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July 17, 2002

Why I Don't Care About Harken

I've gotten email from liberal bloggers wondering why I'm not more outraged by Harken and at the lack of full media fenzy on the issue (Hi Jeff). While I'm glad to see Bush thrown off his stride, I think the whole thing is a wrong-headed distraction for folks to pursue. Bush probably committed violations of the law, but who was the victim? A few other rich folks in the Bush circle who bought the pissy stock?(remember this wasn't a public company at this point).

I don't care about Harken because I know the real victims of Bush's anti-labor policies, the poor who will see health care for them squeezed out by his radical tax cuts for the rich, and the Palestinians and others around the world who suffer from his brutal foreign policy. I think the focus on Harken is easy politics for liberals who avoid the harder job of making the ideological case against Bush. Yesterday, I posted the fact that the DC Circuit had upheld Bush's union-busting attack on Project Labor Agreements. This matters to hundreds of thousands of workers across this country, yet the liberal blogosphere was largely silent as they chattered about a decade-old stock sale. I hate WorldCom not because of their financial hanky-panky, but because it reflects its broader decades older ripping off of the public and their union busting against workers.

Concentrating on the "gotcha" personal politics distracts from the real policy issues. Yes, fighting on policy is less spectactular and the media ignores it more, but that's why it needs hard organizing in the streets and workplace to win. The politics of personal destruction wins short-term points but I think it often loses long-term ideological ground-- and for the reason that it discredits all involved. I think Newt Gingrich was one of the most awesome (and scary) grassroots political organizers of the last generation, but the anti-Clinton crusade derailed his whole ideological message (and cost him a speakership eventually in the collateral fallout).

And such politics reflects the DC disease of reducing policy to personality. Yet if anything is clear in history, it's that personal failings and public greatness have had little correlation. This applies not just to sexual dalliances but to personal corruption-- Carter was an honest guy but a lousy President, while Lyndon Johnson was one of the most personally corrupt leaders our nation saw (note his personal millions derived from payoffs from Haliburton's predecessor company, Brown & Root), but also one of the greatest defenders of civil rights and the poor.

Harken is a minor sideshow-- the real story is and has remained the public policy of the Bush Administration. It's less sexy and there's little whodunit about it: the rich guys did it with the campaign contributions during the political campaign. But it remains the real politics of the day.

Posted by Nathan at July 17, 2002 03:20 AM

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You're right in that Harken has less of a direct effect on the American people than any number of other developments receiving far less news coverage. But from the perspective of those who want to remove Bush from power, "gotcha" politics might work. They certainly do a better job of capturing the attention of the news media. So while you and I know that the PLA decision was the real news of the last week, we also know that CNN won't even devote 30 seconds to it. And I'd rather see the void filled by chatter about Bush's past business fuckups than hagiographies of Rumsfeld.

But just because CNN won't cover the PLA decision doesn't mean that it's not news -- because it's big news. With the stroke of a pen (and the assistance and acquiescence of the DC Circuit), Bush has taken the single largest step to reduce the standard of living for American working people since Taft-Hartley. So let the big media outlets cover Harken. They seem to be doing a good job of it. The liberal press and blogosphere needs to focus on the secret news of the day, like the decision of an illegitimate president to single-handedly bust the nation's building trades' unions. You're doing a good job of it, Nathan -- now you need to stay on the other liberals' asses and make sure that they bring these stories to light.

Posted by: Jake at July 17, 2002 09:44 AM

Nathan has missed the gravamen of my point. Nathan and I do not disagree on the substance on any of the economic issues he discusses, including the relative importance of Harken and union busting.

My claim -- on my site, comments here, and e-mails to Nathan -- has been consistent. There exists a type of media coverage divorced from substance ("process and eprsonality"). Understanding the existence and nature, if any, of media bias in that area is crucial to understanding who wins elections. Since Bush beat McCain, he has only had one bad month (between the aftermath of Gore's convention speech and the Dem/media overplay of RATS/subliminable) of coverage in this area. Since swing voters care way more about these topics than Nathan or I, any continuation of generally pro-Bush coverage suggests that he will win in 2004.

