, maybe even subconsciously. Since he's almost certain to pass the Senate anyway, this struck me as a future best avoided. But that's neither here nor there, and long-distance psychology probably isn't the sort of thing you want to base political strategy on.

Lindsay's response, though, bears a bit more scrutiny. This, she said, is a time for message discipline. Even if you think the ad went too far, don't say it. Just stroke your chin, mutter over the "interesting questions" it raises, and advance the meme. To do otherwise is "grandstanding".

At some point, and I don't know when and I don't know how, bloggers are going to have to decide how independent they are. Do they sacrifice their true opinions because someone, somewhere might be watching? Or do they assume their internet outposts are already populated by partisans and should be a place for critical thought and honest discourse? This isn't a loaded question: the right has incredible message discipline and it's something that, at times, we should emulate. They're also an intellectually bankrupt movement that has forced itself to unite behind scores of initiatives that'd make William Buckley, at least in his more honest incarnations, sick enough to turn monosyllabic. We certainly want their effectiveness, but if we could get it without losing our souls, that wouldn't hurt matters.

I've got no answer here. Sometimes, I think, we pretend more folks are watching than actually are, and end up sacrificing independence to influence an audience that simply isn't reading us. On the other hand, I've certainly had enough unexpected visitors drop by the site to keep me from putting too much confidence in that security blanket. Either way, we should recognize that, while there's utility in losing our "meticulous even-handedness", that we're sacrificing worthwhile in the process. I worry a bit when we start calling unvarnished opinions "grandstanding", particularly in a medium that's one big Bring Your Own Soapbox party. All we're doing here is grandstanding, the only question is whether we're letting the Party set up TelePrompTers in front of the milk crates. Undoubtedly, we are. Undoubtedly, we sometimes have to. But we're going in a bad direction if being uncomfortable with that is a somehow contemptible stance.

August 12, 2005 in The Supreme Court | Permalink


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Tracked on Aug 12, 2005 2:04:32 PM


I think your gut is a good guide to decide when to be critical, and when to say "fuck it. let's just stand by our girls." Though I think trying to paint Roberts as an extremist is an inferior strategy compared to simply asking him "Where do you stand on Roe. v Wade?" 50 million times, and not giving up until you get an answer.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Aug 12, 2005 3:53:31 AM

Word is that there is 60 hard votes for Roberts.

A minority faced with a solid majority that never quavers is SOL.

The Dems have not one interest group left that can shake things up, it seems. And 5-10 Dems that often back the majority. Lots of ole time Dems from yesterday must be restless in their graves.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 12, 2005 5:38:55 AM

I like the Novak theory (I can't believe I'm typing this)that NARAL's intent isn't so much to stop Roberts as to keep his confirmation vote total low enough to stop Bush from nominating someone worse next time.

In that context, the NARAL ad has done all it could do. It also was so over thetop that Jon Stewart got to play bipartisan for a moment and make fun of the left's dishonesty.

I'd rather have him making fun of a lib cheapshot than at our incompetence as he usually does.

Posted by: howie | Aug 12, 2005 8:39:25 AM

I don't support all out opposition on Roberts. That being said he is a lock to vote to overturn Roe. no matter his supposed support of "stare decisis". This particular attack by NARAL may have been unfair but their instincts are right, from their perspective this guy is the enemy and they get no critcism from me.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Aug 12, 2005 9:03:46 AM

There are some people on our side who consider themselves activists as well as commentators. I'm one of those people and I think many of our colleagues in the progressive blogosphere have similar aspirations. I'm directing my comments towards those people. If you see yourself as a disinterested observer, then my comments don't apply. I'm just talking about people who want to help build a progressive movement.

Some liberals feel compelled to burnish their "moderate" or "principled" credentials every time some surrogate makes a move. Some people criticize our side primarily for the sake of being seen to criticize our side. That's grandstanding.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Aug 12, 2005 10:15:40 AM

Some people criticize our side primarily for the sake of being seen to criticize our side. That's grandstanding.

Nope, it's calling "Bullshit" on misleading and lying activities such as this ad. What a blatant LIE. You should be ashamed of yourself, but I won't hold my breath.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 10:20:44 AM

Yesterday you criticized Jonah Goldberg for being sure that his side is more honorable than his opponants.

I felt that that argument was quite accurate, in that if their is a difference between the two sides on being honorable, it is impossible for me to determine. Intellectual dishonesty and partisan rhetoric abounds.

