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The recent election spawned a thousand postmortems. Most attributed the Democratic loss to an incoherent message and a refusal to relate to America's deeply felt religious longings. The Democratic Party is probably guilty on both counts. But that is not why liberals – in the traditional sense of the term – lose elections. They lose because they approach politics differently from conservatives, at least conservatives circa 2004.
Conservatives view politics as war. In war, one tries to demoralize and destroy the enemy, seize his territory and gain unconditional surrender. And as Alberto Gonzales, our next Attorney General, has argued in an international context, in war there are no rules.
Liberals engage in politics as a contact sport. In politics, like football, people get injured. But even violent sports have rules. Rule-breakers receive penalties, including being thrown out of the game. And in sports, when the game ends, people shake hands, and differences are set aside.
This difference in approach results in a telling and visible difference in tactics and strategy. At the Democratic convention, word went out that it was to be a positive affair, pro-Kerry, not anti-Bush. The Republican Convention, on the other hand, accentuated the negative. It was a savage affair. Contrast the content and style of the keynote address of Barack Obama at the Democratic convention with that of Zell Miller at the Republican convention. When Reverend Al Sharpton went off-script in a speech that energized everyone at the Convention, Democratic leaders and commentators quickly distanced themselves from his comments.
Kerry was extremely reluctant to focus on George W. Bush's absence in the National Guard. Republicans, on the other hand, gave tens of millions of dollars to fund a 7-month no-holds-barred vicious effort by Swift Boat veterans accusing Kerry of being a traitor who prolonged the war and shot himself to gain a Purple Heart. The Democratic Party's response? No fair.
In the days following the 2002 election, House Majority Leader Tom Delay and other Republican leaders sent thugs into Florida's election offices to physically stop the manual recount. The morning after the 2004 election, with clear evidence of thousands of instances of voter fraud and malfeasance coming in across the country and specifically, in closely contested Ohio, John Kerry conceded.
Conservatives understand the nature of power and they are willing, even eager, to exercise it. When Ronald Reagan assumed office, Republicans adopted a conservative litmus test for those coming into civil service. They reassigned or forced out civil servants who did not accept the party's new ideology. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, put contractors on notice that they'd better be Republicans.
Before the 1984 election I asked several leading Democratic Party officials whether they would engage in the same tactics if they regained control of the Executive Branch. I argued that if they did not, they would be saddled with an obstructionist bureaucracy hostile to their objectives. They were horrified at my suggestion. "What they did was wrong," they insisted.
When Republicans gained control of the House in the mid-1990s they made it clear that any trade association with a lobbyist with Democratic credentials would have a difficult time gaining access. In this election, for the first time in U.S. history, the Republican Party declared that no one could see the president speak unless they supported his re-election. They spread the word that those who volunteered to work for his re-election would be given a priority.
In 1989, Newt Gingrich filed charges against Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Gingrich argued that Wright had used bulk purchases of a vanity book, "Reflections of a Public Man," to earn speaking fees in excess of the allowed maximum. At the time the Democratic Party held as large a majority in the House as the Republican Party does now. But Democrats did not defend Wright. After all, they sheepishly maintained, he did engage in unethical conduct. In May, Wright resigned as Speaker. In June he resigned his office.
Fast forward to 2004. Republican Speaker of the House Tom Delay has been censured twice for unethical conduct. He may soon be indicted. The Republican response? They changed the rules to allow him to continue as speaker even if indicted!
When the Senate was deliberating about whether to support John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General, Democrat Russell Feingold insisted, "A Republican president ought to be able to appoint people of strong conservative ideology." Can you imagine a Republican senator uttering those words if a Democratic president were in power and he nominated someone with strong liberal credentials? Remember Lani Guinier?
Conservatives are driven by rage. Liberals are driven by guilt. Conservatives suffer no moral qualms when they engage in dirty tactics. The ends justify the means. Civilization is at stake. Liberals worry that if they do evil they will become evil.
Consider the very language that Republicans use. When conservative Republicans gained control of the House in 1994 Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC, circulated to all Republican members a memo. Entitled, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," the memo declared, "Language matters." It contained a list of words that should be "Appl(ied) to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party. ...Memorize as many as possible," it urged. Among the words listed were, "decay, failure, sick, pathetic, liberal, traitors, threaten, devour, destructive, corrupt, steal, cheat, bizarre."
Ten years later such vocabulary has become standard fare in Republican campaigns.
In this campaign, Democrats were reluctant to attack George W. Bush for his violations of religious doctrine (e.g. supporting the death penalty, slashing help to the needy). Republicans focused on John Kerry's violation of a single Catholic tenet (abortion) and throughout the campaign accused him of blasphemy and worse. Here in Minnesota, conservatives carried signs branding John Kerry the anti-Christ.
Which leads to the key question: Can we fight fair and win? Can we talk about issues while refusing to engage in character assassination and gain a political victory at the national level? Or, on the flip side, if we adopt conservative tactics will we lose the very soul of liberalism? If we engage in politics as war, and win, will the same brutalizing values guide our exercise of power once in office?