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Tilting at Windmills

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August 16, 2010

HALPERIN'S ADVICE PREDICATED ON DECENCY (WHICH MAY NOT EXIST).... For months, the Republican message has been vague but focused -- the economy matters more than everything else. The GOP doesn't necessarily have an economic agenda, or credible ideas on how to improve the economy, or even an explanation as to why they want to go back to the some policies that got us in this mess in the first place, but the focus is still there.

That may be changing. Republicans have seized on a plan to convert a shut-down clothing store into a community center in lower Manhattan, believing the plan can help pit Americans against each other and give the GOP a boost in the midterm elections. President Obama's spirited defense on Friday of the First Amendment and the American tradition of religious liberty has made Republicans even more anxious to embrace demagoguery for electoral gain.

Time's Mark Halperin published a letter to the Republican Party, acknowledging the "political potency" of the issue, and taking note of the fact that the president's support for American principles puts him at odds with public opinion. Halperin concludes, however, that it would be in America's interests for Republicans to show restraint.

Yes, Republicans, you can take advantage of this heated circumstance, backed by the families of the 9/11 victims, in their most emotional return to the public stage since 2001.

But please don't do it. There are a handful of good reasons to oppose allowing the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero, particularly the family opposition and the availability of other, less raw locations. But what is happening now -- the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric -- is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve.

It isn't clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama's measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner -- the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.

As I said, Republicans, this is your moment. As a famous New Yorker once urged in a very different context: Do the right thing.

This is excellent, thoughtful advice. It asks Republicans to look past the short-term gratification that demagoguery offers, and consider what's best for the country and our broader interests.

What Halperin wants, in other words, is for Republicans to demonstrate some decency and respect for American values. I would very much like to think this is still possible, but the party has offered no credible reason to believe it has the necessary strength of character.

I would genuinely love to be proven wrong, but waiting for GOP integrity invariably leads to crushing disappointment.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Once again, we have to destroy the village-make that nation- in order to save it. . .

Posted by: DAY on August 16, 2010 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

And once again, Republicans go for the sugar high of dog whistles and wedge issues. Because when you live on a junk diet for 40 years, there's not much else in the kitchen.

Posted by: walt on August 16, 2010 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not holding my breath.
They have shown that they will use ANY issue to regain power. Whatever reasonable and moderate voices there once were are either long gone, or silenced.
Hell, starting two wars and continuing them as occupations wasn't fucking stupid enough. Let's up the ante by making a wedge issue where there shouldn't be one.
Not allowing this to be a controversy would go a long way in the Muslim world. It would mean we actaully do believe in what we say we believe.

PS: There is at least one group of 9/11 families that SUPPORTS this mosque-not-a-mosque but an Islamic cultural center.
But, you'll never hear them mentioned in the news. Calm tolerance doesn't sell as well as shrieking xenophobia, you see...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on August 16, 2010 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

It's funny how quickly Republicans will turn against their own ideology in order to score political points.

I remember when Republicans wanted to return power to the states and keep the federal government out of state issues. Now they want the feds to intervene.

I remember when Republicans believed in private property rights. Now the want the government to control over what can be built on private property.

I guess it's easier to rail against a mosque in New York than to address actual issues.

Anything to get a vote.

Posted by: Stephen on August 16, 2010 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Don't misread the politics of this -- for a political blogger, Steve isn't particularly good at electoral math.

Nat Silver notes that, nationally, the electorate is roughly divided into thirds on the issue: a third think the Constitution absolutely guarantees the Ground Zero mosque's right to be built AND that it's a good idea; a third think it's Constitutionally protected but a bad idea; and a third think it's not Constitutionally protected as well as a bad idea.

His theory is that the President put himself on the side of two-thirds of the voters by saying it's Constitutionally protected BUT maybe not such a great idea.

That's a misreading of both the snapshot and the dynamics of public opinion on it.

For one thing, there is no national election this fall. In the 435 House races and the third of the Senate that's up, especially, the divisive noise surrounding the mosque is likely to be an atmospheric factor, at most. But it is pretty noisy, and this isn't the only unfavorable background noise preventing Ds from forming a message and getting it out: the 14th amendment, the economy, etc.

