The usual fratricidal conversations between Democrats, liberals, and so on are now in full swing, as one faction argues that the right answer to Republican mudslinging is to answer every dirty, trivializing, nonsense charge with an equally dirty, trivializing response. The other faction argues that it’s got to be about ideas, that people have got to ignore the nonsense and punch through to what really matters, that Democrats can’t descend to that level or otherwise what’s the difference?
I know I’m usually seen as one of the latter people, but I really think I come at this from a perpendicular angle to that debate.
First, since I’m on a Nixonland jag lately, let me just point out that Perlstein gives an excellent working description of how Nixon throughout his career would bait the Democrats into “dirty” responses to him, and how well he used that to mobilize ressentiment. There are times where throwing mud back really doesn’t work rhetorically, or allows an opponent to play the martyr. Yes, some of that is about the way that the media amplifies one comment rather than the other. It’s like when some kid called you a filthy name in grade school, and then you responded in kind just as the teacher happened to come into earshot. You’re the one who gets into trouble. You can complain about the uneven amplification of slimy or dirty political remarks, but for the moment, the unevenness is a fact like the sky being blue. You just have to judge situationally when it is that you’re going to pick up street cred in the schoolyard by cussing right back and when it is that the teacher is going to hear you and not the other kid.
Second, these are not mutually exclusive options: you can advance a strong argument about substance and principles while dishing out some low blows with brass knuckles on as warranted.
Third, the real problem is just that many Democratic politicians AND some of their most ardent supporters who persistently argue for hitting back below the belt are just really bad at that kind of rhetorical game. I have to laugh sometimes when I read some of the self-professed liberal and radical tough-guys making concrete suggestions about how to imitate Karl Rove.
Sometimes it’s some kind of tin-eared contention that more stridently dogmatic and ideological liberal rhetoric would arouse the populace and it would be general strikes and flowers all the way to November.
Other times it is something like arguing that when your candidate gets called “uppity” you should call the guy who said it a “racist”. What do you think he was trying to do with that comment in the first place? Calling him a racist is like putting a maraschino cherry on top of what he said. It confirms what he said, it advertises it. You’d be better off calling him a stupid doodyhead.
So maybe I’ll sound just as tin-eared, but here’s an example of where I think there is an appropriate below-the-belt response. When the right-wing talking point for the day is that Obama voted for sex education for kindergarden students, and it turns out that what he advocated was a very simple, non-explicit program to teach kids about how to avoid unwanted contact from strangers and adults that is more or less the same program used by the notoriously radical Cub Scouts, you don’t respond by trying to refute the original charge, you don’t go onto defense. You respond by saying, “The Republican Party is trying to protect child molesters and make it easier for pedophiles to abuse your children”. You cite some examples, like the former mayor of Spokane, Jim West. You connect that to other Republican sexual scandals (there are so many to choose from) to suggest that the Republicans harbor all sorts of secretive perverts and then try to shield them from the consequences.
Yes, that’s a distraction from what really matters in this or any other election. Yes, it’s a nonsense debate and the retaliatory charge is as wildly distorted as the original attack. But if you believe in fighting fire with fire, that’s what’s involved. It isn’t just about the will to retaliate, it’s about the skill to play that game the way it’s played, and having an ear for what works.
Yes, I don’t do that kind of thing because I don’t think that’s what intellectuals or scholars should do. It’s not our job, and most of us would be bad at it anyway. It’s a violation of our version of the Hippocratic Oath. But I’m fine with other folks returning fire in that fashion if that’s the way this or any other political contest is going to be waged. Just do it right, and hope that someday we can have an armistice and get back to talking about what matters.