Win or lose, the GOP talks about three core principles: less government, lower taxes, and a strong military. It doesn’t matter that, when in charge, Republican politicians have been known to grow government, raise taxes, and stretch the military too thin. Party leaders have decided that less government, lower taxes, and a strong military is what they stand for and what they run on. That’s their story and they’re sticking with it for good reason — because more often that not, it has helped them win. [Bill Scher, Wait! Don’t Move to Canada! (Rodale, 2006), p. 13.]
I’m starting off with a quote from Bill Scher’s new book to contrast it with what Sebastian Mallaby writes in today’s Washington Post:
After years of single-party government, the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House ought to feel refreshing. But even with Republicans collapsing in a pile of sexual sleaze, I just can’t get excited. Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.
The implication is, of course, that Republicans do have principles to guide their use of power. And Mallaby’s error is, of course, to confuse principles with talking points.
In today’s New York Times Paul Krugman writes,
At its core, the political axis that currently controls Congress and the White House is an alliance between the preachers and the plutocrats â€” between the religious right, which hates gays, abortion and the theory of evolution, and the economic right, which hates Social Security, Medicare and taxes on rich people. Surrounding this core is a large periphery of politicians and lobbyists who joined the movement not out of conviction, but to share in the spoils.
This is an example of what we call “reality,” as opposed to “appearance,” a.k.a. “bullshit.”
Many argue that the impact of “values voters” in recent elections is greatly exaggerated. But I think it’s plain that people who have marched to the polls to vote against abortion, evolution, and gay marriage have handed many victories to Republicans. Professor Krugman continues,
… the religious and cultural right, which boasted of having supplied the Bush campaign with its â€œshock troopsâ€ and expected a right-wing cultural agenda in return â€” starting with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage â€” was dismayed when the administration put its energy into attacking the welfare state instead. James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, accused Republicans of â€œjust ignoring those that put them in office.â€
It will be interesting, by the way, to see how Dr. Dobson, who declared of Bill Clinton that â€œno man has ever done more to debase the presidency,â€ responds to the Foley scandal. Does the failure of Republican leaders to do anything about a sexual predator in their midst outrage him as much as a Democratic presidentâ€™s consensual affair?
Brian Ross of ABC News found a former congressional page who says he was warned about Rep. Foley’s, um, predilections back in 2001. The “principled” party has been tolerating an alleged sexual predator in their midst for quite some time.
What was that you said about principles, Mr. Mallaby? I think the only Republican principle is “say anything that will get you elected.”
I’m not letting Dems off the hook. As Mallaby says,
On Friday, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, correctly denounced a border-fence bill as a concession “to the radical anti-immigrant right wing” of the Republican Party. It’s absurd to fence off 700 miles of the border and leave the other 1,300 miles open; besides, the government lacks the manpower to prevent migrants from defeating the fence with tunnels or ladders. But if blowing billions on this symbolism is a sop to right-wing nuts, why did 26 Senate Democrats vote for the bill while only 17 opposed it?
And the answer is, they don’t want to give the GOP grist for their talking point mill. And I would like to know how many of the Republicans who pushed for the fence have supporters and contributors who hire illegal aliens. But how many times have we discussed why support Democrats when we can’t trust them to support our values and principles? There are reasons for doing so, but they aren’t reasons that the Party would want to put in its campaign literature. “Because we don’t have a choice” isn’t all that inspirational.
[Update: Brad DeLong has a better answer:
As Sebastian Mallaby knows well–but hopes to keep his readers from realizing–the Democratic Senate leaders judged, correctly, that no Republicans save possibly Chaffee would join them in a filibuster, and that they could not hold enough Democrats to make a filibuster stick. What they decided to do, again correctly, was support Arlen Specter’s effort to amend the bill, as their best chance to make it better. That attempt failed by three votes.
There was not “allow[ing] it through” on the part of the Democratic Senate leadership. As Mallaby knows as well as anybody.]
Bill Scher explains,
There is no clear consensus within the Democratic Party on how to address fundamental policy matters such as the role of government, the ideal level of taxation, and the proper direction for our foreign policy, not to mention how to approach hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And that makes it harder to be defiant in the face of defeat. How can you confidently jump back into the fray if you can’t be sure that your buddies have your back? If Democrats clearly and consistently articulated a set of principles, and if they supported those principles in good times and bad, people would know what they were fighting for and be willing to fight that much harder.
We liberals tend to rate our candidates on campaign performance, which mostly boils down to how effectively our candidates smack down whatever lies the Right is spreading about them. It can be hard to explain to voters who you are when most of your time is taken up explaining who you aren’t. But that’s how it is, and we need to be better prepared for it. One way we could be better prepared is if the Democratic Party collectively used the time between elections to articulate a short list of basic principles. And, once articulated — repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Until every voter in America can recite that list by heart.
It’s been a long time since Democrats have done that. Even Bill Clinton won mostly on conservative talking points about ending welfare and reducing deficits, not on uniquely Democratic Party principles.
I’m not saying that the short list of principles should be just words without conviction, as are Republican talking points. The Dems can’t copy the GOP and say anything that sounds good, because the Dems do not have a base of robot followers who will believe everything they’re told and ignore reality. Dems will have to deliver, and fast, or they’ll find themselves in the minority again very quickly.
As soon as Dems get some power in Washington (assuming they ever do), a clock will start ticking. And that clock will be marking a short period of time the Dems will have to prove themselves. They will have to deliver something tangible, something big, something Americans can plainly see with their own eyes, that they can point to and say, look, we did this. Republicans had their chance and didn’t do it, but we did it. That something might be getting out of Iraq, providing national health care, or making significant progress in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. What’s important is that it has to be something that voters can see is real so that it can’t be explained away with lies and fuzzy math by the VRWC.
I have long believed that clarity of language and clarity of thought go hand and hand; muddy writers tend to be muddy thinkers, and vice versa. You can impress some people with sheer volume of verbiage (this explains Victor Davis Hanson’s following). But I find that putting thoughts into words sharpens the thoughts. For this reason the exercise of articulating principles should not be contracted to speechwriters and PR people. The list must present genuine core convictions and the most basic expectations We, the People, have of our government.
Most of Mallaby’s soft-headed column is spent criticizing Dems for refusing to enter into new “bipartisan” talks on Social Security reform. Of course, the Dems are right to refuse; it’s an obvious trap. It takes a pundit not to see that. It also takes a pundit not to notice that right-wing “principles” are all smoke. Let’s hope voters are smarter. A new McClatchy Newspapers / MSNBC poll suggests maybe they are. But it would be nice if the Dems could say something more for themselves than “we promise not to screw up as bad as the GOP.” As we see from the Republican example, what you say about yourself matters a lot.
Now, what should be on the list? Please add your ideas to the comments.
Update: See also TAPPED.