Friday Talking Points -- Cold War Nostalgia

Before we get this ball rolling, we have two minor points which relate to the calendar which we feel merit mentioning. First, for the superstitious among us, it's not only Friday the 13th, but it's actually a double-dose, being 9/13/13. Wooo! Scary!

The second is more near and dear to this column's own heart, as this week marks our sixth anniversary. Way back in September of 2007, we thought it'd be a worthwhile idea to put together a column recapping the week and offering up suggested talking points to Democrats, since they have historically been downright awful at explaining their politics in memorable and snappy ways. Also, Democrats have never been good at singing from the same playbook in the manner that Republicans routinely manage to achieve. The idea for the awards came soon after, and, well... here we are... six years later and still enjoying the heck out of overusing the editorial "we" every week here in this space (ahem).

OK, enough of that. Let's get on with it, shall we?

This week's big news involved Syria, Russia, and Barack Obama. The reasons for Obama's delay in going to Congress for authorization to commit an act of war against Syria became apparent when the diplomatic track actually bore fruit this Monday. The Russian plan for Syria to give up all its chemical weapons may indeed prove to be a face-saving solution for all concerned (which I wrote about earlier this week). It certainly required a last-minute rewrite of Obama's Oval Office primetime address to the nation, that's for sure. But by week's end, the story had moved on to an extraordinary opinion piece written by Vladimir Putin for the New York Times.

Reading Putin's piece took me back to the halcyon days of the Cold War, but it seems most other people commenting on it either have shorter memories or are just too young to remember what I'm talking about.

To set the scene: in the Cold War, everyone was encouraged to view the world as a dichotomy. There were two competing ideologies (capitalism and communism), and we were in a gigantic struggle to save "the free world." That was the basic theme, and it played out pretty much from the instant World War II was over right up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union -- roughly two generations' worth of time. Boy, those were the days, eh? The world was supposed to be clearly black and white, and there was absolutely no question about who was wearing the white cowboy hats. Because we were the "good" superpower, we were downright exceptional. And we never tired of telling ourselves so, just in case we forgot.

This gave rise to an amusing diplomatic game. Whenever the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union bumped into each other (at summits, at the United Nations, etc.) and faced reporters' microphones, there would be a high-spirited game of what would now be called snark. Usually it was the Russians who got in the first dig, although not always. The Soviet leader would blandly refer to something bad about America, in order to undermine our exceptional view of ourselves. He'd casually ask something like: "What is the standard of living for American Indians on their reservations?" or perhaps remark: "It is very dangerous to walk American inner cities at night, which is not the case in my country." The American president might respond to this by inquiring about the political prisoners rotting in the gulag. Or the food lines in Moscow, perhaps.

This was nothing short of a good-natured propaganda battle. It was intended to have a fifth-column effect of sowing doubts within each other's population about the intelligence of their system of government. Such cutting asides were never taken seriously, as everyone was aware of the game being played.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have lived in the "sole superpower" world. But this meant that the diplomatic catty remarks were confined to people like Hugo Chavez and the leader of Iran, and it was easy for the American media to present them as buffoons rather than address how accurate their criticisms were. With the rise of Islamist terrorism, Al Qaeda had its own axe to grind with America, but simply wasn't interested in playing diplomatic games of any sort. China, the world's rising superpower, hasn't really shown much interest in playing the game the way it used to be played back in Cold War times either.

So I have to say, on one level, I found Putin's "America is not exceptional" article to be a refreshing bit of nostalgia. With the Syrian diplomatic proposal, all eyes in America are currently on Putin, and he took this opportunity to get in a few digs at America. His piece was a mixture of blatant propaganda, outright falsehood, and his own chauvinistic views, but there were also grains of truth in there (as with any good propaganda). He certainly succeeded in getting under a whole bunch of people's skin, that's for sure.

But the proper response to snark is more snark. This is what many Americans have forgotten in the intervening quarter-century since this game was last played. Two politicians showed the correct way to respond to Putin's article: Nancy Pelosi and John McCain. While other politicians were getting apoplectic with rage, Pelosi had the best and snappiest response, brilliantly zinging Putin for Russia's treatment of gays and lesbians (her full response is in the talking points). McCain responded by stating he would be writing a response article and submitting it to Pravda. While he hasn't written it yet (so we can't judge the content), you've got to admire the tit-for-tat nature of how McCain chose to respond. Both John McCain and Nancy Pelosi are old enough to remember the Cold War, and remember how this game used to be played.


