In the Army they call them after-action reports. Those who think of themselves as warriors find them tedious but they know they’re necessary. Write down and file, for future reference, what worked, what didn’t work, and what never EVER to do again. Figure out what happened, from a small raid to a fixed battle to a complex offensive, to a whole war, then to the geopolitical strategy that generated that war, and then to the national objectives that generated that strategy. There are lessons to be learned – and the eighties and nineties were one long after-action report on Vietnam. We’d never do that again, or if we did, we’d do it better. That’s why our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were such stunning successes.
No, wait. Those didn’t work out well either. It was file-and-forget in Washington. Or it was different this time – sand, not jungles. There were also those who argued counterfactuals – had we used more force in Vietnam, nuclear weapons or something, we’d have won there – but we didn’t, so that’s all hypothetical. No one can prove that.
Stick to the facts. Colin Powell, in 2003 as we were about to take care of things in Iraq, once and for all, tried to simplify what so many after-action reports had said in so many wars where we went in to fix things quickly and go home the next week. He offered the Bush team his Pottery Barn Rule – you break it, you own it. They weren’t buying it. This would be different. Okay, fine – there was still what was called the Powell Doctrine – go in with overwhelming force or don’t go in at all. Donald Rumsfeld was having none of that either. He told those angry underequipped soldiers in Baghdad that “you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.” He told them to stop whining. They were not impressed. Does anyone in Washington ever learn anything?
Apparently not. Everyone since the Spanish Inquisition has known that torture does far more harm than good, if it does any good at all. That’s why everyone signed on to the Geneva Conventions, but the Bush administration’s internal legal memos, establishing torture as national policy, called the provisions in the Geneva Conventions forbidding torture “quaint” – the centuries of lessons learned no longer applied. This was different, or we were special, or something. Or maybe things change up the chain of command. The Army makes every second lieutenant file an after-action report. Those seem to be filed and forgotten. No one at higher levels thinks that way. One must be bold. Don’t look back.
Actually, this is a cultural thing. Americans don’t look back. We practice what Samuel Johnson once called “the triumph of hope over experience” – and we pay a price for that. People do this all the time. Samuel Johnson was talking about a man who marries for a second time, but people ignore the details of all sorts of things that just happened all the time. And that’s another way of saying that Republicans will ignore what just happened in the first presidential debate, but the after-action reports are now pouring in. Dana Milbank describes the actual action:
Back in 2013, the Republican National Committee “autopsy” of the 2012 election concluded that to win future presidential elections, Republicans would need to be more inclusive of women, be more tolerant on gay rights to gain favor with young voters, support comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Latinos and stand strong against “corporate malfeasance.”
Well, the 17 Republican presidential candidates met in Cleveland on Thursday for three hours of debate, and Americans saw candidates: opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest or to save a mother’s life; comparing the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage to one supporting slavery; and talking about building border walls and denying “amnesty.”
As for the autopsy’s charge that “We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed” – the man who dominated Thursday’s spectacle – and the polls – defended his companies’ four bankruptcies (the most recent of which caused lenders to lose $1 billion and 1,100 people to lose jobs), saying all the “greatest people” in business use bankruptcy law to their advantage.
The 2013 after-action report said never EVER to do that again, but that was filed and forgotten, and there was this:
Donald Trump, set the tone in the opening minutes of the main debate, when Megyn Kelly of Fox News noted that he had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” The audience laughed.
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump quipped. More laughter.
“For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell,” Kelly pressed. “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.”
Replied Trump: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
The debate crowd applauded.
The autopsy proclaimed that “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” and cease to use “a tone that undermined the GOP brand within Hispanic communities.”
So what was the “tone” on Thursday? Fox News’s Chris Wallace noted that Trump had famously said that the Mexican government is sending rapists and other criminals across the border, and he asked the businessman for proof.
“So, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris,” Trump rejoined.
The crowd applauded.
Trump went on about how we need “to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out”; his opponents were hesitant to contradict him. “I also believe we need a fence,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has abandoned earlier support for comprehensive reform.
The autopsy called for the GOP to “be conscious of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women.” It advised that unless the party is welcoming, “we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women.”
And how did that work out on Thursday? Kelly asked Walker why he objected to a provision in an abortion law he signed that made an exception for the mother’s life. “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” she asked, noting that 83 percent of Americans feel otherwise.
