Sunday, July 20, 2003

Getting in Touch with My Inner Newt

My editor today described the East Valley Tribune's selection of opinion columnists as "individual columnists express[ing] views from the far left -- Sam Coppersmith and Molly Ivins -- to the far right -- Marianne Jennings and George Will" in the paper's self-proclaimed striving for overall balance. I guess if George Will is far right, then I'm far left, but then who's really far left and really far right in this particular cosmos?

Feeling Our Fury

East Valley Tribune, Jul. 20, 2003

Maybe Democrats should take a page from the GOP playbook, and get really, really angry. Contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, it worked pretty well for Republicans. It might work for us, too.

Republicans who beat the Clinton impeachment drums furiously now counsel Democrats to cool their anger over Bush, or “suffer” as the GOP supposedly did. But the GOP didn’t suffer much at all.

They hoped to make major gains in 1998 based on the party controlling the White House traditionally losing House seats in the sixth year of a president’s terms. Instead, Republicans lost a couple seats, but the historical parallels were flawed because they had gained essentially every possible seat four years earlier. The 1994 GOP wave was so broad, Republicans won some seats they simply couldn’t hold for three straight elections. While pre-election expectations got overblown, Republicans actually did pretty well in 1998.

A few Republicans lost, but on balance the GOP did quite well by attacking Clinton ceaselessly and heedlessly. Those extremists changed the width of the debate; by shrieking from the right wing, they let other Republicans sound moderate -- and forced Democrats to address all sorts of off-the-wall attacks. Maybe today’s war-for-oil conspiracy theorists can do as much for our side as The Wall Street Journal editorial page did with its own bizarre conspiracy theories (Mena airfield, anyone?).

And if Newt Gingrich got “disgraced,” well, you should get as much money and TV time as he still gets today. If that’s “disgrace,” sign me up.

Anti-Clinton anger fired up the base fabulously. If Republicans didn’t do as well with an “all anti-Clinton, all the time” agenda as they’d hoped with swing voters, maybe it was because those voters didn’t like their actual policies.

We’re seeing a “role of rhetoric” reversal this year. In 2000, George W. Bush cloaked a harsh, partisan agenda in moderate language. In 2003, Howard Dean is cloaking a moderate agenda in harsh, partisan language. Dean is doing so well -- even among Democrats, like me, supporting a different candidate -- not because he’s moving leftward. Dean is succeeding because he’s tapping into Democratic anger. As Joel Klein noted in Time, we’re not liberal, we’re furious.

So Republicans, who did pretty well by hating Clinton, now argue that Democrats risk alienating swing voters who like Bush. That might be a problem, except those Republican savants are not the best source of Democratic strategy, and any “swing voters” who still like Bush -- after three years of job losses, cutting taxes for the richest, and going to war based on “darn good” intelligence that apparently wasn’t minimally accurate -- probably aren’t swing voters a Democrat could get anyway. As The New Republic noted, the real question is whether making the election turn on Bush’s lack of competence and honesty gets the Democratic nominee more swing voters than the alternative.

As it dawns on people that Bush continually lies about his policies, maybe the supposed swing voters who would be turned off by anger (but not by Bush’s lying!) weren’t ever going to vote for a Democrat anyway. But as more people recognize that Bush just makes stuff up, believes things that are flat-out wrong, and won’t let facts get in the way of his predetermined policies, maybe anger -- when combined with policies people actually support regarding health care, education, the environment, and the economy -- will be a positive thing.

Anger worked pretty well for the GOP. So why shouldn’t Democrats start enjoying their inner outrage? Remember, more people voted for the Democrat than the Republican in the past three presidential elections.

Hey -- just thinking about it makes my bile rise.

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