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Dissents: Jack Conway's Aqua-Buddha ad


Harvard's Theda Skocpol defends Jack Conway's controversial new ad (which you can watch, and read my take on, here):

I have a real problem with all the prissy condemnations coming from liberal commentators about Conway's ad on Rand Paul's youthful playing with contempt for Christianity. People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul's extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a "requirement for public office" as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them.

One reason that Dems do not seem to be able to play hardball -- in a viciously hardball political world -- is that Dems often lack conviction or the will to be eloquently honest (for example, on taxes). But an equal problem is that when someone does play hardball, the rest of the prissy liberal Mugwumps tut-tut them about it.

I say, go for it, Jack Conway. Does anyone doubt that Paul and his supporters would have used similar publicly documented material against Conway (or even less material)?

I have two problems with the ad: First, it takes thinly sourced college pranks and sells them as a calculated and conspiratorial assault on Christianity. The words "secret society" are in the ad. The word "college" isn't. Convincing people that your enemy is part of a secret society bent on destroying or blaspheming Christianity does not put you in particularly good historical company. And in general, I loathe watching every utterance anyone has ever made -- no matter if it is 25 years old -- become fair game for an attack ad. This is why smart, decent people do not want to run for office.

Then there's this question of "hardball." This is broader than the Rand/Conway race, but what, exactly, is the evidence for the widespread Democratic belief that Republicans are ruthlessly effective tacticians while they are wilting violets? There is a Democratic president. A Democratic House. A Democratic Senate. George W. Bush passed a mixture of tax cuts and capitulations to liberals on education policy, Medicare benefits, and campaign-finance laws. The dogmatic nature of the Republican Party threw control of the Senate to Democrats in 2001 when it drove Jim Jeffords into Tom Daschle's waiting arms, and then got Democrats to 60 votes when it drove Arlen Specter into Harry Reid's camp. That in turn led to health-care reform, the single largest legislative achievement for either party in the last three or four decades.

A lot of liberals I know believe that conservatives are coldblooded in a way they simply aren't, but should be. And so on some level, they're really glad to see Democrats bringing a howitzer to a gun fight. But I just don't see the evidence that this stuff is working out for Republicans. What accomplishments do they have to show for it? What enduring majorities? Where's the payoff for quieting your conscience? Putting aside the morality of "these vicious, horrible people will do anything to win, and therefore so too should we," where's the evidence that it works?

Photo credit: Alex Slitz Photo

By Ezra Klein  | October 18, 2010; 2:59 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: It's a hard-knock life
Next: Why the Fed's strategy won't work


You're right, Ezra! Dems shouldn't do anything that would offend a rich white northeast (or CA) liberal! Because, as you point out, after the Republicans destroyed the country, the Dems won for two years before being thrown out.

Better to be oh-so-pure than actually win and get things done. Elections don't have consequences for us well-off white men.

Posted by: AZProgressive | October 18, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Ezra's specific problems with this specific ad, but I think there is something to the "Dems can't play hardball" criticism. I think the hand wringers bring out the complaint that Dems are weak too often, especially when, as Ezra points out, there are a lot of victories being won. At the same time, I think Dems are very bad at speaking with authority and strength on issues where they're right and should have those traits. The death panel thing strikes me as being one of these occassions. That wasn't a disagreement about policy; it was a straight up lie attempting to frighten people, but the Dems just seemed confused about how to really get mad about it.

Will getting all up in peoples' faces make the difference between winning and losing? I don't think so, at least not most of the time, but I don't think "taking the high ground" really makes the difference either. If your opponent is saying outrageous things, there's a certain degree to which outrage is warranted, and for too many Dems it seems like the outrage never comes.

Posted by: MosBen | October 18, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Paul has never denied anything from the GQ article, just the characterization that he "kidnapped" the girl. Take note that he didn't deny the episode in the debate, either.

