Iraq and the Wimp Love Myth
by Democratic Courage, Fri May 25, 2007 at 06:52:15 AM EDT
The Spineless Dem has risen again.
Democrats have responded to months of Republican intransigence by cutting deals on GOP priorities like trade and immigration - and have now capitulated completely to Republican demands on Iraq.
Why are the Democrats acting so butter-boned?
A lot of it has to do with their seemingly innate fear of confrontation. Democrats are afraid that in the great battle of rhetoric and ideas, they still can't go toe to toe with the Bush White House and the Republican message machine. They're also afraid that their liberal, mushy voters won't support hardball politics. But is confrontation for Democrats really such a politically hazardous strategy - and isn't it necessary to achieve the great goals to which we all aspire?
A quick look at recent history suggests that not only do Democrats have nothing to fear from taking on the Republicans, they actually do better when they're on the attack. As James Carville has written, "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth." Unfortunately, it's usually the Democrats coughing up fingernails.
In 2004, for instance, Democrats ignored the entire accumulated history of American political conventions and decided to run a "positive" convention where they avoided criticizing George Bush. According to Carville and Begala, Democrats made this decision on the basis of one focus group in Dayton, Ohio in which the participants said they didn't like negative campaigning (the campaign operatives apparently didn't know that no one likes negative campaigning, but it sure is a great way to persuade people not to vote for the other guy). Apparently, Democrats think that their voters love wimps.
Not surprisingly, Democrats got at most a two percent bump from the convention - about one fifth the minimum bump parties usually get. The Republicans responded to the Democrats' smiley hug-fest with their usual political Napalm. They trotted out Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat in name only, to unleash his seething anger at Kerry with what is possibly the most rage-filled speech in recent American history. Though disgusting, Miller's rabid attacks worked - and gave the Republicans a 10 point boost in the polls.
But it wasn't always that way. Take Bill Clinton, for example. He's widely considered the greatest political talent of his generation. But among progressives, he's also remembered for his crippling fear of confrontation that repeatedly left his progressive friends feeling betrayed and his right wing enemies emboldened. But when Republicans overreached, even Clinton was forced to start swinging. And it was at those rare moments of confrontation that Clinton himself proved the political value of courage. When he was finally forced to confront Republicans in the fight over the federal government shutdown and most famously, over his impeachment, he saw his approval ratings surge to record levels. Check out this graph of Clinton's approval ratings - and look at the major boosts in support when he finally took Republicans on on the budget and especially when he started fighting them on impeachment.
Paul Wellstone pulled the same trick on Iraq in 2002. Support for the war in Minnesota was running 54-32 in favor, according to a Star Tribune poll. And one by one, every single Democratic senator up for re-election announced their support for the war. But on October 3, Wellstone defied his party leadership and the political pundits and announced to the world he would vote against the war. He himself told his staff he thought the vote would lose him his seat.
Before his announcement, the September 21 MSNBC-Zogby poll showed Wellstone down six points in the polls at 41 percent to 47 percent. But in the next poll, Wellstone had shot ahead to gain a nine point lead over Coleman 46-37. Wellstone's internal tracking polls also showed him with a six point lead - 44 to 38, up from a 46-43 advantage in August. Minnesotans had decided that this was indeed the Wellstone they had come to love - the one who would do what he thought was right no matter the political calculus.
More recently, confrontation played a vital role in winning Congress back for the Democrats. Then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi early on showed that she was willing to confront Republicans - and force them to cast difficult votes. She charmed, persuaded, and threatened her famously ideologically diverse caucus into falling in line behind her unapologetically progressive agenda. If a member told her that he couldn't be with her on a vote, she'd say "We can't be with you either" - and would withhold campaign donations, perks, and power from even some of the most powerful house "bulls" - the committee chairmen formerly unchallenged within their fiefdoms. This kind of toughness - largely foreign to other recent Democratic leaders - helped Pelosi get Democrats to vote the (increasingly progressive) party line 87 percent of the time, the highest levels of party unity Democrats recorded since Congressional Quarterly started compiling them in the 1950's. That unity forced Republicans to cast some very uncomfortable votes. Pelosi held Democratic defections on the Central American Free Trade deal to just 15 members - far fewer that Republicans had been anticipating. As a result, to pass the agreement, several Republicans from contested districts had to break their pledges to vote against it, making them seem like unprincipled slaves to the increasingly unpopular Republican.
In one case, Pelosi's ability to keep Democrats in line even caused a criminal investigation into Republican behavior: when unexpected Democratic loyalty forced Republicans to keep a House vote on President Bush's Medicare legislation open for three hours, Tom DeLay allegedly illegally offered Representative Nick Smith his endorsement in Smith's son's race for Congress in exchange for switching his vote.
With Congress's approval rating competing with Bush for its depth, Pelosi and the rest of the Democrats need to remember that confrontation got them where they are - and confrontation will keep them there.
Glenn Hurowitz, who blogs at Democratic Courage is the author of the forthcoming book Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party
Originally Posted at The Huffington Post, May 25, 2007
Tags: Bill Clinton, fear and Courage in the Democratic Party, Glenn Hurowitz, Health care, Iraq, James Carville, Medicare, Nancy Pelosi, Nick Smith, Paul Begala, Paul Wellstone, Tom DeLay, trade, U.S. Democratic Party, U.S. Republican Party, Zell Miller (all tags)