We Lost Because We Lack Brains and Backbone
Recently a diary here on Redstate said that we lost because we “suck.” Or, as Glenn Beck put it, Republicans stink on ice. Now, I’m not denying that Republicans stunk in 2008, and have stunk for quite some time, but I don’t think that is really the root of our electoral woes. Surely, we want a party that doesn’t need fumigating, and stands up for the values we believe in and is ethical and fiscally responsible. But I really think why we crashed and burned at the polls is unrelated to most of that. I think we lost because we’re not smart, and we lack backbone.
Yes, we’ve been spending like drunken Democrats for years. But as appalling as that is, I don’t think the public punished us for that reason. I mean, really, would you punish people who’ve been spending like drunken Democrats by replacing them with drunken Democrats? I don’t think that the American people care that much about prodigal government spending anyway, especially when no one is articulating the importance of fiscal conservatism. Also, have Democrats in the last 2 years returned fiscal sanity to our process?
And if it comes to corruption, what rational person would replace corrupt politicians with Democrats? Would a rational person replace corrupt Republicans with the party that gave us Whitewater, Chinagate, Monicagate, Travelgate, Perjurygate, and introduced us to the notion of parsing the meaning of words like “is?”
When we point to corruption, or prodigal spending, we are talking about why Republicans should have lost in a just and sane world. But if Republicans lost for just and valid reasons, then at the very worst, we should be in about a 50-50 tie with the Democrats in Congress, because they invented corruption and prodigal spending. But the American voters did not punish Republicans for rational reasons, they punished them based their uninformed perceptions. And that is why I attribute our losses to our lack of brains and backbone.
The first culprit that I must point to is President Bush. Now I am not saying that the President is an unintelligent man. I have never heard of a stupid fighter pilot. He is Ivy-League educated, with an MBA. He is a voracious reader. But he is very lacking when it comes to possessing basic political common sense.
I have written about this problem before, but I think it is important to bear it in mind when we look at how we got to our current dismal position. President Bush seemed to believe that the way you work in Washington is by being extraordinarily nice and deferential to Democrats. He thought that if he was only nice enough, they would reciprocate and we’d have a nice, cordial, collegial state of affairs in Washington where we all loved each other.
He was deferential to Democrats in many ways. He would criticize “Congress” when it was actually the Democrats in Congress who should have been criticized. He flattered Democratic politicians. He handed out awards to Democratic politicians. He even appointed Democrats to the Federal bench near the end of his turn (let your jaws drop on that one). To think that Democrats would be nice because he did these things was naive, but if he had just left it there he would not have left the Republican party in a shambles.
But he went on to a practice of almost complete passivity when Democrats viciously attacked him. Apparently feeling than any argument with Democrats was unseemly and beneath the office of the Presidency, he did not respond to accusations that he deliberately deceived the American people about Saddam’s WMDs. He let the media characterize the economy as being in a state of recession almost his entire term in office, and did nothing to try to dispel that misconception. He didn’t fight back when Democrats mischaracterized his Social Security reform proposals. He didn’t fight back against the absurd notion that his administration had tried to “smear” Joe Wilson; in fact, he helped that perception along, through appointing a special prosecutor to perpetuate the myth.
This “kick me” attitude of the President extended into the realm of the embarrassing when he and his wife did stand-up comic routines at White House correspondents dinners. Mrs. Bush told jokes about her husband and members of his administration that would have been considered the height of bad taste if they had come out of the mouth of John Stuart. The President repeatedly joked about how stupid he was, and in a moment that never will appear in “Profiles in Presidential Dignity,” did a comedy routine with a look-alike double. He also told an incredibly dirty and insulting joke about Dick Cheney in a room full of reporters who loathe the Vice President.
The President, in a further effort to ingratiate himself with his opponents, was also prone to insulting his own supporters. He was silent when Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft were viciously attacked by the left, but immediately put conservatives in their place when they questioned the suitability of Alberto Gonzalez for the Supreme Court. He did the same when they questioned the appointment of Harriett Miers. He attacked the patriotism of conservatives who opposed him on immigration.