CONSIDER: "The recent barrage of congressional and media criticism directed at President Bush for his handling of the widening corporate financial scandal has failed to damage his popularity, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that Bush's job approval rating stands at 72 percent, virtually unchanged from a month ago. [**] An equally large proportion of people still view the president as honest and trustworthy, despite recent news accounts that he benefited as a business executive from some of the same practices he now publicly criticizes. [**] Still, Bush faces a public that is deeply angered by corporate wrongdoing and broadly skeptical of the way he has handled the crisis so far -- doubts that could eat into his overall popularity if the scandal continues to grow." http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A15970-2002Jul16?language=printer

Many times more Americans vote on their perception of integrity than on who is more pro-union -- sad but true. Long term we need to work against that trend, but any efforts will NOT produce immediate results.

1) that Nathan needs to be outraged by Harken; I'm not either, and I certainly wouldn't be so arrogant as to tell him he ought be outraged at a story (especially one which is really only about media hypocrisy) even if we disagreed.
2) that Dems ought not be doing their darndest to promote a better, more substantive debate.

I am saying that as long as Dems get the mistreated on issues of personality and procedure, the GOP can trump Dem issue advantages by trumpeting its "greater integrity." And anyone prognosticating future elections needs to incorporate this non-substantive but essential reality into their calculations. Wishing voters were more like us than they are is the single most endemic failing of the liberal educational elite.

Posted by: Jeff at July 17, 2002 02:04 PM

But if you and I aren't outraged by Harken, why should we expect the media to be? That fits my earlier point that the media bias such that it is comes from the lack of real liberal interest in such issues. However psychotic they may have been, the Right was genuinely obsessed with Clinton's personal failings-- they created a built in market for newspapers wanting to sell stories if they covered Whitewater et al.

But my broader point is that taking out opposing leaders is dumb politics-- assassination, whether by a gun or through the character version, rarely is that successful on broader ideological gains

And Jeff-- I've done more grassroots communication with "regular folks"-- union organizing, door-to-door canvassing, phone fundraising -- and I thank god they are not like the "liberal educational elite", who I think are far more rightwing on most economic issues than the average voter. And they ignore bullshit far more than the elite-- which is one reason that why despite predictions by that elite that Clinton would be forced out of office, his job approval actually rose during the whole Lewinsky affair.

I think it's the elite that is much more obsessed with issues like "integrity" -- just look at their sucking up to John McCain. Most voters don't really care if politicians are flawed human beings as long as they do what they promise to do and treat their constituents with respect. Bush's problem is not Harken but the crass insincerity of his efforts around the corporate crime issues.

Posted by: Nathan at July 17, 2002 05:42 PM


I think you are wrong, in that Harken/Halliburton, et. al. are policy, or at least, highlight policy decisions in an easily accessible way.

Harken and Haliburton show that Bush and Cheney took advantage of the system in a way that is similar to the way ken Lay, et. al. did. They highlight the inherent conflict of interest that Bush and his administration have when dealing with the systematic failure of our system to protect investors and employees, and the various questionable activities serve as good examples of the types of shenanigans that take place.

Furthermore, Bush and Cheney ran, in part, on the premise that they were good businessmen, and thus able to run the country well. Highlighting the fact that they were either lousy businessmen or cheats tears that rationale to shreds.

Posted by: kevin at July 18, 2002 07:50 PM

There are actually many stories here. All of them are important. The Harken story is one about influence and the people that pay for it. The people who invested in Harken weren't doing it because of its profitability, they were doing it because George Bush Jr. sat on the board and a good way to get in favor of Bush Sr. is to help little George out.
Its just one of the problems with the Harken story.

Posted by: Les Dabney at July 20, 2002 07:04 PM

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