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June 18, 2005

Don't Kick the Donkey!

There's been some discussion recently about how centrist Democrats should talk about people more liberal than themselves. Sometimes centrists attack liberals because they're worried that the Democratic Party will be perceived as some kind of crazy liberal party and will lose its appeal to moderate voters. The centrists are right that it's worth some sacrifices to win moderate voters, since we need moderates to win elections and govern. But some of the standard centrist moves actually do more to damage the party's appeal to moderates than to improve it.

Regard the DLC-Dean story from the primaries as a cautionary tale. Despite Dean's centrism on issues like gun control and the budget, the DLC treated him like a fringe candidate for his opposition to the Iraq War, which they thought would alienate moderate voters. Partially thanks to them, he's now regarded as a radical. The DLC didn't even dream that they were giving their future party chairman a radical reputation, but that's what happened. The moral of the story: don't make your fellow Democrats look more radical than they are. You'll wish they had a moderate image later.

This applies not only to people, but to positions and lines of attack. Opposition to the Iraq War is one example. Pro-war Democratic rhetoric over the past few years laid a minefield that we're having to tiptoe back through, now that antiwar sentiment is building and most Americans think we made the wrong decision in attacking Iraq. The same simpleminded we-had-to-invade-because-9-11 rhetoric that was deployed in the primary debates now impedes our move to what's become a decent if not advantageous position. Much of this rhetoric was set out for pragmatic purposes, I'm sure, to make us look as patriotic as Bush and separate us from the radicals. I don't think it serves pragmatic purposes anymore. I can accept a little bit of sniping at fellow Democrats from Ben Nelson -- he's from Nebraska, and a small intraparty popularity transfer can be worth keeping a tough Senate seat. But senators from Connecticut and Delaware have no excuse for playing these games.

When Democrats are being asked about some radical-looking comment by a fellow Democrat (Durbin's remarks are a good example), I'd like them to highlight what's right and sensible in the remark, rather than distancing themselves from it. Sometimes a caveat of some kind will be necessary -- "I didn't agree with the Nazi analogy, it obfuscates more than it clarifies." But they've got to explain why their fellow Democrat was right, insofar as he was right, and cut through the web of distortion that Republicans will weave -- "Chaining prisoners to the floor in their own feces for hours on end is not something I expected America to do!" And I'd like to see the Democrat who says "He wasn't comparing American soldiers to Nazis at all! That was the whole point of the thing, Tim -- the Bush Administration somehow created these atrocities using American soldiers of good will who themselves believed in human rights!"

Not only do we have to think about how things will look in a few years, but there's no guarantee that distancing oneself from a liberal comment helps the party seem more moderate in the near term. Remember that when Republicans try to define the Democrats, they won't ever bring up the centrist's moderate, conciliatory remark distancing himself from the radical. They'll bring up the radical's remark that fearful centrists pushed beyond the pale and didn't bother to explain. They'll use that remark to tar the entire Democratic party. They don't care that Michael Moore was hardly a Democrat, voting against us in the two previous elections, and our presidential candidates were distancing themselves from him. (Just in virtue of his voting record, Moore may be one of the few cases where distancing might work. But it's much harder to do with anyone who actually is a Democrat.) The Republicans will use all their power to define us by our radicals, and attempts to insulate the party from Dean or Durbin or anybody with a (D) beside his name are unlikely to succeed.

--Neil the Ethical Werewolf

June 18, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink

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Comments

For God's sake Ezra, wake up. Today's no day to wander around wondering whether we should attack Dean! The Right's exploding from the collapse of W's policies. His polls are plummeting, the GOP is splintering, there's no there there. We don't need to defend. Attack. Attack. The lies are finally beginning to melt. Now's the time to put on the heat to hurry them up.

Posted by: Dougas Scott | Jun 18, 2005 10:45:46 PM

Overall a good piece, but uhh...fuck Ben Nelson. He's a corporate whore who was the only Democrat to vote for Janice Rogers Brown and one of two Dems (along with Ken Salazar) to vote for William Pryor. I would be able to stand sniping from him if he actually voted like a Democrat, but he doesn't. If he loses his seat to a Republican, no one will know the difference.

Posted by: randomliberal | Jun 18, 2005 10:46:36 PM

Good gravy Ezra, come to your senses, man!

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jun 18, 2005 11:46:13 PM

Just want to note that this post was Neil's, not Ezra's.

Posted by: Dadahead | Jun 19, 2005 12:27:01 AM

Leave appealing to the middle to those running for public office. Sites like this should forget about pleasing the middle and should work to educate the electorate about the superiority of liberal positions. Once the electorate has accepted a particular liberal idea it can be embraced by the candidates. Until then, those ideas can only be expounded and defended by folks like Ezra and Neil.

