Over at TAPPED yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta asked a compelling question: how, exactly, can we really expect to hold Bush and his minions accountable for their serial acts of misgoverment? And over at TPMCafe, Mark Schmitt responded by making a strong argument that today’s Republicans escape accountability because, well, they don’t really give a damn what anybody thinks about them other than on general election days.Maybe I’m just consumed with anger at the administration and its congressional allies right now, but I think Mark’s basically right. Most of these people have no concept of “accountability”–in terms of short-term performance, long-range consequences, the judgment of history, or even public opinion. Their only benchmark is progress towards their own ideological goals, which are “starving the beast,” destroying the very possibility of meaningful bipartisanship, radicalizing permanent institutions like the judiciary, the military and the corporate sector, and keeping Americans afraid of the world and each other. That’s why they’ve relied so heavily on abuse of power; it’s the only way to perpetuate their power without compromise or accountability. And that’s why they are so uninhibited by most considerations of truth or decency. In fact, I would argue that their most important tactical consideration has been to destroy the possibility of accountability by short-circuiting all the signals whereby a healthy society normally judges its leaders. Any source of objective measurement has been systematically discredited as inherently ideological: scientists are secularist fanatics; the media are elitist liberals; the judiciary is full of anti-Christian activists; the opposition party is anti-American. We’ve all had much fun with the conservative characterization of “liberals” as “reality-based,” but it’s no laughing matter: the essence of Rovism is to eliminate any zone of rational persuasion and force Americans to pick sides in an identity politics of real and perceived privileges under imaginary assault. Years ago, a friend of mine from Alabama observed that what bugged her about Republicans as people is that they had the subtelty and sensitivity of hammerhead sharks. So the question is: how do you fight a hammerhead shark, particularly a wounded hammerhead shark? Clearly, you can’t go very far negotiating or reasoning with this kind of beast; you just become chum. But I don’t put a lot of stock in the reigning opinion of so many Democratic bloggers that the answer is to become sharks ourselves. I’ve always opposed the idea that Democrats can win a selfishness competition with the GOP, offering our government benefits versus their tax cuts; they’ll win every time if voters are asked to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of what they think they are “getting” for their tax dollars. Nor do I believe, in the end, we can out hate them or out thug them; even if that course was not morally repugnant, it’s politically self-defeating; the ultimate sell-out to Republican values.So if we do not happily cooperate with the GOP in reducing all politics to our team versus their team, and our “truth” versus their “truth,” to what higher standard can we appeal? And that gets back to the problem of accountability in an age with few uncontested facts and no credible referees to keep a score card.Our task can be summed up as this: we have to rebuild accountability, brick by brick. That requires relentlessly putting forth a message that reminds Americans of their real and tangible interests, individual and collective, and then measuring GOP governance, and GOP candidates, accordingly. This effort will naturally involve presenting Democratic alternatives to meet the accountability standards we propose, which means dealing aggressively with entrenched (if generally false) negative stereotypes about our own party. And ultimately, the “accountability moment” will indeed have to happen at election time, or sufficiently in advance of election time to convince Republicans they are at risk not only of losing seats, or losing power, but losing a political argument with epochal consequences, just as they did during the Great Depression. The good news is that the whole Republican identity politics game is a house of cards based on the perception that Bush and the GOP are competent stewards of a threatened status quo ante of moral certainty, economic growth, and American power. Iraq and Katrina–and perhaps the impending cascade of ethical disasters–could damage those perceptions and greatly aid a Democratic effort to remind Americans of what their government should actually stand for.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.