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Scarecrow v. Jane v. Digby: A Debate on Pete Stark & Nancy Pelosi

pete-stark.JPG(This debate was triggered by Nancy Pelosi’s public rebuke of Pete Stark, and the rumor that Republicans will move on Monday to condemn Stark’s remarks in the House — jh)

JANE: Jesus Christ. What is wrong with her? She keeps doing stupid things like this and these McCarthy-ite resolutions will never end.

SCARECROW: Here are two scenarios:

1. During the debates over SCHIP, a member claims that the President enjoys blowing up US soldiers for the fun of it.

2. During the debates over SCHIP, no member makes any such claim but sticks to the merits of SCHIP.

I don’t have any problem saying I wish we were dealing with Scenario 2.

If you are the leadership, and you realize that under scenario 1, the member has just handed the Republicans a convenient distraction and a way to beat up on the image of your party, what should you do?

0. Commend the member for getting off a good one, because the other side is a bunch of jerks.

1. Ignore this.

2. Distance yourself/Party from the member’s remarks

3. Other?

We complain that our leadership does nothing to discipline its members when they stray from the party/caucus strategy. Yet here we have a member do something that clearly undermines that principle. So instead of hammering on the veto, we’re not talking about whether a Democrat crossed some line.

Caucus members have a responsibility to stay focused on the target — in this case, it was SCHIP — and not make themselves the issue. What should the leadership do to enforce some discipline so that members not hand the opposition another convenient distraction?

JANE: If it means playing into the Republican gameplan you discipline your own behind closed doors, you don’t do it in the media. Doing so only ads fuel to the media swarm hissy fit and helps it reach critical mass, creating a true distraction. To think that the GOP will cease and desist because Pelosi says “me too” is just not realistic.

If the Democrats want to be calling out their own publicly, they might want to start with those members who weren’t voting for SCHIP in the first place and then work their way down.

Unless a few untoward comments about George Bush really ARE more important than a bunch of kids getting healthcare.

SCARECROW: Jane, will probably have to disagree on this.

Your reply apparently assumes that Pelosi did not speak to Stark “behind closed doors.” My guess is that she did do so, probably asked Stark to temper/retract/explain etc his remarks, in order to mitigate the damage, and he refused (he publicly said he won’t retract). Assume that happened: What next?

I don’t assume the GOP will “cease and desist” whether or not Pelosi says “me too.” I think they’ll pursue this, because they desperately need the distraction away from SCHIP; but it would have been less effective if Stark had immediately asked to revise his remarks. By remaining defiant, he put Pelosi in an untenable position, where she would be condemned for saying nothing, and the next Republican response would be, “the Dem party endorses Starks remarks.” This is exactly the argument we’ve used against the Republicans.

I don’t believe the leadership ever wants to be in the position where they have to consider “calling out their own publicly.” The question I’m raising is what should the leadership do if internal discipline fails, as I suspect it did here?

And I wasn’t suggesting that the comments about Bush are more important than SCHIP; the fact that SCHIP is more important is precisely the reason to not hand the opposition a distraction — especially when they desperately needed one.

Nancy Pelosi didn’t create this distraction; Stark did.

DIGBY: The piece I wrote on this was called “Battered Spouses.” I know it is hardly an original analogy, but in this case, I think it is apt.

The Democrats apparently believe they can stop the Republicans from beating them up if only they can keep MoveOn/Pete Stark/Dick Durbin or whomever from saying anything that will give them an excuse. (If everybody would just stay on message, then Daddy wouldn’t have any reason to beat us!) It doesn’t work that way, as anyone who has observed human psychology understands. Batterers will always find an excuse.

And in any case, this is politics and politicians and activists are by nature and necessity going to say intemperate things that the opposition finds offensive. Indeed, on the floor of the House during the SCHIP debate, Republican congressman King had a chart on the floor characterizing SCHIP as

Hillarycare for
Illegals and their

Personally, I find that disgusting and am offended by it. In a normal political environment , it might even be considered out of bounds because it is a complete lie. In our political world, however, it’s perfectly acceptable, even though it is mean, stupid, and dishonest. It’s all a matter of who has the ability to turn someone else’s intemperate remark into successful political spin. It’s obvious that the Republicans have it all over us on that. They have perfected the distraction by hissy-fit.

As much as we might like to think we can control what everyone says, it just isn’t possible, nor is it desirable. It neuters political speech and makes Democrats unable to connect with people in any visceral way. By making their rivals cringe in fear of being the next target of this tiresome ritual humiliation, Republicans are also sub-consciously forcing them to be overly cautious and lacking in passion — while they are out there feeding red meat to the masses about creeping socialism and “illegals” with impunity (and normalizing their demagoguery in the process.)

Every time the Dems go into a crouch begging for forgiveness and blaming their own for making Daddy mad by talking out of turn, they give the Republicans more power. It’s their best weapon at the moment and they are using it very skillfully. Unless they figure out a way to end this cycle, the Democrats had better get used to being beaten up once a week because we are going into campaign season and there will be dozens of comments the wingnuts can use as an excuse to go off. And they will. The press is looooving this stuff and the Republicans have little else.