This behavior by the President can only be described as stunningly unintelligent politics. Never have I heard it said that “leadership means, never having to explain your decisions.” When the American people started believing manifestly untrue things, like the whole Iraq war was a fraud, or that Saddam had not ties to terrorism, the President had a duty to correct the record. To not do so, to let his opponents lie shamelessly and endanger his policies was incredibly unwise. The political consequences of his actions were deadly, as we can now see with Nancy, Harry and Barak running the entire show in Washington.
But even with the incredible hole President Bush dug for the Republican party, a possible salvation was presented to us when Barak Obama was the Democratic nominee. He presented a golden opportunity that could have been exploited, despite the President’s political malpractice. Unfortunately, we nominated John McCain. McCain used “honor” in much the same way as President Bush used “New Tone.” In both cases, it meant, “the cool kids get to set the rules.” So McCain, in the name of “honor”, took Jeremiah Wright off the table from the get-go. He acted like he was sullying himself when he had to mention Bill Ayers. He barely mentioned Barak’s disgraceful opposition to the Born Alive Act. It wasn’t, apparently, dishonorable for Barkak to associate with Jeremiah and Bill, or support legalized infanticide, it was only dishonorable to mention that he did so. This was absurd. By this reasoning, the more heinous the outrage your opponent engages in, the more dishonorable you are for mentioning it. Also, much as Bush only applied “New Tone” to Democrats, McCain only applied “honor” to Democrats. He felt quite at ease snarling at Mitt Romney during the primaries, but couldn’t muster up any outrage over his Democratic opponent’s friendliness with a former member of the Weather Underground.
The lack of political smarts and spine did not end there. McCain praised Barak’s work as a community organizer. He let Harry Reid hoodwink him into suspending his campaign to “save” the $700 billion bailout and then allowed Harry to chase him out of town once he got there. His campaign scheduled not one, but two long interviews with network news anchors to introduce Sarah Palin to the American people (had anyone in his campaign ever heard the words, “left-wing media bias”?). He downplayed the fact that the Democrats were the ones who had opposed stricter regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He argued with his own supporters, defending Barak Obama’s honor, while he allowed Sarah Palin to be savaged without responding.
It is a mystery to me how a man with so much personal valor and who could dress down his North Vietnamese tormentors, could also have such feet of clay when it came time to stand up to Barak Obama. Apparently, it is far easier to risk your life and well being in the defense of your country than it is to risk future guest spots on Letterman in the defense of your country. In just the same way, it seemed far easier for fighter pilot George Bush to stand up to Islamofacists than it was to stand up to spoiled elitist children in Congress.
Others should be included in the list of culprits. There was Denny Hastert, who turned the William Jefferson scandal into a Republican liability by rushing to his defense when the Justice Department raided his office. There was Karl Rove, who allowed the President to be complacent before the 2006 midterms, discounting all poll information based on an untested theory about the effect of cell phones on all polling results.
And this will displease many, but I also am not certain that Sarah Palin has shown real political smarts and backbone to date. Yes, she had an awesome debut on the national political scene. But since the election ended, she has engaged in more of the “reaching out” rhetoric that President Bush was so noted for. She has talked about how she is able to “reach across the aisles”. She has praised Hillary Clinton excessively. She has talked of how “honored” she would be to sit on a commission set up by Barak Obama. She has continued to repeat nonsense from the campaign, talking about standing up to “special interests” and more of the “maverick” talk that I had thought was forced on her by the McCain people. I have also read that she was blindsided by Kattie Couric, thinking that she’d get an easy interview because she’s a woman (did anyone ever say the words “left-wing media bias” to you, Governor?). I am not convinced she is the person to look to to lead us all out of the wilderness.
Our pundits have also lacked quite a bit in the area of cranial capacities. I find it amazing at how many conservative pundits totally ignored the destructive effect that President Bush’s political judgment was having on the state of the country. Rather than pleading with him to change, to start standing up to the media and the Democrats, and set the record straight, they continued to praise him effusively. Rush, for instance, criticized every Republican involved in the Amnesty for Illegals issues except for President Bush, whose motives in Rush’s eyes remained pure. He invented fanciful reasons for why President Bush remained so passive in the face of Democratic attacks and made this deadly fault seem like a virtue. At NRO, half the staff seems to still be enamored with President Bush. A shocking number of pundits seem unable to grasp the idea that President Bush’s “kick me” demeanor was a poison acting on the fortunes of the Republican party.
