Last week, the estimable gave its harshest verdict – “Pants on Fire” – to a DCCC ad attacking the Republican plans to privatize Medicare. There are a bunch of exaggerations and questionable assertions in the ad (as in many political ads) but the nub of the issue was the assertion that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” PolitiFact objected on these grounds:

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year.

Medicare defenders have objected on the grounds that the GOP changes to the program would render it so radically different in form from the old, and the benefits would fall so far short in various ways, that it effectively means the end of Medicare “as we know it.” PolitiFact alludes to that, saying calling it a “critical qualifier” the ad should have included.

Here’s my problem. This is a semantic thicket, and adjudicating this is a hopelessly slippery distraction. PolitiFact has fallen into a trap that exposes some of the limits of political fact-checking as currently practiced.

There is no fact-based “objective” answer to the question at hand. A binary choice will either favor the biases of Republicans, who stress continuity (disingenuously, in my view, given Medicare as currently constituted is viewed by so many people as virtually sacrosanct), or of Democrats, who stress the discontinuity (overplaying that hand in the TV spot). The Republican plan would replace the current version of Medicare with a radically different program. Is this still “Medicare”? Well, it’s still called Medicare, and still pays for (some) health insurance for the elderly as Medicare does. (That’s the PolitiFact argument.) On the other hand, the reforms would change the program fundamentally. Its nature as guaranteed government-provided social insurance would be lost.

But here’s a test that shows the essential semantic nature of this dispute: If the Republicans called their “new Medicare” program “ElderCare” instead and left everything else the same, PolitiFact would have to concede that Republicans had indeed voted to “end Medicare.”

We crave impartial judges, and fact-check sites such as PolitFact are extremely valuable during a time when the impartiality of basically all media institutions is being questioned. But political arguments have deep roots and resonances – especially those surrounding Medicare. Fact-checkers claiming impartiality owe it to us not just to apply an arbitrary, back-of-the-envelope standard of what makes Medicare “Medicare.” They must take Medicare’s history seriously, and explain the sophisticated  rhetorical stratagems being employed that attempt to elide – or to exploit – that history. Making sense of this requires more explanation of what’s at stake, a narrative, even – not a binary choice and a catchy label. It’s not that either-or choices and labels are never useful in explaining complex topics. But entitlement politics resembles three-dimensional chess.

By announcing its “objective” answer to a question with no objective answer, PolitiFact didn’t clarify this most important of issues, it muddied it. As Josh Marshall points out here, its “pants on fire” ruling has fueled juvenile coverage on the “debate about the debate.” The actual impacts of Medicare retrenchment? Not so much.

I’ve been taking a break from blogging lately to focus on a project. But the weekend’s terrible events move me to comment, briefly.

Jared Lee Loughner’s motives are obscure, but it’s hard to disentangle the shooting of a Congresswoman, and the killing of a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, and four other people from the political culture that it occurred in, an environment of exaggerated divisions, the demonization of opponents as socialists or traitors, and a lot of gun rhetoric, gun imagery, and … guns. Almost certainly, history will tie the two together no matter what we learn about Loughner in the coming weeks. Political madness is a recurring strain American history in which, on some level, we all take part: “I shouted out/Who killed the Kennedys?/When after all/It was you and me.”

So, this is a collective problem. Pinning blame won’t really work, because we end up back in the workings of Loughner’s mind, which we don’t understand right now, and may never. We’re probably not going to find some triggering phrase in all the millions of nasty political words spoken in the past couple of years, either. See Ken Silber’s reasoned take on rhetoric. Clearly, for instance, Sarah Palin was not inciting violence with her “rifle sights” (or “surveyor’s symbol”) graphic, crass and obnoxious as it was. Sharron Angle, with her “Second Amendment remedies” quote, came right up to that line, however. But it’s doubtful Loughner was paying much attention to a Nevada Senate race.