SCARECROW: So, should I conclude from Digby’s post that there is no comment from a Democrat, no matter how “intemperate,” from which the leadership should disassociate itself and the party, because if it does so, it is merely giving in to battered wife syndrome? Are there no lines, no distinctions here?

I could be mistaken, but I think a large part of winning in politics is about how the voters perceive you — and that there is, over the long run, a benefit to having the voters perceive you as rational/decent/smart enough/fair minded, etc, to govern in their interest — and you create that perception by actually being rational, decent, smart enough, fair minded, etc. If one believes in democracy, then one also accepts the notion that voters pay some attention, that they can make distinctions between those who possess these qualities and those who do not, and that they are actually smart enough to tell when the Republicans are making a big deal over nothing and when they have a point.

If that is true, then Dems ought to be able to distinguish between those cases in which we’re talking about nothing and where there is at least a perception of a point — and be smart enough not to hand the Republicans something they can easily exploit. Politicians make these judgments every day. How avoiding saying something foolish, both because you should generally avoid saying foolish things and because people might actually get the idea you are foolish — is giving in to battered wife syndrone escapes me.

JANE: What Digby said.

What you are proposing puts fear into everyone. They dare not speak out because not only will the wingnuts attack them, nobody will get their back. Meanwhile the wingnuts have free reign.

I don’t know what you think would be accomplished by Stark apologizing, but if you think the right would leave off, they won’t. I’m assuming Pelosi spoke to Stark. That’s all she needs to do. Tell him not to do it again, then go out and get his back, whether she agrees with him or not. And until she learns not to help the right in their quest, the Democrats are going to be on the ropes with this kind of stuff.

SCARECROW: Jane, Digby: I agree that if Pelosi publicly rebukes a member for going off message and handing the Republicans an easy distraction, it will “put fear into everyone” — but about what? I think it would be about going off message and handing Republicans an easy distraction. That’s exactly why Pelosi might conclude she needs to do it. Imposing discipline sometimes means members will fear what the leaders do to them if they step on the party’s message. We preach this all the time.

How else is she to discipline someone, if they refuse to consider the party’s needs by revising their comments?

But I suspect her stronger motivation is that she’s concluded the Stark comments will offend voters and reflect on the party, and therefore she must distance herself and the Party — to protect herself and the party. I don’t see anything irrational about such a response.

I never suggested that having Stark revise his remarks would mollify the Republicans. This is not about them, and so Digby’s comments, which implicitly assume I’m worried about not offending the Republicans and am therefore suffering from battered wife syndrome, miss the point. I don’t care about the Republicans, as they are beyond the pale; it’s what voters think that matters. The point is to protect the Democratic brand, and that’s what I see Pelosi doing.

You want Pelosi to defend Stark, no matter what he says? Or just here, because you think this particular comment wasn’t that bad? That’s a different argument, but I can’t tell.

JANE: Put it this way. I don’t like Rahm Emmanuel and Steny Hoyer. I would not use Republican talking points to hit them. Which at times is hard to do, because they frequently play the part of the Democrat that Republicans like to stereotype — standing for nothing, political opportunists, etc. etc. But even if I was going to go there — and I have — I wouldn’t do it when the Republicans were piling on and trying to gin up a distraction. There just isn’t any need to give the GOP a leg up.

As Digby would say, “find another way to criticize.” There are many.

There are two separate functions at play here — a) not reinforcing Republican narratives, and b) disciplining your own ranks. You just don’t hand the GOP an advantage by doing “b” by way of doing “a.”

I would also argue that publicly castigating Stark over some hot verbiage that Republicans engage in all the time, while letting Marshall and Taylor off the reservation over SCHIP, is a public sign of an extremely weak leader.

SCARECROW: I agree the leadership is inconsistent; that it allows others to undermine the party position on matter of great importance.

The argument you and Digby are making is that there is always another way to impose discipline other than agreeing with the Republican talking point. Perhaps. But in this case, the “talking point” is that Stark’s comments went way over the line — and if Pelosi agrees, which she is implicitly conceding, then not agreeing with the talking points isn’t very convincing. But again, I think she was motivated by protecting the party brand = we’re not the crazies here; we’re reasonable; and when one of ours makes comments in the heat of debate that suggest otherwise, we disavow them — no equivocation, because we value our image/brand.

I hear us still blaming Pelosi for a dilemma Stark created, and persisted in, despite what I view as Pelosi initially following your advice to deal with it privately.

JANE: I don’t think she makes the party look “reasonable” by doing this. The Republicans are blustering bullies, they’re totally full of shit, even they know all the pearl clutching is for show. Again, Pelosi bowing down before their bluster does nothing for the party image but make her look weak in the face of Republican mock outrage.

SCARECROW: You seem very concerned about how Pelosi looks vis a vis the Republicans – bowing down, etc. How the party appears to the voters is a different concern. Supposed the Repubicans weren’t involved:

Suppose the Republicans had said nothing; zilch, but CNN picked up the C-SPAN video and Cafferty showed it and said, “this is what at least one Democrat said. What do you think?”

They then play back several responses, and some are offended, and think the guy went too far, and others think Bush is a jerk and that wasn’t the half of it.

Should Nancy have spoken up then?

(HubriSonic has more)

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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