We have two Honorable Mention awards to pass out before we get to the main one. The first goes to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for showing everyone else how it's done, when playing the Cold War snark game.

The second goes to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, for holding a hearing this week (which was buried under the Syria news, happening on the same day as Obama's primetime speech) on the problems between state and federal marijuana laws, which have become too large for Congress to continue ignoring. He invited Attorney General Eric Holder to testify, but Holder reportedly didn't show up. But for taking the first step towards reforming federal marijuana laws to allow 20 states' laws to operate without federal interference, Leahy is worthy of an Honorable Mention this week. We certainly hope to see some legislation on the matter soon, we should add.

But the obvious Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was Bill de Blasio of New York City, who beat out a crowded field to emerge as the Democratic nominee for mayor. As of this writing, it's not clear (there may be a recount) whether he topped the 40 percent mark, which would give him the nomination, or if there will be a runoff for the top two finishers. Either way, de Blasio performed so much better than anyone two or three months ago could have predicted that he has earned the MIDOTW for his strong win at the polls. New Yorker Democrats sent a clear message that they want an anti-Bloomberg and de Blasio was the most progressive of the viable candidates. The general election race will be closely watched, and if de Blasio pulls out a win it will be an interesting change in direction for the Big Apple.

For making it this far -- and for his very impressive vote count which seems to have just beaten the 40 percent barrier -- Bill de Blasio is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Well done, Bill, and good luck in the general!

[As a general policy, we do not provide contact information for active political candidates, so you'll have to do your own web search for contact information to congratulate Bill de Blasio.]


There are times when snark is appropriate, and then there are times when it isn't. Democrats wandered into the latter territory when someone inserted one heck of a snarky paragraph into a proposed bill.

Here's the text:

(iv) LIMITATION. -- No employee contribution payable under section 8906 of title 5, United States Code, with respect to health insurance coverage under this subparagraph, may be provided on behalf of an individual who the relevant congressional ethics panel has probable cause to determine has engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.

The reason why this is so snarky is that the definition only applies to one man -- Republican Senator David Vitter. His own employer health care contribution is how he's being targeted -- the legalese basically says "David Vitter will no longer be paid health care benefits next year." This is amusing, to say the least, because he is one of those "fight Obamacare to the death" folks. It's ironic, it's funny, and it's snarky -- there's no question about any of that.

But it's also wrong. If through some miracle this were to get signed into law, it would be unconstitutional -- two separate ways. The first is that lawmakers' pay (and benefits) cannot be changed without an intervening election. The second is that it is quite obviously a "bill of attainder" which is directed at one person. Which, as stated, means it is unconstitutional twice over.

So while we understand that somebody somewhere gave in to an urge to poke Vitter with a sharp stick, actually doing so is nothing more than dirty pool. Democrats shouldn't stoop to such methods. The author of this paragraph thereby deserves at least a (Dis-)Honorable Mention. Sure, go ahead and threaten this sort of thing in a press conference -- that's enough to make your point. But actually putting it into a bill is a step too far. If you're really going to attempt to do so, at the very least try to make it constitutional.

If we handed out awards for "Democrat who disappointed the most people," then this week we'd have to award both politicians in Colorado (John Morse and Angela Giron) who lost their recall elections this week because they supported gun control. This is a serious disappointment for gun control advocates all over the country.

Our main awards this week, however, go to two men we would sincerely not like to ever hear from again on the political stage. We're handing out these Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards in the hopes we'll never again have the opportunity to do so, for both Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner. Finally -- finally! -- our long hot summer of Democratic sexual embarrassment is now over. Bob Filner's gone as San Diego mayor, Spitzer just narrowly lost a primary for comptroller, and then there's Anthony Weiner, who (as usual) stands alone.

After Weiner only managed a dismal fifth place in the voting, he exited the race (and, hopefully, the public eye forever) in typically vulgar fashion -- by flipping the bird at a reporter, which was (of course) caught on camera. Way to stay classy until the very end, Weiner!

We've already handed Filner enough MDDOTW awards, but we'd like to take this final (hopefully!) opportunity to the two other Democrats who insisted on learning the hard way that their sexual escapades had killed their political career forever. For (oh, please, please...) the last time, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are the recipients of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Again, it is our policy not to provide contact information for private citizens outside the realm of elected politics, which (thankfully) both Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner now qualify as.]


