Thursday, August 07, 2008

Punching Republicans in the Face

There's been a lot of talk lately about why Obama's campaign has not fought back harder in the last week against McCain turning dirty. They gave very ineffective responses to both the celebrity ads and to the tire gauge deal. Why? Sara Robinson has an interesting post going into the history of Democrats' reticence to get in the mud with Republicans and why this has hurt them. She closes by stating:

Out where the voters live, you never lose by fighting back. And you never win by holding back. You see this principle at work everywhere you find winning Democrats these days — and another several decades of enlightened examples of New England-style "civilized behavior" seem sadly unlikely to persuade the rest of the country to change on this point. (More's the pity.)

Then, progressive candidates need to recruit — and listen to — political experts who cut their teeth in the South and West, and know how the tackle version of the game is played. It's no accident that LBJ, Carter, and Clinton — our only successful Democratic presidential candidates over the past 40 years — came out of the South. (And the Kennedys were products of bare-knuckles Irish machine politics that didn't pull punches, either.) It's not an accident that James Carville, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove all came from there, either.

Obama is at his best when he reaches back into his Kansas populist side; but these days, he's no doubt got plenty of old party hands giving him the same fatal advice they gave Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, Humphrey, and even old Adlai Stevenson. (Note that they're all Northerners, too. Gore was a son of the South, but spent most of his childhood in D.C., and went to Yale.) They're going to do him in, too — and in exactly the same way — if he keeps listening. He needs people who know how to stick it right back to the GOP — fast, fearlessly, fiercely, with deadly aim and a transcendently elegant sense of style. (There's no need to give up the high road, ever. You absolutely can do this and stay classy.) And he needs them this week.

We're not going to take back the country by doing things the way they do them in Boston, Philadelphia, or the salons of Georgetown. That low-conflict style of politics is, as the Wellstone people like to say, Not Normal — at least, not outside the Northeast. The pattern is clear enough now that we can bet the movement on it: Progressives win decisively when they acknowledge and directly address the deep cultural ideas about conflict and leadership that abide in the bars and churches and county fairs in flyover country. That's where elections are won — out where vast numbers of Americans of a very different heritage are looking for that firm assurance that their candidate has the guts and wit to fight for his own honor, and theirs, and the country's as well.

I mostly agree with this, although using terms like "out where the voters live" smacks of ways Republicans separate "real Americans" from those who live in reliably Democratic states. What I don't understand is how Obama and his people have not learned this lesson. Everyone knew the Republicans were going to go into the mud. Swift-boating was inevitable. What many young Democrats learned from watching 2004 was that you have to hit Republicans in the face. You have to get just as dirty as they are. You have to fight back on every front and maybe start a few fronts of your own. I guess Obama's people really believe he and his campaign are above this kind of thing, but that's a good recipe for blowing this election. As Sara says, "you never lose by fighting back." This is a political truth I think. What is really weird is that Obama is from Chicago, one of the toughest political cities in the nation. He knows how to fight. He needs to put those skills to work. He needs to walk up to McCain (politically, not literally) and punch him the face.