Walker replied that “there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother.”
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee suggested that he would defy the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and block abortions. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would sic the IRS on Planned Parenthood. And when Kelly asserted that Rubio favored a rape and incest exception, Rubio replied: “I have never advocated that.”
That’s a brief narrative of some of the action – Milbank has more – but it’s clear these guys didn’t give a hoot about some old after-action report, although this is curious:
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was dumped from a prime speaking role to an important gathering of conservative activists on Friday for his criticism of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after a combustible debate performance. Trump was scheduled to deliver the keynote address on Saturday night at a conference in Atlanta organized by Red State, an influential conservative group.
Red State chief Erick Erickson said he had disinvited Trump from the event because of what he described as “demeaning” remarks about Kelly who was one of three moderators during the first major Republican debate on Thursday night in Cleveland.
“While I have tried to give him great latitude, his remark about Megyn Kelly was a bridge too far,” Erickson said, adding he had invited Kelly, one of Fox’s highest profile anchors, to attend his conference in Trump’s place.
What had he done? He had done this:
Erickson said in a Facebook statement that in a CNN interview Trump said of Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”
“His comment was inappropriate,” said Erickson.
“It is unfortunate to have to disinvite him. But I just don’t want someone on stage that gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal. It just was wrong,” he said.
“He is not a professional politician and is known for being a blunt talker. But there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross. Decency is one of those lines.”
And then there was this:
Carly Fiorina, the business executive who is the only woman running for the Republican nomination and who spoke to Red State on Friday, applauded Trump’s dumping.
“I stand with @megynkelly,” she tweeted.
Is nothing sacred? Fox News is. The curious thing here is that Trump is asking Republicans to choose between him – the crude and rude straight-talker whose positions on all the key issues to them have been all over the map over the years – and Fox News – the source of what they know of the world. It’s one or the other, and they are choosing sides. See Trump Loses Zero Ground after Fox’s Unfair, Unbalanced Attack in Debate at Breitbart News, or this:
Donald Trump thinks reader polls on Drudge Report and Time Magazine should carry more weight in judging public reaction to Thursday’s GOP presidential debate than a Fox News panel that ran immediately after the debate. Speaking with Don Lemon live on CNN on Friday night, Trump lauded his winning performance in reader polls asking who won the debate, particularly the poll run by Drudge Report.
“I’m not saying I won, I’m just telling you polls that came out from Drudge,” he said. “What’s better than Drudge? He’s a fantastic guy. What he’s built is unbelievably respected.”
The Drudge Report poll asked readers who won the debate. Trump led with 45 percent of the vote. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) came in second with 14 percent, and no other candidate had more than 11 percent support. Trump also cited coverage by Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post that he said showed him as the victor. In contrast, the businessman panned a focus group run by pollster Frank Luntz immediately after the debate on Fox News.
Trump said Luntz “kept calling” him, trying to convince the candidate to do business with Luntz.
“I told him no. And now every time I see a poll, it’s negative,” he said. “The guy’s a lightweight.”
Trump is splitting the conservative world in half. Any after-action assessment of this debate would have to judge it a disaster, but it wasn’t just Trump. Paul Krugman’s assessment is that From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious:
This was, according to many commentators, going to be the election cycle Republicans got to show off their “deep bench.” The race for the nomination would include experienced governors like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fresh thinkers like Rand Paul, and attractive new players like Marco Rubio. Instead, however, Donald Trump leads the field by a wide margin. What happened?
The answer, according to many of those who didn’t see it coming, is gullibility: People can’t tell the difference between someone who sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and someone who is actually serious about the issues. And for sure there’s a lot of gullibility out there. But if you ask me, the pundits have been at least as gullible as the public, and still are.
There’s a broader problem here:
While it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party…
While media puff pieces have portrayed Mr. Trump’s rivals as serious men – Jeb the moderate, Rand the original thinker, Marco the face of a new generation – their supposed seriousness is all surface. Judge them by positions as opposed to image, and what you have is a lineup of cranks. And as I said, this is no accident.