The President's position is an uncertain trumpet, since he is NOT saying that a mosque at Ground Zero will be a unifying thing, shame on opponents for saying it is unwise.

Cuz he's questioned the wisdom of putting it there, himself. It's not true, btw, that the First Amendment gives any religious organization an absolute right to build anywhere, of course (the President said as much on Friday, 'in accordance with local laws'), so that gives opponents a reasonable way to pretend to agree with the President's "wisdom" waffle, while undercutting his leadership and any sensible message on the issue.

That also makes is more difficult for anybody, particularly Democrats who want to contrast themselves with Republicans, to say: this is a REALLY bad idea, but the Constitution requires us to accept their right to do it.

That's why I keep suggesting the smart thing (not to mention the RIGHT thing) for progressives to do is to take up the cause of the real reformers within Islam -- which pointedly does not include Rauf, who hallucinates that the separation of Church and State would allow for 'subsidiary entities' within the Judiciary to impose their religious judgments on the law.

" It also would not be a violation of church-state separation to have a subsidiary entity within the judiciary that employs religious jurists from diverse religious backgrounds to comment on the compliance of certain decisions with their religious views and to provide guidance to their religious communities on how kosher or Shariah compliant these decisions are. ' - Feisal Abdul Rauf

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 16, 2010 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

This is a moment in our nation's history when the true, decent Constitutionalists among us must stand shoulder to shoulder to turn back the tide of blind, ugly nativism being stoked by the demagoguery of amoral profiteers, (for demagogues have no bounds)!

For every child, sister, brother, mother or father who utters hateful nonsense regarding the 1st Amendment, it is a burden we must bear to right such malaise by engaging the misinformed with rebuke truly reflective of our founders' desire to create a just and free society!

Say No to the Haters! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on August 16, 2010 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

Once more, Obama has invited the GOP to demonstrate how crazy and extreme they are becoming. It's a winning electoral strategy, mostly because it is true. In the last few weeks before the 2008 election, it became clear that McCain's supporters were "haters" and that sealed the deal for Obama.

Posted by: Tom In Ma on August 16, 2010 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

Please try to be fair and understanding of our Republican Leaders and spokespersons...

After more than four decades of our economic and geopolitical theories and actions being crushed by reality, all that we have left is to appeal to fear, hatred, and racial intolerance!

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on August 16, 2010 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Say No to the Haters! -Kevo


"Why am I an optimist? Because we have them outnumbered!"

Posted by: DAY on August 16, 2010 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

The addiction to fearmongering goes back to the red scares of the twenties. The divide to rule strategy has worked pretty well. Our only real power is the vote-if you can keep enough people voting with the rich against their own best interests by ginning up xenophobia, racism and misogyny-you keep the power. IF ALL OF US WHO REPRESENT THE HAVE_LESS AND HAVE_NOTS VOTED TOGETHER, WE WOULD WIN EVERY TIME

Posted by: sue on August 16, 2010 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

You know what's sad? Republicans will just read Halperin's piece as more evidence to go nuclear on Mosque-gate.

And Americanist, you can parse the issue into tiny, tiny pieces if you want. But the fact is, this issue is just good old-fashioned xenophobia ginned up into angry voting.

Posted by: chrenson on August 16, 2010 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

I'm cynical enough to believe there are a substantial number of Republican politicians and other opinion leaders who would welcome a perpetual war against Islam, because it would allow them to implement the military-security state that is their ideal.

Riling up the rubes over the Islamic Center isn't just a cynical play for votes, but rather part of a plan to get the Muslims of the world pissed off against the U.S.

Posted by: Don K on August 16, 2010 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

That the GOP will disregard Halperin's advice is as predictable as the sun rising in the east.

The real question is, when the GOP flunks Halperin's test here, will it affect Halperin's opinion of the GOP in any meaningful way? Will his future opinion writing take into account the fact that, by his own standards, the GOP pretty blatantly demagogued an issue, and in a way that unquestionably put party above country?

Will he continue to regard the GOP as a party that is honestly trying to advance the nation's well-being as they see it, or will he begin to find them suspect?

I know the answers, of course.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on August 16, 2010 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of the Christian or Jewish religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Please sign my petition drive to correct this glaring error in our Constitution.

I believe a solid majority of Republicans in Congress have already signed it.

