As I sit here listening to two congressmen on Inside Politics drone on about how we must restore civility to politics (now that the GOP controls all branches of government) I'm experiencing one of those rare times when I truly understand why people become Republicans. It's because they have political instincts and we don't. If you are a political animal that is a very compelling trait.
Paraphrasing a comment I read somewhere yesterday (apologies to the author) "pay no attention to the naked gay conservative male prostitute sitting in the middle of the family values white house living room." Goldberg affects a jocular dismissiveness for a reason. He knows what a real story is and he knows how they work. And he is trivializing this one because it is actually quite dangerous.
Meanwhile, on the left we have much handwringing by commenters over this not being a "gay" story and how we should concentrate on the national security angle and how it's really about access etc, etc. We too are ignoring the naked, gay conservative prostitute in the midde of the family values white house living room. And this is where they get us.
Liberals have a "problem" with internalizing their ideals. When we sat around a few years back earnestly arguing that the President's under-the-desk BJs weren't a matter of national import, we actually believed that personal lives were not relevant to politics. Meanwhile, across the aisle, the Republicans who do believe sexual behavior, to say nothing of homosexuality, are transcendent character flaws find themselves more than willing to overlook the failings among their own number. A friend clarified the difference for me a few days ago, it's a Protestant/Catholic thing. Democrats believe that works alone will save you, while Republicans believe faith is the only way, but reserve the right to criticize works. Faith, in this context, means faith in the Republican party, a membership card in the VRWC. Once that's been laminated, you can do anything you want save blaspheming Dear Leader.
But compounding the problem is that Gannon is a bullshit story that we desperately want to push because it bears a vague relation to the stuff wingers make gains with. Two days ago, I wrote a post Iran as a heuristic for anti-Americanism, and was surprised to find the first comment say:
Hey, Ezra, did you know that a site search for "Gannon" gets zero hits? Oh, I wonder who will win the 2006 elections, I wonder....
I wonder too, but I don't wonder too often, because I think I know the answer. It's them. Democrats have been losing because we're unable to stick a scandal, but we've also been failing because we've lost sight of our strengths. Somewhere along the way, we looked at the Lewinsky scandal, thought "we should do that", and never looked back save to criticize those who weren't keeping up.
But we're not good at pushing these scandals. We don't have an eye for them. Monica had to do with Bill; Gannon, at best, has to do with McLellan's credentialing procedures. Do we really think this is going to ricochet into Bush's lap? Beyond that, do we really think we can prove authentic at this? We'll get the guy fired, sure, but he'll just be replaced with a better-vetted hack, not with a bulldog muckraker. And, for our part, we're not going to prove authentic in this battle, not in the long run. Unless we're willing to refashion our party into a family values vehicle, arguing over homosexual softballers in the pressroom doesn't fit with our image. And until we're willing to do the grunt work of painting the Republicans as a bunch of gays who got their jobs through patronage, it's not going to stick to them, either.
That, in the end, is the problem. Until we imbue our party with some sort of definable image, we can't level any attacks because we don't have authority on any subjects. Why do you think we lost on taxes but won on Social Security? Seriously, why? Do you know that, at tax cut time, Americans wanted to forego the checks to pay down the deficit 60%-30%? But we lost that battle, and it wasn't because our caucus was more united. We lost that battle because we have no credibility on taxes, and thus Republicans didn't fear we could drive them out of office and Democrats didn't believe they could get electoral credit. Social Security, conversely, is associated with Democrats. So even though private accounts polled much better than tax cuts, the Democratic counterattack has proved devastating to the plan, so much so that Bush now finds himself fighting with conservatives as to whether or not he can raise taxes to fix Social Security.
We're not going to win by copying the Republican playbook. In football, you spend the week before a game learning the other team's plays. But you don't run them. You learn how to defend against them, and you run the plays you're good at. Because the other team has created a playbook relying on their specific attributes -- their strongest players, their coach's expertise, their linemen's size. If you tried to ape it, you'd simply be running their plays without any of their strengths. You'd lose. And if Democrats keep trying to run Republican plays without building the foundations that made them work, we will lose as well. We've got to make a conscious choice to find our own strengths, create our own image, and utilize attacks that play to our abilities. Otherwise, we're simply codifying Republican tactics as the de facto ground for political warfare, and we might as well give up now.
So does this mean we shouldn't go after Gannon? No, of course we should. But Gannon's not going to prove our savior. If our party was the party of accountable government, we could nail them for having a sycophant. If our party was the party of governmental reform, we could spear them with rules on political patronage. If our party was the party of sexual background checks, we could attack them for an incompetent vetting process. We're none of those things. We keep looking for short cuts that'll excuse us from having to do the boring work of giving our party shape. Maybe if we can just catch Bush on Plame, or Gannon, or uranium, or X, then we can hobble him and sit tight till the next election. But the Republicans didn't win because of Monica. Monica wasn't around to kneecap Clinton in 1992, or bring about the Republican revolution in 1994. In fact, Monica proved the end of Republican effectiveness against Clinton, because she provoked the right to overreach. Republicans triumphed not on scandal, but on the ability to create scandal and step into the void. They had already set their party up in opposition to congressional corruption, to liberal lasciviousness, to big government. We've not put in the time, and so the only battles we can win are those that FDR already laid the groundwork on. Gannon's good target practice, but we still need to learn how to use a gun.