It’s now becoming obvious that the Congressional Republican leadership, buttressed by the institutional GOP, the White House, and most conservative media, have adopted a three-pronged strategy for minimizing the damage associated with the Abramoff scandal and related outrages:1) False Moral Equivalency: the “everybody does it” defense for GOP corruption may not be morally or intellectually respectable, but it does benefit from its consistency with the views of a large and abiding segment of the electorate, who assume absent compelling evidence to the contrary that indeed “everybody does it.” Democrats have to pound away on the unusual, unprecedented (at least since the Gilded Age) and systemic nature of Republican corruption to overcome this argument. (Tom Toles’ cartoon today is a simple and useful example of the picture we must paint). And countering this false equivalency is another powerful reason for offering a strong and comprehensive reform agenda and a new set of rules that Democrats openly ask voters to hold themselves accountable to.2) Scapegoating Hopeless Cases: The “few bad apples” defense is obviously designed to lay all the blame for GOP corruption on people who are already destined for disgrace, if not a stretch in the hoosegow. That’s what’s already happened to Abramoff, and may now be happening to Tom DeLay (though the slippery Bug Man, if he manages to get re-elected this year, should not yet be counted out, given his long-standing ability to control his colleagues without officially taking on the mantle of maximum leadership). And that’s why it’s critical for Dems to consistently draw attention not only to the many and longstanding ties between disgraced figures like Abramoff and Scanlon to the highest figures in the GOP, but to the pattern of abuse of power and money madness that suffuses the whole Republican machine. In other words, Abramoff’s follies are examples of the problem, not the problem itself.3) Embracing Minimal Reforms: The most devious strategy of all is for GOPers to suddenly proclaim themselves interested in a reform agenda of their own, as reflected by the laughable designation of Sen. Rick (K Street) Santorum as a point person for Senate Republicans on lobbying reform. And aside from deriding the hypocrisy involved in such efforts, Democrats must focus on offering reforms that Republicans cannot afford to co-opt, such as making it a federal crime to offer lobbyists access to the legislative process in exchange for partisan affiliation or campaign contributions.Contra those Democratic commentators who say we should just forget about corruption and focus on the GOP’s ideology and policy positions, I strongly believe the GOP three-pronged defense can and must be countered in ways that constantly connect corruption to the ideology and money-driven political strategy of the entire Republican Party from top to bottom. It may be the only way to batten on the powerful anti-Washington sentiment out there, while assuaging cynics that Democrats actually offer an alternative approach to governing.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.