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More on 'hardball'

Jonathan Bernstein thinks that the Democratic tendency to believe Republicans are far more ruthless and organized than they are is mirrored among Republicans:

Conservative activists believe the exact opposite -- they believe that Republican pols are a bunch of wimpy, half-hearted idealists who allow ruthless liberal Democrats, who play this game for keeps, to trample all over them. Indeed, this follows the Iron Law of Politics that everyone believes that the other side is better at the mechanics of politics: the other side is always more ruthless in their exploitation of the rules and willingness to ignore ethical niceties, more tactically adept, better at extracting money from their base, and (depending on who is complaining) either better at ignoring the policy demands of their crazy ideological base in order to win the center or better at addressing the policy demands of the base, while our side uses and then ignores the policy demands of the base.

In a second item, Klein notes as evidence of successful GOP hardball tactics the Swift Boaters from 2004; while he doesn't include it, many Democrats believe that a difference in willingness to fight hard was responsible for the outcome of the 2000 recount. But Republicans have their own list of grievances, including the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush's driving record in 2000 and the stuff about his military service in 2004.

While I'm not sure that I would say that both parties are in all cases equally ruthless, or equally unethical, I would say with some confidence that most of this is just the Iron Law in action, nothing more. That's not to say that the parties have followed identical strategies; Republicans, much more than Democrats, as far as I can see, have exploited situations in which ignoring unwritten rules can help them, such as the decision to redistrict in Texas once the GOP took control, rather than waiting for the next census. In opposition in Congress, Republicans in 1993 and 2009 followed rejectionist strategies, while Democrats in 2001-2006 for the most part did not. But as far as I can tell, those are choices (right or wrong) of optimal strategy, not a question of guts vs. fecklessness. And I agree: To the extent that the parties have followed different strategies, it's not at all clear that Republicans have benefited.

I like to call it “the myth of the unstoppable adversary,” and I think it's basically right. Democrats embraced some legitimate, but nevertheless inventive, tactics in the push to get health-care reform through both the Senate and the House. Barack Obama decided to forgo public funding so that he could vastly outspend John McCain. Nothing there goes nearly as far as the tactics Republicans used to pass the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, but the decision to have a bigger tent and treat their members better is a strategic choice Democrats have made, and the roles that Jim Jeffords, Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman have played in helping the Democrats pass legislation suggests there's at least some merit to it.

By Ezra Klein  | October 19, 2010; 3:03 PM ET
 
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Comments

Who is the Democratic equivalent of Karl Rove during this election cycle?

Posted by: tuber | October 19, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

"Jonathan Bernstein thinks that the Democratic tendency to believe Republicans are far more ruthless and organized than they are is mirrored among Republicans."

Of course, the Republican base believes all sorts of things that are objectively untrue. To that extent, I bet if you dug in, you'd find a lot of the perceived "ruthlessness" are things like "voter fraud."

Posted by: JEinATL | October 19, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"But Republicans have their own list of grievances, including the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush's driving record in 2000 and the stuff about his military service in 2004."

The SwiftBoat stuff was lies. The revelations about Bush's past were facts. Kerry was a highly-decorated officer who volunteered for a rather dangerous job and performed it well. Bush was a mediocre pilot whose ANG service ended in a mysterious and strangely undocumented way.

There's a difference between "hardball" and "dirty tricks", and the key distinctions are that you stick to the truth, and say it openly. Conway's ad passes both those tests. Swiftboating doesn't.

As for the benefits of restraint, I can't believe we even have to discuss this: we're struggling with two failed wars, a disastrous economy, real wages falling for a decade, a huge structural deficit, a crumbling infrastructure, an out-of-control military, and a looming global climate catastrophe, and having Gore instead of Bush in the WH for 8 years very probably would have avoided, or greatly lessened, every one of those problems.

Posted by: richardcownie | October 19, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

1. I remember Paul Begala and James Carville wrote a book. In they said that in a fight, the democrats were just spitting back when the replicans were hittig them with a baseball bat. I think it is pretty accurate.