However, this post is the best I have seen in a long time at making Jonah's case.

You are honestly trying to decide if it is proper or not to criticize someone who is an ideological ally if they make false and misleading arguments? This is apparently a tough call?

And then, in the same post, to complain about how the right is "an intellectually bankrupt movement." Wow. Talk about some chutzpah!

I have seen all sorts of bad arguments. Yes, plenty from the right. I have seen some pretty amazing means used to try an prove that these arguments are 'legitimate' or 'balanced from a certain point of view. '

I cannot ever recall though anyone on the right claiming it is ok if the argument is wrong if it serves a useful political purpose. I won't say it hasn't happened, their are a lot of bloggers and I certainly can't read them all, but let me just say, I find the very concept to be simply disgusting.

If how you win no longer matters, then you simply cannot claim to be, in any meaningful sense, progressive.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 12, 2005 10:48:04 AM

I cannot ever recall though anyone on the right claiming it is ok if the argument is wrong if it serves a useful political purpose.

I think Dave says it all in his post. It is, indeed, shocking.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 11:26:57 AM

Um, I think the reason the Right bloggers don't say this stuff is because they've already sold-out to the notion that you don't be independent. And part of "message discipline" would be constantly claiming righteousness and that you really do believe all the things you say. Rove is never open about his political manipulations, that would be against the point after all.

Open argument about what is morally acceptable political strategy is of course the sort of intellectual exercise that doesn't win elections. But, to me at least, it does shore up Ezra's Englightenment credibility.

And yes, I feel NARAL's commercial was a) par for the course and b) bad. Part of good political critique should be condemning things that are becoming all too common.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Aug 12, 2005 11:58:33 AM

It's about picking your battles. I am not saying that you should never criticize your political allies. If that's the position you're attacking, you're flogging a straw man.

I am complaining about a subset of commenters who feel compelled to criticize their allies for show. I'm saying that this ad wasn't a big moral deal--it's grandstanding to present yourself as if you are breaking ranks over a matter of profound principle.

NARAL runs one tough ad and some Democrats start clutching their pearls and sharpening their claws on each other.

It was silly to get bogged down about an ad by a third party. Now everyone is splitting hairs about what NARAL said. The issue should be Roberts' record on choice, not whether NARAL runs tacky ads.

The right wing is laughing its ass off.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Aug 12, 2005 12:38:50 PM

Now everyone is splitting hairs about what NARAL said.

The core problem is that this was not some small mischaracterization, it was so far off base as to be blatantly false...in essence, a lie.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 12:42:28 PM

A right wing group (something about Vote for Progress?, I did not catch the name) is airing an ad I've seen on CNN a couple of times that is nothing but a red-eyed rage over the NARAL ad. It offers next to nothing as an ad to support Roberts, but it goes on and on about hatred towards the "liberals" and the "far left". I suppose to someone over there this is money and effort well spent. Roberts is a shoo-in, but 30 seconds of bile on TV is still a good investment apparently.

Posted by: sprocket | Aug 12, 2005 12:43:18 PM

What lie, Fred?

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Aug 12, 2005 12:50:41 PM

"I cannot ever recall though anyone on the right claiming it is ok if the argument is wrong if it serves a useful political purpose."

100 years from now 25 yr old Republicans will still claim that the Swift Boat campaign and the WMD claims were accurate and fair, or slightly mistaken but well-intentioned. I just read yesterday in a comment that Nixon mismanaged a minor scandal but was otherwise blameless. They are still claiming Joe McCarthy as an honorable party hero. Ezra, you don't know what party discipline is, and no one is asking that level of loyalty from you.

A case (over-general of course) might be made that this is sincere, in that Republicans see truth as subjective, faith and character-based;whereas Democrats see truth as objective...whatever those words might actually mean.

But Mark Kleiman did a good enough job that I am unwilling to say the NARAL ad was inaccurate, unfair, or over the top. Nor do I feel a need to deeply analyse it to be absolutely certain. Who or what is served in criticizing and weakening NARAL here?

Beyerstein is right. Leahy and Clemons et al are doing exactly what I expect of them, and are wrong. The interest groups, constituencies, and base are not the problem in the Democratic Party; the very concept is absurd. The leadership is the problem. And Roberts will quite likely get 75 votes. Screw em.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 12, 2005 12:54:11 PM

Wow. Can't believe I'm reading what I'm reading.

