Finally, the Democrats Learn How to Fight

I just want a fight -- a decent defense of the Democratic agenda. And now we have it -- finally -- at the 11th hour: President Obama and Congressional Democrats are returning fire, pretty effectively. But is it too late?
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President Barack Obama waves to supporters after speaking at a campaign event at Scott High School Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
President Barack Obama waves to supporters after speaking at a campaign event at Scott High School Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

So, the 2012 presidential campaign has turned "nasty" (see here, here, here, here, and here). Both teams scream foul, the commentariat and the Sunday talk shows replay "a-nasty-campaign-gets-nastier" theme, the September cover of The Atlantic features Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as boxers -- heavy-weight, from the look of it -- slugging it out, with sweat flying.

Finally! I thought we'd never get here.

Not that I want a nasty fight. I just want a fight -- a decent defense of the Democratic agenda. And now we have it -- finally -- at the 11th hour: President Obama and Congressional Democrats are returning fire, pretty effectively.

But is it too late?

For way too long, defense was not happening. Early on after his inauguration, President Obama lost control of the narrative, going for bipartisan cooperation -- a campaign promise -- while Republicans made clear early on their rejection of such cooperation, instead forming their Wall of No. Only because Democrats controlled both houses of Congress could Mr. Obama get his healthcare bill passed -- another campaign promise. In the 2010 midterms the GOP exploited the unpopularity of "Obamacare" to take back the House and turn even more obstructionist, threatening to cause the U.S. to default on its full faith and credit in the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco.

Meanwhile, even more obstructionist and meeting even less pushback, the Tea Party emerged, screaming (literally) their anti-government screed. I still regret not standing up at a local town hall they commandeered, to point out that "all those bailouts" of the banks were initiated by their guy, George W. Bush; that the "out-of-control government spending" was Mr. Obama's effort to repair the damage done by the financial crash that erupted on their guy's watch; and, by the way, where were they with their concerns about spending when Mr. Bush took us from a budget surplus he inherited from Mr. Clinton and flung us deep into deficit and debt -- talk about a wind-in-the-hair ride! -- with one of the costliest and unnecessary (and thus wasteful) items being the Iraq war? Yet I also recall the fear of many in the hall that these screamers might be armed, so we sat silent.

Whenever Democrats did weigh in, if they pointed back to the Bush administration for cause, they were accused by Republicans of "playing the blame game." Enough of this tactic and soon Mr. Bush became a non-person in Republican mythology. And soon Republicans made it stick that Mr. Obama, while he didn't cause the bad economy, now "owned" it. Checkmate.

Point is: All possible lines of defense, for whatever reason, were not taken up by the Democrats, with the result that the Republicans, nominally out of power, soon came to dominate policy discussions and revise recent history. So confident were they of their grip on power that, two years in, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the GOP's top priority would be to deny President Obama a second term. I don't recall many Democrats protesting that the Republicans' top priority should be to help fix the economy they themselves wrecked and citing them as a disloyal opposition (as I wrote here).

Nor should we forget the Republican dissing of Mr. Obama, with the "birther" drivel, the speculation about his being insufficiently American, and Sarah Palin's dopey "hopey-changey" taunt. As MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked, "Where were Obama's defenders, where were his lieutenants?"

Not helping was the fact that the Obama White House was singularly inept in putting up its own defense, including getting out news of its achievements. For example, "all those bailouts" of the banks have been -- did you know this? -- two-thirds paid back to the taxpayer, with interest (see here). Proper White House messaging of this good news might have mooted one of the Tea Party's main screaming points.

Observing the general lameness of the Democratic defense, rank-and-file Democrats became demoralized (too quickly for my taste, but... ). In a representative democracy, we rely on our elected representatives to carry our argument into the arena; when they don't, when the argument is jammed, demoralization, disaffection, disgust ensue. We came to feel what any political operative knows: that a charge unanswered is a charge that sticks. And the more unjust the charge -- i.e., inept governance, incompetent stewardship of the economy -- when unanswered, the more it sticks, and stings, in the craw. With Democrats and Mr. Obama getting rolled again and again and again, I finally grew so frustrated I considered registering as an Independent.