But we can identify some trends that created an atmosphere of exaggerated rhetoric and imagery that portrays political opponents as at best illegitimate and at worst, enemies of America, that suggests tyranny and/or subversion are sources of our current political predicament, demanding some kind of armed response. In a culture where some have viewed spraying gunfire at innocent people as a ticket to immortality, it’s not a healthy trend.

As Paul Krugman points out, the outre rhetoric is at the moment a overwhelmingly a feature of the right. (That doesn’t mean it always was, or always will be. But right now, the notion of left-right symmetry in this area doesn’t hold up.) One source of this is the right’s highly effective media-political complex, in which pro-Republican, anti-Democrat messages are tested, amplified and circulated with efficiency and alacrity. Cable talking heads and radio hosts compete to be outrageous, and are rewarded with attention and piles of cash the more outrageous they are.

Over the past two years, the short-term advantages of stoking the Republican base have created perverse incentives for politicians to go all-in with the outrage derby. Political leaders who are supposed to know better have mostly remained silent because all of this was working. The political media, which worships the appearance of mastery and aggression, mostly went along. It was politics, it was metaphorical, anything goes. In the process, they defined deviancy down.

As with the dysfunctional workings of Congress, this reflects an erosion not just of bipartisan comity and civility but of basic, shared standards that American politics have operated on for decades. It’s a symptom of a deeper breakdown that we’re now grappling with, none too effectively. One way to start to fix it would be to take a deep breath and start thinking before speaking. Maybe this is that opportunity.

Thanksgiving is a time for taking a deep breath and appreciating the under-appreciated. So I thought I would challenge myself this year. Let’s take a moment, reflect, and give thanks that Joe Lieberman is in the Senate.

Bear with me here. In the 1990s, I liked Lieberman. Most of his policy positions were reasonable. He was sometimes sanctimonious, but he also pushed Democrats to speak on moral issues important to Americans that many in his party reflexively considered out-of-bounds. (Today, President Obama can freely, eloquently address religion and morality in politics, in part because Lieberman paved the way.)

Lately, though, like many others I puzzle over what brought Lieberman to his current pass: standing alone, outside a party structure, antagonizing Democrats seemingly just because that’s what he does – and, of course, now threatening to bring down the whole health care reform effort.

I’m not a fan of psychoanalyzing politicians, but Lieberman is a special case. He appears to be motivated in part by pure self-regard, uncontaminated even by loyalty to constituents, interest groups or (of course) party. His drift from hawkishness into full-on neoconservatism, for example, clearly has a strong personal dimension: Lieberman views himself as the one man who sees the truth on national security in a party of cautious temporizers. This has some political advantages (except the most important one, getting re-elected) that also play to his ego: In the Republican Party, he’d be unexceptional. As an Independent caucusing with Democrats, Lieberman stands out.

On health care as well, Lieberman’s self-regard looks to be a strong motivating factor. Yes, he’s protecting the Connecticut insurance industry by threatening to filibuster any bill containing a public option. But there are probably more effective ways to get what he wants, and he clearly relishes being a holdout. The fact that his stance probably hurts his reelection prospects (unlike other Democratic holdouts with more conservative constituencies) only seems to encourage him. As Peter Beinart notes in The Daily Beast, Lieberman is bitter about a series of losses and slights by Democrats – his disastrous showing in the 2004 presidential campaign, the lack of robust party support two years later when he ran for reelection as an independent:

Gradually, this personal alienation has eaten away at his liberal domestic views. His staff has grown markedly more conservative in recent years, and his closest friends in Congress are now Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. For Lieberman, the personal has become political, and it has pushed him further to the right.

So here’s why we should offer a smidgen of thanks he’s around. Lieberman offers a window into how the Senate really works, and in some sense only Lieberman allows us to see the true capriciousness of those crazy, arbitrary rules on holds and filibusters. Other Senators routinely block and delay legislation on on behalf of party or special interests. That’s just politics. Lieberman shows us how one man’s quirks can hijack an entire national agenda.

As Jon Stewart put it, “so when does ‘hope’ turn into ‘change’?” As Arianna Huffington points out, we still don’t know. To any outside observer it sure looks like Obama has lost his campaign mojo and gotten crushed in the whinging gears of Washington’s political apparatus. But I’m not so sure.

