Chris Matthews Is Looking for a Few Good Ideas

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As a devotee of Chris Matthews, I’d point out a couple new trends on Hardball. A, he’s been using profanity, saying “damn” a lot and “bastards,” usually about our failed foreign policy; and B, he’s trying to give the neocons their comeuppance, but isn’t able to. The trends merged last week when he said to Frank Rich, “Dammit, that’s what a leader’s supposed to do, avoid the traps people are leading him into” (that’s not verbatim, but its close) in faulting Bush for invading Iraq (and thereby dismissing the “bad intelligence” canard).

Matthews’s great virtue, and limitation, is that he’s street-smart. He has political shrewdness in his fingertips. And so he recognizes the continued effectiveness, politically, of Bush’s idea: that the way we fight terrorism is over there, not here, and aggressively and unilaterally; that will make America safer. This idea still plays on the American street. But Matthews is enough of an egghead to recognize the bankruptcy of those ideas, and to wonder at why the neocons and their fellow travelers (who have never shouldered a weapon, as he points out) are not now smoldering on the ashheap of history. Last week he said, Someone has to come up with a better idea to counter that Bush idea.

This is the great political challenge of the left. It’s one thing for any thinking person to know that Bush and the neolibs and John Podhoretz and David Frum got it wrong in Iraq and the Middle East, it’s another to come up with a positive vision of limited American power that can be stated in a slogan and that has traction on the street—that people think will make them safer in an unsafe world. Matthews himself joined the Peace Corps in the 60s because of such a vision, put forward by JFK. Myself, I think the neorealists are doing the best thinking here, from Robert Pape to Stephen Walt to Anatol Lieven—them and the belief that we must win hearts and minds by offering a helping hand, an idea put forward by Bush’s own Navy Secretary Donald Winter. Someone smart and political has to swallow these ideas and digest them then regurgitate them into the tiny beaks of the general populace (or into the tiny beaks of the pols, as the neocons did). Any takers?

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