I think the ad is effective because it contributes to the narrative that Paul is hiding who he really is and what he truly believes. Conway has another ad with video of Paul suggesting the Medicare deductible should be raised to $2000. Yeah, it would probably be more refreshing to see Conway highlighting Paul's policy quirks, but the Aqua Budda thing sure is memorable...

Posted by: mschol17 | October 18, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

The official policy of the country is eternal war "on terror", endless occupation of two Middle Eastern countries, and collecting less in taxes than the government spends, yet Ezra thinks conservatives have not gained anything.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | October 18, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse


First you're wrong and then you double down. If you don't have any evidence, you must be holding keeping your two pairs of hands over your eyes and your ears. Have you ever heard of hardball like Swiftboating, gay bashing, Muslim hating, etc? My goodness, you have totally gone off the rails.


Posted by: IndigoJoe | October 18, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Ezra asks: what accomplishments do Republicans have to show for being "hardball" politicians? Wrong question. Republicans don't want "accomplishments." They want to use power 1) to keep the poor and middle class hordes in their proper subordinate place and 2) to loot the country. They do just fine at that, using lies and general BS.

Posted by: janinsanfran | October 18, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I agree that this ad is inane, and that it's a poor model for a winning, long-term progressive politics. That said:

"What Republicans have to show for it" (for forty years of aggressive disinformation) is a steady drift to the right by both parties, with the public believing all sorts of things about policy matters which simply aren't true.

Posted by: bobsomerby | October 18, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

If he wins, it's fine with me, even though I agree its repulsive. Much more repulsive and dangerous to all of us to have Paul in the Senate. However, I have a bad feeling it's going to backfire, since an overwhelming sense of victimhood is a keystone of the teapartiers.

Posted by: guesswhosue | October 18, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

" It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them"

yes. that is true.

rand paul's principles seems to have little in common with the teachings of Christ.

what would Jesus do?
i dont think He would be casting a vote for rand paul.
no faith-based initiatives, no government intervention.
Jesus did want to see hungry, ill, needy people, twisting in the wind.
Jesus would not be using electronic underground fences on people.
Jesus was about helping other people, who needed help.
i dont think that Jesus would have been a libertarian in today's society.
He would look at suffering, and know that we needed an organized way to help the sick, the poor and those who could not help themselves.
in our greedy society, He would want a safety net that would not be dependent on the whims of corporate grants, or "me-first, take care of yourself" people, who would help some, and forget about others, whose views they didnt agree with.
what would Jesus do?
i sincerely think that He would not be in favor of voting for rand paul. especially after hearing paul's views on the civil rights act and the electronic underground fence.
rand paul would create a selfish and hurtful society, that would not appeal to our better angels.
it would chase away our better angels.
as they are already being chased away.

Posted by: jkaren | October 18, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Jesus Christ was not a libertarian.
the gospel of Jesus Christ, as i have read it and tried to live it, is not compatible in real life with the principles of libertarianism.
arent some of his tea party supporters, the people especially, who believe we are a "christian nation?"

Posted by: jkaren | October 18, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

FerGawdSakes, Ezra, what planet are you on?

Look at survey results for the last 40 years. The majority of Americans favor Democratic Party policies. Yet the Republicans have implemented their policies, most recently Mitt Romney's health care law written nationwide, two wars of invasion paid with my children's tax dollars, and $4T in tax cuts for the rich, which will be paid with reductions in my Social Security payments.

Why? Because they win elections out of all prportion to the popularity of their policies? Why? Because they don't act like YOU! They play to win, and they don't have any moral compunction about sacrificing any principles they claim to have in order to fool as many low information voters as possible.

And as a result, we have 10% unemployment, $Trillions in deficits, and millions of corpses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador. We have the highest poverty rate in the US in 40 years. Because Democrats have forgotten that the way they made American great was they made dirty deals and fought vicious, manipulative battles to get and keep the majority, and to force the majority's will on the minority.

That's the way it works, Ezra, and you are objectively Republican if you think we shouldn't fight them with all means available.

