Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Great NeoCon Post-Debate Panic

Commentary by Martin Kelly
October 7, 2004

The last time I was part of the audience on a political talk show, the host came to speak to us before recording. He asked us to keep our questions brief, and then said something that has tainted my perception of every news broadcast and political show I’ve watched since. The reason for brevity was, ‘this is politics, but it’s also showbusiness’.

Which is exactly the fact that the neocons have forgotten in their hysterical reaction to the first debate between the presidential candidates. It was an exercise in style and presentation, not substance. Bush failed, but neither he nor Kerry was ever going to say anything that would be in the slightest bit controversial, innovative or insightful. What it was was a sort of upmarket WWF confrontation between The Boston Brahmin (‘Hear him nuance!’) and The Outsourcer (‘Give me your jobs! Bring them down! Send them to me NOW!). The only thing that was missing was Jim Lehrer shouting, ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!’

From what I saw of it Kerry was wiping the floor with Bush. Even early in the debate it was clear that Bush had gone with a set of slogans to chant. The use of slogans by neoconservatives betrays their Trotskyite roots. Power to The People! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains! He’s A Dictator! He Gassed His Own People! It’s Hard Work! In liberal democratic as well as totalitarian politics, slogans are brainwashing tools – constant repetition leads the followers to believe the truth of the message; and the fact of their repetition betrays the uniformity of thought that any really solid cult, whether political or otherwise, needs in order to ensure its survival. Which is why this White House is the most leak-proof in living memory.

But the real proof of the input that both sides’ legions of consultants and advisers had in prepping the preppies was the almost hilarious appearance of Laura Bush and Theresa Heinz Kerry in virtually the same neutral colours. Although it’s showbusiness, there was no need for it to be farce.

However, the neocons have reacted to Bush’s flop as only ideologues whose ideology has been shown wanting can. For them, this debate has been a disaster, because it showed up The Boss’s shortcomings at prime time.

Consider the almost manic reaction of Jay Nordlinger, Managing Editor of The National Review. In a column called ‘Don’t Shoot the Messenger’ in the October 1 National Review Online, he outlined all of the mistakes Bush made and concluded with,

“I have called George W. Bush a Rushmore-level president. I believe history will bear that out; and if it doesn’t, history will be wrong. I think that Bush’s re-election is crucial not only to this country but to the world at large. I not only think that Bush is the right man for the job; I have a deep fondness – love, really – for the man, though I don’t know him.

But tonight (I am writing immediately post-debate) did not show him at his best. Not at all. He will do better – I feel certain – in subsequent debates. I also worry that they count less”

This provides an interesting insight into the neoconservative mindset, as it betrays the personality cultism to which all ideologies derived from Communism are prone. Bush is not just a candidate – he is the Great Leader, without whom The Party could not survive. So far, he is a one-term president who has had to deal with some unique problems that were not of his making and others which most certainly are. Should he lose, it will not be the end of America. Any neocon who thinks that is dissing the US of A. But a Bush loss will be the end of the neoconservatives –and they are terrified of it.

Others held their nerve rather better than Nordlinger. William F. Buckley, Jr., the original good conservative gone bad, opted to parse the content of both candidates’ presentations in an NRO column called ‘And The Winner Is’, published on the same day as Nordlinger’s rant. He took his rapier mind to what Kerry actually said, and concluded, rightly, that it didn’t amount to very much. What did for WFB was that Bush didn’t have anything innovative to say about resolution in Iraq. The founder of The National Review concluded that,

“President Bush does not have an easily saleable vision of what to do with that cursed dilemma. It transpires, gradually, that we are relying on the Iraqi people to effect their liberation, because we simply aren’t up to it.

And Kerry was there to say: Let me try it, I’m somebody else. And that got a lot of people to opine that that is a winnable program”

Hard words indeed for a neoconservative to say.

The ubiquitous and vocal neocon talking head and State Department basher Joel Mowbray reached slightly different conclusions in a piece called ‘The Bush-Kerry Face-Off’, for the October 1 edition of Front Page Magazine. Typically, Mowbray gives Kerry less credit than Buckley. He did, however, note the charmlessness of Bush’s performance and the existence of ‘flash-polls’ giving Kerry a 10-point lead. However, he screwed his courage to the sticking post and rallied the comrades back to the banner with the observation that,

“Before anyone reads too much into the ultra-early poll results, though, some history: Walter Mondale was declared the winner over Ronald Reagan in their first debate”.

Solidarity, brother! Solidarity!

If you think these are odd instances of nerves, think again. In the October 3 Sunday Telegraph, Mark Steyn, one half of The Neocon SAS, was whistling in the dark, trying to keep cheerful by making cracks about Kerry’s tan and manicure, with lots and lots of puns on the word, ‘summit’.

Writing in the Sunday Times the same day, the official spokesman for the Pro-War Pro-Choice Conservatives for Kerry Party (membership-one), Andrew Sullivan, made what were, in fairness, several very cogent points. Firstly, Bush gave the impression of being disengaged from the reality of what is happening in Iraq. This is not surprising – he is an ideologue, and ideologues usually only pick up what they want to hear. Secondly, the way Bush’s mind works is that if you criticise the war you disqualify yourself from office, which is not, as Sullivan suggests, ‘offensive’; but it is entirely in keeping with a mindset that demands purity of ideology. Like the neoconservatives.

The big beasts in the neoconservative jungle are really running scared. Interviewed by Tony Allen-Mills in the same edition of the Sunday Times, Bill Kristol said, “Bush has better arguments for his foreign policy than he made tonight”. You can almost hear the gulps of despair coming from The Weekly Standard.

Indeed, right now the neocons are so scared that one of their number, the tireless guru of neoconomics Irwin Stelzer, has written a book about the philosophy in order to scotch the myth of ‘neocon cabals’. It’s called ‘Neoconservatism’, it’s being published this month and nowhere in the 1,500 word puff piece extract that appeared in the same issue of the Sunday Times did Stelzer refer to its roots in Shachtmanite Trotskyism.

A year ago, they would have considered such a book unnecessary. They were riding high. Their confidence bred hubris – who needs more troops on the ground? This is a cakewalk. The Iraqis are free now – man, they’re all buying TV’s and air conditioners! When can we go into Iran? Faster, please!

But now, with the shattered promises; the flip-flop on recruitment of former Ba’athist officials; their failure, born of hubris, to recognise the power of the twin forces of tribal loyalty and Iraqi nationalism; their practice of slurring their opponents; their obsession with money and markets which played its own part in the nightmare of Abu Ghraib; the public know all these things about them now. Who will stand firm? Who will not waver? Whose heart is true?

Yep, you guessed it. Though cowards flinched and traitors sneered, the hatchet man David Frum, loyal to the cause to the last, posted a diary entry on NRO on October 1. Whatever debate he was watching, it wasn’t the same one as everyone else. He made no reference to Bush’s failings, took two brief points made by Kerry, said that Kerry had ‘locked himself in a strategic box’ and concluded the brief entry with,

“Only a horrible mistake by President Bush could have let him out. The president didn’t stumble. So Kerry is still boxed in – and losing the election”.
The words of a true believer. Let’s hope he stays on the barricades when the neocons really start panicking in the streets.