The third smartest thing that the Democratic Party could do for themselves (and for us) would be to nominate a decent candidate for president next year.
The second smartest thing they could do would be to assist the Republicans in nominating a loser.
And the very smartest thing they could do, of course, would be to relocate their long-lost spines and then immediately schedule a surgery to have them reinserted and arc-welded into place.
That first item is probably not going to happen, what with the inexplicable Hillary Train chugging along relentlessly toward victory (what’s up with that, Democratic voters?), and the third item is the subject of a whole ‘nuther discussion altogether (what’s up with that, Democratic ‘leaders’?), so, instead, let’s talk about winning the old-fashioned way: by using some smart guerilla warfare tactics against your opponent.
And one of the very best ways you can do that is to pick your opponent.
My guess is that Hillary, if she does in fact secure the nomination, will run a smart and tough campaign. But not as smart and tough as Karl Rove would run. On that, she should reconsider. It’s not necessary to indulge in the filth and the demonization of your typical Rove scorched earth campaign in order to engage its take-no-prisoners style of hardball politics. It is necessary to do the latter in order to win, because – Rove or not – Republicans will be doing it, as they always have since the era of Joe McCarthy.
Clinton, if she gets the nomination, will enter the general election campaign with one major strike against her: the person at head of the Democratic ticket. She brings together into a singularly toxic brew more baggage than JFK airport the day before Thanksgiving, less charisma than a pile of dirty laundry, and all the principled moral exhilaration of a down-on-his-luck bail-bondsman. Even holding out the very real prospect of becoming the first woman president cuts both ways. Seven percent of American women tell pollsters that they would never vote for a female to hold the office (now that’s a truly scary barometer on the state of the union); who knows, maybe twice that many men feel the same way. Democratic voters could hardly choose a more laden and uninspirational standard-bearer if they sat down at a drawing board to design one on purpose (Let’s see here – add one part Michael Dukakis to one part Mark Foley and one part Margaret Thatcher, and presto!, an instant boring and alienating candidate is born, complete with sex scandal history.)
Well, okay, I take that back – maybe Hillary’s not the worst imaginable. Despite all appearances to the contrary, John Kerry’s attending physician insists that he is actually still alive, and they’ve even published his vitals to prove it. So if Democrats insist on committing political suicide next year, why not just do it the right way and let Kerry report for duty again, complete with the same smarmy salute? Maybe Harry Reid could be drafted as the vice-presidential nominee – talk about your charisma factor! And they could get Bob Shrum to run the campaign again. After losing his ninth presidential race straight, he’d only need one more after that to advance his perfect record into double digits!
The only reason Hillary has a prayer of winning is because this is the year that any Democrat with a pulse should be able to beat any Republican this side of Jesus himself, hands down. Never has the American public been more anxious for change, nor more angry at the current class of clowns nominally in charge. It’s the Democrats’ election to lose, which they – of course – seem intent on doing, having perfected the technique over the last forty years, only twelve of which have seen a Democrat in the White House (both of whom were, by the way, obscure Southern conservatives who nevertheless seemed to spend most of their time in office happily serving as punching bags for the radical right). A Clinton nomination, with all the negatives and no compensating positives, neutralizes the gift of George W. Bush to the Democratic Party in 2008 and turns the damn thing into a horse race, after all.
(As proof of this point, consider the wagers I offered to a right-wing ranter who was badgering me on email about how wrong I was concerning the mood of the country. To shut him up, I offered him three bets of $100 each: That the GOP would lose the White House in 2008, that Democrats would increase their majorities in both houses of Congress, and that these increases would be huge. My only caveat was that there be no ‘national security’ October surprises before the election. Not entirely surprisingly, he declined all the bets other than the first one, and would only take that on the condition that Hillary was the Democratic nominee. I believe that’s what poker players and nuclear brinksmanship contestants refer to as having your bluff called – bigtime – but in any case, the more important illustration is of the weakness Clinton introduces to the ticket.)
Having blown their prohibitive advantage by, presumably, nominating Clinton, the Democrats’ best hope will be is to run the smartest and most aggressive campaign they can. This would involve a number of key steps.
One of them is to choose your opponent. Nixon did it 1972, using dirty tricks to sabotage the Muskie campaign so he could run against McGovern instead, a nice fat target for a country unable then, as now, to differentiate true morality and heroism from the manufactured and cynical kind you’d think would lose its appeal at about the same time that playing war in the dirt with GI Joe dolls does for adolescents. Alas, in too many cases it does not, and the dolls just seem to get replaced with football players on TV. There is also some evidence to suggest that Rove pulled the same trick with Howard Dean in 2004, in order to stand up Kerry as his punching bag. A very smart move, of course. Democrats need to do likewise for this race, to the extent they can, and they need to start today.
