Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the Democrats' answer to George Pataki and Milt Romney---two other dull, uncharismatic, marginally competent Governors of states utterly unimportant to their Party's electoral chances in 2008, with policies, histories, and stated views completely unpalatable to their Party's base, who nonetheless think they can be elected President---has declared the debate over George Bush's arrogant claim that as king he can spy on anybody he wants to spy on (and have them killed too, if he's feeling grumpy about them, apparently) a losing cause for Democrats.
Vilsack didn't say, however, that he believes it's fine for the President to spy on innocent citizens at whim. He didn't say he thinks it's wrong either. He said he thinks it's a bad move for the Democrats to harp on the subject in hopes that it will win them votes.
"If the president broke the law, that's unacceptable. But I think it's debateable whether he did," Vilsack told Des Moines Register editors and reporters. "And I think Democrats are falling into a very, very large political trap," he said. "Democrats are not going to win elections until they can reassure people they are going to keep them safe."
Boldy, Vilsack tries to have it both ways---"What the President did was wrong, if he did it, but I don't want to say he did, although he might have, which would be wrong, except that I'm too scared to use the word wrong, can we change the subject, please?"---but as mealy-mouthed as his statement was on the face of it, it was even more cowardly on second glance. This is the kind of statement the infuriated digby calls a "process answer:"
A process answer is saying what "we should say" instead of just saying it. Nothing drives me more nuts than a politician who talks process instead of engaging voters directly. In this instance it's a backstab equal to anything one of those run-at-the-mouth strategists says to the NY Times to boost his cool factor among the mediatarts. He's positioning hemself as a "reasonable" centrist on national security, but he clearly has nothing to offer on the subject at hand so he just talks about what "we should be doing."
Process answers are very useful to timid politicians who don't want to be caught actually taking a stand on something but who want to sound like serious and thoughtful leaders. The Republicans have a whole bunch of people in their party now giving process answers on Bush's attacks on Civil and Constitutional Rights and on Bush's and the Congressional Republican Leadership's irresponsible budget busting. But the Democrats seem to have made process answers their discourse of choice.
Barack Obama spent the whole weekend before the cloture vote on Alito talking about the process an anti-Alito movement should have followed.
As Atrios pointed out at the time, Obama wasted his opportunity to rally people to the cause by talking about how he and other Democrats had failed to rally people to the cause.
I'm beginning to think that while the rest of us were hoping Obama will run for President someday, his personal ambition is to be Senate Minority Leader. But he just got a sampling of the pay-off he can expect for his attempts at conciliatory bi-partisanshp from John McCain. Itsply2 has a good summary and round-up of links at SoapBlox/Chicago. (Hat tip to Cali Dem at Nite Swimming.)
The trouble with process answers is that they are perceived as cowardly because they are cowardly. As digby says, if Vilsack thinks Democrats need to show they are strong on national security, he should say things that show how they are or at least how he is. That would commit him to a position that might be unpopular, though. His goal is to get his face on TV associated with the words "National Security" without tying himself down. This is a strategy based on the hope that nobody watching television is paying close attention.
But the galling thing about process answers like Vilsack's and Obama's is that they don't so much lay out a process for victory as they are already part of the process of defeat---they accept the Republicans' talking points as the description of reality.
Why is the debate over Bush's wanton and illegal spy games a loser for Democrats?
Because the Bush Leaguers say it is.
Why are Democrats perceieved as weak on National Security?
Because the Republicans have spent 60 years saying they are.
Why was a filibuster against Alito a bad move politically?
Because the Republicans said so.
