I just finished watching Webb and Allen on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Before I give you my impressions of how the candidates did, I’m going to give you the full disclosure, as if there’s any doubt where my sympathies lie. But it’s the ethical thing to include.
I’ve been an enthusiastic Webb supporter and occasional volunteer since the primary. As my husband puts it, I’ve drunk the Kool Aid. And he’s a Webb supporter too, albeit a more balanced and pragmatic one.
Having said all that, I think Webb did well. First, the superficials, which count because they register on a subliminal level with voters. Webb looked comfortable and relaxed while sitting for the interview with Stephanopoulos. His body language was open and easygoing. No mainstream media pundit can Gore him with the charge that he’s stiff or unlikable.
Allen looked more formal but also comfortable. I don’t think either candidate lost points for how they personally presented themselves.
By the way, the show was not a direct debate between the two candidates. Rather it was two separate interviews with the host one-on-one with each candidate, seated fact to face in an office or living room type setting.
Although, I really liked that the show began by contrasting Allen’s cowboy boots with Webb’s combat boot, I was unhappy at how ABC characterized Webb as the anti-war candidate who won the Virginia Democratic Primary based only on that issue. Here’s the reason this didn’t please me.
ABC took that narrative right from the Washington Post’s election coverage of the primary. Michael Shear was the one who attributed part of Webb’s victory over Miller to “young, enthusiastic anti-war bloggers.”
For a reporter who criticizes bloggers, he should spend a bit more time reading them. Since I was a modest contributor to the blogosphere at the time, I can tell you that Shear got only part of it right. I’m not particularly young (and neither are several other bloggers I know) and the anti-war issue was not the one I particularly blogged about in my support of Webb. All Shear got right was that I was enthusiastic.
Although Webb’s anti-war stand plus his strong military credentials played a strong part in the Draft Webb movement and I would venture to say that most of the bloggers who supported him are against the Iraq War, the major issue in the primary was actually economic. In fact, the major issues dominating the blogosphere were whether Webb could be a loyal Democrat (from the Miller campaign) versus whether support for outsourcing and guest worker programs were proper Democratic values (the Webb campaign’s issue). The debate was whether outsourcing would alienate a major portion of the Democratic base, including labor unions. So, I would term the primary as being as much about economic fairness versus free trade as it was about the war in Iraq, and it was a continuation of the debate between the party’s moderates who made up the Democratic Leadership Council versus the fair trade liberals and the labor supporters.
None of that was ever mentioned in the Washington Post print edition coverage and was barely a blip in the more extensive on-line coverage of the primary victory.
The reason I think that’s important is because candidates who run on only one issue, especially those whose only issue is to be anti-war, don’t usually fare well in general elections. In the 70s, when the country was as deeply divided over the Vietnam War as it is today over Iraq, and a slim majority favored withdrawal from Vietnam, George McGovern still went down to a crashing defeat against Richard Nixon. There were a lot of reasons why. But the simple truth is that even the slim majority of anti-Vietnam Americans couldn’t prevent a debacle for Democrats in that presidential race.
Americans may oppose a war but they are viscerally uncomfortable with “cutting and running” and appearing weak or dishonorable. They want to be reassured that we will have a responsible plan to extricate ourselves from a war and that it will not compromise our security or our honor. And while I strongly believe that Webb is the man to come up with that plan, I also think he has to convince people that he’s not a Johnny one-note.
Americans are also pragmatic people who want a problem solver who is aware of their economic concerns. The economy looks good on paper for investors, corporate boards of directors and senior executives. The unemployment rate looks low and inflation is growing only modestly.
But most Americans are uneasy about their job security. Their pensions and health benefits are being eroded, if they even still exist. And inflation appears low because the two most volatile items, food and gas, are not included in the Consumer Price Index. Yet those are the two items that consumers must pay for most often. We only buy computers, clothing, refrigerators and cars once in a while. We buy gas for our cars and we heat or air-condition our homes, and purchase food all the time so guess which prices impact us the most? The very ones not measured or counted in the inflation rate.
People are also aware that the U.S. deficit rate is far too high and that a cause of it is the generous tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent. They’re afraid that they are mortgaging their children’s future to reward billionaires for generously supporting Bush’s campaigns.
Finally, despite ABC’s lead in with the Iraq war, both candidates did touch on those issues. George Allen made the same tired arguments that George Bush’s tax breaks benefited American families. He cited the child tax credit, protection of family farms, etc. The truth, though, is those who have benefited most from the tax cuts are those who needed it least. And at the expense of the country’s security and well being.
Webb pointed out that a country at war should not be cutting billionaires’ taxes. On the other hand, he proposed a modest 5% tax cut to veterans. He claimed that it would not cost the Treasury too much. I wish he had had specific numbers, though, before advocating it. I think it’s a good idea because, as Webb pointed out, most of those affected would be World War II retirees making getting about $30,000 in pensions and Social Security. Those people deserve a tax break. And targeted tax cuts to the middle and working class and lower income groups actually provide a greater stimulant to our economy than tax cuts aimed at the very rich (something else I wish he had had more time to point out).
That’s because ours is a consumer economy, and economists have shown that a tax break to a lower income family will encourage them to go out and purchase goods they need but might defer buying. It will also encourage a middle income person to invest a bit more. A wealth person is already going to buy what he wants and will invest at the same rate he always does. He will use his tax break to put in his savings account. Saving is a good thing, to be sure, and not enough Americans save (a whole other issue that I will address some time). But saving doesn’t stimulate a sluggish economy. Spending on consumer goods does. So any tax cut that encourages somebody who wouldn’t normally spend on consumer goods will stimulate a sluggish economy.