Posted by: exgop | Jun 19, 2005 12:36:29 AM

"I would be able to stand sniping from him if he actually voted like a Democrat, but he doesn't. If he loses his seat to a Republican, no one will know the difference."

That logic only works if we can beat republicans moderates in otherwise demorcatic states. Judging from the SurveyUSA poll that made the rounds recently, we won't be able to. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe will be in the Senate until they retire, Gordon Smith appears to be safe; we might be able to beat Chaffee, but the strongest dems have already been pushed out for not being "Democrat enough."

Meanwhile both Minnesota senate seats could become GOP because formerly liberal strongholds like Minn are more and more conservative, and does anyone expect the Dems to hang onto all their seats in states like WV (Byrd & Rockefeller) or the Dakotas (Dorgan, Conrad and Johnson) once the successful democratic incumbents retire?

If the dems are going to fight in the Senate they're going to have to have huge success in the marginal states, like in 2000, and have some breakthrough candidates in seemingly solid red states, like Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh, both "conservatives" by the standard of national democrats but who are markedly different than what the GOP offers in their states.

And let's not get into the issue of whether or not the people of Nebraska elected Nelson because they agree with him and wish to be represented by a conservative Democrat. We may not love him, but we certainly need his vote.

Posted by: Mike in CO | Jun 19, 2005 12:53:27 AM

Neil's point is a good one: any agreement with the rightwing noise machine serves the interest of the Repubs in power.

God's Own Party learned the outraged attack a long time ago, having learned (from George Patton, perhaps, or the fascists in 1930's Europe, more likely) that the best defense is a strong offense.

First it was the attacks on Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), hinting that they were somewhere between pink and red - 'card-carrying ADA liberal'. Then it was card-carrying ACLU, followed by SF Democrats. Now it is radical, irreligious Dems at home and terror-loving Dems overseas.

Moderation and compromise is something to be done these days in legislative negotiations, not on CNN or MSNBC, if compromise is allowed. Anything, literally anything, that a Dem says in public that undercuts other Dems will be a lever for even harder attacks on the Dem party as a whole.

Do you hear any Repubs attacking other Repubs for being neo-con warmongers? Or Theocons that want a religious oversight and control over the laws - like Iran, kinda? Hegel complains sometimes about the WH, but doesn't attack the Repub party's rightward thrust.

In my mind, the best historical examples of the effectiveness of the right against the left come from splintered left parties in pre-WWII Germany and France (pre and post German invasion) and Italy and Spain confronting united rightists that took control with a simple message of hyper-patriotism, relentless attacks on foreign influences and domestic sympathizers, continuous lies, and destruction of the opposition, physically and in society's information networks. The 'moderates' in all these places caved in to fascism because the left was not effective and dependable as an alternative. The rightist thugs and marchers cowed all opposition.

The rightists played hardball with a unity that broke the backs of democracy.

Democrats today are not ready for this fight. But the Republicans are and will be.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 19, 2005 3:45:41 AM

The day that Coulter was able to publish a book titled "Treason" was the day the gloves should have come off. The Right felt perfectly free to use a fighting word to smear the entire Left. And Centrists cowered muttering "Wouldn't be prudent" and "Voters don't like Angry Men" and "Popular War-Time President".

Here is a slogan for you: "Right and Wrong". Or maybe "Truth and Lying". The Right had a saying in the fifties and sixties: "I'd rather be Dead than Red". I don't have to admire them on their politics or their policies, or for that matter on their veracity, but by God they generally don't grab their ankles and just beg for another whack, still less denounce those who actually stand up and fight.

You can differ about the politics of this war. There are people who opposed the war because they reflexively hate anything the US does, there are people who opposed the war because they oppose all wars period. I despise the former group, I admire the latter group even while considering them mushy-headed. But there is a third group who opposed this war. A group who sat down, examined the evidence, weighed the influence of the PNAC and Ahmad Chalabi going in, listened to Steve Gilliard's lectures on the care and maintenence of ABC weapons (the real name: Atomic, Biological, Chemical, not the bogeyman WMD) and tried to make the argument that this war was not going to be worth the cost in lives and money.

There are reasons why people didn't listen, and we don't blame people who got swept up in war fever, you were not alone. But by God it pisses us off to get lectured by people who in the final analysis just got this one wrong.

Dean was right, Biden was wrong. I was right, Kevin Drum was wrong. We haven't gone out of our way to rub people's faces in it, but ABB was the factually and morally correct course and Bush-Lite was morally bankrupt. And yet the bankrupts are still demanding the right to the keys to the car. Well slide over, we tried it your way, time to let somebody from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party drive.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jun 19, 2005 10:48:11 AM

The ABB candidate got the Dems John Kerry, I don't see why that would be 'morally' correct. The Dems really wanted Dean, but he was seen as 'un electable', so the Dems chose a very questionable candidate cuz he was not Bush, he was 'electable' and he was a Dem.