Posted by: Dollared | October 18, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

No one said Republicans were ruthlessly effective, just that they play nasty.

Evidence of D's as wilting violets? How about Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) apologizing for swatting away Frazier's hand as Frazier waved it in his face while interrupting him?

Evidence that it works for Republicans? Max Cleland. QED.

Posted by: GBMcM | October 18, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

and i dont think that Jesus Christ would like to hear a "good christian," mocking millions of people in our country, who work hard and with heart as respectable democrats, being referred to as "residents of a unicorn ranch in fantasyland."
maybe it sounds funny on the surface, but it is not funny. it demeans the beliefs and efforts of millions of people who are also trying to work within the system.
He would see the mockery and scornfulness for what it is...from someone who is misleading her followers into thinking that this is how a good christian should "be."
why do kindly christians tolerate this kind of cruelty?
it is like bullying in a schoolyard.
why would a good person, support someone who preaches so much hate and mockery?
it is so hard to understand.

Posted by: jkaren | October 18, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

so lets put this ad back in say 1955. the (all-white) voting population happens to be racist. your opponent happens to have made some remarks favoring racial equality. is it ok to just point out to the voters (not taking a position on it yourself, understand) that your opponent disagrees with them on racial matters?

Posted by: jfcarro | October 18, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Shorter Dollared, by Dollared:

Do you think that Tennessee and the US would be better served to have Conway rather than Paul as a US Senator? If yes, why are you wasting time and ink worrying about how that happens?

Posted by: Dollared | October 18, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

GBMcM, excellent point about Cleland.

Posted by: MosBen | October 18, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I agree that some topics are not appropriate for the political discourse. But the Republicans/Conservatives/Tea Partiers love the 'social' and 'morality' issues. That makes many things fair game, including their personal behavior and (careless) statements.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 18, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

what have the Repubs achieved?? Gee, Ezra, I guess you're just too young to remember President Kerry--oh, right..
But even more than character assassination in an election is the capture of the Overton window: the frame the media uses to define what the range of discourse is among the Very Serious People. Never forget that this is a center-right nation, right? I mean, despite the fact that the public option was polling at 65%, etc. The media narrative is driven by the persistence of the right wing in driving fake issues (gov't spending, death panels), the relentless coverage they give to right-wing extremists, and the punishment/banishment they visit on those who stray (from Dan Rather to David Frum).

Posted by: brucek1 | October 18, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Every day your blog lists answers to your question. The Democrats came into power after a series of amazingly stupid and ideologically driven decisions by the ruling Republicans. The Democrats have stabilized the economy, are trying to find a solution to two unending wars, and managed to push through a bill providing health care for everyone. In return the Republicans have suggested no real solutions, ridiculous criticism, and heaps of false claims (and ads).

And they're winning. If we can agree that they have offered little substantively to improve the U.S. in the past years, yet we agree that it looks like they'll be swept into power after the coming elections, the only conclusion I can come to is that they're better at the demagoguery necessary to win elections than the Democrats.

Posted by: MadIrishFrog | October 18, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

If the ad were *just* dragging up stuff from RP's college days, it would be stupid and ineffective. What makes it work is that he ties it with RP's current position on faith-based initiatives. RP doesn't adhere to the Christian-conservative orthodoxy. He wasn't part of that tribe in his college days; he isn't part of that tribe now.

If you want to wring your hands over the fact that "tribal" allegiances affect voting patterns, go ahead. But clarifying just who RP is, and hence how he's likely to vote, seems to me perfectly fair game for a campaign ad.

Posted by: richardcownie | October 18, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

What Dollared said. This is one of the least informed of Ezra's posts, evah.

Ezra, for the millionth time, you and Yglesias and your boyz need to get out of your Beltway bubble and spend some time with some Baptists in red states. You'll quickly discover that they're waging a holy war, and there are tens of millions of them who won't stop until they've destroyed every opponent to the left of Olympia Snowe. True story.

