Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How dare she question authority?

I guess we're gonna party like it's 1994. Seriously, I woke up today to discover (via the morning news shows) that the clocks had been set back, that once again it's All O.J. All the Time, reprising his '94 role as an accused felon...and that Hillary Clinton, the foiled reformer of '94, is once again talking up health care. What's next, a Pulp Fiction sequel from Quentin Tarantino?

Actually, 1994 was also the year when Rudy Giuliani took the oath as New York mayor, and began to build a track record that he often invokes today as a presidential candidate. The hitch, however, is that certain aspects of that record don't play well with likely Republican primary voters.

He can't tout himself as the scourge of illegal immigrants, because he was nice to illegal immigrants in New York. He can't tout himself as the scourge of gay people, because he was nice to gay people in New York - and even lived with a gay couple when he was between wives. He can't tout himself as an avowed foe of abortion, because he was nice to abortion rights advocates in New York. And, on the broader canvas, he can't really offer GOP voters any fresh thinking about what to do with Iraq, because he prefers to avoid specifics, and, indeed, when he was offered the opportunity to join the Iraq Study Group, he opted not to show up and was encouraged to quit.

However, as evidenced by his behavior over the past week, there is still one way he can audition for conservative hearts: By beating up on Hillary.

Beating up on may be a conservative crowd-pleaser as well, but let's focus here on Rudy's strategy to directly assail, at this early stage, the likeliest '08 Democratic candidate. In terms of wooing wary conservative Republicans (85 percent of whom reportedly view Hillary negatively, according to polls), Rudy's strategy makes a lot of sense. He masks his aforementioned vulnerabilities by offering an advance preview of how he would battle Hillary in a general election - and the top priority right now, among Republicans, is to find a nominee who can effectively take her on. And their top-priority task is to strip away her senatorial image as a strong national security advocate and rebrand her as "anti-military."

As a fawning pro-Rudy commentator at the conservative American Spectator website put it the other day, "While there may be many factors that conservatives will have to consider when choosing the Republican nominee...the ability of a Republican candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton should be a major consideration. This looks like a battle Giuliani was born to fight."

It's questionable, however, whether the kind of anti-Hillary attacks that please the GOP primary electorate would ultimately sway the general electorate. Consider Rudy's most recent arguments, for instance:

Starting last Tuesday, and continuing through the weekend, he picked a fight with Hillary because she had the audacity to voice skepticism about General David Petraeus' testimony on Iraq. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she told Petraeus: "I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

Giuliani fumed, in various remarks and in his campaign advertising, that Hillary "was questioning (Petraeus') honesty," that "it was wrong for her to attack the integrity of a commanding general in a time of war," that she had directed "political venom" at the general; all told, he said, "I think that's not the way in a responsible way to go about, you know, forging the foreign policy of the United States and the military policy of the United States."

This might be effective stuff, at least to those GOP voters who prefer to be fact-challenged. But for all other voters who might prefer to see the full context of what Hillary actually said during the committee hearing, here it is. She is addressing Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker:

"Nobody believes that your jobs, or the jobs of the thousands of American forces and civilian personnel in Iraq are anything but incredibly difficult. But today you are testifying about the current status of our policy and the prospects of that policy. It is a policy that you have been ordered to implement by the president. And you have been made the de facto spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief." (emphasis mine)

In other words, she merely voiced the traditional American belief, dating back 200 years, that civilians (beginning with the president) are ultimately responsible for war policy, and that the military is tasked to carry out that policy. Her expressed "disbelief," in other words, is directed at President Bush - not at the military man who is merely following Bush's orders. Rudy, in his complaints, appeared to be giving short shrift to the American tradition of civilian control over the military - and to the necessity of questioning those who are tasked to carry out civilian policy.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is apparently sharpening his antiwar critiques now that he is heading toward retirement, basically argued the other night that Hillary was right. Regarding Bush's decision to use Petraeus as his front man on Iraq, Hagel said: "It's not only a dirty trick, but it's dishonest, it's hypocritical, it's dangerous and irresponsible. The fact is, this is not Petraeus' policy, it's Bush's policy. The military is, certainly very clear in the Constitution, is subservient to the elected public officials of this country."

The latest polls - from USA Today/Gallup, CBS News and Pew, already indicate that most Americans were unpersuaded by Petraeus' testimony and Bush's subsequent address. That's why Rudy's anti-Hillary attacks (at least on the topic of the Iraq war) might well be effective only with conservative primary voters. With respect to the majority of Americans - those who will dominate a general election - it's hard to imagine that they view the Iraq debacle as a less serious issue than the firm questioning of a Bush surrogate.


Speaking of 1994, I recall that, way back then, the American tradition of free speech was alive and well. A disagreeable person could generally show up at a political event and raise a ruckus. The basic rule of thumb (to quote the U.S. Supreme Court) was that it was basically OK to speak out unless you were "falsely shouting fire in a theatre."

Well, that rule has apparently been tightened. As evidenced by what happened in Florida on Monday, it's now deemed a violation of free speech to act obnoxious in a theatre.

University of Florida student Andrew Meyer appears to be a bit of a provocateur, and he was playing that role while nagging John Kerry with some very persistent questioning. There are always people like that at political events, disputatious souls who'd rather hector and make speeches. But even though Kerry was willing to engage with the kid, the college cops decided to maintain decorum by dragging him up the aisle and zapping him with serious taser voltage, to the point where he sounded like one of Jack Bauer's torture targets on 24.

Perhaps it's time to junk the centuries-old American warning to oppressors - "Don't Tread on Me" - and replace it with "Don't Tase Me, Bro!"