An online-only column in Newsweek today blames Democrats for not taking the purportedly "obvious" position on Iraq: refusing to pass any legislation funding the occupation at all unless Bush caves into their demands. In the face of compromise or complete defunding, Newsweek asserts, "the public would cheer."
The author makes a point of celebrating his own skepticism that the Republicans would be willing to compromise on Iraq this past September, and certainly few people go broke betting that the GOP will be recalcitrant. My quarrel with the author is his lack of skepticism in the opposite direction. "The public would cheer" a refusal to pass any funding legislation? I'm skeptical -- and the Democratic leadership clearly is as well. And if that's not true, then the Democrats' best course is not "obvious," and we should refrain from beating them up if they are truly in a "no-win situation." Rather, we should focus our efforts on convincing the public to the point where they will cheer and on bashing the real cause of the problem: Republicans.
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Newsweek's position demonstrates a couple of problems well-known in social and political psychology: the blacktop illusion (a term coined by the psychologist Charles Osgood in his excellent anti-war work) and overcrediting public opinion poll marginals. Taking these in turn:
1. The "blacktop illusion"
What's the best position one could possibly have when criticizing agents of a large group -- whether leaders of a country, a party, a union, or a blog -- for not holding a position one favors? That would be to claim that while the broad membership of that group agrees with one's critical position, it's the corrupt leadership that prevents that view from taking effect.
The asserted problem with the leadership may come from various sources: because they're concerned with their own power or self-interest (usually called "the agency problem"), or that they just don't get it or are afraid to act. In any event the position of arguing that oneself as a critic is more in tune with the group as a whole than the group's leaders is a powerful one. We do this all the time when it comes to foreign policy, most notoriously when it came to the Soviet Union, but since then in the cases of China, North Korea, France, Iran, the Sunni Muslim world, and so on -- even if the face of data such as the collapse of support for the U.S. in Turkey and Indonesia that should make it clear to us that the masses are not secretly on our side.
Today, Newsweek applied the blacktop illusion to the Democratic Party.
The problems with the blacktop illusion are that it is so convenient and so unsupported. I'll deal with its being unsupported below, but for now let's just consider how easy it makes the world. There's no real problem there at all, it's just a failure of the will of the leadership! If you just believe, everything will be OK. It's a pervasive theme in children's fantasy: Luke can defeat the whole bleeding empire by using the Force, Tinkerbell is revived by clapping, etc.
Unfortunately, problems in the real world are usually more intractable than that. Agency problems certainly do exist, but usually on top of an underlying actual serious problem. Acting as if all there is is an agency problem -- the Democratic leadership is too lily-livered, or bought off, or what have you -- when that's not so doesn't get one closer to a solution. It feels good, because it suggests that a solution is so readily achieved by the pure of heart, but that's seldom so. Sometimes that underlying problem can be tied to an agency problem -- such as when we have a corrupt, special-interest-controlled political system to which our agents must accommodate themselves in order to accomplish even half of what they'd like -- but that that case just swapping in new agents (even the pure of heart), if even possible, won't solve the problem. If the system is corrupt enough, the pure of heart will get ignored or trampled.
My problem, then, with a "blacktop" view of the Democratic Party is not only that it assumes that the leadership is more free to act than in may be, but that it is much too easy and appealing for critics to adopt. If this theory is true, then all we need to do is whip the donkey until it bleeds and give each other high fives. How likely does that sound?
2. Overcrediting public opinion polls
The Newsweek columnist has here joined the ranks of what I've called "defundamentalists," who are convinced that simply refusing to pass a bill would be easy, decisive, and wildly popular. Some arguments for defunding are simplistic -- "'we' have 50 votes, and 41 is enough to filibuster funding" or "'we' have a majority in the House, so we can refuse to produce a funding bill at all" (not taking into account the probable ideological choices of the members we'd need to be on our side) -- while others are more sophisticated, claiming that representatives should and will vote our way because the public is on our side. Newsweek takes the more sophisticated position: if we do the right thing, the public will flock to us. But will it?
I have to grant that the public is frustrated with Iraq -- frustration that includes those who think we should never have been in Iraq at all, those who think we were right to get in but have stayed too long under the circumstances, and those who lovingly eye our nukes and think that we're not doing enough to win. They all show up as "unhappy" in the polls, even that last group. As I recall, polls show something like 70% of the public wants us out. That's great. But what does it really mean?
What we want it to mean is that 70% of the public will support someone who acts -- in any way -- to stop the war, regardless of future consequences. I'll admit right now: if that's true, then the Democratic leaders really are being stupid. But, being experienced at this game, they must have their doubts as to whether that's really so.
First of all, members of the public wants many incompatible things at the same time, and don't feel obliged to reconcile the differences. The classic example is that wide majorities of the public usually want both lower taxes and more services. And, in fact, that's what they get. They also, as a result, get huge budget deficits, which they also don't like, but these are easier to ignore.
Second, the public often favors easy solutions that won't happen. Again the classic example involves budget priorities. Some people say that the easy solution is the cut agricultural subsidies, others say social welfare programs, others say defense. But budget cutting isn't that easy: whether we should cut ag subsidies is much more important to farmers than it is to anyone else; it becomes their single issue, and they demand that it be honored as part of any compromise. The same with defense. It's less true for social welfare, and you see what happens. Just because something can happen, theoretically, doesn't mean that in the actual self-interested political world it will likely happen, and if you actually want a solution you have to prepare for that.
Third, members of the public are very bad in the aggregate at predicting its own future choices and remembering their past ones. Again, poll respondents have no burden of consistency. Their 70% for withdrawal today does not mean that they can't turn around tomorrow and not only change their minds, but forget and deny that they ever took the anti-war position to begin with. Again, politicians know this, and their critics should know it as well.