Posted by: scarlota | October 18, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Paul has the IQ of a peanut. He's scared to be seen in public because all he does is make a fool of himself. He's living proof that humans are decedents from Apes .. He's the missing link !

Posted by: wasaUFO | October 18, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I know neoliberals don't want to admit that the only times Democrats win is when they run on liberal principles. (For example, this article totally ignores the Iraq war's influence in Democrats gaining huge majorities.)

Amazing, isn't it?

Posted by: stonedone | October 18, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: jeirvine | October 18, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if I agree with this, but to answer your question, some would say the evidence that the strategy is successful is the fact that the Republican party can win seats at all. They consistently convince a large number of voters to vote against their economic interests.

Some might argue that the only reason the Republican party can simultaneously sell voters out and win voter support is because they have no compunctions about ethics or hypocrisy in politics.

Posted by: zosima | October 18, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I equally "loathe watching every utterance anyone has ever made" being used in an attack ad. But the answer to that is to go back to matters of substance, not defend Rand who has responded by accusing Conway of "false witness", refusing to shake Conway's hand as per normal courtesy, and claiming that Conway should be disqualified from even appearing on the ballot INSTEAD OF contesting the accuracy of the ad. There are more than enough ads out there that fundamentally fail a fact-check that surely one need not reserve outrage for essentially ACCURATE ads.

What is the substance? Whether or not Paul holds extremist libertarian views. If a candidate was a Trotskyite in college in my view it is revealing, relevant, and likely suggestive that later moderation is motivated by in interest in getting elected. Same goes for youthful mocking of Christianity. Seems to me that Ezra's real problem ought to be with any voters swayed by Conway's ad, not Conway.

Posted by: bdell555 | October 18, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

In the long run, I don't think you can win by just copying the other side's strategies. It'll always be a shadow of the original.

Think of Manchin doing the glamor shots with guns, or the old classic Dukakis-on-Tank.

The Democrats spend too much energy trying to out-Republican the Republicans. The Conway case is just an extreme example of the age-old GOP tactic of character assassination. Aqua Buddah? C'mon.

As a lily-livered-limousine-liberal elitist myself, I've got no problem with "hard ball." I just want it to be original, and to push the agenda I think is right.

I don't care about Kentucky's Christian-ness. That's for the GOP to worry about. I care about Kentucky's miners and working joes. Assassinate away, so long as it's genuinely Donkey-style. Take something out of context about digging holes or black lungs or whatever, I don't care.

That aside, good luck, Jack. We'll need you.

Posted by: itstrue | October 18, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

As a conservative, what annoys me is that Klein will not doubt see his opinion here as an example of his non-partisanship. Taking issue with a Democrat HERE is, in fact, more revealing of a partisanship that goes deeper than party-partisanship, as the reason for taking issue is because the Democrat here has suggested Kentucky politicians should not mock Christianity. The suggestion is, in fact, perfectly reasonable. To a conservative, anyway.

Posted by: bdell555 | October 18, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

There is something really amusing about the whining liberals and the elitists discussing the attack ads like this.

Ain't gonna work. You know why? Because the people in Kentucky hate Pelosi's guts.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 18, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

"I don't know if I agree with this, but to answer your question, some would say the evidence that the strategy is successful is the fact that the Republican party can win seats at all. They consistently convince a large number of voters to vote against their economic interests."

And how on earth would a liberal in an ivory tower know what is in a voter's best interest?

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 18, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

And how about this video:

Way to be a homo.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 18, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

I wasn't really impressed with the ad, but I didn't think it crossed any lines, either. I saw it as questioning Paul's values, which I think is fair game in any election: pointing out that a candidate's values are not consistent with those of his constituency is a valid point to make.

However, I will point out that I just watched Chris Matthews grill Conway on Hardball, and I wasn't really impressed with Conway's defense of the ad. He kept pointing out that no one should mock anyone of faith, which is what he thinks Paul did. Matthews, on the other hand, thought the ad was attacking Paul's faith, so the questioning was rather focused, and Matthews wasn't impressed with the sourcing either (though I think that can be overdone). Paul has never denied the story, though.

