Democrats seem to me paralyzed by two fears. The first is that a really tough stand against the administration’s incompetence, arrogance, and fecklessness about Iraq and terrorism will expose them to accusations of being either weak or irresponsible about national security, with Republicans saying (in effect), “you’re only safe with us” . The second is the more general fear of officeholders and candidates that anything interesting and important could cost them an election by offending some group.
That the party that broke the military’s teeth on a worthless rock, leaving us unable to deal with real dangers like Iran and North Korea, that watched idly while a hurricane drowned a big city, that’s taken lifesaving medicine out of the hands of really desperate old and poor people to fatten drug merchants, that let Osama walk out of Tora Bora, and that can’t say a coherent sentence about bird flu, gets to claim it keeps us safe would be hilarious if it weren’t genuinely scary and outrageous. But the absurdity won’t turn an election just by being available to bloggers and Jeremiahs.
How about the following recipe, to appear with appropriate variations in every stump speech (no copyright, help yourselves, folks – and remember, repetition is a legitimate and powerful rhetorical device) :
Americans have always known there are worse things to lose than our lives. The Republicans think we’ve forgotten about them. And those are exactly the things this administration, and the Republican Congress, are willing to have us lose. They’re treating us like cowards, and we’re not.
This recipe allows a variety of things to be zipped in as examples. Civil liberties: Patrick Henry didn’t say “give me liberty as long as I don’t have to take any chances for it”; he said something quite different and he was right. Honor: Americans have never believed we should only do the right thing (telling the truth, not torturing prisoners, etc.) when it’s safe or cheap; we haven’t always got it right (how could we?) but when we’ve thought clearly about what we’re doing we’ve done the right thing even when it had real risks. Our children: Americans have never until now chosen to party on credit and leave our kids to pay the bill for decades to come.
(Then there are things that are much less important than our lives, and especially less important than, say, freedom. $2 gasoline is nice, but it’s not a national core value. Big profits for crooked contractors are not as important as the lives of soldiers sent out with the wrong vehicles and the wrong armor. And so on: good speechwriters could work these into the same trope.)
The second fear is one we have to stamp out ruthlessly. If there are things that are worse to lose than your life, there are certainly worse things to lose than your job. Candidates who cripple their execution of the job of candidate in order to get the job of representative or president or whatever, or don’t do what they were elected for because they think that well help them get reelected, are not realistic, hardheaded professionals, they are something very small and sad. And of course, they run a good chance of winding up losers both ways. We’ve seen a lot of good people fall into this trap; in my personal experience at the state level, I think this has to do with the coterie of lieutenants and aides for whom it’s actually more important that the boss win the election than it is for the boss, and who provide well-meaning but bad advice (see the last act of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral for a perfect example of this, as Thomas’ priests try to get him to run out the back door rather than do what he know he has to do).
Let’s try to catch candidates doing a really good job of candidacy, managing political risk instead of avoiding it, and make a really big fuss, perhaps accompanying contribution checks, when they do.