I’ve been in Washington since the early 1990s. During that time, let’s face it: very little happened. Well, that’s not quite right: a lot of things happened, many of them consequential. There was a presidential impeachment, a government shutdown, and several military campaigns and wars. But when you get right down to it, what did all that mean in terms of the way the government ran and its basic priorities? Very little.

The basic structure of American politics – the array of interest groups and party structures, the government’s basic assumptions about what was politically possible and desirable – didn’t change much at all. Mainly, well, it got stupider. Media coverage got stupider. Electoral politics got stupider. And, especially during the Bush administration, government itself got stupider, or at least prone to spectacular breakdowns. With the assent and encouragement of the White House, large swaths of the federal government became hostage to narrow-minded interest groups of one kind or another that simply didn’t have a stake in making it work.

Meanwhile, the world was changing. Fast. Big problems such as global warming and collateralized debt obligations emerged. They were catastrophic and just plain weird, and they didn’t fit any of our usual political paradigms. When the government can’t respond effectively to the real world, it’s going to pile one disaster on another.

Obama clearly recognized this problem – a government adrift in a revolutionary age, with all its constituent parts hardwired to stay that way – and set out to change it.

But there was never going to be a revolution. Obama ran on change, but he also made clear that he is a centrist and an institutionalist. He believes in making things work, in practical results – not in blowing things up and starting from scratch.

As a result, the poetry of the Obama campaign has been transformed into the software users manual of the Obama White House.

Most of the work of actually reforming government is a) politically very, very hard and b) not especially inspiring or even interesting to the media or the public. That includes big stuff like guiding health care reform through Congress. Or lower-profile stuff like staffing scientific agencies with scientists rather than hacks. At every turn, there are obstacles large and small that have been in place for decades and can’t easily be dislodged.

I’m willing to cut Obama some slack. I think his approach is substantive where those of some of his immediate predecessors were variously incremental, empty or dangerous. But I’m still wondering: Can someone who is temperamentally conservative and pragmatic, and who clearly doesn’t relish political combat, ever make truly revolutionary changes? Or in our system, is this the only kind of president who can? That’s the riddle we’re all facing right now.

Conor Friedersdorf has been tireless in pointing out the various hypocrises among conservatives in countenancing rhetoric that is either offensive or just plain stupid. Here he picks apart the odd relationship that many conservatives have with Glenn Beck, who has a lot of nominally conservative opinions, but is not an establishment or movement figure:

On reading Mr. Beck’s defenders, I can’t help but think that their judgment and integrity are being corroded by politics. The ideological battle between conservatives and liberals has become for them the most important struggle in American life — in order to win it, they are willing to defend and count as allies anyone in their insular world who advances the appropriate side in what they regard as a two-sided battle for the country’s soul. The most honest among them are explicit in arguing that their ends justify whatever rhetorical means it takes to achieve them. Even worse, they are using this total political warfare as a litmus test — temperament and political philosophy are insufficient to be a conservative in their minds, because they’ve redefined the term such that it demands loyalty to a political coalition and even the particular tactics it employs.

But shouldn’t this be a “shocked, shocked” kind of situation? People in politics, whether they’re politicians or activists like David Horowitz who are devoted to advancing a particular movement, are often ready to test the outer limits of sense and credibility to advance their goals. For them, the stakes are simply too high, perhaps in the ideological or the wheeling-and-dealing sense, and/or because their livelihoods, reputations, and self-images depend on the fight. And politics is all about ends – hashing out interests, apportioning tax and regulatory burdens and benefits. In some sense the ends are, frankly, all that there is.

This is why politicians and pundits (at least, the partisan ones, which is to say, most of them) lie all the time. That’s what they do, because they must, because it’s a proven method for getting what you want. Thus, Jonah Goldberg and David Horowitz supporting Glenn Beck’s craziness because it supposedly advances conservative interests in the long, twilight struggle against American liberalism strikes me as unremarkable. What else are they going to do?