I briefly saw the response ad, and I thought it was off-base, with its statements about Conway's motives/actions in running the ad. But it obviously signaled that Conway's ad has the Paul camp either worried, or that they see the chance to pounce.

As for your other question, I immediately thought of Karl Rove, known for his dirty tactics. While it was in Republican primary, I think the push-polling they did in South Carolina against John McCain, suggesting to voters that he had fathered a black child, was both out-of-bounds, and apparently effective. And I think Rove's campaign of fear, primarily to make the public fearful of another terrorist attack on American soil, perhaps even adjusting the threat level, has been an effective technique to manipulate the electorate. I'm also thinking of the Brooks Brothers "mob" they sent to Florida during the ballot counting there, to try to influence public opinion about the 2000 election. And of course, there's always Watergate, though that certainly didn't turn out the way they planned. Seems ironic, doesn't it, that a party that campaigns on family values would have such a history of dirty tricks?

Posted by: reach4astar2 | October 18, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

What do conservatives have to show for it?

Historically low taxes for corporations and the rich.

And increased income gap (finally, the people that deserve the money get to keep all of it... ha.)

Huge bailouts and gimmes to industry (TARP, Medicare Part D)

They may have been out of power for a couple of years, but they're coming back.

This nation has moved permanently right. Tom Toles' recent Friday rant perfectly sums up what happened. This year, a bunch or previously Conservative ideas are now radical left wing ideas. You think that has anything to do with messaging? Even if Republicans lost the battle over health care, they won the war. Health care providers are going to get a huge, new customer base and their profits will go up. Big corporations that want to offer crappy health care will get waivers, anyway!

Posted by: will12 | October 18, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

What a joke these lefties are.

Medicare A and B (which Goldwater and Reagan correctly opposed) are sacred pillars of US society.

Medicare D is an industrial giveaway.

I marvel at the inconsistency.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 18, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

"There is a Democratic president. A Democratic House. A Democratic Senate."

Passing Republican policies.

Posted by: pj_camp | October 18, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

"But I just don't see the evidence that this stuff is working out for Republicans. What accomplishments do they have to show for it? What enduring majorities? Where's the payoff for quieting your conscience?"

You have to be kidding, right? Here is my list:
1) They have starved the beast. For 30 years we have been on a trajectory to have more and more debt, designed to limit what gov can do for people (as our taxes pay interest on debt). It is a huge win for a small sociopathic group of ideologues who would rather destroy the country than lose an argument, or see poor people not die for lack of health care (or having a semi-bad job).
2) Wealth inequality. Largest margins in 80 years. Conservatives have won.
3) Hidden money in elections. Plutocrats will continue dominating the political system for a generation, if we cannot stop the insanely corrupt financing of our elections.
4) Organized labor is broken, outside a few areas. And, those areas are mostly on the decline due to trade policy and starve teh beast policies paying off at the state and lcoal level. This will lead to further inequality.

One only need look at a few areas to see how conservatives are winning. They may run on abortion, but they govern to concentrate wealth upwards. It has worked brilliantly.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | October 18, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Here's the irony: Rand Paul is fine with hateful unreasonable discrimination by business owners. Discrimination on the basis of race? Oh, private matter.
But say something about him and Christianity, and that's just awful and beyond the pale. Why, how dare Conway, he can respect someone who engages in discrimination against blacks but not when its discrimination against Rand Paul.
Gee, a little different when you're on the receiving end? That Paul's libertarian bent works in theory and with others, but not with himself (witness his profiting from Medicare) is part and parcel of his deep hypocrisy.

Posted by: fakedude1 | October 19, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Good Boy Ezra, Andrew Sullivan approves. Better get on your hands and knees, he's ready to stick it in.

Posted by: kma815 | October 19, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

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