Monday, March 26, 2007

Weakness is Provocative

Tom Dachle was at Gettysburg last week with Dick Armey to give a public discussion on current events. The attraction to hear Tom Daschle talk about politics is much like the desire to go see the Temptations, never a big fan but it evokes a sense of nostalgia for gentler times.

My first thought when I heard of the line up was, "Nice theme, they have Dick Armey who tried to destroy the Democratic party and Tom Daschle who actually did." While that may be overstating the case somewhat, it ain't by much. It was Daschle who led a Democratically held Senate to the chopping block and convinced so many that if we only play nice and cooperate with the Bushies, putting our heads down gently and not resisting, they won't actually bring down the blade. No matter how absurd their position, no matter how far out of the mainstream their views, no matter how much against precedent or reason they move, the Daschlean position was to offer meet them halfway and then expect that they will return the favor by working with us. Clinton triangulated and won, so we will continue with the same strategy. Blue dog dems continue to cling to Daschinalia.

But it failed miserably and will continue to do so for two reasons. First, the reason it worked for Bill Clinton was that he realized that Gingerich had dragged the GOP so far to the right that it left an easily occupied gap between the parties where he could camp out and appeal to the "they're both wrong" faction of the American electorate. Clinton was successful because he could play himself off against the party. Of course, this move, while securing him a second term also served to reinforce every attack by the Republicans and doomed the Democrats to minority status until the complete incompetence of Bush became undeniable. It's strength was in portraying Clinton as independent of the party and it's weakness was in undermining the party for Clinton's benefit.

When the blue dogs try it, it backfires because it continues to undermine the values that are the strength of Democratic party -- fairness, caring about morality and dignity, concern for all, especially those who are vulnerable -- and is incapable of providing the advantage because they are not a solitary executive, they are the mass of legislators -- when they do it, they are moving the party itself. They have nothing to contrast themselves to and only succeed in costing the party power by losing or costing the party power by shifting the entire politcal landscape rightward making them and all other Democrats irrelevant.

But it fails for a second reason. The neo-conservatives have no interest in governing with Democrats. In the documentary Why We Fight, member of the neo-conservative Continental Congress, William Kristol quotes Dick Cheney with the neo-con bumpersticker "Weakness is Provocative." They see everything as a big game of chicken -- first one to blink loses. Always double the bet...whether you are holding the cards or not. Any pause for reflection, any ease in resistance, any attempt to negotiate is a clear sign of weakness and weakness is provocative, it does and ought to provoke an attack. "Weakness is provocative" is their mantra. You see it in their failed foreign policy (diplomatic engagement is weakness), in the way they seek to manipulate the press (Democrats are not wrong, they are traitors), and you see it in their approach to domestic governance. Their primary targets were not those who most resisted their policies, it was those Democrats who were the closest to them, the conservative Dems like Tom Daschle and Max Cleland. If you met them halfway, that meant you were weak and could be attacked as being unAmerican for only going halfway. It meant you wouldn't, and more importantly couldn't, fight back at full strength. In their eyes, compromise is weakness and weakness is provocative.

Of course, this is nonsense. Strength comes from results and results come from principled positions coupled with the pragmatism needed for working in the world of real politik. Sure, part of real strength is having a big stick, but it is also in speaking softly, not being a schoolyard bully. Leadership is being a source of inspiration, not resentment. It goes without saying that this is why we have lost our standing in the world as a result of the neo-con misadventures.

But the question here is not one of adopting or not adopting the axioms of neo-conservatism, rather how to approach politcs when your opponents are neo-conservatives. Any athlete knows that the way you prepared for last week's game will not be the same as preparing for your next opponent, no matter how well you played last week. If triangulation worked for Clinton, that does not mean it will continue to work. The other side has been watching the tape of last week's game and they know your plays. They're ready for them.

You need to study the films of the other team and prepare for them and when going up against neo-conservatives, the key for Democrats is to go back to being Democrats. We need to take back the discussion and we need to take it back on moral grounds. We win a fair fight. We need to be unafraid to stand up for equality and call it equality. We need to stand up for justice and call it justice. We need to stand up for the rule of law, for the dignity of all people, for the defense of the most vulnerable. We need to appeal to the best in people and they will respond, but we need to do it clearly and unapologetically. The minute we mince our words, compromise on our principles, or waffle, we lose. We have a great opportunity in having an ideologically rigorous and extremely weak opposition -- it means that the right play to call is being exactly who we actually are. Bill Clinton did everything he could to make sure there were no differences between the parties, George W. Bush has done everything he could to make sure there was. That means that at this point, for pragmatic reasons, because of what this administration has done to the political field of play, we need to stand up and loudly proclaim how different we are from what has been seen for the last seven years. Right now, because of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom Delay, and the whole lot of them, we need to stand up against their failed policies. In this context, we win by not being Tom Daschle -- compromise is weakness and weakness is provocative.