Partisan Aggression

One of the central insights of the netroots left has been that fighting against Rove-style tactics means being as forceful and aggressive as the political right. Arguing about process — hey, Tom DeLay, how dare you redraw congressional boundaries! — makes you seem weak. Redrawing boundaries yourself is a more appropriate response to a ruthless political machine. So we’ve seen more hardball tactics from the political left, and it’s tended to work pretty well. Accuse pro-trade Republicans of destroying the lives of American workers, accuse John McCain of wanting to continue the Iraq War for a century, etc. This is powerful, effective stuff. The problem is that Republicans can always go further — e.g., John McCain’s misleading ad concerning Barack Obama’s supposed vote for sex ed for kindergarteners.

First, a broader point: Republicans are more in tune with the id of the American swing voter. Second, a point regarding McCain, ostensibly the kind of person who would not run such an ad: I am almost certain that he wouldn’t have run such an ad against Hillary Clinton. My sense is that McCain is convinced that defeating Barack Obama is of vital importance for the country, and that he is willing to be as ruthless as necessary.

I’ll also note that the Republicans really have been running a mostly substance-free campaign. On one level, it is obvious that they’d do so: since Republicans tend to be hostile to activist government, it makes sense that they’d highlight the dangers of government activism, not offer up their own crazy schemes. As someone who is sympathetic to certain kinds of conservative government activism, and as someone who believes that the economic and security climate demands innovative, sweeping reforms to key government institutions, I think this is very disappointing.

Worse yet, the substance-free approach works pretty well. Both sides are promising essentially undeliverable outcomes. But the Democrats vividly describe their proposals, which makes them vulnerable to attack but also lends their program more in the way of surface plausibility, though that of course is being attenuated over the course of the campaign. Republicans, in contrast, have offered a jury-rigged series of plans and proposals that don’t even cohere thematically.

All this is to say that the Republican campaign has been sorely disappointing to me in a lot of important way. But perhaps “disappointing” isn’t the right word. My expectations are very low. As someone who advocates changing the party in a lot of respects, I have an ambivalent relationship with the party as it is — I sense that it includes lots of people who share my instincts and preferences. For example, when McCain talked about the definition of “rich,” I thought it wasn’t trivial that he looked at the non-economic dimension of the question. In doing so, he connected with his audience and at the same time invited the ridicule of frank materialists. At the same time, I recognize that parties change and evolve in response to constituencies, long-term demographic shifts, unpredictable events, etc. While I do think the party I’d like to see is in some sense closer at hand than it was in, say, 2004, it’s still very far away.

Extreme self-righteousness is being deployed by both sides. Both sides are convinced of their moral superiority. I’ve been criticized for this stance, mainly because lots of voices on the center-left are incapable of recognizing the seriousness of their own mischaracterizations. Which is understandable. After two terms of President Bush, there is a profound sense of victimhood on the part of partisan Democrats, ranging from people I know who are eager to take the reins of power and keenly felt the defeats of 2000 and 2004 as a blow to their personal ambition to people who’ve had a visceral distaste for culturally conservative Americans that long predates the Bush Administration, rooted in personal experience of growing up in narrow-minded environments, etc., to people who have been radicalized by the perception that this White House has destroyed the country they dearly love, the lattermost being the most sympathetic group, if not always the most sensitive to context and the sweep history.

I hate elections. I remember watching the returns in 2004 and cringing the whole time — cringing when I thought Kerry was winning, cringing when I thought Bush was winning. Strangely enough, 2006 was probably the closest I had to an election I enjoyed. I wanted Michael Steele to win and George Allen to lose, and I got half of my wish, though I know a lot of my conservative friends think I was short-sighted. Webb struck me as an interesting, impressive figure who’d bring valuable experience to the Senate, whereas Allen struck me as overrated ex-governor and bullying bozo who, lest we forget, dissed a harmless South Asian kid. I was sad to see Mike DeWine lose in Ohio and I was particularly sad to see the brilliant Jim Talent lose in Missouri, and a lot of other decent Republicans bit the dust. And yet the Republican defeat that year did look like the wake-up call Republicans needed. This year, however, that desire to see Republicans humbled as part of the process of reform and reconstruction has been decidedly complicated by the fact that I’ve really lost faith in Barack Obama. A friend of mine recently said it was hardly surprising to see where we’ve both ended up in the campaign — he’s for Obama, I’m basically against him — but the truth is that I was enthusiastic about Obama earlier on, and I did emphatically want Bush to lose in 2004. I’m also not as enthusiastic about McCain as I’d hoped to be at this point, mainly because I think the nature of the domestic challenges we’ll face over the next four year demands a sustained level of interest in thorny economic issues and an ability to unite the country — I don’t think either candidate has either quality. Iraq and Afghanistan are my deciding issue, and even there I worry about backsliding and predictable crises to come.

Overall, I wish I could sit this one out.