What’s really striking about the conservative meltdown isn’t the cynicism of right-wing pundits. It’s the degree to which those pundits have become disengaged from the system. When we talk about ends and means in this case, the “means” are of course the American political system itself, which allows for a great deal of crazy behavior. But what if you no longer believe the system is working, that we’re reliving the Weimar Republic, that Obama is a traitor of some kind? These are the kinds of things we’re hearing from Beck and other precincts on the right. If you cynically support that, it’s not just cynicism but a kind of nihilism – you think on some level, the political system has failed and no longer accept its basic premises – i.e., that power changes hands constantly, that policies are crafted by give and take, that the president cannot impose a new system of government by fiat, that your opponents have some claim to legitimacy.

If you don’t believe those things, then you shouldn’t be in politics. Because there can be no politics – at least not in America – without them. If you do believe in them but pretend you don’t to rev up your “base,” well, that’s just as bad, and maybe worse. And on a practical level – again, the ultimate test in politics – this path leads nowhere. In a country where most people don’t pay close attention to politics, behaving like a bunch of nuts isn’t a ticket to electoral or policy success – that is, the normal way that you put your political ideas into effect. And the way political coalitions are built and power is accumulated in a democracy is by engaging the other side. If all you’re able to do is demonize it, you’ll never get anywhere.

The George W. Bush presidency brought both the Republican Party and the conservative movement low, and it’s distressing to watch the GOP base get whipped into a frenzy by cynical demagogues, while its politicians do the only thing they know how to do – pander to the people making the loudest, most aggrieved noises.

Demagoguery and aggrievement are nothing new in American politics. But what’s strange is the scattershot nature and incoherence of the attacks on Obama. Usually, politicians – even demagogues – summon a sense of history, shared experience, and cultural traditions to move people. But there’s little evidence of those things in most of the critiques of Obama’s policies by Republican politicians or tea party activists, little evident understanding of what the president is doing or how it might be improved upon, changed, or replaced. Scare words and phrases have supplanted arguments. Those words have historical meaning. Once, history gave those words power. But now they’ve been shorn of all context. It’s a communist-fascist-socialist word salad.

Czar Nicholas II

Czar Nicholas II

One of the sillier examples of this is the crusade, by Glenn Beck and others, against Obama administration “czars.” They already got the scalp of “green jobs czar” Van Jones, and now the attacks continue. “Czar” sounds scary, I guess, because it’s a Russian word. Communists are taking over the government! Of course, the last real Russian Czar, Nicholas II, was executed by communists in 1918, so the historical reference is nonsensical. So is the substance of the attack. “Czar” is an informal – and semi-ironic – title that connotes a certain policy portfolio. It has been in use since at least the 1970s. As Dave Weigel noted in the Washington Independent, many “czars” actually occupy pre-existing jobs. Some of them been approved by the Senate. Some are mid-level appointees, and don’t require Senate confirmation. A few have been appointed to new positions, such as “Afghanistan czar” Richard Holbrooke – but most of them are well-credentialed.

So: Obama, the president, is appointing people to government positions that have certain policy coordination responsibilities. That’s what presidents do. There may be questions to be raised about their job performance or past activities, but in that respect they are no different from hundreds of other political appointees. Yet, exploiting the notion that Obama must be up to something sinister, Republicans have seized upon the czar issue. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is running for governor of Texas, attacks the “czars” in today’s Washington Post as an affront to the Constitution. It’s bizarre. (And also sad that the Washington Post provides a forum for a specious argument.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives had credible, coherent arguments to make about government policies and the nature of government itself. I sometimes agreed, more often disagreed. But their arguments had some heft: the liberal welfare state actually did have a lot of serious problems in the overlapping realms of policy and politics. Now, if I’m looking for a meaningful critique of Obama’s policies and appointments, (with some exceptions of course) I’m just not going to find it on the right. Conservatism has, effectively, gone AWOL from the policy debate – which is a great boon to Obama, but probably not so good for the American system.

