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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Art of ‘Winning Ugly’

John Harwood’s Sunday New York Times article, “Democrats Must Attack to Win in 2010, Strategists Say” provides a good summation of the argument that Democrats are going to have to play rougher than usual to minimize losses next year. Harwood draws from the views of ‘nonpartisan political handicapper’ Charlie Cook and Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who urges Dems not to “defend and justify,” but instead make Republican obstructionism “a central part of the debate.” Harwood lays out some sobering numerical realities to show why a more aggressive posture for Dems is needed:

,,,Democrats currently have 28 House seats in jeopardy to the Republicans’ 14; 7 Senate seats to Republicans’ 6; 13 governorships to Republicans’ 9…In last month’s New York Times/CBS News Poll, nearly 8 in 10 Americans rated the economy as fairly or very bad. That is only a modest improvement from a year ago…In a recent Gallup survey, independent voters preferred Republican candidates for Congress by 45 percent to 36 percent; last October, they favored Democratic candidates 46 percent to 39 percent.

As Cook, who gives Dems a slight edge in holding the House next year, says in Harwood’s article, “They’re going to have to play really rough…For the average Democratic Congressional incumbent, the opposition researcher will be the most important person in the campaign.”
For Garin, the image of the GOP as “completely obstructionist” provides a powerful vulnerability for Dems to mine over the next year, a view strongly affirmed in poll data in our recent staff post on the latest DCorps ‘Public Polling Report.’ Cook also emphasizes “the key thing is to disqualify your opponent on a very personal, individual level.” Harwood also quotes Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who says Dems must “make the opponent the issue…tie them to George Bush — and then make it personal,” using “our playbook.”
Harwood writes about the comeback gubernatorial campaigns of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and Virginia Democratic nominee R. Creigh Deeds, both of whom have gained substantial ground by intensifying their attacks on their opponents. Corzine has scored by nailing his opponent for using his personal leverage to avoid traffic tickets, while Deeds has hammered his adversary for extremist views expressed in a college paper. I haven’t seen the ads of the Deeds campaign, nor clips of his attacks, but it’s hard to imagine him getting much lasting traction from an opponent’s college paper.
The ‘less defense, more offense’ strategy makes good sense in the current political environment, as was instructively illustrated most recently by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). Grayson got great coverage by refusing to defend himself for what those sensitive Republicans saw as uncivil, and by seizing the media moment and going on the attack. But it’s important to remember that, more often, it takes money — lots of it for TV ads — to attack effectively. No matter how tough a candidate’s attacks, Dems can’t assume the media will report it adequately.
It’s also important to keep in mind that there are limits to what Harwood calls “winning ugly.” It’s more a matter of tone than content. Attacks must be tough and thorough, but without crossing the line into nasty, mean-spirited or petty. There is always a point at which the object of an attack can win sympathy. My guess is Rep. Grayson plays this card artfully, stopping just short of this point of diminishing returns.
To hold the line in the midterm elections, the next year must be a time of intensified Democratic attacks. As Paul Waldman, author of Being Right Is Not enough: What Progressives Can learn from Conservative Success, put it in a TomPaine.com post, “Democrats, Don’t Wimp Out,” :

Democrats should wake up every day thinking, “How can we keep Republicans on the run?” Never give them a moment’s rest, never let them advance their agenda, keep them on the defensive so they have to apologize for being the standard-bearers of a discredited ideology and a disgraced president. Do that, and every legislative battle and election to come will be that much more likely to swing in your favor.

That’s solid advice in any political year, and in 2010 in particular it could make the difference between political gridlock and a new era of Democratic accomplishments.

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