Put these together, and one reaches the conclusion that it is far from "obvious" that the public will favor any possible action to stop the war regardless of subsequent events. I think it is likely that the public will not condemn Democrats, even if and when things go bad as we withdraw, for the considered use of the scalpel to cut back war funding. It does not follow, though, that they will forgive the Democrats for any possible consequence if we've flailed away with a broadaxe. And Bush's strategy, let's be clear, is specifically to deny us the ability to make judicious and responsible cuts in war funding. He wants us to choose between the broadaxe and nothing. Newsweek makes a good argument that "nothing" is a dangerous course. But you choose courses by comparing them to the alternatives, and in this case the alternative is not the scalpel but the broadaxe.
How does one make such a comparison? One has to game it out: what events might possibly follow an abject defunding, and what political consequences might follow them? (I should state outright that I think that the most important thing Dems can do over the next year is to win the Presidency in 2008, without which war will continue unabated and our system of government may well fail. That, if it needs explicit stating, is why paying attention to political consequences matters so much.) Well, what can we expect?
Even before anything new goes wrong in response to defunding, we will face a volley of attacks beyond anything we've faced since late 2002. We got a taste of it this past spring, which is why the Democrats gave in after Bush's veto. Garry Trudeau, as usual one of our best political commentators, nailed it in this series of Doonesbury strips. You can iterate the date from that page. Yes, the charges expressed during this week of strips are a load of horse manure. And yet, Republicans think -- and Democrats obviously believe, probably based on some more serious analysis than simple polls alone -- that with low-information voters (that is, decisive voters) they will have bite. What Bush really wants is for Democrats to receive the blame when things go wrong.
And, as we all know, things will probably go wrong. We will be attacked as we retreat, we will leave behind equipment that will be used against us, etc. I know that this will happen anyway, and I agree that despite all this withdrawal is preferable to continued occupation. The issue is whether Bush can succeed in making the subsequent disaster our fault, in the public mind, and thus perhaps keep the Presidency in GOP hands in 2009, when I'd prefer to be prosecuting him.
Of course, more dramatic things can happen as well. After we defund, the Maliki government can explicitly throw in its lot with Iran. Who knows what Muqtada al-Sadr may do. Saudi Arabia can sponsor enough Sunni attacks to blow up the country -- or can surruptitiously fund a 9/11-style attack on the U.S., expecting it to galvanize public opinion against Iraq and Iran, as well as favoring continued Republican control (which they want.)
Perhaps, even after using the broadaxe of defunding, the public would continue to blame Bush as his friends for the ensuing carnage. Perhaps not. It is, at any rate, not obvious that this is the better path. If we can't negotiate a reasonable and orderly departure from Iraq -- and with Bush in office, we can't -- then both of our remaining choices are bad and politically dangerous ones. I wish that Newsweek had acknowledged that.
There is one thing that Newsweek could do, of course: do some serious and intensive public opinion analysis, rather than relying on superficial marginals, in which one presents scenarios and arguments to the public and gets a sense of how deeply committed they are to their positions. If Newsweek can create the defunding debate in a bottle and show that even if Saudi Arabia collapses and Israel gets nuked the public will blame Bush for inserting the plug rather than the Democrats for pulling it, then we'd be on a firmer ground in saying that defunding is the right course. We're not there yet.
Today's Newsweek column was a big improvement on their normal fare in many respects, of course. But it played into what I think is a dangerous conclusion. I do not believe that Democrats -- who would like nothing so much as for the election to be held tomorrow -- are going to wildly swing a broadaxe like defunding. I have a hard time believing that the Newsweek columnist believes that. And, if not, where does that leave us once they don't follow his advice?
If Democrats don't defund, and if and when they don't meet expectations in 2008, it does give us the right to say "I told you so" -- but everyone has that right, including the people who will say that we failed because people on the left wouldn't shut up about Iraq. There's rarly if ever any guarantee that the alternative course someone touts would have succeeded. For one thing, one's opponents' moves change depending on what one does.
What I foresee happening is that it will lead to slamming the Democrats much sooner than that. If you believe that defunding is easy, that it will work, that this is obvious, that the public understands it and only our corrupt or weak-kneed leaders don't, then you can hardly do anything else. And that, I submit, hurts our efforts to win in 2008, and to start to end the occupation between now and 2009. Discord among Democrats pumps up the GOP, just as their problems (paging Judith Regan!) please us. That doesn't mean that one never criticizes -- I've done it myself over issues like telecom amnesty, subpoenas, impeachment of Cheney, and so on. But it does mean that, as a critic, one should be realistic and and should try to understand their position rather than assuming that we're fortunate enough to be the only good and wise ones around.
We are in a difficult situation, notwithstanding the current polls. It's because we are fighting against the least principled, most anti-American, administration in modern times. It's because we have a media that will not tell the stories correctly, and a populace that doesn't care enough about politics and finding the truth to be outraged. We have to be favored right now in 2008, but that position is precarious, and the GOP knows exactly how to knock us off -- by instransigence and lying, with complicit media, about our being instransigent. Prove that "the public would cheer" all the way through the next election, and you can shut the likes of me up. But I'm not going to take Newsweek's word for it.
Given this no-win situation, the Democrats take no share of blame for what happens next in Iraq. If Bush were giving us the option of a reasonable compromise position, and we rejected it, that would be different. But it's not. This is Bush's war, Bush's fault, Bush's refusal to be an adult, and it behooves us to drum home that message to the American people.
And please, let's not pretend that the proper path is obvious and that only a knave or fool can't see it.