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By David Podvin
Some well-meaning liberals are urging Howard Dean to ease up on the candor. These wary souls acknowledge the chairman is speaking forthrightly, but worry that being candid is not the way the political game is played.
They are absolutely right. The game is played by condemning kindness as weakness while praising cruelty as strength. The game is played by damning tolerant people for being sinful while lauding bigoted people for being moral. The game is played by lavishing empathy on the haves while exhibiting indifference towards the have-nots.
The game of American politics is played by inverting reality. Dean knows it, as do the millions of fringe people who support him, so the chairman and his fans have decided that the sick little game is over. In its place is a different game called “Ready Or Not Here Comes The Truth”. The introduction of this exciting new contest has dismayed conservatives and corporate journalists and establishment liberals alike. Right wingers and their sycophants despise being confronted with truth, which is understandable given that it reflects so negatively upon them.
When opposing conservatives, the most effective weapon has always been undiluted honesty. In 1948, Harry Truman said that Republicans were tools of the rich who didn’t give a damn about the average citizen, thereby enabling him to win an election that supposedly was unwinnable. During the McCarthy Era, the Democrats abandoned candor in favor of cowering, and as a consequence were temporarily banished from power. When the party nominated John F. Kennedy the cowering stopped and the power returned. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s harsh yet accurate message identified Barry Goldwater as a racist mad bomber and Democrats won an historic landslide. Truman and Kennedy and Johnson were totally indifferent to Republican complaints about being honestly critiqued. As a result these blunt leaders led the Democratic Party to victory.
The current generation of Democrats has lost the last six congressional elections by finessing the truth, compromising the truth, triangulating the truth, and generally avoiding the truth as though it had leprosy. Truman’s truth was that Republicans are toxic for America. Six decades later nothing has changed except the Democratic willingness to make the case.
The GOP is seeking to finance corporate tax cuts through reducing funding for pediatric emergency services, child abuse clinics, childhood infectious disease prevention programs, newborn trauma screening equipment, and pre-natal HIV/AIDS treatment. It is therefore honest to inform the politically coveted suburban mothers of the land that voting Republican kills children.
In the Terry Schiavo matter, Senate Democrats remained silent when the GOP demagogically passed a resolution advocating government interference in a family tragedy. Most Democratic senators are not morally obtuse. They understood the Republicans were doing something truly disgusting, but feared that speaking out for decency carried political risk. After all this time, liberal politicians should realize it is the failure to condemn conservative iniquity that is most risky for the Democratic Party.
Republican campaigns are exercises in bait and switch specifically designed to camouflage the pernicious right wing agenda under countless layers of rhetorical compassion. The camouflage must be removed so that the repulsive face of conservatism is fully exposed. The multiplier effect is that by unmasking the GOP, Democrats will look strong, which is what Americans want in their leaders.
Telling the truth means doing away with the deceitful bipartisan happy talk that allows conservatives to con the electorate into believing Republicanism is benign. Whenever Joe Lieberman or Joe Biden feel compelled to say, “President Bush is a good man” (and they say it frequently) their brownnosing validates a mendacious governing philosophy that victimizes the American people. Good men do not preside over kleptocracies, nor do they cynically manipulate the public with appeals to fear and bigotry. The truth is that Bush is morally unfit to govern. Democratic politicians who say otherwise are betraying their supporters whose interests are under ceaseless attack from the current administration.
Devotion to honesty also requires being eternally vigilant in confronting smears. The 2004 Kerry campaign offers a classic case in point. Once it became apparent Kerry would be the Democratic nominee, Republican character assassin Matt Drudge falsely alleged that the senator had committed adultery with a staffer. No substantiating evidence was provided because the story was merely the latest in an endless array of conservative lies.
As such, the incident provided Kerry with an opportunity to seize the offensive. The senator could have derailed the Karl Rove strategy of having Bush take the high road while minions smeared Kerry beyond recognition. Armed with years of documentation, he could have plausibly identified Drudge as a Bush hit man and laid the blame for the gutter level attack directly on the former Texas governor, which is exactly where it belonged.
But taking an approach that foreshadowed his doom, Kerry reacted to the Drudge libel in the postmodern Democratic way, which involves expressing sorrow rather than outrage. After lamenting the lowered level of American discourse, the senator stated his confidence that the public would always repudiate gutter level politics. This common misperception on the part of establishment Democratic politicians remains as inexplicable as it is irrational.
Had Kerry forcefully condemned the Drudge lie for what it was – a Bush lie – the senator would have laid the foundation for a devastating counterattack on the subsequent Rove-inspired Swift Boat debacle that undercut the Democratic campaign. The ever-recurring scenario in which Democrats turn the other cheek only to get cold cocked confirms that the 1992 Clinton War Room is an essential model for Democratic candidates. Republican lies must be immediately confronted and then constantly referenced as reflecting negatively on the accuser.
Democrats used to be adept at political judo, expertly turning the force of opponents’ dishonesty against them. The fateful Democratic embrace of passivity coincided with the party’s increasing dependence on funding from business interests. It is a pathology that accelerated during the Reagan years. Prior to the Gipper’s brand of cheerfully disingenuous conservatism, Democrats were much more aggressive in telling the truth, and the dividends were tangible. Very liberal Democratic senators were repeatedly elected from such blood red states as Idaho and Indiana precisely because of their willingness to challenge right wing deceit.
Even when conservatives won landslide presidential victories such as Richard Nixon’s rout of George McGovern in 1972, congressional Democrats held their own. Through recessions and wars Democrats continued to outnumber Republicans, and national GOP triumphs were largely confined to the presidency. The prolonged descent into minority status began with the Democratic establishment overreacting to the aberrant 1980 loss and accepting the false premise that it was shrewd to offer a milquetoast version of Reaganism. Only when Democrats decided that it was pragmatic to stop acting like Democrats did the party cease being competitive.
Though Dean has been chairman for a short time, the infectious nature of his integrity has already begun to have the effect that conservatives so dread. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who previously jabbed at Bush only to back peddle, recently hammered the administration for substituting a radical agenda in place of Constitutional rights. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin then equated Bush-sanctioned torture of prisoners on Guantanamo with the inhumane tactics of history’s most barbaric regimes. Having now broken the self-imposed embargo on aggressively confronting Bush, the challenge for the leadership is to sustain its candor after incurring the inevitable retaliatory Republican tantrums that have long cowed Democrats into acquiescence.
For the GOP, practical politics consists of engaging in deception and intimidation while implementing the philosophy that the ends justify the means. For Democrats, realpolitik should be a happy confluence of morality and expediency. The winning tactic is to be honest while indulging in neither embellishment nor self-censorship. Howard Dean realizes that unlike the long-prevailing strategy of duck and cover, the electoral value of telling the truth has been verified. It is the traditional Democratic approach that has worked so well in the past.
It will work again.
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