Of Bad Men And Straw Men

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Keith Berner, who I’ve known for over a decade, has taken vigorous issue with my recent comments about some candidates and/or their supporters in CD8 not doing a good job of effective advocacy. His first response was a comment on my assessment of the Leisure World debate last weekend:

Sorry Jonathan, it is completely inappropriate for candidates whose only rationale (and only potential path to victory) is their millions of dollars to try and purchase one of the most progressive districts in the country. Raskin supports (and those of the other, more legitimate candidates) should hammer on this every single day. I’ll be doing that on my blog.

I responded:

Keith: I think your specific point is totally valid about Trone (estimates are that he’s already spent $2.1 million of his own money just on ads) but it doesn’t apply at all to Matthews, who hasn’t put any of her own money into this race at all. It’s not self-funding and it’s not dark money. She’s gone out and raised money the same way Jamie Raskin has, getting on the phone and asking for donations. The fact that she’s raised more than he has does not make the manner in which she’s raised it illegitimate.

My point is more general, and your point is a subset of mine. My opinion is that too many Raskin supporters try to define his opponents as illegitimate when (to cite one example that came up prominently on Sunday) both business and journalism are not at all uncommon backgrounds for members of Congress. The palpable disdain with which some of the questioners on Sunday literally demanded that Matthews and Trone “run for something else first” may feel good, but it does nothing at all to persuade anyone to vote for Raskin.

While I personally don’t think David Trone has the qualifications to represent me in Congress, (1) he has the right to run, which you and others would deny him, and (2) self-funding candidates have had the right to spend on their own campaigns since 1976, when the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo. Self-funding has NOTHING to do with Citizens United, which is all about corporate funded dark money. And ironically or otherwise, the only dark money spent thus far in CD8 has been spent by Mayday, which supports – drumroll please – Jamie Raskin (Joel Rubin also has a super PAC, which to my knowledge hasn’t spent anything yet).

Re Matthews, she’s doing it the legal and aboveboard way, as is Raskin. Why is one OK and the other not? Because she’s doing better and raising more money?

Almost half the members of Congress have no prior legislative experience, including 90 Democrats. Are they all illegitimate too?

I’ve said this from the beginning. It’s not persuasive to tear down the other candidates. Make the case FOR your preferred candidate. Too many Raskin supporters, in particular, spend too much time ripping on other candidates instead of advocating for Jamie. I highly doubt that even one voter was persuaded on Sunday by the righteousness demonstrated by the indignant questions to Matthews and Trone at Leisure World. Jamie Raskin deserves better advocacy than that.

I think my point is pretty clear: when attempting to publicly advocate for one’s preferred candidate, to publicly persuade undecided voters, negative attacks on other candidates are utterly infective in the absence of a compelling positive message about your own candidate. This is just common sense, I think.

Or maybe not. Today, Berner had a similar reaction in response to my criticism of Joel Rubin. Keith says:

Your attempts to be “fair and balanced” notwithstanding, it is absolutely relevant that two people without records of service to the community, who didn’t bother to vote in 2 of the last 3 primaries, who have contributed to GOP candidates have “jetted” in to this race in an attempt to purchase it. Yes, every single candidate should be touting their positive credentials. But Trone and Matthews have brought the kind of politics to our district that we are decrying across the country.

They deserve to be hammered for it.

You have suggested that prior legislative experience is not a pre-requisite for serving in Congress. That is not unreasonable to suggest — certainly lots of freshmen members of Congress get there through other routes. But — in a race that features three proven legislators (Barve, Gutierrez, and Raskin), the “burden of proof” for those without such experience is much, much higher. Look at the voting records of these three experienced candidates. You can see clearly how they will behave in Congress. Compare that to the records of a corporate shill (Matthews) and alcohol salesman and all you can see is their love for big business. Just what we need in Congress: more Wall St. Dems!

Are Kathleen Matthews and David Trone “bad” people. I don’t know them personally and can’t judge that. But they are clearly destructive forces in this race. I applaud Joel Ruben for making the case.

Then Berner followed up with his own blog post, completely mischaracterizing what I said.

 Local blogger (and former candidate for MD-20 state delegate) Jonathan Shurberg has been defending MD-8 congressional candidates Kathleen Matthews and David Trone recently. Well, actually, he has been saying that criticism of them is unfair and should be out of bounds.

* * *

Today, under the sarcastic headline “David Trone is a Bad, Bad Man,” Shurberg went after MD-8 candidate Joel Rubin because the latter decried Trone’s massive contributions to hard-right GOP candidates across the country. Shurberg, who has been deeply involved in Democratic politics for years suddenly believes that pointing out the flaws of other candidates is beyond the pale.