Posted by: neil wilson on August 16, 2010 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

Chrenson, that's the point.

Ted Williams had a great line once, about a fellow hitter on the Red Sox who couldn't get a loud foul off Whitey Ford. Williams asked the guy what Ford was throwing past him (which Williams could have told him, pitch by pitch through every count), and the guy didn't know. Teddy Ballgame said: "Look, that guy is taking your dinner off the plate, and you don't even know HOW???"

Just so with progressives on lots of issues. Take this one:

The most effective political polling follows the Rule of 4: some people are strongly for something, some sorta for it; some sort against it, and some strongly against it. The genius of Rule of 4 polling is that you can draw a line down the middle, and know how many are for something, and how many against -- AND that you can weigh the relative strength on both sides. 60% may be "for" something, yet because 50% is only 'sorta' they will count less than the 40% who is "against" something, when 35% is "strongly against".

See? "The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity..."

Nate Silver's accurate reading of the (shallow) polling notes that a third agree with Steve B and most posters here, that the Ground Zero mosque is BOTH Constitutionally protected and a good idea; about a third agree with the President's squishy walk-back that it's Constitutionally protected but probably not a good idea, and the last third believe it's NOT Constitutionally protected and is a bad idea.

It's a bit crude, but reasonable to note, then, that a more effective Rule of 4 breakdown would have ALL of the third that says "Constitutional but unwise" divided between "sorta for" and "sorta against". That is, the blithe attempt to hide behind the Constitution as a rationalization for being blind to how people feel about this one is counterproductive.

I doubt that Rule of 4 polling would find that ALL of the third that says "Constitutional AND a good idea" are "strongly for" the President's position, because he doesn't say that -- he questioned the wisdom of putting the mosque there.

That vague formulation -- the President HIMSELF is on the fence -- does no one any favors.

What effective political strategy does is frame issues so that the third (in this example) that is up for grabs, the people who sorta kinda agree that this is Constitutional but maybe not a good idea (who are divided, not necessarily equally, between 'sorta for' and 'sorta against') move the right way.

That's where progressives are consistently getting the shit kicked out of us.

It is true that the President has sorta kinda articulated a reasonable position -- but it is clearly perceived as he started out as a brave man stating a matter of principle, and then promptly tried to appear all things to all people by questioning the wisdom of putting it there.

It is also true that this is a local issue in NYC, which won't matter in any practical sense in any other election.

But it IS background noise, and it doesn't help progressives to have so much static.

I don't think I'm parsing when I say, flat out and repeatedly, that progressives ought to be on the side of genuine reformers within Islam -- people like Asra Nomani, who agrees with the Tea Party opponents of the mosque at Ground Zero.

By insisting that opponents and critics of the mosque MUST be motivated by religious bigotry, you guys have undercut genuine Muslim reformers like Nomani.

Get it now?

Giving the key folks -- the "sorta for" and "sorta against" people -- a strong message that (for example) the mosque is going to happen, it's Constitutionally-protected, BUT this is a teaching moment when Cordoba could reject Saudi funding, and accept the separation of Church and State (which Rauf does not, as quoted above), and what the hell -- perhaps men and women should be treated equally in the community center???? -- that kind of clear message would be a LOT smarter than the bullshit preening you guys are doing.

If the guy keeps throwing sliders past you, learn how to hit 'em.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 16, 2010 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

Mark Halperin makes the typical and fundamental error of the Beltway Establishment of thinking that the GOP is any longer a political PARTY. It isn't, and hasn't been in a long time. The GOP is a political MOVEMENT. And political movements have their own dynamics and realities that are entirely separate from those of a major party, among them: interest in governing; concern for unifying principles; concern for building coalitions of the un-likeminded, and such.

Movements exist to provide safe haven for fearful, insecure people who need a place to call home and a cause greater than themselves. Thus you find that the agenda of most movements is destroying the present, resurrecting a mythical Golden Past and promising a glorious new triumphant future in which all the movement's adversaries will be vanquished.

The Republican and Democratic parties of old might have been receptive to Mark Halperin's naive entreaties because they behaved like the partners of a going business concern who might disagree from time to time about the specific direction of the firm and the investments it should make but shared a basic agreement about its structure and purpose.

