Chris Matthews Is Looking for a Few Good Ideas

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 dismissing the “bad intelligence” canard.

Matthews’s great virtue, and limitation, is that he’s so street-smart. He has political understanding and shrewdness in his fingertips. And so he recognizes the continued effectiveness, politically, of Bush’s idea: the way we fight terrorism is over there, not here, and aggressively and unilaterally; that will make America safer. It still works on the street. But Matthews is enough of a thinker to recognize the intellectual 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, in so many words, Someone has to come up with a better idea to counter that Bush idea. This is a great political challenge. 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—along with the understanding that we win hearts and minds by offering a helping hand, the idea of Navy Secretary Winter. But someone smart and political has to imbibe the ideas and then regurgitate them into the tiny beaks of the general populace. Any takers?