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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

John McCain's war against reality

(updated below - updated again)

John McCain was interviewed by Bill Bennett yesterday and this is the claim McCain made about American public opinion on the Iraq war:

[McCain]: I reject the notion that all Americans, or the majority of Americans just want us out of Iraq. Joe Lieberman would not have been re-elected in a very liberal state if that were the case.

BB: Right.

This "reasoning" has become a standard line for McCain and his dwindling band of war supporting comrades in order to argue that Americans really do, deep down, support their pro-war views. It is hard to overstate just how dishonest and incoherent it is.

Let's leave to the side the utterly inane notion -- advanced now by McCain -- that public opinion should be discerned not by looking at polls which are scientifically designed to gauge public opinion on specific issues, but instead, by trying to mystically interpret isolated election results from a single state. McCain obviously wants to find a murkier and inference-dependent method for assessing public opinion because the scientific poll method conclusively demonstrates that his views on the war are rejected by Americans with such overwhelming force that it renders him a fringe extremist.

But let's indulge McCain's alternative method of divining the meaning of election results in order to determine Americans' views on the war. Last November, four Republican incumbent Senators, all of whom were steadfast supporters of the Iraq war, were booted out of office in red states -- George Allen in Virginia, Conrad Burns in Montana, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Mike DeWine in Ohio. Those states are red to varying degrees, but they are all red enough to have each voted twice for George Bush for President.

Moreover, the most hawkish extremist when it comes to the "war" generally, Rick Santorum, lost by a margin so huge that it can only be described as humiliating. And he based his whole candidacy on the need to be more militaristic against Islamic extremism. And that's to say nothing of the scores of pro-war, Republican House incumbents who were fired by the American electorate, including many in red districts. In sum, the pro-war Republican Party suffered as comprehensive an electoral defeat on every level as could be imagined.

So, applying John McCain's newly invented, anti-poll methodology for determining public opinion, how is Joe Lieberman's win in tiny Connecticut some sort of proof that Americans love the Iraq war and want to stay forever (and even escalate), in light of the emphatic rejection by Americans of the pro-war Republican Party generally, along with the defeat of four pro-war, red-state Senate incumbents? Fathom the pure dishonesty and shameless hackery required for McCain to isolate the Connecticut Senate race, while ignoring everything else, in order to claim that Americans haven't turned against this war. That really is about as dishonest as it gets.

It goes without saying that McCain is free to run around the country ranting about how we should escalate our war efforts in Iraq. But for the fact that the President himself is embracing that position, that view is not even within the parameters of mainstream public opinion, even broadly defined. But McCain is entitled to spout those views as much as he wants.

But he should not be permitted to continuously claim with impunity that Americans have not turned against the war, or that they do not "want us out of Iraq," because that is just demonstrably and factually false. Journalists ought to make clear that his claims in this regard are factually false. The latest CBS public opinion poll (h/t Media Matters), like virtually all others which preceded it, simply leaves no doubt about that.

This latest poll was conducted between January 1 and January 3 -- after the Glorious Execution of Saddam Hussein -- and revealed that Americans oppose the war by a 67-31% margin -- a gap of 36 points. Only 11% favor the McCain/Lieberman plan of sending more troops to Iraq -- 11%. Directly contrary to McCain's repeated statements, a majority of Americans -- 54% -- favor withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

The most significant -- and most encouraging -- aspect of the poll is this:

Starting off 2007, Mr. Bush's overall approval rating remains low at just 30 percent, his worst number ever in a CBS News poll, while his approval rating for handling Iraq is even lower at 23 percent — even after the execution of Saddam Hussein. . . .

Americans don't think the execution of the former Iraqi president will improve the situation in Iraq. In fact, 40 percent believe Saddam's execution will make things worse and result in more attacks on U.S. troops. Just 5 percent think it will lead to fewer attacks against U.S. troops.

This constitutes a genuine and impressive shift in how Americans think about the war and terrorism. The President, and Republicans generally, have spent the last five years squeezing gallons of political gain out of melodramatic events where the U.S. military captures or kills "bad guys" -- the original capture of Saddam, the shooting of his sons, the killing of Zarqawi, the parading around of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Saddam's trial, etc. These events have been the emotional pay-off following the endless fear-mongering -- the captures and kills are when we get to feel powerful and triumphant and Victorious over the Evil Enemies who want to kill us, when we all feel such gratitude towards the Leader for "protecting us" from all the bad and scary people in the world.

Though the reality is that, with rare exception, these events have achieved very little in the way of actually "making us safer," Americans have been willing to overlook all of the administration's fraud and deceit and ineptitude because the President's allegedly resolute pursuit of the evil-doers provided so much fulfillment, especially when he scored a kill. Those events obscured the realities of the President's failures and deceit and the complexities of these issues. But that tactic just isn't working any longer.

There is a vastly improved maturity on the part of the American electorate with regard to these matters. They are not fooled any longer by cartoon depictions designed to obscure reality, or attempts to manipulate their fears and baser instincts in order to induce them to support a failed and incredibly self-destructive war. That is the lesson of the November elections, and it is what public opinion polls conclusively prove. Even as our country is plagued by a failed press and a decrepit Beltway culture, Americans have largely reached these conclusions all on their own -- slowly, but decisively.

And all of that bodes very ill for John McCain (as well as for Republicans generally), whose entire political purpose is to fuel these fears and milk these instincts with mindless militarism. That is why McCain is running around the country making false statements about American public opinion. It's because Americans' views on the war reveal just how out-of-touch and extremist McCain is, so his only hope is to shut his eyes tightly and simply deny these facts, and hope that his worshippers in the national media let him get away with it. That is what worked for George Bush for several years, and it is McCain's only hope for succeeding.

UPDATE: As several people have quickly pointed out in Comments, Lieberman did everything he could during the campaign to make the election be something other than a referendum on Iraq and, more so, did everything he could to leave the impression that the war would end soon and that this is what he wanted. Thus, even if it were somehow rational to look only to the Connecticut Senate race and ignore every other data point in the universe to determine American public opinion on the war, even that would hardly provide support for the idea that Americans support the war. One could certainly make the argument that the "running-away-from-Iraq" campaign which Lieberman had to run in order to win proves the opposite.

UPDATE II: I have an article in the current edition of American Conservative concerning the dishonesty of pro-war and pro-Bush pundits, specifically the way in which they simply ignore or outright lie about their history of false and misleading claims. The article features the illustrative examples of Michael Ledeen, Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, and Ralph Peters.

UPDATE III: As FDM notes in Comments, John McCain previously made the exact opposite point -- literally -- as the one he is making now. After the midterm elections, McCain went on CNN and said this about why the Republicans lost the election:

And, so, there was a number of factors, including corruption, including our spending practices, including these continued scandals, that, along with Iraq, contributed to our downfall. And, if it had just been Iraq, Joe Lieberman would have never been reelected in Connecticut, a liberal state, where he supported the president on the war.

So just weeks ago, McCain was admitting that Lieberman won in Connecticut because that election was not about Iraq. In fact, McCain expressly admitted that had the election been about Iraq, Lieberman would have lost. But now that he is desperate to show that Americans still support the war, McCain saying exactly the opposite by claiming that the Connecticut election was about Iraq and that Lieberman's victory therefore proves that Americans haven't turned against the war.

There are many descriptive phrases for what McCain is doing here, but "straight talking" isn't one of them. But that, of course, is nothing new.

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