Today's Republican Movement has no such interest, and so Halperin is wasting his breath trying to appeal to the better angels of the Republican's nature.

For as Eric Hoffer said in his famous work on mass movements, The True Believer: "Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in God, but never without belief in a Devil."

Posted by: Ted Frier on August 16, 2010 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

What I would love to hear every Democratic talking head say in one form or another about the GOP on this:

"Republicans recently did more harm to the memory of 9/11 than the building of any community center ever could, when they voted in the House against aiding 9/11 responders, calling the much-needed aid a "massive new entitlement program." At the same time, Republicans are demanding that Bush's unpaid-for tax cuts be permanently extended on the backs of the middle class, which includes people like the 9/11 responders."

Posted by: June on August 16, 2010 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

Americanist, I totally get what you're saying. I just don't agree with you. And I don't see this issue — where a legitimate American citizen with the same rights as you and I is asking to build a religious community center on privately-owned property two blocks from the WTC site — as anything other than tolerance vs. sensitivity. And to my mind, the Constitution is more about tolerance than sensitivity.

It doesn't matter whether Rauf is a reformer or not. Should the US refuse to let another Catholic Church be built in a neighborhood with children in it, unless it is owned and overseen by a Catholic reformer?

Posted by: chrenson on August 16, 2010 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Halperin is too late by at least two weeks.
That ship has sailed.
Yes, they will continue to work it. But they've already chosen and acted to whip up the hysteria on this. The genie is out of the bottle, and asking them not to release it is pointless.

Posted by: twc on August 16, 2010 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Steve's mistake: He uses the words "GOP" and "integrity" in the same sentence. An oxymoron if I've ever heard one.

Posted by: Molly Weasley on August 16, 2010 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

People need to reread the article. One of the parts from the article that is missing from the blockquote in the post shows the real reason why Halperin wrote this piece, it would hurt Democrats:

"If you go full force on the offensive, every Democratic candidate in every competitive race in the country will have three choices, none of them good, when asked about the Islamic center: side with Obama and against public opinion; oppose Obama and deal with the consequences of intraparty disunity; or refuse to take a position, waffling impotently and unattractively at a crucial time."

Posted by: SteveAR on August 16, 2010 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Why was the clothing store shut down? Any particular reason?

Posted by: Jim Treacher on August 16, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

The real question is, when the GOP flunks Halperin's test here, will it affect Halperin's opinion of the GOP in any meaningful way? Will his future opinion writing take into account the fact that, by his own standards, the GOP pretty blatantly demagogued an issue, and in a way that unquestionably put party above country?

The real question is, when -- not if -- the GOP flunks Halperin's test, will he soon reach for yet another bogus example of liberal "incivility" in order to achieve some half-assed sense of "balance"?

I know the answer to that question, too.

Posted by: Gregory on August 16, 2010 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

Chrenson: you're watching slider after slider strike you out, backward Ks all and yet you insist that keeping the bat on your shoulder is the best way to get to first.

YOU are one of Nate Silver's third of the public that thinks the Ground Zero mosque is both Constitutional AND a good idea.

That's not a majority. If you want to think of it in such stark terms, most of the public disagrees with you -- including a large chunk of folks who, like you, think they have a Constitutional right to build the mosque.

When you're losing EVEN THE PEOPLE WHO AGREE WITH YOU ON THE PRINCIPLE, you oughta rethink that whole 'bat on your shoulder' strategy.

See, it doesn't matter that much whether you and I disagree. I'm not trying so much to persuade you that it's a slider or a fastball, as I am insisting that you really ought to KNOW which one it is -- cuz you're getting called out looking.

The left, being ideological, does this a lot; the right, which is also ideological, has the same problem it but unlike the left benefits from a kind of culture that makes it better at promptly (and nearly unanimously) adopting more effective framing.

I've said it before: I know a Senator who loves to tell the story from his youth about reading a poll in which the first choice of many people for President was Robert Kennedy -- and their SECOND choice was George Wallace. Just beginning a long and successful political career, he was baffled that people could actually support two candidates who were so completely different.

But then he figured it out -- the public responds quite favorably to candidates and causes that are clear about where they stand. Reagan especially (who took the RFK/Wallace voters and turned them into Reagan Democrats) showed that a candidate with positions most of the public actively opposed could still win election after election by simply appearing both principled and genial.