Giuliani (and to a lesser extent McCain) is the greatest threat to Democratic hopes of winning the presidency. To my admitted astonishment, Republican voters seem to understand this and appear willing to forego their true preferences to embrace a winner, just as Democratic voters are doing the opposite. (Not that there is necessarily a compelling alternative choice for Democrats. John Edwards is the obvious progressive choice with a chance, but I continue to be nagged by the prospect that he is simply wearing his progressive hat today because he thinks that’s what might sell best among angry Democratic primary voters.) What makes Giuliani dangerous is that he is the least Bush-like of the four main Republican contenders. The others – Thompson, McCain and Romney – all more or less ape the troglodyte line on economic, security and social policy, while the Rude Man is only down for the first two (and the least unappealing) of those ideological categories. That makes him a lot more palatable to moderate voters put off by the gay-bashing, Schiavo-intervening, stem-cell-blocking and abortion-halting strains of today’s GOP. And that marginally greater appeal, along with Hillary’s vulnerabilities, makes him dangerous.
Which means that a smart Democratic Party and a smart Hillary Clinton would do everything in their power to make sure he is not the nominee next year. That’s no easy trick, especially if – unlike Tricky Dick or Kaveman Karl – you have some ethical and legal limitations on what you’re willing to do. That said, there are possibilities for making this happen, and there’s no prohibition on campaigning against him now, especially through surrogates. Ghouliani has massive vulnerabilities, especially among religious right voters, many of which cannot be pointed out, at least overtly, by his GOP rivals, either because they share some of the same weak spots themselves, or because it would be seen as a violation of the GOP’s supposed Eleventh Commandment that thou shall not speak ill of another Republican (as articulated by Ronald Reagan, who then proceeded in 1976 to run against sitting president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, presumably breaking the rather less well-known commandment against costing a fellow Republican the presidency).
It’s not clear who among the front-runners in the party would be the weakest opponent – and therefore the one Democrats should help arrange to get the nomination – but only because Mitt Romney is every bit as obsequious as Fred Thompson is comatose. In the end, though, I think the SmarMitt is probably the better choice. One of the keys to winning this race is going to be turning the Republican candidate into The Monster from Right-Wing Hell – not exactly a difficult chore, mind you – especially since Romney has been hard at work on that task for the last year, completely reinventing himself as the evil twin brother of the guy who once was the liberal governor of the liberal Massachusetts, but is apparently now locked up securely in an attic somewhere in the suburbs of Worcester. Even people dumb enough to lap up the gospel of Rush every day aren’t so far gone that they don’t find the guy suspicious. And then if he got the nomination and then tried to tack back to the center, he’d only alienate both sets of voters. Either way, a smart Democratic nominee could, should and must hammer him or any other GOP nominee as a right-wing freak.
The nice thing about Romney is that he’s spent the last months actually writing that script himself, but Thompson would also do, in a pinch. Freddy’s lumbering campaign couldn’t even light a fire in Southern California at this point. Out on the stump, he’s got the potential to make James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s infamous “Who am I?” running mate, seem like a Nobel laureate by comparison. No wonder Nixon thought Thompson was “dumb” back in the Watergate era. Thirty years of acting and lobbying don’t seem to have improved matters a lot.
A second crucial tactic for Democrats, which could be part of the first as well, is to define the Rude Dude before he gets a chance to define himself to American voters. This will be crucial whether or not he gets the nomination, but obviously more so assuming he’s the candidate. Americans really know very little about the former mayor, and what they think they know is false anyhow. Those guns have to start blazing, and the sooner the better. There’s a wealth of material to use here, including some outrageous personal stunts like announcing, at a press conference, to his stunned second wife that he was leaving her (for what would become wife number three, with whom he was then having an affair). Giuliani has lamely told reporters and voters to leave his personal life alone. Normally, I would tend to agree, but given the transgressions of his party these last decades in all of our personal lives, I’d say any Republican with a record like this should be savaged well and good, just like they did to Bill Clinton, or to Terri Schiavo’s family, or to any pregnant woman in America ever contemplating an abortion. At the very least, Giuliani should be forced to repudiate those intrusions, which would of course cost him massively amongst the Republican base.
It’s also crucial to attack Giuliani at his perceived strong spot, above all, just as Rove wisely, though so cynically, did to Kerry in 2004. Giuliani’s twin claims to fame are that he has successful executive experience, and that he is Mr. 9/11. Both of these can readily and credibly be punctured by repeated use of very real evidence to the contrary. Voters need to be continually reminded that he was hated by New Yorkers on the day before 9/11, and that he completely botched the emergency responses he talks about endlessly.
Every time he goes on about how he is the only guy to actually run something, it needs to be pointed out that a city is not country, and that he has no foreign policy experience. Democrats should turn the guy into the best street-cleaner and pothole repairer ever to run for president. More importantly, though, Giuliani must be morphed into Bernie Kerik – whom he in fact created – and all of the latter’s sex and money scandals, not least the mob ties Giuliani was clearly warned about as he was promoting Kerik. I think the little taxpayer-supported love nest that the married Kerik had, directly overlooking the 9/11 ground-zero pit no less, might prove instructional to voters, as well. And Rude-y must have the angry relatives of deceased New York firefighters, who never got the communications equipment from him that would have saved their lives, turned into his virtual running mates as well. Let him try to run against that. Let Republicans try to swift-boat the tearful, angry father of some firefighter who perished on 9/11.
