Anyone surprised by how the Republican Convention is going?
The McCain campaign to this point has been nearly one hundred percent negative, and the convention has continued that trend. There are several reasons for this. One is simply that they have nothing to run on, having made a hash of everything they have touched for the last eight years. But the main reason is that mindless venom is something that comes naturally to the leaders, strategists and pundits in the Republican Party.
It has become a cliche of modern political life that Republicans “play the game” so much better than Democrats. This is code for saying that Democrats have pesky things like souls and consciences that make it impossible for them to stand in front of audiences and tell bald-faced lies about their opponents.
Surely you noticed that there was almost nothing in the way of personal attacks during the entirety of the Democratic convention. Why do you suppose that is? Do you think that Democratic strategists just aren’t aware that negative campaigning, especially at the national level, is nearly always effective? Or do you think it’s because they find it genuinely distasteful to attack people with the requisite ferocity? That when given the opportunity to address a large fraction of the country they prefer to point to the policy failures of their opponents and to explain what they would do differently given the chance?
Ever wonder why there is no liberal equivalent to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck? It’s because normal, mentally healthy people are incapable of the sorts of things that they do. Most people are not capable of sustaining the anger and dishonesty required to engage in hours a day of sustained attack. Most people care at least a little bit about getting their facts straight before holding forth on television or radio. Only brain-dead fanatics are capable of that sort of extreme simple-mindedness. To find that on the left you have to shoot right past liberal into the realms of the extreme left-wing, where you will not find anyone with either an ounce of power, or an ounce of loyalty to the Democratic party. The crazy right-wing is fanatically loyal to the Republican party. The extreme left votes for Nader and gives lectures about how there is only the Republicrat party.
The Republicans think nothing of pitting one part of the country against another. John Kerry was from Massachussetts. As far as Republicans were concerned, that was a legitimate issue against him. The Northeast is a shadowy place full of people of shady values, the sort who don’t put their country first and sneer at people who do. They are perfectly happy to use a major American city (that would be San Francisco) as a bogeyman for scaring people into line. Can you imagine any Democrat, regardless of the electoral map, talking about Kansas or Oklahoma in such terms?
And then there is the unbelievable dishonesty and hypocrisy. The willingness to say anything, anything, they think will give them a rhetorical edge. From 2000-2006 the government was completely in the control of right-wing Republicans. But here comes Mitt Romney to tell us that the problem is that the government is still just too darned liberal. Rudy Giulliani thunders about the gall of people questioning whether a mother five can attend to her family adequately while running for President, despite representing a party that for years has been berating working mothers for shirking their responsibilities at home. Sarah Palin makes it her signature accomplishment that she stood up to Congress in opposing the “Bridge to Nowhere,” even though her version of events is entirely fictitious.
And let’s talk about Palin a little more. At the Democratic Convention, every major speaker praised John McCain for his military service and war record, and the audience cheered them for it. When Palin was introduced as the VP candidate she made a brief, favorable mention of Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, and was booed for it by a significant fraction of her audience. She has not repeated that mistake since.
When it came to light that her seventeen year old daughter was pregnant, we were told we must respect her personal decision not to have an abortion. This from a candidate that wants to take that decision away from families and give it to the government, who represents a party that has spent years laying the ills of society on teen pregnancy, and who favors slashing virtually any social program that would make it easier for people not to have abortions. (Obama, of course, was quick to reply to all of this hypocrisy by informing everyone that families are off limits.)
The personality differences between the parties are not the only issue, of course. There is also the media, especially cable news, which is now completely corrupt, incompetent and just altogether worthless. You have to search long and hard to find any real journalists, but gossip columnists are now a dime a dozen. They rarely get even their basic facts right, but don’t bother pointing that out to them, because they don’t care. Pundits are allowed either to be fanatical right-wingers, milquetoast CW spewers, or stuttering buffoons who act like they have never been on televsion before. Every once in a while Keith Olbermann shows signs of intelligence, and maybe Rachel Maddow will be able to do something with her new show, but otherwise you’re out of luck.
Democrats are tempermentally unsuited to the kinds of crazed viciousness the Republicans attain as easily as breathing. But they also fear how they will be treated by the media if they go negative. They are right to be afraid. One of the reasons the swiftboating of John Kerry was so effective was that all of the cable news shows had them on night after night after night. Someone like Chris Matthews would look vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of attacking a war hero, especially when the specific accusations were a pack of lies from start to finish, but then he would have sage discussions with the swiftboaters several times a week.
But now suppose everything had been reversed. That the media was entirely in the hands of the Democrats, and it was the Republicans who nominated a war hero (as opposed to the draft dodger they actually did nominate). Do you think for one second any Democratic campaign would have gone along with anything like the swiftboat attacks? You know full well they would not have.
Now fast forward to today. A while back Wesley Clark made the entirely obvious point that having been a POW does not qualify you for the Presidency ( apoint graciously, and oddly, confirmed by Fred Thompson). For the next several days the chat shows were entirely devoted to the question of what kind of sick freak Clark would have to be to say such a thing.
And in all of this we should not leave out the role of the much heralded ordinary American. One reason the Republicans find such fertile ground for their shamelessness is that this is fundamentally a right-wing country. My liberal friends find it difficult to accept this, but to me it seems obviously true. Why do you suppose that Republicans trumpet their pro-life credentials, but Democrats try to change the subject when it comes to abortion? Why do Republicans run around bashing homosexuals, while Democrats quake in terror at the thought of having to say what they really think? Why do you suppose upwards of eighty percent of the country want to have some sort of creationism taught in science classes?
The answer is simple. It is that in each case the Republicans are defending the popular position.
How can it be that the race is neck and neck even though the Republicans have spent the last eight years lying us into a war they went on to prosecute with breathtaking incompetence? Presiding over the destruction of a major American city, thanks in large part to having gutted FEMA and installing a blatantly incompetent person as its leader? Pursuing cartoonishly unsound economic policies that have devastated millions of ordinary folks to the benefit of a handful of very wealthy people? Disgracing the country in the eyes of nearly every world leader, as we commit war crimes in Guantanamo Bay? Deregulating major industires, giving us the Enron scandal among other things? Standing in the way of stem cell research, and corrupting every government agency related to disseminating scientific information?
It is because despite that litany of failure, there is a huge segment of the country that likes the sorts of things Republicans do when given power. And another huge segment that can be persuaded that they like it. Republicans give people simple, brain-dead sound bites and lots of enemies to hate, and people lap it up. It’s the environmentalists who won’t let us drill and who have given us high gas prices. Islamic terrorists are coming for your family, and only the Republicans have the moxie to stop them. It’s liberals who are stopping common sense solutions to your problems. Liberals want to negotiate with evil. Republicans want to defeat it. Now go forth and hate who we tell you to hate.
It might, just might, be that this time things have gotten so bad that enough people will wake up and say, “We might as well at least try the other guy.” I’m not optimistic. That the Republicans are not currently polling at zero percent is enough to give anyone pause. The campaign is about to get going in earnest. The press has already written the story about how the newbie Palin bested the old veteran Biden in the debates. They can’t wait to tell us about how decisive McCain looks versus the nuance and wishy-washiness of Obama.
The Republican playbook has a long and solid track record. Are you really so confident it will fail this time out?