One of Ours to Hospital, One of Theirs to Morgue?

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.

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18 Responses to One of Ours to Hospital, One of Theirs to Morgue?

  1. back40 says:

    Yes, tin-eared. You are taking the bait too. The more that Democrats talk about sex and kids, no matter what they say, the dirtier they look to those who don’t want the words sex and kids linked.

    If you hope to be effective then you first have to understand the issue. It is only then that you can craft an effectively dirty response.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    So what’s the issue that is not being understood? Lay it on me.

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    I really, really don’t buy the business of “We Democrats are such wonderful people, and we keep getting clobbered because we are simply too decent to play dirty” that I often see coming up on these intertubes. After all, when you say, for example, that voting for Bush is the moral equivalent of dragging a man to death, it’s really hard to argue that the election was lost because Gore was just too damned genteel.

    That the Democrats couldn’t find someone with Bill Clinton’s folksy yet lovably sleazy touch isn’t because liberals are just too kind-hearted, it’s because of some tactical errors combined with the GOP running against 30 years of anti-anti-communism in 2002 and 2004. The narrative that certain liberals have constructed of unending victimhood is just false.

    Moreover, the brilliance (such as it was) of the right was, until the simple flailing of this most recent election, that you could have a candidate who said happy, uniting things about rainbows and sunshine and dreams that come true, while simultaneously having outlets like Rush, Fox News, right wing websites, and the like belch forth the most horrible slander. It was kind of like Arafat making speeches about co-existence in English and speeches about Jew killing in Arabic. That’s the sort of technique the Democratic party needs to master.

    And anyhow, I suspect that Obama and his staff are smarter and savvier than his passionate supporters. They’ve got things under control.

  4. This is a tactic the Republicans have been using for some time: “objectively pro-terrorist.”

    It’s pretty effective iff the topic can be connected to something sensational like sex, violence, drugs, etc. Over the long term, it tends to enhance the kinds of moral panics which make it hard to actually solve problems, instead of shooting ourselves in our collective feet.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I see, Gary, you think saying that Republicans protect sexual deviants within their own party links sex and kids? Not following you, then. By that standard, for the Republicans to say, “He’s teaching our kids about sex” links sex and kids too. Or any legislation aimed at banning child pornography or at a tougher enforcement standard against pedophilia creates that linkage. If you’re right, then any time anybody for any reason says “sex” and “kids” in the same breath, they’ve triggered public ire. Clearly you can stir up plenty of public outrage through targeting pedophiles; rarely does someone arguing for stricter enforcement against pedophilia find themselves targeted for bringing up the subject in the first place. *Maybe* that’s true in the case of public attention to the scandals involving Catholic priests, which clearly have made many practicing Catholics deeply uncomfortable.

  6. back40 says:

    You make my point for me. The issue is obsessing about kids and sex.

    This isn’t an argument that Republicans are right in any way, it’s just politics. Whatever is said triggers the preconception that Democrats are MBLA supporters, and worse. Anything that Democrats say about sex and kids is considered to be obfuscation concealing their enduring agenda.

    Go ahead. Make all the arguments you want. Feel good about your enlightened views.

    And lose.

    Actually, I don’t think Democrats will lose this time even when they continue to stumble around with broken social readers, it’ll just make things closer.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok, so your view is that the Democrats should just ignore the advertisement? Is it your view that they should also ignore similar kinds of attacks?

  8. peter55 says:

    ” . . . and hope that someday we can have an armistice and get back to talking about what matters.”

    I think this is highly unlikely, given the fact that low-down, dirty, scurrilous accusations have been flung in US politics for more than two centuries.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. Though honestly, that does wax and wane somewhat. At least some of the times that it’s been at its worst, there doesn’t seem to have preceded some great social crisis, but other times, intense bitterness and nastiness in US politics has been a pretty decent bellweather for a deeper storm of some kind.

  10. back40 says:

    “Is it your view that they should also ignore . . .”

