In recent years, however, what’s right and what’s
smart have rarely made joint appearances on the stage of U.S. politics.
The Republicans have built their national dominance
– controlling the White House, Congress, the courts and much of the news
media – by doing what’s politically smart but rarely what’s right for a
For instance, White House political adviser Karl
Rove has exploited the Sept. 11 terror attacks to marginalize the
Democrats as people unconcerned about the security of the American
people. Those tactics may be terribly wrong – because they divide the
nation – but they certainly work.
The Democrats are even more galling. They seem
zeroed in on both doing what’s wrong and what’s stupid. The latest
example is the party leadership’s “success” in driving Iraq War veteran
Paul Hackett out of the Ohio Senate race apparently because he speaks
his mind too much and takes the fight directly to the Republicans.
Instead, Democratic Senate leaders, hoping to win
in Ohio by default because of Republican disarray, opted for an
establishment Democrat, Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman who has
raised $2.37 million, tenfold more money than outsider Hackett.
But by settling on a business-as-usual strategy,
Democratic leaders offended the idealism – and fighting spirit – of
their base and may have ultimately hurt their chances for victory in
November, a lose-lose strategy that has become all too familiar for
Hackett, who returned from Iraq angry at George W.
Bush for risking the lives of U.S. soldiers over the hyped threat from
Saddam Hussein, ran a strong but losing race in 2005 for a House seat in
an overwhelmingly Republican district in southern Ohio.
That performance made Hackett immensely popular
with rank-and-file Democrats and prompted Democratic leaders to
encourage him to undertake an uphill fight to unseat Republican Sen.
Over the past several months, however, the Ohio
Republican Party has suffered a series of damaging scandals, making
DeWine an endangered incumbent. Meanwhile, Hackett has offended
Republicans – and some non-Republicans – by talking bluntly.
Earlier this year, Hackett came under criticism for
saying that the Republican Party had been hijacked by religious
extremists who “aren’t a whole lot different than Osama bin Laden.”
Instead of apologizing, Hackett declared, “I said it. I meant it. I
stand behind it.”
Suddenly, the state and national Democratic leaders
were changing their calculations, favoring a more traditional and
experienced Democrat, someone like Rep. Brown, a longtime fixture in
So, according to Hackett, for the past two weeks,
party leaders, including Senators Harry Reid and Charles Schumer, have
urged him to drop out and run instead for a House seat, an option that
Hackett had previously forsworn.
While agreeing to withdraw from the Senate contest
on Feb. 13, Hackett said he would not go back on his word to other
Democrats about not running for the House seat.
“This is an extremely disappointing decision that I
feel has been forced on me,” Hackett said. “For me, this is a second
betrayal. First, my government misused and mismanaged the military in
Iraq, and now my own party is afraid to support candidates like me.” [NYT,
Feb. 14, 2006]
The Hackett fiasco upset rank-and-file Democrats
trying to recruit Iraq War veterans to challenge Republicans. “Now is a
time for Democrats to be courting, not blocking, veterans who want to
run,” complained Mike Lyon, executive director for the Band of Brothers,
a group urging veterans to run as Democrats.
The Democratic base also is fuming. It has long
despised the consultant-driven Democratic hierarchy in Washington, which
is seen as putting political machinations ahead of principle – and still
managing to lose.
Many of these Democrats blame this cozy community
of Washington pollsters, strategists and ad consultants for the
“triangulation” strategies that have failed to give the Democrats
control of Congress since 1994. This timidity also has been blamed for
Bush taking the White House in 2000 and 2004.
For instance, during Campaign 2004, national
Democratic operatives were so spooked by Republican charges that the
Democratic convention would become a “Bush hate-fest” that the
organizers started censoring critical comments about Bush out of many
The convention’s keynote address, delivered by
then-Senate hopeful Barack Obama, didn’t even mention Bush’s name or
give any reason for ousting him. The mild-mannered convention ended up
giving Democratic nominee John Kerry a zero bounce.
By contrast, the Republicans held a convention that
bashed Kerry at every opportunity – with GOP operatives even passing out
“Purple Heart” band-aids to mock Kerry’s Vietnam War wounds. Disgruntled
Democratic Sen. Zell Miller excoriated Kerry in the Republican keynote
address – and Bush opened up a double-digit advantage.
Bush’s lead eroded only after he stumbled through
the first two presidential debates. Kerry, with his strong debate
performances, took the momentum and appeared headed for victory. But his
consultants again intervened, urging caution and convincing Kerry to
pull his punches in the third debate.
In that pivotal last debate, Kerry once more looked
like the indecisive figure who had failed to impress the voters over the
summer. Down the campaign stretch, Kerry seemed to be coasting, rather
than driving for a clear-cut win. He gave Bush a chance to regain his
political balance and pull almost even.
On Election Day, amid widespread complaints of
voting irregularities, Bush wrested the White House again from the
Democrats. Though Kerry had vowed to make sure every vote was counted,
he listened to his advisers who urged him to concede the day after the
election, dooming hopes for a meaningful recount in the pivotal state of
The divisions between the Democratic base and the
Democratic leadership have widened again in 2006 as Senate Democrats
fought only a half-hearted battle against Bush’s Supreme Court
nomination of Samuel Alito.
The base saw Alito’s radical theories of the
“unitary executive” as tipping the court balance toward a majority in
favor of an all-powerful President and thus endangering civil liberties
and the Founders’ concept of checks and balances. But the Democratic
leadership feared the political fallout of an all-out fight to block
Though the Democrats had enough anti-Alito votes
(42) to sustain a filibuster, Senate Minority Leader Reid refused to
invoke party discipline and 19 Democrats joined with the Republicans in
closing off debate, thus ensuring Alito’s confirmation. Many in the
Democratic base were livid.
Now, the rank-and-file Democrats see the party
hierarchy adopting the same old “safe” strategies that have failed to
restore the party to the majority. Ahead in the latest opinion polls and
counting on the Republicans to self-destruct, congressional Democrats
are seeking out establishment Democrats who can raise big bucks and
Political analyst Jennifer Duffy told the New York
Times that Hackett’s bluntness – while loved by the Democratic base –
made the Democratic leaders nervous.
“Hackett is seen by many as a straight talker, and
he became an icon of the liberal bloggers because he says exactly what
they have wished they would hear from a politician,” Duffy said. “On the
other hand, the Senate is still an exclusive club, and the party expects
a certain level of decorum that Hackett has not always shown.”
But many rank-and-file Democrats see something
besides decorum at stake. Some conclude that the national Democratic
leaders are addicted to losing, content as long as the party holds some
seats and the consultants get shares of the campaign ad buys.
Some angry Democrats compare the party’s
performance to an exhibition basketball game between the razzle-dazzle
Harlem Globetrotters and the slow-footed Washington Generals. While the
Globetrotters (or Republicans) need an opponent in order to have a game,
the Generals (or Democrats) aren’t supposed to win.
The Generals stand around looking befuddled as the
Globetrotters make fancy passes and dribble behind their backs and
between their legs. It wouldn’t do for the Generals to start jumping
into the passing lanes and stuffing shots into the faces of the
The problem for the Democratic leaders is that the
Democratic base has grown tired of watching these exhibition games with
their predictable outcomes. Many grassroots Democrats actually believe
the Bush administration has put the fate of the democratic Republic in
jeopardy and that decisive action is needed.
To them, it’s not a game anymore. They don’t want
politics as usual. They want the Democratic Party to compete to win.
They want leaders who understand that they can do what’s right and