Although they offered significant positive signs, the elections this Tuesday were not in any way a decisive victory for Democrats. What they did represent, however, was a very powerful and substantial setback for the bitter extremist campaign that was launched against the Dems more than a year ago.
Some fierce opponents of Obama and the Democrats were elected in Republican primaries on Tuesday and a group of moderate Republicans fell to challengers from the right even as progressive Dems had a good night and Dems won the single partisan election. But something deeper was also going on. Years from now these primary elections may very likely be seen as the moment when the furious advance of a bitter and determined conservative political assault reached its limit and ground to a halt. This Tuesday was the day when the arrogant claims that the vast majority of Americans were so ferociously and bitterly opposed to the Democratic agenda that they would swamp the political system with their fury were revealed to be hollow. It was the day that the social movement that Republicans had described as unstoppable found itself stopped and the citizen army that conservatives declared invincible encountered opposition that it could not overcome.
Let us be very clear. Millions of Americans sincerely believe that health care reform and the entire Obama agenda is profoundly misguided and they have every right to their view. They have a right to insist on that limits to government are more important than needed social legislation, that balancing the budget is more important than creating jobs and to vote and speak in support of their beliefs.
But what Democrats have faced for the last year has not been a normal political conflict, but rather an assault modeled on a military campaign — an attack conducted in the language and spirit of warfare. The defeat of the Health Care Reform bill was to be – in Jim DeMint’s memorable phrase – “Obama’s Waterloo.” The fierce conservative resistance to his plan would resonate with Americans like a modern-day version of the Alamo, or the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and lead to a stunning, catastrophic defeat that would not produce a renewed and sincere search for compromise but rather a body blow to the democrats that would break Obama’s spirit and doom his agenda.
The Democrats, in contrast, did not see themselves as political soldiers marching to political war. They saw themselves as social reformers. They framed their struggle as following in the traditions of Franklin Roosevelt and the Kennedys. In their minds, passing the health care bill would one day be compared to the passage of Medicare and Social Security, not to the invasion of France on D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge
The Republican conservatives, in contrast, saw themselves as modern-day holy warriors, steeled and girded for battle and ready to join in hand-to-hand combat with forces of evil.
A view of this kind has troubling consequences. It justifies a disturbing abandonment of ordinary standards of civil behavior and day-to-day sense of decency. In an actual war, desperate ends often do justify terrible means and the ordinary peacetime rules of democracy, civility and honesty are often set aside.
And, as not only Democrats but many outside observers saw it, this is what occurred. At the very outset conservative Republicans made a calculated decision that the political imperative of beating the Democrats and denying them a victory was more important than trying to honestly solve a pressing social problem. This decision inevitably cast the sick and needy as pawns on a political chessboard. Rush Limbaugh did not issue an inspiring challenge to political and ideological debate by saying “We have a better health care plan than the Democrats” when he gave a keynote address to conservatives last winter. He issued a partisan war cry: ‘We want Obama to fail”
And as the campaign got underway, the vision of politics as warfare made the truth or falsity of the attacks of little importance. Once conservatives and Republicans became utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the evil of their opponents, dishonesty in the service of victory became acceptable. The ends justified the means.
• The Republican Party stood mutely by or gave tacit approval as right-wing conservatives and Republican extremists circulated the most vile forms of slander against Obama – even the previously unspeakable slur of “Nazi.” Ever since the first American GI’s entered the concentration camps and photographed the gas ovens, the uniquely grotesque evil of Nazism made it an absolutely unacceptable insult in American political life. Until this year, to call a political opponent a Nazi not only made the speaker himself contemptible, it insulted the memory of the millions who died.
• The Republican Party stood mutely by or gave tacit approval as right-wing conservatives and Republican extremists charged that Democrats were secretly plotting the destruction of American Democracy. The emergency financial rescue designed while Bush was still president was suddenly redefined as proof that Democrats were nationalizing the economy and that dictatorship would not be far behind.
• The Republican Party stood mutely by or gave tacit support as right-wing conservatives and Republican extremists frightened senior citizens. Republican Senators and congressmen who had voted on the most serious and fundamental philosophic grounds to privatize social security and reduce Medicare benefits only a few years before suddenly claimed to be the defenders of those same programs against threats from a Democratic administration.
These dishonest actions – as well as others like the sinister and inflammatory claim that Black Americans, working through Black organizations, had stolen the 2008 election –crossed profoundly important lines of social decency, of democratic behavior and of simple right and wrong. The mainstream press made frequent, craven efforts to insist that Democrats were somehow equally complicit as Republicans, but honest observers across the political spectrum were deeply and genuinely appalled.
When the health care reform bill was signed into law eight weeks ago the Republican Party drew a new line in the sand. They gambled everything on the idea that they could mobilize the citizens outraged by this “dictatorial” act into an unstoppable electoral wave. The essence of their position was that the vast majority of Americans were as violently opposed to the legislation as they were and would deliver a smashing electoral rebuke to the evil Democrats.
But on Tuesday the great tidal wave of anti-Democratic sentiment did not appear. The Republican generals watched from the hilltops and saw their do-or-die campaign bog down in the mud.
The struggle has by no means been settled and the battle will go on. But Tuesday is indeed a day that ended on a note of triumph, not just for Democrats, but for everyone who cares about political decency as well. Beneath the specifics of the particular primaries and percentages, the advance of something deeply pernicious in American political life lost its momentum in the primaries this Tuesday and that may be their most enduring legacy.