So, while I agree that an ethical, fiscally conservative Republican party, that practices the virtues it preaches is essential, I also believe that is not enough. For if we don’t even see the need to articulate our point of view; if we become tongue-tied and embarrassed when reporters challenge us; if we continue to covet the approval of Democrats even as they viscously attack us; if we can’t even grasp the idea that the goal is to defeat Democrats, not have a love-in session with them; if we can’t quite remember for more than thirty seconds at a time that the news media is biased against us; and if we continue to fall in love with politicians who are leading us to ruin; then it won’t matter how virtuous we are, and how much we are adhering to Republican principles, and how brilliant our policy positions are. You simply can’t win if you lack the politcal common sense to get out of the rain, or the backbone to stand up to your opponents.
So here are some basic guidelines that we should keep in mind, if we’re even going to turn this country around.
For Republican Politicians:
1. Democrats are not your friends, and nothing you can do will turn them into your friends. Flattering them, letting them lie, giving them sweetheart deals when they’re caught destroying classified documents, or even dissing your own supporters while the cool kids are listening in, will not make them into your friends. They will, however, gladly play you for the sucker that you are if you do any or all of the above.
2. Reaching across the aisles in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation is not a policy goal, nor is it a virtue. It is a strategy, to be employed only when it advances your actual policy goals (which quite possibly means never).
3. There really is a left-wing media bias, and it doesn’t disappear just because it’s easier to ignore it. Hence, when you schedule interviews with left-wing reporters, they will attack you and be hostile. However, they are not authority figures. They are not the high school principal dressing you down for shooting spitballs in the classroom, so when they attack you, it’s okay to fight back. It is not necessary to respond like a puppy dog that just got whacked on its snout with a rolled-up newspaper and called “bad dog”.
4. Since the left-wing media bias really exists, laying out great policy plans without accounting for this fact is not smart. Say you want to reform social security. The media will vilify the effort. Even if you are very nice to them, they will vilify it. You will have to go around them directly to the American people if you want to accomplish anything. Your first question, when you want to do anything, should be, “what about the left-wing media?” But since you have such a hard time remembering they are biased and hostile, stick a few post-it notes up on your bathroom mirror. That way you can be reminded while you’re doing your hair or shaving in the morning.
5. Communication is the primary duty of a leader, not a boring side job that you can just ignore. Therefore, when the American people start to believe ridiculous things, like Saddam had no ties to terrorists, or you cooked up imaginary evidence to lead the country into a purposeless war, you need to get on the bully pulpit and change their perceptions. It’s not undignified to correct the record when it’s distorted; it’s irresponsible to let dangerous ideas go unchallenged. In a democracy, a leader must marshal public opinion to accomplish necessary things, not just mug for the cameras with a silly look on his face as he hula dances at the White House.
For conservative commentators:
1. Falling in love with a politician is a bad idea. You lose the ability to objectively evaluate his/her shortcomings when you do so. Making up silly reasons why the politician isn’t dropping the ball doesn’t change the fact when he/she is. Democrats can afford to fool themselves about people like Clinton or Obama, because the media helps them fool the American people. When we fool ourselves, we’re only fooling ourselves.
2. Don’t assume a politician is doing a wonderful job just because the right people hate him/her. Being irrationally hated by the demented crowd doesn’t necessarily mean your guy is doing a bang-up job. They can’t stand a lot of people.
3. Your job is to hold our guys’ feet to the fire when they start to go wobbly. It isn’t to defend them from criticism from their own base.
4. We are losing. There has been no “triumph” of conservatism. Throw those books out. We had a nice run going under Reagan, but that’s over. We’re being routed, because our leaders surrendered the public debate to an intellectually unarmed opposition. We will continue to lose badly unless we select leaders who are willing to wage the necessary rhetorical campaign that is ahead of us.
5. We have had two Bush administrations, followed by two total routs of the Republican party. Keep that in mind before you start to promoting a Jeb Bush run at the White House.