How to Write Talking Points–Alito Edition

Kevin Drum is unsure about what the “battle cry” against Alito ought to be. After all, he notes, Alito hasn’t really come out and said anything outrageous.

Is Alito fudging furiously? Probably. But it still doesn’t give liberals much of a purchase to lead a battle against his nomination. Subtle arguments about the nature of stare decisis and the precise extent of the president’s Article II powers just aren’t going to get very many people ready to take to the streets with pitchforks. So what’s the battle cry?

Here’s where it’s a political liability that Drum is smart, principled, and intellectually honest. The point here is not to have a subtle debate about jurisprudence. It would be tremendous if we could actually have one, but when pundits start talking about having a “public debate” about an issue, that’s when I get little nauseous.

The formula here is actually much simpler. Here’s how you do it. Pay attention, class:

1) Find positions that you believe Alito will take as a justice and have some basis in the record. Say it’s executive power: you believe that Alito will exceesivly defer to executive power and Presidential demands.

2) Don’t worry that Alito has said (correctly) that there is a “twilight zone” when thinking about executive power that no one is sure about. True, this isn’t a good “battle cry”, but—

3) Instead, get a bunch of focus groups to find just the right phrase that will resonate with the public (or key groups therein) that expresses their fear of overweening executive power. For the sake of argument, let’s say that that phrase is “imperial presidency” (which I doubt, but that’s why Frank Luntz makes the big bucks, not me)

4) Encapsulate that phrase in a sound bite, say, “we need to stop Alito’s imperial presidency”

5) Get your senators, sympathetic press people, talking heads, bloggers, newspaper letter-writers, everybody to master this phrase;–


6) Say it OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Everywhere. In every context. As an answer to every question.

And then good, smart, principled conservatives like Eugene Volokh and Steve Bainbridge and Stuart Taylor will rightfully protest, and say that Alito’s never actually said that, and that the situation is really much more complex, and that we all know that there is some kind of inherent executive power (which is true) and that shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourselves for simplifying the issue this way.


Note that this isn’t about outright lying; it’s about using a genuine concern based on reasonable information, and turning it into a clear political slogan. Outright lying often works (see, e.g. Bush’s 2000 attacks on Gore for mendacity, which was itself an outright lie), but this isn’t that strategy. Instead, this is like the Bush 2004 campaign’s attacks on John Kerry for flip-flopping. The fact is that Kerry is not the most principled of politicians, and while you could have written a thoughtful policy piece on his inconsistencies, it’s easier just to say “flip-flopper.”

This is not the most sanguine or edifying view of politics, and it clashes with the most cherished values of the university, which of course favors reasoned discussion. But it’s far more realistic, and it’s less cynical than some other strategies than I can think of (again, see Bush 2000–or most of his other campaigns.)

Bottom line: It is unrealistic to think that the other side will provide your talking points for you. That’s your job.

That is all.

Early Reflections on Miers

The nomination of Miers will obviously generate a lot more information about the candidate than we have now, but from what’s out there so far, it’s typical of too many appointments in this administration generally: an insult to the institution and the public on grounds of the mediocrity of the candidate, and a callous mistreatment of the nominee herself. It’s insulting because it embodies the idea that a candidate of no real distinction is suitable for a high and important office as long as she doesn’t have a disqualifying scandal in her past, and it’s abusive of Ms. Miers because it sets her up for failure in a position whose duties are almost certainly beyond her. What is life really like for Justice Thomas, always a day late and a dollar short of the intellectual life of his workplace? Do the people who sent Michael Brown to do a senior manager’s job feel any guilt at the pratfall they set him up for?

Ms. Miers has no record of ever doing anything important except chairing a commission during a cleanup of a state agency in trouble (not, for example, being the executive director actually doing the cleanup). There are dozens of state lottery and gambling commissions and hundreds of members thereof in the last twenty years; what makes her special? The bar associations she’s headed are just two of hundreds, which again have had thousands of presidents. These positions are in themselves admirable and respectable, but convey no special distinction (at the level of this nomination for this job) whatever.

Otherwise, there’s not a book or an article or a bill or a program or an idea to her credit, just conventional lawyerly service to this and that client, the sort of thing thousands and thousands of partners in top law firms do every day. Except for failing to save Bush from himself and his bad lieutenants, she appears to have made no big difference to anything important, ever. At the same time, the buzz on her style (and it’s not much more than that, yet) is extreme formality and insularity, lack of forest-tree discrimination, and an inability to collaborate. The Supreme Court is a collegial environment, and ability to abstract and see the big picture background against which a given case is a figure would seem to be pretty important.