2. the strategty of the republicans is just trying to make democrats' policies sound very very extreme. who in their right mind would think Obama's health care reform is the extreme measure? but only by making Obama's position as the extreme lefts' will their policy become mainstream. I am not sure why a guy as smart as Ezra could not see it. My guess is that all lefies want to be seen as above the fray and be objective. But he definitely understood that we have a constituion issue with the health care bill was only becaue there were 5 conservative judges.

3. In the battlefield, do you have to worry about if some strategy is morally right? I think the right is waging a battle (that's why the "taking our country back"), while the left intellectuals are like Ezra still think it is a legitimate political debates.

Posted by: amicus_mass | October 19, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I'm just not convinced by Ezra's position here (or Bernstein's, for that matter). That people on both sides believe similar things about their oponents does not make them both equally wrong. I also think inventive parliamentary tactics are pretty substantively different than outright lies about your opponents. Both sides look for procedural advantages, and while I may think some are over the line and others not, it's just not the same as inventing "death panels" or Swiftboating Kerry.

I want Dems to forcefully and strongly attack or counter the false things that their Republican/conservative opponents sometimes say, and I want them to agressively sell their ideas as Good Things. Instead there seems to be an awful lot of occassions where a Republican or conservative will say something outrageous and the Dems either don't respond or respond weakly.

Similarly, I don't think "playing hardball" covers things like the public option debate, or at least the decision to cut if from the legislation. I think the Dems could have sold it better, but the decision to change a piece of legislation to allow it to pass is different from getting beat up in a news cycle by total fabrications and not coming back strong.

Everyone with a strongish opinion on some issue thinks their side caves too much to outside pressure when it comes to legislating. That's fine, but again, I don't think that's really what we're talking about.

And again, I'm not sure I'm onboard with Conway's ad, but that doesn't mean the Dems don't need to be stronger in these debates.

Posted by: MosBen | October 19, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

"...the decision to have a bigger tent and treat their members better..."

Running primary challenges against its members (e.g. Lieberman, Specter) is "treating them better"?

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 19, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

1) Bernstein's Iron Law is about the subjective beliefs of partisans. It has nothing to do with results. It's a red herring in this discussion.

2) How have the R's fought the ACA? Lie about it. Same for FinReg. How do they get out the vote? Fears of fantastical threats. Your challenge, Ezra, since you disregard evidence that this stuff works for the Rs, is to find evidence that the successes the R's have had are due to superior policy chops, or some other genuinely admirable trait.

Posted by: GBMcM | October 19, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Say it together everyone: FALSE EQUIVALENCE!

Dems sticking to the central plank of their platform and engaging in a months long debate to ram healthcare reform through in no way compromises the ideals of democracy. Leaders should take unpopular decisions and shouldn't need a %60 minimum to do it.

Reps outright lying to the american people and congress in order to sell the Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D and the Iraq war on the other hand all violated the ideals of democracy harder then a tentacle monster in Japanese film.

Politics is ugly and we shouldn't expect any less. But the fact that both Dems and Reps are ugly in politics in no way excuses the fact that the Reps regularly do what they are specifically forbade to do in power: lie to get what they want.

Posted by: theamazingjex | October 19, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

My comment above was overlong. I will attempt to prove that the post is ballanced http://tinyurl.com/2whc84e
more briefly here. One of the two following authors is confused.

"One of the weirder ideas out there is that it would somehow be unorthodox to use the budget reconciliation process to smooth out the difference between two health-care reform bills that have already been passed."

Ezra Klein February 12 2010

"Democrats embraced some legitimate, but nevertheless inventive, tactics in the push to get health-care reform ..."

Ezra Klein October 19 2010.

I don't think that something can be inventive without being unorthodox.

I understand that the aqua Buddha ad was so horrible that it retroactively changed "What reconciliation is for"

Speaking of aqua, there is definitely something in the water in the Washington Post building.

Posted by: rjw88 | October 20, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

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