Giuliani – or any Republican nominee – must also be turned into George W. Bush at every turn. The Democratic nominee should continually push the Republican candidate to denounce Bush. He won’t do it, because Bush is still popular with the base, and the hated W will thus become the perfect wedge issue in 2008. Over and over it should be emphasized that a vote for the Republicans in 2008 is a vote for more Bush and Cheney – more war, more debt, more incompetence, more corruption, more endless Bushism. By the time election day rolls around, voters should be made to think Junior is on the ballot yet again. In point of fact, given the way most Republicans have been campaigning, he is.
Americans have had enough of Republicans and they’ve even had enough of conservatism. Poll data shows an unmistakable and profound shift to the left, and that will grow both as the true horrors of the last decade become known, and the real vulnerabilities of the public become clear. But this is why a Giuliani campaign is particularly threatening. Alone among the Republican frontrunners, he can credibly disassociate himself from the most egregious and most abhorrent Terri Schiavo-style social regressivism. I would like nothing more than for Bushism to continue to be the dominant ideology of the GOP (in fact, a few more Schiavo-style stunts would be just the ticket). I think more of what we’ve seen these last seven years could literally drive the party into extinction, and I for one wouldn’t exactly mourn its loss. Giuliani, or anybody leading the party back in the direction of Gerry Ford style center-right conservatism, on the other hand, restores some marginal sanity and credibility to Republicans, and postpones the day when the beast finally no longer darkens our national doorway.
The Democratic ticket this year should also return to the old Nixonian tradition of using the VP nominee (and other surrogates) to serve as pit bulls attacking the opposition. Democrats need to be aggressive, rather than waiting to win by default (just ask the hapless John Kerry, whose is probably still to this day waiting for his ship to come in), putting the GOP ticket on the defensive and keeping them there before they are ever able to get up off the mat.
The Dems also need to be relentless. One reason Democrats are always getting rolled is because they cease and desist in their criticism whenever the right reacts to what they’ve said, which means they always lose. What would happen if they just kept saying the same things over and over again, incessantly? Has it never occurred to this brain trust that being shut up is precisely the objective of other side? Have they never realized that making the right defend themselves continuously is a victory of sorts, just on its own? Do they not understand that the only way to make ideas stick, and to turn them into conventional wisdom, is by repeating them incessantly? Plop, plop, fizz, fizz – has Harry Reid never heard of this street in New York called Madison Avenue?
Democrats are going to need to retrain the press, as well, and that has to start now. The media – either because of cooptation, intimidation, corporate profit protection, or all of the above – has savaged Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore while giving a free pass to the most egregious inanities and crimes of Reagan and Junior. That has to stop, and the best way to do that is to publicly humiliate the press for their cowardice, and do so repeatedly. Every time they come to the Democrats for a response to the latest regressive idiocy, they need to be asked instead why they never investigated GOP crimes, which should be named explicitly. As in, “Come back to me after you guys have done your job and covered the Downing Street Memos”. Doing this repeatedly will reopen those cases and earn a little respect for the brand new concept of Democratic pluck, currently the oxymoron of the century. It will also do to the media what thirty years worth of the “liberal press” myth has done so successfully for the right, namely, getting them to self-edit. It’s called working the ref, and it’s high time a little of that went the other direction. Or even a lot of it.
Democrats need also to demean Republicans, so that voters would be embarrassed to be associated with the party in any fashion whatsoever. “I mean, these are the same people who brought us...[insert Foley, Craig, Schiavo, Katrina, debt, global warming, 9/11, or other appropriate Republican fiasco here] – why in the world would we want to listen to them now?” needs to become a standard and repeated motif for undermining the very notion in the public mind of even considering taking the party seriously. These meta-narratives are crucial, because they can win battles before they are even engaged by making any position but yours seem to silly to consider, just as most Americans have been successfully trained to reject the idea of ‘socialist’ programs out of hand if they are so labeled, even when they actually approve of a given program’s concept.
And, finally, the campaign should play on the fatigue of the public with the status quo. Levels of disgust with America’s direction have never been so high and so sustained. No party could ask for a better environment in which to challenge an incumbent government. Whoever is the GOP nominee, including Giuliani, must be turned into George W. Bush, and voters must be asked over and over again whether they want four more years of this, and whether the country can afford four more years of this.
It doesn’t matter that Democrats don’t deserve to win anything given their complicity in the Bush crimes and their pathetic attempts at crime prevention, when they make the attempt at all. What matters is that the rest of us don’t deserve the equivalent of a third Bush term. That must be stopped at all costs, even if that means four years of Hillary.
Which would likely not be as bad as it sounds, anyhow. Never has there been a less principled, more malleable politician than Hillary Clinton, unless you count that other politician named Clinton. If the left tugs hard, and if Congress is hugely Democratic – which it assuredly will be – we can actually expect some moderately progressive policies to miraculously emerge from Washington in the coming years, especially if an angry and vulnerable-feeling public demands them.
If that isn’t compelling enough to get you feeling better than you do now, just imagine having to hear George Bush’s mangled words come out of Rudy Giuliani’s vicious face for the next four years for a point of comparative reference.
Even waterboarding looks good next to that.
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The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.