As far as the war goes, the Dems problem is the same as Kerry's during the election. So many prominant Dems made a better case for war than Bush did, then they call the war a mistake, quagmire, Bush's war, a war based on lies, etc. People don't like to be lectured about the 'wrong war' by someone who voted for that war.

It sounds pretty hypocritical to most people. If you are going to advocate something like a war, you can't cut and run cuz it may have been a mistake. We have to follow thru. This causes the Democratic party to be seen as Kerry was, saying whatever the people want to hear. Basing their policies on polls.

Now the Dems appear to be letting the fringe take over the party. Mainstream America does not agree with statements made by Dean, Durbin, Kennedy, Byrd, etc.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jun 19, 2005 11:30:14 AM

I think this is an important issue. But I'm not quite sure what I think aout it, because generally I believe politicians are much more effective when they say what they honestly think than when they try to be super-disciplined. Biden & Lieberman aren't really thinking strategically when they diss Dean. They just don't like or respect him very much, and so they don't take the trouble to craft a nuanced defense (maybe poor word choice, but Dean's a good guy) rather than a blanket denunciation (Dean was so very. . .wrong. I am so mortified to be a Democrat. I don't know why anybody votes for us. Luckily, I'm a noble exception).

And they think they're doing the right thing when they denounce Dean. If you told them that their attacks on Dean are bad for the party, they would reply "Well, Mr. Werewolf, a senator. . .must put country before party, I'm afraid." A point Kos made is that one problem is some of these guys seem just a little too comfortable being in the minority. So, the more you criticize them, the more you feed their Persecution, profile-in- courage, "I am the Democrat John McCain"-complex

I'm not sure what to think, but I think this might be an issue where it might be helpful to go into specifics before coming up with general principles. It might be good to go over an entire MTP interview, and think about why the Democrat on the seat didn't do a better job, and how to craft better responses that would better serve the country substantively and the party politically.

One suggestion is that Dean and the Democrat Senators & Congressmen should debate & discuss with each other more, and circulate their speeches amongst each other perhaps before delivering them in public. If they're going to defend each other in public, there probably is no substitute for just building a better relationship with each other, and knowing in advance what everybody is thinking.

On Durbin specifically, I would say there was no need for Durbin to bring in Nazis and Pol Pot, it added nothing and distracted from the substantive. But the Republicans must not be allowed to get away with obscuring the real issues by screaming about Durbin. Any Democrat who allows for that obscuring is doing both the country and the party a disservice.

Only when you show the conservatives and moderates how their dissing of lefties hurts the country substantively, as well as the party politically, maybe you might convince some of these guys to change their ways.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Jun 19, 2005 11:35:10 AM

Why does being anti-war have to mean flaming lefty?

Look who opposed the war--Pat Buchanan, Paul Craig Roberts, Robert Byrd, Bob Graham, Ron Paul. Pick the flaming lefty in that bunch.

The "centrists" blew it by equating all people opposed to the war with the Kucinich wing of the Democratic party. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Posted by: Some Dude | Jun 19, 2005 11:36:54 AM

I go with those who say: put anger and authenticity first. What's the point of trimming if people can sense it a mile away? What's the point of running as something you're not, so as to not "offend" people, and then hoping that nobody notices that you're not actually voting the way you said you would?

Sure, right-wing Republicans are winning now, but they lost for a lot of years, until the times changed and they started winning. During all those losing years they were basically saying the same things that they're saying now (except for anything having to do with the ethics of officeholders; nowadays they have do defend misbehavior instead of attack it).

In a battle between anger and truth on one hand, and fear and caution on the other, the former will (eventually) win hands down.

Posted by: Chloe | Jun 19, 2005 12:16:01 PM

Biden was a little more smooth with the Dean question on FTN Sunday morning. He did what Neil suggested, "highlight what's right and sensible in the remark, rather than distancing themselves from it."

Posted by: Adrock | Jun 20, 2005 3:44:56 PM

Bruce Webb has it right.

I remember after the election, my friend was at the local gas station and saw the "Bush/Cheney" sticker on the proprietors car. She was in a bad mood so she asked him, "Tell me, Hoot, when is mandatory church gonna start up?" And he kind of grimaced and said, "I didn't want to vote for him. I wanted to vote for Howard Dean. This is the first time I ever voted Republican in my life."

The Liebermans, Kerrys, Bidens, are what's wrong with the Democratic Party. Being the squishy party is not a winning strategy.

Posted by: SadieB. | Jun 23, 2005 8:58:19 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:55:13 PM

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