I’m reluctant to criticize the work of other journalists, and especially that of investigative journalists, because as a reader I usually don’t know enough about the subject matter, or the sources, or the corroborating work that shaped the story in question. But this Washington Post piece, which makes bold claims about the efficacy of waterboarding, bothered me for various reasons. It burned up the blogosphere over the weekend and was a kind of overture to Dick Cheney’s appearance on Fox News Sunday.

My complaint has more to do with the context, or lack of it, than with the content of the story itself. But in this case, context is everything.

The story is titled “How a Detainee Became an Asset: Sept. 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding.” And that’s pretty much its only point, gleaned mainly from interviews with anonymous sources and a few lines from CIA reports released last week: waterboarding done on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 plotter, made him cooperate and yield valuable information about al Qaeda.

What happened in KSM’s interrogations is historically and legally significant, and thus politically controversial – hugely so. This story, however, treats its subject matter not from that perspective but as a daily scoop, advancing the story of the week – the release of the CIA’s torture documents and Cheney’s response.

And in that sense, the biggest problem here is opacity. We don’t know who the Post’s anonymous sources are. But we do know what bureaucratic or political agendas they are seeking to advance by talking about this case right now. The CIA is embarrassed and facing a Justice Department investigation. So some elements within the agency – and especially those who participated directly in this program – have a political and legal interest in trying to paint the “EITs” (the official acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques – who knew?) as successful. As do Dick Cheney and his various acolytes. This undermines the story’s credibility, yet the Post basically asks us to take the statements of its anonymous sources at face value.

There’s also the timing. The story appeared the day before a scheduled Cheney interview, and bolstered his arguments (which are not real arguments but demagogic assertions, which in my mind damages whatever actual, utilitarian case might be made for torture). When I saw it I thought instantly of how the Bush administration had played the New York Times with the “aluminum tubes” story. In 2002, “senior administration officials” strategically leaked disputed information about Saddam Hussein’s alleged (and, as it turned out, nonexistent) nuclear program to the Times, then used the NYT’s own story to bolster the case for war. Here’s the NYT’s own retrospective account:

“On Sept. 8., the lead article on Page 1 of The New York Times gave the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program.

”The closer he gets to a nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical and biological weapons,” a senior administration official was quoted as saying. ”Nuclear weapons are his hole card.”

The article gave no hint of a debate over the tubes.

The White House did much to increase the impact of The Times’ article. The morning it was published, Mr. Cheney went on the NBC News program ”Meet the Press” and confirmed when asked that the tubes were the most alarming evidence behind the administration’s view that Iraq had resumed its nuclear weapons program. The tubes, he said, had ”raised our level of concern.” Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, went on CNN and said the tubes ”are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.”

After the tubes incident, I never read an intelligence-related story quite the same way again. Did the Post allow itself to be manipulated here in exchange for a scoop? Cheney didn’t mention the Post story in his interview – whew! But clearly, something went wrong here. The scoop here doesn’t tell us anything about the efficacy of torture in producing reliable information – even in KSM’s case, for that matter. If a scoop actually obscures the issue at hand, what good is it?

I’m going to play devil’s advocate with myself here for a moment. Conor Friedersdorf has the best explanation I’ve seen of the public anxiety surrounding health care reform. While it’s clear that all those angry and misinformed town hall attendees are a small minority of the voting public, their anxieties – stoked by our current economic travails, rapid social and demographic changes, and government and politics that haven’t really worked for oh, a decade or longer – are real, and shared by millions more. For all the problems in the current health care system, and for all of Barack Obama’s talents, it would be crazy not to feel some trepidation at such a big undertaking. Many more people still have health insurance than don’t, and they don’t want to end up like those who don’t; so any change is perceived as a threat:

My grandmother, my mother, and countless other Americans may be misinformed about the particulars of health-care reform, and express certain misbegotten fears, but health care proponents would do well to understand the anxiety’s source: Theirs is ultimately a fear of rapid, sweeping policy shifts, especially those brought about by lengthy, amorphous legislative proposals that leave unclear exactly what might change the month after next.