The quality that rings like a bell through her press notices is personal loyalty to George W. Bush. This is beyond irrelevance; it’s truly bizarre and troubling to offer it as qualification for Supreme Court Justice. Does W expect to be calling her up from time to time to dictate votes? Is she expected to decide cases for twenty years by guessing what that great legal mind W would want? If not, how could it possibly be a point of merit for this job?

Ms. Miers was the first woman to have various positions. This is to her credit, but among all the thousands of “first woman to do X”, not in and of itself a very big selling point. It should probably be discounted by her total lack of direct experience of what being a woman professional is for those who have children or even spouses. Miers may know something about sexual harassment and discrimination, but again, we’re talking about a job of which there are only eight others in the world. A professional woman’s perspective is a selling point for it, but for the most part, Miers’ is no more than second hand or observational.

Probably the most insolent quality of this nomination derives from her recent job experience, where her duties since 2001 have been as an inside, direct, advisor to the president, including a stint managing his access to information. In the current case, the idea that such a resume merits consideration for any high office is beyond satire and beyond ridicule, because this administration has a nearly unblemished record of taking bad advice, ignoring useful information, and making catastrophic choices on a steady and varied stream of international and national policies. Anyone suspected of being in the advisory chain that generated this record would seem to be flatly disqualified from any job involving good judgment or insight, at least on a prima facie basis.

There was a time when it was expected that the Supreme Court was a body of really special and distinguished legal thinkers, whether left- or right-flavored. Roberts was no shoo-in on this ground, but not outside the pale, and may well fulfil the promise of his career to date. Miers is not even in the ball park on any of the evidence we have so far.

Democrats and national security

The name of the game is “capture the flag.”

My recent post on secrecy argued that excessive secrecy is bad for national security, and concluded: “Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.”

Matt Yglesias comments (I’ve reproduced the full text):

Mark Kleiman presents a compelling argument that American classification policy is very bad, and that there are far, far, far too many official secrets. Then he goes all Pundit’s Fallacy on us: “Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.” Surely he doesn’t really believe that. The 2004 election wasn’t as close as the 2000 election, but it was pretty close: There are a lot of ways a Democrat might win. And there are certainly lots of ways a Democrat might win that have nothing to do with this secrecy business.

I agree with Matt that the Pundit’s Fallacy (“Every expert knows this is right, and so do the people I have lunch with, so it must be a winning issue politically”) is an occupational hazard and a menace to political navigation. But clearly my original remark was too telegraphic.

I didn’t mean to say what obviously isn’t true: that policy about classified information is something Democratic candidates could profitably campaign on. What I did mean to say, and would maintain is true, is that Democrats need candidates who can believably say that anything is a threat to national security.

We need a candidate who doesn’t look as if he’s uncomfortable wearing an American Flag lapel pin, and who obviously thinks, and more importantly feels, that American military power is, on balance, a good thing, and that more of it is, on balance, better for the country and the world. If that person — call him, for the sake of concreteness, Wesley Clark or Eric Shinseki or Sam Nunn — says “And, as someone who has devoted a lifetime to making this country stronger, I tell you that excessive secrecy is a source of weakness,” that statement will be credible.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, support for rapid cuts in military spending after that war, opposition to Reagan’s arms buildup, and opposition to the pattern of U.S. intervention abroad on behalf of right-wing dictators were all core Democratic positions, and as it happened I agreed with all of them.

But put them all together, and they don’t seem to spell out instinctive patriotism of the dumb flag-and-uniform type. And the people whose votes we need and don’t now get mostly want a President who has just that sort of instinctive patriotism.

Be honest: When you see a car with an American-flag bumper sticker, isn’t your first reaction to think that the person driving it is from Red America, culturally if not geographically? Mine, too. As long as the flag remains a partisan symbol, and not of our party, we start every election behind the 8-ball.

Think of this problem from the other side. The Democrats support lots of policies that are demonstrably contrary to the interests of African-Americans, especially policies that maintain cruddy school systems in big cities and that can’t be changed for fear of offending the teachers’ unions. When Republicans such as GWB try to make that issue, black voters laugh at them: “As if you gave a rat’s ass about our kids.”

