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Unhitching the Democratic wagon from Plamegate

I recently delivered some remarks on Plamegate at a gathering of the DC chapter of Drinking Liberally (www.dcdl.org), an organization of like-minded liberals who "promote democracy.one pint at a time."

My own take on Plamegate, as I informed the audience, was-and is-that it's one of those unique scandals that makes, well, everyone look bad. From Judy Miller to Patrick Fitzgerald to Vice President Dick Cheney to Scott McClellan to Karl Rove to Arthur Sulzberger to Matt Cooper to, yes, even Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.most everyone involved in the tangled web that is Plamegate comes out with a bit of egg on their faces.

The conversation that evening soon drifted away from the complicated legalities and specifics of the case to its political consequences and potential for both parties. And in the same way that I cautioned, in an earlier Huffington Post blog entry, against Democratic opposition to the nomination of Samuel Alito, so, too, do I now warn Democrats against putting too many of their precious political eggs into Plamegate (a scandal that will no doubt resurface in 2006, with Fitzgerald's ongoing investigation, the open question of Rove's involvement and the trial of Scooter Libby).

I don't always make friends with opinions that focus more on political practicalities than specific legal calculations (one reader wrote in response to my Alito entry, "Are you insane? Deciding on whether to stand up for democratic principles based on whether the outcome will be a win or a loss? It's this kind of cowardly "reasoning" that has the Dems in the sorry position they are in now."), but I think Democrats would be wise not to hitch their wagon to the still unknown results of Plamegate. Here's why:

Let's start with the reality of this case: It's neither sexy nor simple (which, let's be clear, doesn't mean it's not serious). It virtually necessitates "A Beautiful Mind"-like conspiracy theorist, an astounding grasp of the scandal's timeline and players (Who knew what? And when? And whom did they tell? And in what context? And to whose knowledge? And for what purpose?), a sound understanding of Washington's machinations and power/press relationship(s) and a masters degree in untangling tangled webs. And if there's anything that puts most American voters to sleep, it's complexity. (It is for that very reason that, with the Alito nomination, more people are focused on, say, his views in abortion-even though, in this writer's opinion, Alito's ascendancy the Supreme Court would not result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade-than other more relevant, influential and potentially harmful (and very un-sexy) constitutional issues, such as interpretations of the "commerce clause.")

Second-and this may be a difficult pill for many Democrats to swallow and accept-there truly are no heroes in Plamegate and there are no martyr's that universally rouse public sympathy, including the two individuals cast as "victims" in this soap opera: Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson. At the very least, both Plame and-more obviously-Wilson have enough questions surrounding their own involvement in this case that the actual valid points that they (and their situation) have raised will unfortunately get drowned out by the all-important Spin War. (For a taste of the kind of questions that will be raised about Wilson's credibility on this matter, check out Max Boot's regurgitation of the anti-Wilson talking points). Democrats (and Republicans for that matter, too) need to realize that, as the 2006 and 2008 elections approach, the political playing field for both of those elections are now being constructed. And if the 2004 election taught us anything-"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."-it is this: Soundbytes matter.

Which brings me to my third and final point.

For many Democrats, the saliency of Plamegate does not hinge around the leaking of Plame's identity, but rather the lead up to the Iraq war. I hate to dwell too much on the important of soundbytes in our political campaigns, but this is the world we live in, where the Internet and blogosphere can disseminate (or contaminate, depending on your point of view) quotes and information and spin at such an alarming rate that it seeps into the nation's collective conscience and public dialogue well before a counterattack can be effectively waged and, more importantly, won. And, if Democrats wish to make Plamegate about the road to war in Iraq-and the debunked notion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction-they will most certainly lose the soundbyte war. I can already envision (and have already seen in various spots and websites and publications) the Swift Boat/"voted for it before I voted against it"-like commercials being prepped for the elections over this issue. The centerpiece of these ads will consist of these quotes:

Former President Bill Clinton: "If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program."

Sandy Berger, national security adviser under Bill Clinton: "[Saddam Hussein] will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has 10 times since 1983."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology, which is a threat to countries in the region, and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.: "Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandate of the United Nations, and is building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them."

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.: "In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical- and biological-weapons stock, his missile-delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members."

Former Vice President Al Gore: "Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter, and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power."

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.: "We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction."

Could these quotes have been taken out of context. Sure. And does a belief in Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program automatically assume support for the manner in which Bush went to war in Iraq? Absolutely not. But, in a 30-second campaign commercial environment, these important nuances will most definitely lose out to soundbytes (Kerry's "I voted for it before I against it" quote is a classic example). This is the cold, hard reality of our world and the sooner Democrats make political calculations based upon that reality-or at least factor it into their decisions-the better their electoral success.

These points weren't well-received by many in the Drinking Liberally audience that night and I suspect that many of the avid readers of-and believers in-this blog will also find fault with my overly-practical (and under-impassioned) take on this very serious matter.

I welcome and look forward to the feedback and comments.