But now, with the mortal fear of losing the White House, and with the clarification of positions provided by Romney's V.P. pick of the far-right Congressman Paul Ryan, the Democrats have come alive, shouldered arms.

Mr. Obama now makes explicit his defense of Main Street, having met with little success in dealing with Wall Street to curb its excesses. He's now making the fairness issue personal, aligning himself with Main Street against "people like him" (Romney and the wealthy): "He's asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut" (see here). In reaction, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson recently accused Mr. Obama of "betrayal" for running an "unethical" campaign. No, Mr. Gerson, if there was betrayal or unethical behavior, it was the Republicans' abandonment of country for party.

To continue, Vice President Joe Biden's recent ringing defense of Social Security, crown jewel of FDR's New Deal -- "I flat guarantee it" -- was both strong and refreshing: Finally, a muscled defense. His formulation that "General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead" cogently expresses two of the administration's achievements. Yes, Biden's "chains" comment to an African-American crowd was a jab too far, but he didn't apologize, and rightly so. Congressional Democrats have also turned up the heat. Especially impressive is Chris Van Hollen (MD) with his concise and tough defense of Medicare, now under attack by the Ryan budget (see also here).

Of course, Democrats' newly-energized defense of entitlement programs must come with equally powerful plans for their reform and sustainability. Defend-and-pivot, if you will.

Possibly the most powerful defense strategy comes from former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who casts the Republican message to Democrats as, "You guys didn't clean up our mess fast enough." This states it -- who made the mess and who's ducking responsibility for repairing it -- and is a theme Democrats should press until November. (Would that Gibbs had stated it while in the White House.)

Other fight strategies: Barrel through charges of "blame game" by dropping reference to Bush and instead attack his administration's policies that brought us to our knees -- out-of-control government spending, two unfunded wars, deregulation, tax cuts for the rich that added to the deficit. Press on and charge Republicans with the irresponsibility game. Notch up the language: Enough with the clichéd "failed policies of the past," go to "catastrophic" and "calamitous."

And to all lieutenants and defenders, in the arena and the rank-and-file: Henceforth, no Republican charge shall go unanswered -- none. That includes the Swift-boating now underway of President Obama for a signal achievement, the killing of Osama bin Laden. Swift-boating is a technique straight from the playbook of Bush strategist Karl Rove: Attack your opponent's strong points, not just his weak points. Democrats need to study well this playbook (see here and here).

Now for the roll-out of the fighting Dems this week at the Democratic National Convention, perfectly timed to counter the misrepresentations and revisionist history aired at the Republican National Convention the week previous. And now also for the roll-out of the best possible weapon: the Obama vision and economic recovery plan, Part II.

Still, is this new combativeness enough and in time?

It is if the Democrats keep it up til November -- and beyond. A fighting Democratic party will recover the youth vote, which went for Obama in '08 but grew disaffected; it will motivate registered voters who now poll as unlikely to vote to get to the polls; and it will spark more big-time campaign contributions, because Obama & Co. will look like winners.

Crucially, if Mr. Obama wins re-election (and I predict he will), he and the Democrats must remain in fight mode -- repeat: remain in fight mode -- because victory will likely be sliver-thin and not a mandate. For Democrats must note another tenet of the Karl Rove playbook, which sets out the strategy for a permanent Republican majority: Make politics so nasty and distasteful that fewer and fewer will want to play or vote. Best never to forget: The Republicans are always in the mood and mode to fight.

And if Democrats find their sword arm getting tired and they weary of the long fight, they should remember the imperishable words of Joseph Welch, the lawyer who finally brought down the Communist-baiting Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy: "Tell them it was fun."

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the just-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is working on a play titled "Prodigal."

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