Are Kathleen Matthews and David Trone “bad” people? I don’t know them personally and can’t judge that. But they are clearly destructive forces in this race. I applaud Joel Ruben for making the case.

Shurberg is a solid progressive. I cannot understand why he feels the need to cover for two candidates who will represent Wall St., rather than one of the most progressive districts in the country.

I didn’t say any of those highlighted things. Keith and others are of course free to hold whatever opinions they wish, and to say whatever they want. My point is a very narrow one: in a public forum, in a race in which 55-60% of voters are undecided, it’s vastly more effective to make the case for your candidate rather than engage in the theatrical blustering that Keith Berner has demonstrated here. I’m not for or against anyone in this opinion - I’m simply saying I don’t think the tone of “disqualification” and “illegitimacy” is persuasive to a voter who doesn’t know who Jamie Raskin is. Even in his own poll, more than half of the respondents didn’t know him. I’ve said the same thing about other candidates - and will continue to do so.

Second point: Berner’s tone is instructive. If you like Raskin, this is catnip. But what if you don’t? What if you don’t know him? Are words like Berner’s PERSUASIVE? Of course not. He reflects a very specific view of politics that - hard as it is to believe - isn’t shared by everyone. It’s predetermined - my guy is great, everyone else sucks, case closed. My sole point from the outset has been that this attitude is a terrible technique for persuasion. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong substantively but it’s not going to gain Jamie Raskin any votes and I have no doubt that it will cost him more than a few.

Finally, Berner gives away the straw man game with his rhetorical question at the end. Within minutes of his post, he gets a comment claiming that I am “pissed” at Jamie Raskin, and even puts words in my mouth that I’ve never spoken. Then, in a remarkable turnaround, Berner - on the basis of a supposedly spontaneous comment - says “I think you may be right re Shurberg’s view of Jamie — if so, it’s too bad — the public good should outweigh personal spats.”

Wow, douse that straw man in gasoline and let ‘er rip. This is what passes for subtle and clever in Keith Berner’s world. Can we play poker sometime soon, Keith?

I thought I’d made myself clear when I stated forthrightly a while back that there are issues between Jamie Raskin and me. I felt that needed to be stated in the interests of full disclosure. I thought that was sufficient. In this case, I’ve made a very clear distinction between the behavior of the campaign and the candidate on the one hand, and angry and indignant people like, well, Keith Berner. I’ve also made it clear that I’m talking about techniques of public persuasion, not the relative merits of the candidates or their qualifications. I thought that was more than fair. But at least for Keith Berner, that wasn’t sufficient fealty to his opinions. Toe the line or get my words twisted around and I get smeared, now and forever, amen. Very persuasive, don’t you think? Hey, Keith, leggo my arm, wouldja?

Remember this post from last week, about political discourse and decision making being governed by rumor, innuendo and falsehood? It’s not just District 14 where it happens; it’s very, very popular in the heart of District 20 too.

I’m not taking it anymore. As was said about Barack Obama late last year (no, I’m not comparing myself to him, so don’t go there), he has “no more fucks to give” as he enters his last year in office. Well, neither do I, in my own small way. I’m going to speak my mind and say what I think. If Keith Berner doesn’t like it, well, you know what he can do.

If you don’t like what I write, argue with me, criticize my point, offer a counter. That’s a good way to produce better answers. Or if you just can’t stand it, don’t read it.

But don’t mischaracterize what I say, and then try to bootstrap your way into some old, irrelevant crap. That’s a bullshit way to resolve anything, much less important and serious political and policy issues. What it says about the purveyors of such bilge is that they don’t think they can win a real debate, so they trash the messenger instead.

We all deserve a better discourse than that, whether in Montgomery County, the State of Maryland, or the entire country, and I for one am through putting up with it.

3 thoughts on “Of Bad Men And Straw Men

  1. Keith Berner

    I’ve been known to get under others’ skins from time to time. One reason why I decided a few years ago not to run for public office myself is because I want to call ’em as I see ’em. I respect you, Jonathan — even endorsed you in your run for public office. This will not, should not be a spat between us personally.

    But I stand by the substance: two people who entered the race out of nowhere, who don’t represent the values of the district, who don’t have a demonstrable record public service or support of progressive policies/candidates, ought not poison this district’s politics. Do they have a right to run. Of course! And those of us who care about *results* (meaning effective leadership for progressive politics in Congress) should both tout the candidates whom we think will get us there and decry those whom we think won’t.

    1. Keith Berner

      Yeah - talking past each other indeed. I get Jonathan’s points and think most are valid. We have different emphases on covering this race.

      Btw, comments notifications aren’t working for me. I never got notified of your comment, nor of Jonathan’s reply to my first comment on his post.


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