Both Democrats and Republicans tend to believe that their opponents are more efficient, organized, and ruthless than their own side is. This may partly be a result of each side's belief that, in a fair fight, they wouldn't lose -- the American people must surely vote for their opponents only when manipulated into doing so. But the fact that the left and the right are each envious of the other side's skills doesn't mean that both sides are, in fact, equally skilled. The unending battle between the two parties isn't only a matter of who can devise a clever argument or air the most memorable ads. It's also about conflicts that take years or even decades to play out, ones more lasting and fundamental than the outcome of today's legislative debate. And on that score, it's clear that even as they fight over the budget and health care, Republicans are taking a longer view.
The presidential race of three years ago was the first in many years in which Democrats showed themselves superior at all the disciplines that make up modern campaigning, from fundraising to messaging. But that extraordinary campaign (seems a long time ago, doesn't it?) didn't change at least one fundamental fact: Conservatives know how to go on offense. And when, after victories at the state and local level in 2010, they got their chance to strike back, they took it. With a vengeance.
Put simply, Republicans are conducting a radical attack on the Democratic Party, aimed at the roots of Democratic power and sustenance. The battle is occurring in Washington and around the country, and even if the right doesn't succeed completely, the fight will almost certainly leave Democrats weakened and defensive.
Look at the targets conservatives have taken aim at in the last couple of years: access to the ballot box, unions, organizations representing the poor, organizations protecting reproductive rights, and more. The assault is not just on ideas or policies (though there's plenty of that, too) but on the institutions that undergird the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.
It hasn't always been a tightly coordinated effort overseen by an authoritative hierarchy, but conservatives quickly moved into action at the right opportunities. Let's take the case of ACORN. When James O'Keefe, the now-famous video provocateur, released videos that appeared to show the nonprofit's employees giving support to someone claiming to be pimping out underage girls, Republicans in Congress introduced legislation to ensure ACORN could receive no federal funds. The conservative media went into overdrive portraying the group as a terrifying threat to American democracy. It turns out that O'Keefe's video was essentially one big lie -- contrary to what you might have heard, O'Keefe actually went into the ACORN office dressed in a shirt and tie. The pimp outfit was filmed elsewhere, and that footage was spliced in to make it appear as though he had worn it to the ACORN offices. But it didn't matter: The all-hands-on-deck approach, which mobilized conservative media, activists, and legislators, had its effect, and within months, the organization had essentially disintegrated.
And what was it that ACORN did that aroused conservatives' ire? The organization advocated on behalf of poor people in numerous ways, but the most important was that they registered them to vote in large numbers. Don't think for a moment, however, that with ACORN out of the way, Republicans are done worrying about who has access to the ballot box. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 32 states are now considering voter-ID laws proposed by Republican legislators that require voters to present a driver's license in order to cast a ballot. And who are those least likely to have a driver's license? The poor, black, young, urban, or some combination thereof -- in other words, people more likely to vote Democratic. In many states, conservatives are also attempting to make it difficult or impossible for college students to vote where they go to school, thereby increasing the possibility that they won't vote at all. The Republican speaker of the House in New Hampshire didn't bother to couch the effort as something other than partisan. The problem Republicans are trying to solve, he said, is "kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience."
Conservatives have also gone on the offensive against Planned Parenthood as part of a larger war on reproductive rights that has seen some absolutely horrifying initiatives. A state representative in Georgia introduced a bill making women who have miscarriages prove to the state that they didn't induce them or be charged with a felony; bills were introduced in South Dakota and Nebraska that would make it "justifiable homicide" to kill abortion providers in some circumstances (South Dakota's has been withdrawn, but something tells me it will be back). National Republicans are doing their part by trying to take away the substantial federal funding Planned Parenthood receives to support women's health initiatives (abortion is actually a tiny portion of what the organization does).
This is all familiar to those who remember the Reagan-era effort to "defund the left" by cutting off the money available to progressive organizations. But all of this pales next to the assault on labor.
While the controversy in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights got the most attention, there are similar efforts ongoing from Republican governors and state legislators in Ohio, Indiana, and other states. It shouldn't have come as a surprise (I wrote about it back in November). Government is the last heavily unionized sector in America, and despite their decline, unions still provide Democrats with essential money and organizing power. Destroy public-employee unions, and you deal a crippling blow to the labor movement and do terrible damage to the Democratic Party. As the Republican Senate majority leader in Wisconsin said about the controversy there, "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin." What, you thought it was about balancing the state budget?
When Democrats dreamed of retaking power back in the Bush years, they thought of the big policy goals they had long held -- health-care reform, action on climate change, and many other things, some of which have been accomplished. In the brief interregnum between 2008 and 2010, Republicans thought of their policy goals, too. But their big thinking was about how they could crush Democratic institutions and make future Democratic victories more difficult.
Politics ain't beanbag, as the saying goes. And while many things are out of the parties' control, such as broad economic changes or demographic shifts, more often than not, victory over the long run goes to those who plan ahead and know how to get to the root of things.