Volume 273 (9/13/13)

For a change, we're going to direct our snark this week not at the usual Republican suspects, but rather at Russia. For perhaps the first time in this column's entire six-year history, we're going to offer up talking points for all American politicians to use, not just Democrats. Because getting outraged is precisely what Putin wants you to do. Being cuttingly snarky as a response is the only way to play this game effectively. So even though the first three of these either are direct Nancy Pelosi quotes or were inspired by Pelosi's words, pretty much any of these could be used by just about any American politician for the next week or so.


   I think that is great

The first (and best) of these is the Pelosi quote which is getting all the attention. Pelosi was asked about Putin's column in a press conference, and got very specific in her critique:

But what I have found interesting was the closing. He [Putin] says when we pray to God, He judges us all. I don't know exactly what his words are, but he says that we are all God's children. I think that is great. I hope it applies to gays and lesbians in Russia as well.


   Fear of a Russian veto

Pelosi actually had a better point to make, but it was ignored by all of the media who latched onto her gay/lesbian zing. Pelosi shows how very serious points can be made with the same snark as bringing up gay rights:

But let me say this about the Putin thing. He has made several points in there, and I think it is interesting. I guess a lobbyist gets him that big space in the New York Times, but when he talks about -- he doesn't want the United Nations to turn into another League of Nations and not be effective -- I thought that was interesting, because one of the reasons the United Nations has not been effective, say for example in Syria, is because of the fear of a Russian veto. Even initiatives that others have tried to propose that would, say, condemn the use of chemical weapons, they have not been willing to sign on to. So, part of the strength of the U.N. is the fact that it has a strong Security Council. Part of the lack of success is that Russia and China too frequently use that veto power.


   Isn't it nice we have a free press?

Pelosi also alluded to this one with an offhand comment ("Vladimir Putin is not in a strong constitutional democracy where people have their say so he comes here and has his say"), but I've heard others make this point much better.

"I think it is a mark of American exceptionalism that a leader of a foreign country can enjoy the same freedom of the press that Americans all but take for granted. It's nice that Vladimir Putin can express his controversial thoughts in an American newspaper, because that freedom is not guaranteed to people who disagree with his own government back in Russia."


   Except that time when you used gas

It seems that, even with chemical weapons and nerve gas being in the news in a big way, everyone seems to have forgotten one particularly relevant incident.

"You know, in all the lists of chemical weapons attacks I've seen in the media in the Syria discussion, I notice that one such attack seems to have gone down the memory hole. Eleven years ago, in the midst of a hostage crisis in a theater in Moscow, gas was pumped into the ventilation system of the building. This gas killed over 100 of the hostages inside. Russia has never admitted what sort of gas they used. Putin was holding the same office then as he holds now. So I'd like to ask President Putin, what sort of nerve gas did you pump into that building in 2002?"


   What about Georgia?

Others have pointed out this glaring hypocrisy as well, because it is so obvious.

"Mr. Putin certainly seems to be on the moral high road in his article, using such phrases as 'the law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not' and condemning the United States for 'military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries.' OK, fair enough. There's just one question I have for Mr. Putin: what about the war in Georgia? I noticed he forgot to mention that one, from his newfound moral high road."


   Stop sending them weapons

Russia, of course, has a very potent trump card to play, which should be pointed out.

"Putin seems to be saying that only Russia should be allowed to send weapons into a civil war. If Putin is indeed serious about getting rid of chemical weapons in Syria, they have a very easy way to do that which wouldn't even require any other country's involvement. Russia could tell Assad that no more conventional weapons would be delivered until the chemical weapons were completely under international control. Think that'd speed the timetable up a bit?"


   See you in Sochi

Russia faces a looming embarrassment on the world stage, and is understandably nervous about how they're going to appear. Point this out, snarkily.

"You know, in a few months the world's attention will be focused on Russia as we all gather for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We'll get to see up front and personal how Russia treats political dissent. Personally, I'm hoping for some athlete to reprise the 'black power' demonstration at the 1968 Olympics -- some ice skater or skier or snowboarder who makes a powerful statement for gay rights from the medal podium. What is Putin going to do then? Arrest a gold medalist? While it must have been amusing for Putin to exercise his right to political dissent here in America, I'm sure a lot of gay people are thinking 'see you in Sochi, Mr. Putin.' When the whole world will be watching."


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