The fact that the Republicans are obviously and comfortably the party of those who think that black folks have gotten too big for their britches makes them simply not credible when they argue that some particular policy they oppose for other reasons is actually bad for African-Americans. The fact that they often play the race card when it’s not there to be played — as on Social Security — and never, never, ever support something they would otherwise dislike simply because it’s actually good for blacks makes it obvious that their invocations of the needs of African-Americans are insincere and therefore to be ignored. So does the fact that they’re so indifferent to the real issues facing black America that they don’t bother to learn anything about the details, and therefore often wind up sounding disconnected from reality when discussing race.

That’s how Democrats look on national security to lots of people, including the vast bulk of the officer corps. John Kerry, war hero, lost the soldier vote to George W. Bush, chickenhawk and liegeman of the House of Saud, and managed to do so even though the enlisted ranks are disproportionately black and consist entirely of people whose economic interests the Democrats serve and the Republicans trample on.

Until that changes, we’ll win some elections anyway, on domestic issues or because the other side self-destructs. But we’ll lose more than our share.


While I was complaining, the folks at Democracy Arsenal were trying to do something about it. Good for them. (Hat tip: Kevin Drum, who has, as usual, good thoughts of his own to add.)


Shhhhhhh! It’s a secret!

Excessive secrecy threatens national security.

Abuse of the classification system to control public debate is pervasive, and probably getting worse. Something needs to be done about it.

Only a subset of classified material would really be of use to a potential enemy. Additional material is properly classified for “sources and methods” reasons: the information itself isn’t sensitive, but revealing that we know it might reveal where the bug is or which attache is selling us secrets.

But those two categories together do not exhaust what can properly be classified according to the statute. Any information the release of which would tend to impede the foreign policy of the United States is properly classifiable. If GWB and Condi have decided, for example, to suck up to Pakistanis, then sucking up to the Pakistanis is the foreign policy of the United States, and any information that might embarrass the Pakistani government can lawfully be stamped “Top Secret.”

When I was young and irresponsible, I worked for the Justice Department, analyzing drug policy. In that capacity, I was put through the full security mumbo-jumbo and received a Top Secret clearance and, on top of that, clearances for various very highly taboo Codeword categories. (The initiation ceremony involves being dipped in the blood of … well, I could tell ya, but then I’d have to kill ya.)

Having been cleared, what did I learn that it would then have been a felony for me to reveal? Nothing that would have helped the Russkis or the narco-bad-guys. But I did learn the names of assorted corrupt high-level officials in various of the Carribean banking havens Jeff MacNelly once lampooned as “Rinky-Dink and Tabasco.” No elaborate spying had been required to learn the names; apparently it was routine cafe gossip in the countries involved. So why, I asked, is this material classified? Not that I had any desire to reveal it, but I was curious.

The senior security guy in the Criminal Division set me straight: Yes, everyone knew that the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese Finance Minister, or Central Bank president, or whoever it was, was crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. He knew, we knew, the Prime Minister knew, the Prime Minister knew we knew, we knew he knew we knew, ad infinitum. Maybe the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese voters didn’t know; that was their lookout.

But it was our policy to make nice to Rinky-Dink and Tabasco (honest, I forget which contrylet we were talking about). If it were revealed publicly that the US Government had knowledge that Mr. So-and-so was on the take, that would embarrass the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese government, thus impeding U.S. foreign policy. Ergo, properly classified.

There’s a story Khruschev used to tell, back when he was General Secretary of the CP-USSR (i.e., dictator). In the story, an Old Bolshevik goes crazy, and runs through the halls of the Kremlin shouting “Khruschev is a fool! Khruschev is a fool!” Naturally, he’s promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, to twenty-three years’ corrective labor: three years for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a state secret.

An enormous amount of classified information consists of state secrets of the Khruschev-is-a-fool variety. And the incumbent adminisration is completely free to decide that revealing any given bit of information would be consistent with our foreign policy, and reveal it. As Henry Kissinger used to say, “I never leak. I de-classify.” This is a huge problem, and an excellent reason not to have anything resembling an Official Secrets Act.

Excessive secrecy is a profound threat to national security, because secrecy helps cover up malfeasance, incompetence, and bureaucratic fumbling, e.g. with respect to the risk of terrorism at nuclear power plants.

Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.

Update: Matt Yglesias find the Pundit’s Fallacy in the last sentence above. I attempt to clarify: it’s not that we need candidates who actually criticize secrecy policy on national security grounds; it’s that we need candidates who could criticize secrecy policy — or any other policy — on national-security grounds without looking silly or insincere in doing so.