One viable position on the Ground Zero mosque is yours, Chrenson: they have a Constitutional right to build it, AND it is a good idea.

Another viable position is that it is a BAD idea -- but it's Constitutionally protected. (This is in many ways a best of both worlds position, cuz you get to criticize the many outrages of the Cordoba folks, e.g., blaming America for 9/11 as well as advocating special Sharia rights in the US judiciary system, while still upholding the First Amendment.)

What is NOT a politically viable position is trying to insist on their Constitutional right to build it, AND disclaiming any opinion on "the wisdom" of building it THERE. That's where the President has placed the Democratic Party -- and it's where most of you guys are, in fact. (You guys generally consider the first so important that even mentioning the second violates the Constitution: hothouse flowers, you are.)

This is why I keep making what I consider two simple, affirmative suggestions: recognizing that this is a done deal (excepting only the possibility of one more NYC permit is required that nobody has found yet), it would be a good thing if Rauf announced that he would take no Saudi money.

Well? Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? Remember, I'm conceding this is a done deal.

My second suggestion is that it would be a good thing if progressives backed real reformers within Islam, like Arya Nomani, who also oppose building a mosque so close to Ground Zero. One way to do THAT, would be to stop insisting that ALL opponents and critics of the project (which includes her) have to be motivated by religious bigotry.

Nomani supports equality of women within Islam, and altering the role of the Recitation and the Stories to allow for Muslims to embrace the moral value of the separation of Church and State.

Rauf dances on the equality of women within Islam (arguing that Muslim women don't actually want to be equal), and as noted, he argues FOR a special role for religious judges WITHIN the American judicial system.

So I have a question: WTF is wrong with you people, that you aren't criticizing Rauf and backing Nomani?

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 16, 2010 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

It asks Republicans to look past the short-term gratification that demagoguery offers, and consider what's best for the country and our broader interests.

When, in the entire history of the Know-Nothing Party, have they ever not rushed to use demagoguery? Against the Irish, the Chinese, the Poles, the Italians, the Japanese, the Jews, the Catholics, the freemasons, the liberals, etc., etc.

We are, after all, talking about the party of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon.

Posted by: TCinLA on August 16, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

@ DonK:

I'm cynical enough to believe there are a substantial number of Republican politicians and other opinion leaders who would welcome a perpetual war against Islam, because it would allow them to implement the military-security state that is their ideal.

It's the new "anti-Communism" and the "clash of cultures" is the new Cold War for these guys. And anyone who disagrees with them is the kind of "commie-lover" they love to go chasing after.

Posted by: TCinLA on August 16, 2010 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

So, Americanist, I take it you're among the righties not living off unemployment, who are unemployed, giving you the time to waste this much bandwidth on your bullshit?

Posted by: TCinLA on August 16, 2010 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

But the GOP's greatest enemy is the Democrats. As long as they score points against the Dems, they win. Doesn't matter that it gives aid and comfort to the NATION;S enemy.

Posted by: alix on August 16, 2010 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Obama acted stupidly. He should have stayed out of this completely. All those years in Rev. Wright's church probably had him believing that the "separation of church and state" was for saps, but once he entangled church and state he was all on his own.
Mr. Halperin is entitled to his own opinion, but so am I. I see no reason why Republicans should help those who are busily digging a hole of their own design.

Posted by: Neo on August 16, 2010 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

There appears to be a concerted, planned attack against the Constitution by Republicans and teabaggers, piece by piece, until the entire document is shredded, leaving intact only the 2nd amendment, the sacred right to own an AK47 and shoot one's neighbor's dog if it annoys you and the neighbor himself if he does not agree with you
They have already proposed to amend or repeal the 14th amendment, aiming all the time at the 13th because the fact that there is a half BLACK person in the presidency makes them sick to their stomachs every day when they awake..they just do not have the cojones (as the latinos would say) to come out openly
Now it's the 1st amendment they want to abolish although here again they show a lack of cojones
So why not the entire Constitution in one fell swoop, we can then all go around our neighborhoods hunting for witches to burn.

Posted by: ananair on August 16, 2010 at 10:24 PM | PERMALINK



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