Some Democrats in the Senate are angry at John Kerry for putting them on the spot over Alito. According to this creepily smug article by Michael Crowley in the New Republic---another one of those insider stories that sound suspiciously as though the reporter had only one source, some self-serving pal he interviewed over lunch---these "some" Democrats resent Kerry for putting his own Presidential ambitions for 2008 ahead of their ambitions to hold onto their Senate seats in 2006 or run for President as Trojan Rabbits themselves. (How many Senate Democrats who plan to run for President in 2008 are there who are moderate enough that filibustering Alito would have tarnished their image? I count one, and it's not Hillary Clinton. So my vote is that Crowley's source works for or is Evan Bayh.) These "some" Democrats think that Kerry should have shut up shop as soon as he was told there weren't enough votes against cloture.
But why weren't there enough votes?
Because a whole bunch of Democrats were too scared to risk a filibuster.
Why were they scared?
Because it was a political loser.
How did they know this?
The Republicans told them so.
Now, there are Democratic Senators from Red states facing tough re-election campaigns. They have to worry about being painted as too Liberal. But the Republicans are going to try to do that whatever they did on Alito, just as the Republicans are going to try to paint them as weak on terrorism and National Security no matter how they stand (or in Vilsack's case don't stand) on domestic spying. I personally don't understand why these "some" Democrats think their constituents would have been angry over a filibuster against Alito but are going to let them slide on their voting against him in the end, but apparently they think they can get away with this.
It's still a strategy of hoping no one is paying close attention.
And it's still based on the idea that the Republicans have a better idea of what the political reality is than they do.
What the Republicans have is a better idea about how to shape that reality, and part of their strategy is to make Democrats accept their talking points.
Another part of their strategy is to appear on television looking and sounding forceful. Because it's true, people watching TV aren't paying close attention---to what's being said. They are paying attention to what they are seeing. Television is a visual medium.
Tom Vilsack goes on TV trying to sound thoughtful and statesmanlike, but what he looks like is exactly what he is, another timid Democrat trying not to be caught taking a real stand.
Vilsack and Obama go on TV trying to sound moderate and reasonable (Because they've accepted another Republican talking point, that Democrats who take strong stands are "shrill" or, in Hillary's case, "angry.") but what they look like are weasels.
The "some" Democrats who are ticked at Kerry over the fizzled filibuster think he should have understood that winning elections this fall is more important than whether or not Strip-search Sammy sits on the Supreme Court. This may be true, assuming Alito's being on the Bench doesn't have the outcomes the Right's hoping it has, but the Democrats' strategy for winning in the fall is clearly not to call attention to the fact that the Democrats running are Democrats.
Lie low, avoid controversy, when cornered try to sound as "moderate," which is to say as Republican, as possible, and pray the public's not paying attention and Bush's popularity doesn't magically improve by November.
Then when we win in the fall we can start acting like real Democrats again.
All of this is based on the Republican talking point that being a Democrat is a losing proposition.
Here's a thought, what if Democrats tried to set the terms of the debate? What if instead of talking about what Democrats ought to do, Democrats talked about what they were in fact doing or going to do? Leave the process talk to wonks, consultants, and crochety bloggers like me.
Just saying that we should do something or we need to do something is not the same as doing it. And it's a big reason why people are confused about what we stand for.
If they think that we should be tougher on national security, they shouldn't say "we can't win elections until we reassure people that we can keep them safe." They should say, "here's how we'll keep you safe..." If Vilsack really thinks that Democrats will lose if we don't support unconstitutional domestic spying programs then he should just say, "I think the program is probably legal and I support it." A winning message is a winning messsage, right? Why all the navel gazing?
...It's this meaningless "we must convince people" process mush that will ensure that nobody knows what in the hell he actually believes. And that's the biggest problem most Democratic politicians face.
Josh Marshall, reacting to what he calls a "nauseating" article about Democratic insider politics in Time (and it sounds as though he could also be talking about Cowley's New Republic piece) puts it bluntly too:
There is hardly a shortage of things wrong with the current direction of the country. Explain what they are, propose alternatives, advocate for them and hit the campaign trail. Everything else is a distraction and a waste.
Be an opposition party, oppose what deserves opposing, leave the verdict to the voters. And mainly just grow up.
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