How could that uncertainty fail to rile anyone with health care they like? Ours is a country where many citizens have premised career choices, financial decisions, and even where they reside on ensuring affordable access to quality insurance. Investment in any system, no matter how flawed, breeds a perfectly rational risk-aversion when changes are proposed. What perplexes me is how frequently elected officials underestimate that impulse.

This, he says, is an argument for taking an incremental approach to health care reform and other big structural problems. Handle it one piece at a time, in more digestible bites. Don’t overreach like Bill Clinton did on health care or George W. Bush did on immigration and Social Security.

This is a good argument – and, indeed, that’s pretty much how the modern welfare state came about, as Paul Begala points out in this piece – but I don’t completely buy it for the reason that so often, such anxiety proves politically transient.

A lot of people – liberals, skeptics of big government, deficit hawks – denounced Bush’s Medicare-prescription drug program (which Friedersdorf cites as an example of an incremental approach, but as increments go was pretty large) as unworkable. While it’s deeply flawed in various ways, bureaucratically it works better than anyone expected. Seniors aren’t storming into town halls demanding it be dismantled. The same thing is likely to happen with health care reform. Once something passes – and it may end up substantially closer to “incremental” than what Obama originally wanted – health care reform will disappear as a political wedge issue. There will be problems, of course, and controversies – the problems it addresses won’t go away overnight. But it’s unlikely that the Republicans will be running against Obamacare at this time next year.

Clearly, Obama underestimated public anxieties over health care reform – and a little extra humility won’t hurt him. But the political viability of reform efforts depends on a lot of things besides the public mood (which is by no means foursquare against health care reform): the party breakdowns in Congress, the actual need for the reform in question, the president’s own skills and ability to adapt. I’m betting Obama can leverage his advantages here.

Aside from the issue of whether the congressional “town hall” has outlived its usefulness as a way for politicians and the public to interact, there’s an important underlying question in those confrontations over health care reform now playing out. Do they represent an incipient a 1994- or 1980-style backlash against Obama?

To most of us on the outside, the town-halls-gone-wild appear to reflect the intense feelings of a relatively small group of people who are very badly misinformed about what’s actually happening in Washington. They’re angry at Obama for all kinds of things the government isn’t doing and has no plans to do. In the broadest sense, some of their suspicions are legitimate – if government does have more power over health care, it will screw it up somehow. But the health care system is very badly screwed up already, and there appears to be no awareness of that fact in those rude, angry outbursts.

But is this the start of a good, old-fashioned right-wing populist prairie fire? The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder argued yesterday that, strictly in terms of the health care issue, the protestors and their organizers have overplayed their hand – that they are alienating the independents who want a real political debate, not a shouting match, i.e., the voters who matter most to centrist Democrats who will make or break any health care bill.

Patrick Ruffini shot back, saying Ambinder is misreading things. His post, titled “Energy at the edges moves the center,” cites the left’s at-times over-the-top Iraq protests, ca. 2003 and 2004, as an example of something that seemed politically marginal at the time, with polls showing broad support for the war effort, but later became the majority view.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in politics. And there are signs of serious discontent with Democrats in the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races. But the circumstances here seem very different from 1980, 1994 – or 2003, for that matter. Ruffini’s argument likens health care reform to Iraq. But it took several years of disastrous mismanagement and dysfunctional leadership from the White House to turn the public against the war – and George W. Bush. Obama has been in office six months. Assuming some kind of health care reform passes, it’s unlikely to turn into an Iraq-like disaster. Most people will be only marginally affected, if at all. Many people will see their situations improve. There will be problems, no doubt. But “death panels” won’t be killing grannies every day like IEDs were in Baghdad ca. 2006. And remember, unlike his predecessor Obama actually seems to know some things about making government institutions work. If some kind of health care reform doesn’t pass (which I think is unlikely given the stakes), it will damage Obama. But it will also be over quickly.

