Saturday, August 13, 2005

There Are Limits

There’s an article in this morning’s Washington Post dissecting the Democrats’ response to the NARAL ad against John Roberts.

The decision by the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to pull an incendiary ad attacking President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court has produced a fresh round of recriminations within the Democratic Party and a return to a nagging question: Has the opposition lost its nerve?

When conservatives complained about the ad — which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics — a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.

Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry’s war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.

“Republicans don’t mind running an ad that’s entirely false, but Democrats have never learned, and I’m not sure many of them want to learn, how to play that kind of politics,” said Robert Shrum, an adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns. NARAL had to pull the ad, he said, because “they weren’t getting support from any substantial quarter.”


While both parties have participated in their share of nasty and dishonest politics over the years, a number of Democrats have come to the conclusion that they need to be tougher. “You can’t blame your opponents for applying a strategy that beats your brains out,” former president Bill Clinton said in a speech last month, in which he mocked Democrats for responding to attacks like Pavlov’s dogs by saying, “Oh, how mean they are.”

“You can’t ask them to stop being mean to us,” the former president said. “You’ve got to be tough enough to beat it.”

But the Democrats have had trouble shedding a tendency to complain. When GOP ads in 2002 showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and portrayed Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) as soft on terrorism, Democrats howled. But a version of the ad continued, and Cleland, who lost limbs in Vietnam, was defeated.

Democratic protests were similarly ignored in the 2004 campaign, when GOP ads said the president’s critics attacked him “for attacking the terrorists.” More recently, Democrats have complained about conservative charges that their opposition to some of Bush’s judicial nominees means Democrats are anti-Christian — but the accusations persist.

A number of Democrats still say the party’s best hopes are on the high road. “We have to define the reckless left of our party and differentiate ourselves,” said former Clinton aide Lanny Davis, who denounced the NARAL ad. He said such “smear and innuendo” has caused his party to lose recent elections.


Republicans, attacking the NARAL ad, trumpeted the finding of the nonpartisan that the abortion group’s ad was “false” and “misleading.” But that same organization had labeled the Swift boat ads “dubious” and found “a serious discrepancy in the account of Kerry’s accusers,” which was at odds with military records.

But Mueller said he never considered pulling the Swift boat ads when Democrats reacted with fury and independent arbiters declared the ads to be misleading. “There was never any question in our minds,” he said.

I have no problem whatsoever with the Democrats being just as mean and hard-hitting as the Republicans. I do have a problem with taking liberties with the facts. The Republicans do not, but that doesn’t mean we on the left should lower our standards just because they don’t have any. As R. Crumb noted in ZAP Comix in 1970, “Be overt, be extreme, go all the way — but always play fair.” If we have to succeed by being just as deceitful, dishonest, demagogic, and Nuremberg-like in following in blind faith as the right wing, we have no higher claim to our stand than they do. The objective is not to win for the sake of defeating our opponent but to convince people that we have the values and beliefs that will make things better, not because the other guy is evil. It may sound naive in this day and age to eschew Elizabethan politics, but the goal of an election is to get people to vote for you rather than against the other party.