Deal with the facts:
It has long been obvious that the conventions of political reporting and political commentary make it almost impossible to say the obvious – namely, that one of our two major parties has gone off the deep end… Until now, however, leading Republicans have generally tried to preserve a facade of respectability, helping the news media to maintain the pretense that it was dealing with a normal political party. What distinguishes Mr. Trump is not so much his positions as it is his lack of interest in maintaining appearances. And it turns out that the party’s base, which demands extremist positions, also prefers those positions delivered straight. Why is anyone surprised?
The New Republic’s Brian Beutler wasn’t surprised:
Republicans are still tripping over the long tail of the 2012 election.
Part of what makes this process so awkward for them is that the GOP never really reached consensus about what it needed to do differently in 2016 to avoid the result it achieved four years ago. Some of them think the biggest error Republicans committed in the last election was racing to a rightmost position on immigration at the beck and call of xenophobes. Others think it was Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s breezy willingness to disparage “takers” – and Romney’s statements about the 47 percent specifically. Still more thought the party’s only error was nominating a candidate whom conservatives didn’t instinctively trust.
Every single opposing viewpoint in this dispute is represented in the current primary – and among the Fox News moderators and other conservative journalists who have the greatest access to the candidates – and the result is deeply unstable equilibrium between factions. The Republican Party is trapped at the center of a tug-of-war between its own ego and the conservative id.
So the Donald was no surprise:
Donald Trump personifies this dynamic more than any other candidate. Surrounded by Republicans who vowed not to run independent candidacies, he refused to take the same pledge, making explicit reference to the leverage his threat gives him against a cowering GOP establishment. He swatted away questions about his crude sexism by attacking political correctness and reiterated his view that the government of Mexico is sending rapists and murderers to the United States. And nobody was willing (or able) to take issue with any of the substantive claims he made, except insofar as he represented himself as a true Republican.
This isn’t the issue that most Republican Party leaders wanted center stage in the first 2016 primary debate. And it’s arguably only there because the party retreated from its tepid commitment to pass an immigration bill in 2013, and chose instead to pander to the same nativists, while surrendering their power to influence policy.
This was the whole evening:
During the undercard debate, one moderator structured a question about labor market weakness in America around the premise that too many people are choosing to idle about on the dole rather than work for a living. She clearly believed everything Romney said in the 47 percent video and wanted the dark horse candidates to vouchsafe all of it. To their modest credit, none of them took the bait, exactly. They framed the issue instead as a problem with government spending fostering dependency – a slightly less dismissive, slightly more infantilizing way of describing the same, mostly imagined phenomenon. Certainly many of them still see the issue exactly the same way they did four years ago. And though nobody used the most damaging possible language in this instance, the 47 percent idea, and the fierce certainty many Republicans have, that Romney was exactly right about it, litters the conservative mindshare like unexploded ordnance.
No lessons were learned:
What you saw tonight – and the vastness of the field made this tension more vivid – are several candidates who want to hew to a new line of some kind, only to be pulled back, like the Godfather, into a morass they were trying to escape.
Of course they did learn some things – ten debates, not the twenty four years earlier, and no marginal candidates – no pizza magnate facing sexual harassment charges, for example. And only the top ten in the national polls – a validation of nominal normalcy – would be in the “real” debate. The other seven, whom the public seems to see as flakes, would be in the earlier kiddy’s debate. No one would watch that. Maybe they’d go away.
Beutler says they learned the wrong lesson:
Of course, the whole point of circumscribing the debate process was to keep unpopular values from garnering excessive attention. The Republican Party wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to intervene if these debates were harmless spectacles. In reality, they’re a proving ground for policy and strategic thinking. They’re where candidates get locked, as they did four years ago, into commitments like never raising taxes on the affluent and voiding popular or high-stakes executive policies on their first days in office.
Republicans didn’t react to losing in 2012 by abandoning shared objectives. But they did put a great deal of effort into changing processes and clamping down on rhetorical excesses, in the hopes of keeping the party from steering in a reactionary direction. But the forces they were trying to control are too great, and they created too much pressure for the GOP to keep the lid on.
Administrative changes won’t cut it. That 2013 after-action report – that Republican National Committee “autopsy” of the 2012 election – implicitly called for conceptual changes – but no one at higher levels thinks that way. One must be bold. Oh well, we learned nothing from Vietnam either. Americans don’t look back, and Republicans do keep telling us that they’re the Real Americans. Perhaps they’re right.