    We’re talking politics here. Nothing more. Politics is like street fighting. You don’t man up and try to punch a fellow with long arms in the face just because he did it to you. Kick his knees from the side, punch his kidneys from behind. Attack his weakness rather than his strength. Even when he punches your face again. It’s not your game.

    This isn’t ignoring attack. It’s making an intelligent response. I said I didn’t like pistols, I didn’t say I couldn’t shoot.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I think we’re getting lost in metaphors. There’s a specific case on the table, and you don’t think much of my advice. What’s “punching the kidneys” when there’s an advert that says “Obama wanted to teach kids how to have sex”? You’re clear about what you think is a mistake: what’s the right play?

  12. back40 says:

    Weak. You know what it means but you think you can make a debate point by denying it. That doesn’t work in the real world. It makes you seem dishonest.

    Avoid talking about sex and kids because anything you say will keep the discussion on sex and kids and that’s not where you want to be if you are a Democrat trying to get elected.

    Instead, talk about subjects that have Republicans similarly boxed. There’s a long list to choose from.

    My favorite is government spending since it splits small government types from Republicans. Democrats are as bad and worse, but any talk about government spending hurts Republicans even more. It doesn’t matter much what is said since it’s a sore point. It’s like the sex and kids thing for Democrats in that regard. Any talk is harmful.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    So, again: your advice is, if you’re a Democrat and they run an ad saying you supported comprehensive sex education for 6-year olds, you just ignore it? I just want to see if that’s your concrete advice: they can run all the ads they like of that character, and the Democrat has no choice but to ignore it?

    As far as “talk of government spending hurts Republicans even more”, can I just say that pretty much disqualifies you in my eyes as a political strategist who knows just how to talk the talk that wins or loses elections. That’s pretty much the single major rhetorical arc that has carried the Republicans since 1964. Other classic Republican hooks wax and wane depending on circumstances, but “the government is a big spender and the Democrats are the ones who spend” is a consistent Republican winner in both solidly Republican and swing districts. If you mean that right now, for the first time in four decades, it might hurt Republicans even more, I suppose that’s possible, but it’s hardly “boxed in”. I’d like you to point me to some specific Congressional districts from 2004 or 2006 where you think a Republican who talked about government spending lost largely because of that.

    I think you think this is a line that hurts Republicans because it’s a line that hurts them with you personally. The whole point of putting your ear to the ground and figure out what’s going to play in Peoria is listening to what kind of talk has consequences or gets people talking themselves, people who are not yourself. You aren’t most or even many Republicans or independents.

    If this line doesn’t really hurt Republicans, it’s partly because genuine small government types who make that the single major issue that determines their vote are actually rare. Most “small government” Republicans, both politicians and supporters, are happy to sup on piles of pork as long as it is their district, their interests. If “small government” Republicans were a genuinely major constituency within the party, committed to that at all costs, Ron Paul would now be the nominee. Or Bob Barr would now be a serious electoral threat. Or Congressional Republicans would have been compelled to reign in spending because of a serious prospect of losing a major portion of the party’s base.

  14. fridaykr says:

    I agree with Tim; unless back40 grounds his assertions in specific historical examples of campaigns and elections won and lost, his descriptions of the way certain rhetorics “box in” the parties seems overly simplisitic and counterfactual.

    But the exchange underscores the difficulty of explaining or calibrating the effects of rhetoric on elections. In our descriptions, we tend to oscillate along a continuum in which we assign greater or lesser importance to rhetoric relative to facts, lived experience, or policy truths. However, on closer inspection, describing the precise ways in which rhetoric operates on the electorate can be tricky.