In 1980, there was broad anger at, and structural problems within, the government and the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, those problems lingered: Bill Clinton was never elected with more than 50 percent of the vote. Obama won with 53 percent of the vote. Some of those Obama voters are no doubt disillusioned with what they’ve seen so far. But “government” is always a proxy for other things – in this case, widespread economic distress, wrenching social change, etc. The town hall craziness is channeling some of that – it is unfocused rage coming from a narrow segment of the population. But the circumstances in which we find ourselves are fluid: if the economy improves and health care reform passes, and America doesn’t turn into Nazi Germany, that anger is unlikely to result in a huge anti-Obama backlash. In part because there just aren’t any good alternatives right now.

Dick Cheney’s campaign of retroactive self-justification, culminating in his AEI speech, is bizarre, and not just for its historical footnote-worthiness, its political thuggery, or its graceless, hectoring tone. What’s strangest is that long after the policies he champions were cast aside by his own administration, and the Republican Party repudiated at the polls, he is still able to hijack an important issue with a campaign of pure rhetorical cant.

Let’s be clear: Cheney is not making an argument about what anti-terrorism policies work best. A genuine argument would engage the difficult issues at hand, asking “what is the best way to fight terrorism?” It would marshal facts to support its positions. It would not be layered with half-truths and bursting with straw men. It would endeavor to convince skeptics. Perhaps there are arguments to be made that “enhanced interrogation techniques” are the most effective ways to elicit information, that illegally warehousing and “disappearing” terrorist suspects is the most effective way to handle them, and that only virtually unlimited executive power can guarantee security. But I have never heard such arguments from Cheney or his supporters.

Instead, all we get are angry, contemptuous assertions. Cheney is, by his own account, self-evidently right. His speech did not acknowledge that he or his Bush administrations had committed a single error. It did not acknowledge that principled people might disagree. The only source of disagreement would be the weakness, arrogance and naivete of his critics, including President Obama.

But of course this has almost nothing to do with the real world of devising policies to combat terrorism. The Bush White House itself abandoned torture when it became clear it wasn’t very useful, was probably illegal, and was terribly damaging politically and strategically. If another 9/11 does occur, American officials will think twice before torturing again. And even if they go ahead and do it, what do you think will happen? Almost certainly a rerun of the same disaster that happened the first time. Cheney’s “comprehensive strategy,” as he calls it, wasn’t very strategic: it was series of ad hoc fishing expeditions accompanied by public bluster that got us mostly grief. It was incoherent, an anti-strategy, one man’s fantasy about imposing his will on a dangerous world. (Maybe there were some successes that can be attributed solely to Cheney’s post 9/11 decisions – who knows? But to figure that out we need some kind of truth commission to evaluate the record.)

Cheney’s demagoguery is nothing new in American politics. But what’s striking is the deference and credibility it’s granted by the media-political world. You’d think that there is an actual debate going on, that Obama and Cheney represent two positions with equal weight that Americans have to choose between. Today’s Washington Post is symptomatic: the print edition features a banner headline: “In Dueling Speeches, a National Security Debate.” The main story hits the familiar beats: “Presidential scholars could not recall another moment when consecutive administrations intersected so early and in such a public way.” Okay, but framing it this way ignores the content of the speeches, and recent history. Obama, whatever you may think of his recent compromises on the terrorism front, is at least wrestling with real issues (as this Post editorial correctly points out) attempting to create a legal framework for terrorism suspects. Cheney’s statements, meanwhile, should be treated with skepticism, as he has a record of brazenly uttering untruths in service to a political agenda marked by its determined detachment from reality. Do his words really deserve the respect, with its implication of importance and legitimacy, that they’re getting?

Besides embellishing a legacy, the current Cheney campaign seems aimed at one thing: setting up Obama for the stab-in-the-back treatment in the event of another terror attack. Please. Terrorism is a serious problem. It requires real strategic thinking. Such posturing may be catnip to the press, but it’s virtually irrelevant to the world we live in, and unhelpful to the hard work of protecting us.

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