I notice that former Karl Rove aide Pete Wehner, in response to what I concede to be numerous provocations, has undertaken an anti-Chait campaign of sorts. The campaign works the same way these things worked when Wehner was sitting at Rove’s knee in the Bush White House: you grasp ahold of some fragment of what your target said, tear it out of context, and then repeat it endlessly. So, earlier this week Wehner posted this:
Some liberals — including the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who insisted in late 2008 and early 2009 that ObamaCare would be a great political success for Obama and the Democrats — continue to claim that they were right all along.
Chait is working very hard to salvage his credibility — not an easy task, I grant you. (In addition to his health-care counsel, Chait declared that there was “something genuinely bizarre” about those Americans who supported President Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq. “It is not just that they are wrong,” he wrote in early 2007. “It’s that they are completely detached from reality.”)
Last month Wehner wrote almost the exact same thing:
Now we should keep in mind that Chait is the same individual who, in December 2008, assured his readers that “undiluted liberalism” in the area of health care was hugely popular and that the path to political dominance for Obama and Democrats; and who, in February 2007, wrote that there was “something genuinely bizarre” about those Americans who supported President Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq. “It is not just that they are wrong,” our modern-day Metternich insisted. “It’s that they are completely detached from reality.
He has also repeated these tidbits here, here, and here. I must admit that I’m relieved that this is the worst that Wehner’s little oppo research project could dig up. In fact, neither of the quotes Wehner has so gleefully seized upon actually argue what he says (and says, and says, and says) they do.
The first quote comes from a post-election TRB column about the Obama mandate debate, in which I wrote this:
The practical import of the Obama mandate debate has fallen on the question of whether he should pursue his goal of comprehensive health care reform, which numerous pundits and even some Democrats have tagged as dangerously ambitious. But this is one area where undiluted liberalism enjoys overwhelming public support. The public, by a roughly two-to-one margin, thinks the government has a responsibility to make sure that every American has adequate health care.
That was clearly true: as I wrote, most Americans supported the goal of comprehensive health care reform. They continue to do so, which is why most Americans either support the Affordable Care Act or wish it had gone farther. Notably, one of the contexts in which Wehner quoted the column was to support the following claim:
I think ObamaCare will die; and it will die because liberals are badly losing the arguments on the merits. The sooner liberals like Chait accept that unpleasant truth — the sooner they re-engage with reality — the better off they will be.
Now, lots of people were wrong about this, not just Wehner. But it’s odd that he would be ceaselessly waving about one (supposedly) incorrect political prediction as proof of a total lack of political credibility.
The other soundbite comes from a Los Angeles Times column I wrote about the debate over the surge. I didn’t feel like I knew enough about the situation in Iraq to take a position on the merits of the surge, on which I frequently waffled back and forth. Instead I used that column to note that the pro-surge arguments tended not to flow from specific appraisals of conditions in Iraq:
Their arguments have nothing to do with what is actually happening in Iraq. They aren't claiming that Bush's critics have a wrong impression of what's happening in Iraq. They just seem to have no interest in the subject themselves. Their arguments take place almost entirely at the level of abstraction. …
What do the administration's supporters say to this? Let's look at a brief survey. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of the most vocal supporters of Bush's strategy, has made two major statements on the war in 2007. In the first, a letter in January, he wrote that "withdrawing from the fight is not a sound, long-term policy for the national security of the United States. Withdrawing from the fight is a recipe for defeat." How did Lieberman envision us winning? What about the reports that our actions are simply fueling the civil war? His letter had nothing to say. …
The Weekly Standard -- Bush's strongest bastion of remaining support -- has editorialized about the war for three consecutive issues. The first editorial asserted that "abandoning American efforts to control the violence in Iraq would lead to an increase in violence" but offered no evidence to support this claim. It did not mention Maliki's clear lack of interest in making peace with the Sunnis nor the infiltration of the Iraqi armed forces.
The next editorial, by Executive Editor Fred Barnes, consisted of an extended analogy to Vietnam. The closest Barnes came to a substantive point was pointing out that war opponents had denigrated the Vietnamese government too. Did this mean we're wrong to denigrate the Iraqi government today? Barnes did not say.
And the next editorial consisted entirely of attacking proponents of the anti-surge resolution as cowards. It didn't even bother to make a claim that we're winning, or we could still win, or withdrawing would make things worse.
So, there you have it, the case for supporting Bush: Trust the commander in chief, don't undermine the troops, withdrawal equals defeat. These aren't arguments to support Bush's strategy, they're generic pro-war arguments. Change a few details and these lines could support Napoleon's invasion of Russia or the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem or almost any war. Generic pro-war arguments may be trite, but that's what you turn to when you've given up on reality.
Now, I won’t call that column the most prescient thing anybody wrote about the war in 2007. The situation in Iraq improved dramatically, though the degree to which this resulted from a superior military strategy versus other factors is debateable. In any case, my column was making a different point than the claim Wehner has blared. I was not arguing that supporters of the administration were so wrong they were detached from reality, but that they were making arguments that did not bother to account for facts on the ground.
I have to say the whole Wehner experience has been hilarious in a Dada sort of way. It reminds me of an episode from the final season of the Sopranos, where Junior Soprano, who had once run all the organized crime in New Jersey, was reduced to running penny-ante card games with smuggled candy bars in a mental institution. Wehner used to be plying his trade in the service of massive, multimillion dollar propaganda campaigns against presidential candidates and other major national figures. Now he’s reduced to hammering home his negative frame against...a columnist at a liberal magazine. Karl Rove, please, find this man a campaign to work for.