So, a tax cut for retired veterans, or even for a working class, recently returned vet, would do more for the economy than a tax cut that benefits mostly the upper one percent of the wealthiest Americans.
While Webb, with coaxing admitted, somewhat shyly, I thought, that he would indeed roll back Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy one percent, I think he needs to be more forceful in saying it. And he needs to point out that he favors tax cuts targeted to other groups, both out of economic fairness and pragmatic realization that it’s better for the economy and the nation. He also can couch it as a values issue.
How about saying that those to whom much is given, much is expected? Rather than put it in terms of class warfare or soak the rich, I would like to see him challenge the wealthy to be noble and step up to the plate and pay their fair share for the common good. The object shouldn’t be to hurt the wealthy but to point out that everybody benefits from a fiscally sound country that can pay its bills and provide for its national security, and its citizens’ health, education and welfare. Supporting the common good, economic fairness and everybody paying their fair share and reaping the benefits of that together are actually values. They are Democratic core values. I hope that Jim Webb forcefully embraces those as his platform and stays on that message and frames it in a positive “we are all in this together way.”
And, of course, his early opposition to Iraq is an overall plus as long as it doesn’t become the only plus. I think that’s how the mainstream media wants to paint him. On the one hand, reporters personally may like and respect the man. But the corporate media has a vested interest in keeping the status quo, which is good for their bottom line. Most of their executives and boards of directors are free trade advocates and want nothing to do with fair trade, economic fairness or worker rights. So they also have a vested interest in painting Webb as a one issue anti-Iraq war hero. It’s great narrative that appears to favor Webb but really may not help his bottom line come election day.
Remember, Republicans are great at seizing the narrative to their best advantage. And they have a lot of corporate allies in media to help them. So Webb has to forcefully get his complete message out. And that, by the way, is where the blogosphere can really help him and not just be the media’s echo chamber. That’s our role in politics. If we say it enough and build a critical mass, eventually some honest reporter will have to acknowledge it. The media will have to cover it more fully and accurately or risk becoming truly irrelevant to their readers.
All of the above about sharpening Webb’s message and ensuring that he is not perceived as a one issue candidate is for the future of the campaign to think about and work out.
Overall, though, on today’s show, I don’t think Webb was hurt by the anti-war characterization because in the contrasting interviews, Webb gave a reasoned and nuanced view of his opposition. Allen, on the other hand, repeated the Bush administration’s tired and shopworn clichés about how important it was that we captured Saddam Hussein and that if it wasn’t for Bush Hussein would still be living in one of his palaces.
Allen seems to believe that the world is safer because we evicted Hussein from a palace and he’s now on a show trial, which has led to executions of judges, lawyers and innocent bystanders. Note to Allen: The world would actually be safer if we hadn’t gotten distracted from Afghanistan and if bin Laden were no longer living in the Pakistani mountains where he continues to threaten us.
Ironically, immediately after the segment with both candidates ended, with Allen’s ringing endorsement of Bush’s Iraqi policy still fresh in the viewer’s mind, the Roundtable segment led off with a discussion on the end of Bush’s cowboy foreign policy. It portrayed a more circumspect and cautious Bush with his hands tied on the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
George Will, no friend of liberals, admitted that Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq was a mess. He also said that prospects for dealing with North Korea were not good and all the other participants, including Donna Brazile and Peter Beinart, from The New Republic, seemed to agree that at this point, the only solution may be that we have to learn to live with a nuclear threat from a crazy man in North Korea because there is no good solution. Something that wasn’t true in 2003. The Bush administration simply took their eye off the ball to pursue a failed policy in Iraq that knowledgeable people, including Webb, warned them about.
The Bush obsession with Iraq even before 9/11 has been amply documented by Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first Treasury secretary, and Richard Clarke, a former White House senior security adviser who served in the first Bush administration, the Clinton administration and the early days of George W’s administration.
Back to the TV show (remember, this was actually supposed to be about how Webb did on that?), I think Webb did well. I also believe that Allen was hurt by mouthing tired clichés in support of the Bush administration. It was especially obvious that he, like Bush, doesn’t have a real clue as to how to get us out of Iraq. His only answer is more of the same indefinitely. With public doubts about the war multiplying, that has to hurt him, especially if things continue to go badly over there.
Webb on the other hand, did not look like a wild eyed, cut and run defeatist. He speculated that we might be able to be out of Iraq in about two years but said he was against a definite timetable. He pointed out that he did not have access to security briefings and was not yet even a senator and so he refused to let himself be tied down to positions that he might later have to disavow when he does have access to more accurate intelligence information. I think Americans will appreciate that caution and common sense.
Webb can make a good case that he is the best suited candidate to lead on a variety of issues including national defense and foreign policy, national security, and economic fairness. He must stress all his capabilities and not let the media package him as only the anti-war candidate. That is going to be an uphill battle for the campaign because so far the media has shown a tin ear to what the campaign has really been about.
But the one thing that works in Webb’s favor is he has a certain celebrity. The media is interested in the Virginia race. If they think there’s a real possibility of an upset here, they will keep focusing on it and give Webb the exposure he needs to get his message across. Overall, I think he’s off to a good start and today’s interview helped him.