Lindsay, as long as you guys are in the situation where you actually spend time contemplating whether or not you should be honest, you'll never "get it" and will continue to lose the electorate.

Posted by: RW | Aug 12, 2005 12:56:14 PM

Oh, but Ezra, I hope you have read the comments to the posts about you over at BOPNews. Ian Welch offers good advice.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 12, 2005 12:57:34 PM

Lindsay, Ezra appears to have troll problems, and I haven't decided yet whether to ignore them, help Ezra fight them, or try to drive them away. Or go away myself.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 12, 2005 1:04:40 PM

Yeah, I think Ian Welch's post is kinda silly and quite wrong, but folks are allowed to disagree with me. And Lindsay, this shouldn't be taken as a dig at you: it isn't. I'm never a disinterested observer but it's tough sometimes to keep the roles of activist, thinker, and, well, hack apart. Your comments just gave me a way to write a post I've been thinking about for a long time. They make a strong argument. And it's certainly true that we can't be unilaterally honorable while they Swiftvet and Horton their way to victory. On the other hand, there's the question of whether deescalation is then possible, and if not, what happens?

Oh -- and don't listen to Fred. That's Robert Zimmerman, and when the Swift Vets came out, he was all over them. And that's what I'm trying to avoid. The line between activist and partisan hack can be faint and I would prefer to stay on the right side of it.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 12, 2005 1:27:13 PM

Lindsay, Ezra appears to have troll problems, and I haven't decided yet whether to ignore them, help Ezra fight them, or try to drive them away. Or go away myself.

Anyone who doesn't tow the Moveon.org line to you is a "troll". Hell, there are members of your own party that would fit this description.
Anyway, Bob, I'll take door number three.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 1:30:22 PM

What lie, Fred?

Lindsay, play stupid on your own blog.
The lie that most Democrats with any morals are, themselves, up in arms about. The one that links Roberts to extremist abortion clinic bombers.
To my knowledge, Roberts has had no contact with any extremist groups that bomb abortion clinics.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 1:47:19 PM

Fred, you need to check your facts.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 12, 2005 1:57:48 PM

"-----, play stupid on your own blog."

That's a funny phrase to write in a comment.

Posted by: TJ | Aug 12, 2005 2:01:14 PM

Marcotte Who's correct, vehemently as always, and links to distant but brighter stars

Steve Clemons Who is cautious, insightful and strategic;polite and kind;and a reasonably useful fellow for a Beltway dude; but wrong.

Bowers and Stoller say the left blogosphere doesn't link to each other enough;Ezra needn't do it all

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 12, 2005 2:15:25 PM

Fred, you need to check your facts.

Ezra, thanks for the link. However, I was unaware that Operation Rescue advocated bombing abortion clinics, and that is what I originally stated.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 12, 2005 2:27:12 PM

Mark Kleiman

"But that brief had political as well as legal meanings. Operation Rescue was then engaged in a violent, and largely successful, attempt to deny access to abortion to as many women as possible by closing down the clinics. The attorneys general of Virginia and New York both filed amici arguing that their states lacked the capacity to fight off Operation Rescue's efforts.

The Solicitor General's office was under no obligation to file an amicus in a civil lawsuit. Ask yourself whether the SG's office would have intervened similarly in a case involving violent protesters against U.S. support of the Contras, or Earth First, or the Animal Liberation Front, or Al Sharpton's shake-down crew, whatever the legal merits. No, I don't think so either.

If the Bush I Administration had in fact opposed anti-abortion violence and merely doubted that the anti-Klan law could properly be made to apply, it could have offered legislation making interference with the clinics a federal matter; such legislation was in fact passed under the Clinton Administration. But of course the administration did no such thing.

By arguing that the most successful terrorist campaign waged in this country since the days of the Klan was a matter for state and local jurisdiction (an echo, of course, of the argument offered against federal anti-lynching legislation in the 1930s and 1940s), Roberts and the rest of the Bush I crew was in effect backing the terrorists against their victims. That's not "excusing" violence, but it's not exactly opposing, either.

And Roberts signed the brief, and delivered the oral argument. That seems to me to be a legitimate reason for Operation Rescue to support him, and for those who support abortion rights and oppose domestic terrorism to oppose him."

Nobody in the Federal gov't took direct responsibility for lynchings or Jim Crow for a hundred years. They simply let the states handle it. NARAL did not lie, and you think too much of the opposition.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 12, 2005 2:27:13 PM

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