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October 22, 2005

Incompetence Dodges, Flip-Flops, and Other Political Dance Moves

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Sam and Matt say that it’s wrong to cast the Iraq war as a good idea ruined by Bush administration incompetence. They’re right about this – clear thinking about the deep ethnic divisions in Iraq, our insufficient troop deployment, and the difficulty of instituting democracy at gunpoint should have convinced intelligent observers that invading Iraq would be a very bad idea. I’d add that the opportunity costs of invasion – in terms of the good that could have been done with those hundreds of billions of dollars and the American military (stopping the genocide in Sudan, perhaps?) ought to be reckoned into the calculus as well. I hope their piece forces unrepentant liberal-hawk commentators to drop their bad arguments and face responsibility. However, a whole different set of issues come into play when we talk about the positions that Democratic politicians should adopt.

If it turns out that the incompetence-dodge position is strategically best, I don’t mind Democratic leaders embracing it. Here I imagine that different moves are right for different Democrats. Whether they blame this disaster on incompetent execution or on the complete dumbness of the decision to invade, what’s important is that Democrats will use their power to pull the plug on it once Bush is gone. Those who haven't come around yet are going to, after America spends three more years floundering in Iraq. Until then, there’s nothing to do but try to destroy the Republicans' foreign policy reputation. Bashing Republican incompetence is a fine way to do this, and if it’s what Joe Biden is minded to do, let’s hear him do it loudly.

I worry, though, that the residue of Bush’s flip-flop attacks on Kerry may have made politicians unwilling to change their positions on issues when the facts clearly turn against them. If you’re worried about being called a flip-flopper, the incompetence dodge looks like a nice move. You can maintain that you called the right play, but that Bush threw the interception. You’re still free to take pride in your own pigheadedness and claim that you haven’t made a mistake.

Now, I don’t know how potent the flip-flop attack is in general, and there may be good ways to change your position so that people can’t hit you with it. But if the flip-flop attack has real power, it’s a very bad thing for our political culture. One of the ways to get rid of bad policy is for people to change their minds and cancel the bad policies. A system of norms that prevents people from doing this is something worth bemoaning.

October 22, 2005 in Iraq | Permalink

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Comments

This morning Elizabeth Warren and her students invited me to say a few words about the bankruptcy reform bill. I'm grateful for the opportunity.

I'm now spending a lot of my time tackling the challenges of poverty, but I learned a lot about bankruptcy on the campaign trail last year. I saw how many good families end up broke and poor, and how they need the safety net of a fair bankruptcy law if they're going to get back on their feet.

Like a lot of Democrats, I voted for a bankruptcy reform bill before. I can't say it more simply than this: I was wrong.

--John Edwards

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 22, 2005 4:50:15 PM

Yeah, I remember that. That's the way to do it.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 22, 2005 4:57:15 PM

I remember Romney saying he had been "brainwashed" about Vietnam. No, a different Romney, the loser Romney.

The commentariat has to "drop their bad arguments and accept responsibility" (perhaps a blog can be started for the public shaming and humiliation where the deviationist comrades can ritually cleanse themselves) but politicians can run on incompetence? I don't think that will work, unless the blogosphere and commentariat really is irrelevant, which it might be. There was little support for the bankruptcy bill and Alaskan bridges, but Democrats voted for them anyway.

Kos argues with Packer

Matt & Sam, with a brilliant piece, have moved us into dangerous territory.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 22, 2005 8:02:34 PM

George Packer

The Packer piece at TPM, posted because I think Kos fails to adequately characterize it, because I found it moving, because I think Packer hints at the dangers of this purge, and because the mostly anti-Packer comments are worth reading.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 22, 2005 8:13:35 PM

I think Packer is really wrong to accuse Yglesias and Rosenfeld of just trying to win an argument -- it's an unfair characterization of their work it really mars his rebuttal, particularly in a piece arguing about the need for good faith and open minds in the debate (I loved the first response he got in the comments). Personally, in everything I've read by Packer, I find his approach to politics and policy too romantic, and I think, as he pretty much says, it's his idealism that led him to more-or-less support the war. But I do agree it's dangerous to want to totally smack that kind of idealism around or write it off as useless. In another situation, Packer-ism might be an important antidote to bottom-line realism. The fact is, there wasn't enough debate over the war back when it mattered, and that's not a fault you can pin directly on people like Packer. There was a lot of ambivolance too among the critics.

Posted by: tlaura | Oct 23, 2005 5:10:43 PM

Also, Neil, I really like your comments about pols. I think the thing is that for Dems to reverse themselves on the war, they have to have a credible narrative to do so -- like Edwards had on bankruptcy. If Biden were just to say "hey, I was wrong", he'd be a flip-flopper. "Flipflopping" isn't so much about changing your position as it is about doing so cravenly, because you never really believed what you said in the first place. Actually, I don't see a way for Biden or HRC to reverse themselves credibly at this point without looking craven, so I agree the best thing is for them to keep banging on Bush's incompetence (and let the primary voters decide if that's good enough for 2008.) More ambivolant-from-the-start types like Kerry might be able to pull off a mea culpa.

Also, I guess the related issue is troop drawdown, and I don't think a lot of people realize how craven the big Dem senators would look to start crafting exit strategies now that the public nominally supports a timed withdrawal. But, again, that also ties into whether you supported the war in the first place -- it's much easier, and more ideologically coherent, for senators who were originally nos to say we need to get out, like Levin and Feingold have done.

Posted by: tlaura | Oct 23, 2005 5:27:20 PM

Let's not ignore that this is basically what Kerry did (the incompetence dodge in order to describe his position on the war). I in fact think Kerry did a good job, but I must say it's not as wonderful a counter to flip-flop attacks as you make it out to be.

Really though, the flip-flop attacks are not substantive but about emotions, perceptions, characterizations - and so hard to counter with anything if they ever start to gain ground on a candidate. And yes I agree with you, I think they're really bad for political culture (getting rid of moderates and context-sensitive politicians).

Posted by: Tony Vila | Oct 24, 2005 1:08:12 PM

Providing juicy sound bite like this one is the wrong way to avoid flipflopped charges: "I voted for it, before I voted against it."

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