    The conventional wisdom –as mentioned in this thread–is that Democratics have gotten hammered by not recognizing the effectiveness of rhetoric, visual and well as verbal, and as well as the relative unimportance of policy. Implicit in this argument is that facts don’t matter, rhetoric does. But at the same time, when pundits point out that a candiate’s or campaign’s rhetoric or slogan has “fallen flat” or not “resonnated with voters,” the criticism suggests an empirical disconnect between what a candidate says, and what people believe or experience. This suggests that there are some statements that are assessed in terms of their truth claims. So rhetoric is all powerful in politics, except on occasion when the facts get in the way, but predicting when this occurs can be difficult and does not lend itself to a very systematic or helpful way of analyzing polical discourse. Add to this the self-reinforcing echo-chamber of the media and pundry, and you have a very complex feedback system.

  15. Carl says:

    Stepping sideways a bit and applying heel to knee here, the problem with liberals is that we think 1. we’re always in principle talking to everybody, and 2. talk is in principle always about rational persuasion. We’re like big sisters this way. Republicans are much better at generating audience-specific rhetorical effects by pushing buttons. They’re like little brothers this way. When we respond on point (as if they’re worth talking with and can be persuaded by our reasons) we just show that they’ve correctly identified and pressed the button. Plus we look like clueless eggheads because we don’t get it that we’re in a pissing match.

    So yes. The advice, like with the little brother, is to ignore it. They’re not talking to us anyway, except insofar as they’re seeing if they can get a rise that confirms their power to themselves. We also need to talk only to ourselves, about the things that interest us, and about them only with dismissive disdain.

  16. Carl says:

    So, audience. back40’s point about splitting off bits of the Republican base is right on. Timothy’s right that for the most part, ‘big government’ is a Democratic burden. But the Democratic base has long ago decided that’s not a problem, so they’re deaf to this issue and you can fire away without consequence on our side. However, parts of the libertarian fraction of the Republican base are really triggered by this one. And they’re not sold on national defense. So if you can get them thinking about how it’s expensive to have Republicans in power for reasons they don’t find compelling, you don’t turn them into Democratic voters, but you maybe turn a few of them off enough to keep them from turning out to vote Republican.

    Along these lines, who’s the audience for a riposte about sex and kids? Again, the Dem base is already solid on sex education so there’s nothing to gain there. The social conservatives are going to do a ping that pushes them toward the Reps any time the topic comes up. “Undecideds” are really decided, they’re just waiting to see if they get emotionally stimulated enough to bring their prejudices to active consciousness. Apparently this issue is not a threshold for them or they’d already be on one side or the other. Getting combative about this or any other issue will turn them off for all the reasons they’re too chickenshit to know their own minds. Which means they’re mostly liberals. So the Reps get combative in part to turn ‘undecideds’ away from coming to grips with themselves and voting.

    Again, the conclusion is to stay on message and not get drawn into a pissing match with champion pissers.

  17. hestal says:

    A friend and I were discussing the very questions in this thread. My friend, like Herr Burke, wants to know whether to do x or y when the other side does z. But she then said that this pattern of discussion reveals a great weakness in our Constitutional system. She said that our current system teaches the people that all they need to do is to “get a new guy” as their representative, when what we actually need is to “get a new system.”

    I see this very same conversation every day on other blogs. There have been several discussions about anti-intellectualism on DKos in the past few days for example. I wish that all of the intellectual power expended there and here could be devoted to designing a brand new Constitutional System. One that keeps the same goals and powers while protecting the same rights. All that brainpower would produce a new system in no time at all. You guys all know what needs to be done. Instead of plotting tit for tat talking points why not fix the overall problem?

    I know, why haven’t I done it already if I am so smart? Well, I am working on it.

    I’m sorry for the tone, but some of us cranky, old jaspers get that way from time to time.

  18. hestal says:

    I should add that I do know that this thread is not about anti-intellectualism and there are other threads here that are. But in my mind they are all connected. The same factors that breed anti-intellectualism are the same factors that lead to the tit for tat campaign process and those factors are the same ones that lead some to want to subvert the present Constitutional system. So when I visit here and read all these threads they kinda sorta make my head spin and they merge.

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