I do my level best to stay out of whatever intraparty squabbles the Democrats might be having during a given primary season, mainly because I think those kinds of fights damage party unity as we head toward the general election. But goddamn, I read stuff like this and it pisses me off.
That blog post was forwarded to me by a co-worker who is a lifelong liberal Democrat, who likes Barack Obama as a person but isn't sure that he has the experience or the cojones necessary to stand up to a full-bore Republican attack in the general election. I can understand why she and others might be nervous about throwing their support behind a relative newcomer to the Senate, someone who may not have been "battle-seasoned" the way Hillary Clinton has been -- but reading the No Quarter post and, in particular, the comments that follow it make me shake my head at the realization of just how little some of us Democrats have learned over the past eight years.
I have some questions of my own for the commenters who applauded Melissa McEwan's post, namely: How did Hillary Clinton, who caved to the Bush administration on the authorization of the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act (twice) and who still hasn't taken a stand on the proposed Senate bill repealing the Military Commissions Act, get such a reputation for being a bare-knuckle brawler when it comes to the Republicans? And how is it that a bunch of people who claim to hate Republicans so much can sound so much like them when criticizing Obama?
But the most salient question of all is this: How did y'all decide that "meanness" was to be taken for granted as a positive trait for a candidate?
Look, I'm not a wuss when it comes to politics. I've paid enough attention over the last couple decades to know that "bipartisanship" is something that's talked about a lot more than it is actually practiced; I was deep enough in the 2004 presidential campaign to know that politics is an ugly and frustrating business. I was enraged over the fact that the United States started an optional, pre-emptive war in 2003, and I won't lie, I really wanted to punish someone for it in the following year.
But my '04 experience taught me something else: that simply being angry and willing to fight with the other side is no way to win an election. Allow me to be both humble and blunt here: For the most part, we Democrats ran a shitty campaign that year. We ran with a whole lot of anger and not a whole lot of new ideas; we hollered all day about how much we were against Bush but didn't do much hollering about anything we were for. And on Election Day, that turned out not to be good enough.
Now I see these folks unleashing this tide of negativity -- against the Republicans, against Obama, against his supporters -- and I wonder if we're headed for that kind of doomed strategy all over again. It's not a matter of being too thin-skinned to take it when my guy gets criticized; it's a matter of wondering whether these folks want to win a fucking election, or just settle 15 years' worth of scores.
You want to fight Republicans? Great, no doubt we'll need to do plenty of that between now and November (and afterward). But that can't be all this election is about. Yes, the Republicans dominated Washington for a good long while by engaging in venomous partisanship and mudslinging, so I can understand why the idea of matching them at their own game would hold some appeal. But have you noticed something? People loathe the Republicans now. They lost the House, they lost the Senate, and if the presidential election were held today, the major polls indicate they'd lose the White House, too. The Republican Slime Machine is being lowered onto the historical junk pile of failure, and you pick now to get fired up about co-opting their strategy? Christ almighty, if y'all were running Boeing right now, you'd be designing biplanes. Hey, they worked once, right?
I've been called naive for believing that Obama's message of unity might actually appeal to a wide segment of the electorate in 2008; I've been patted on the head and told "bless your heart" for believing Americans might "rally around a common purpose," as Obama said in the speech that McEwan quoted in her blog post. I suppose I could retreat back into my old cynicism and say, yeah, that's all bullshit, Americans have become too selfish and hateful for that ever to become a reality. But I can't, and here's why.
For the last few weeks, as I've told you once or twice already, I've been going back and forth between Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama, to help out with the campaign of a gentleman named James Fields. Reverend Fields ran as a Democrat in the special election for House District 12, whose seat was vacated when the previous representative was appointed to head one of Alabama's two-year colleges. That representative, a Democrat, was appointed specifically because the Republican governor saw his seat as a potential GOP pickup in redder-than-red Cullman County, and yet on Tuesday, Rev. James Fields -- an African-American man running in a district that had never elected a minority in its history -- whupped his Republican opponent by twenty percentage points.
Even as a lifelong Southerner, I was amazed at what I saw every time I walked into his campaign headquarters. African-Americans mingled with white folks who looked for all the world like they would've driven there in pickup trucks with rebel flags on the back. Plenty of people openly declared their Republican Party affiliation, then asked where they could sign up to volunteer for Rev. Fields. We got regular visits from a guy who'd been in the Klan for 20 years, keeping tabs on the opposition's direct-mailings and making sure nobody messed with our volunteers. They all liked James Fields because he had a positive message, never ran negative against his opponent, and welcomed anybody into the campaign who felt like walking through the door. And it was enough for Rev. Fields to win in a landslide.
Now, a national race is not the same thing as a special election in one Alabama House district, I know that. But the fact remains that I saw Obama's kind of unifying, bipartisan message work on the micro level in a 97-percent-white county that black people were afraid to even set foot in once upon a time and that Bush carried by 53 points in the last election. Tell me I'm naive, tell me Obama is a lightweight, but don't for one second try to convince me this country is too far gone to buy into the kind of unity that he's preaching.
Obama's not talking about caving on issues like the war or gay rights. He's not talking about turning into Republican Lite the minute they (God willing) paint his name on the door of the Oval Office. He's not talking about standing idly by while the talk-radio crazies try to slander him. He's simply talking about offering everyone a chance to come together in his campaign. If they say "no thanks," so be it -- but the idea that any candidate should go into a campaign targeting certain people or groups for automatic exclusion sounds awfully counterproductive to me. Remember how we went through two presidential elections targeting only the blue states on the coasts and around the Great Lakes, writing off the Southeast and the "flyover country," crossing our fingers and hoping that'd be enough to win -- and remember how that failed? Remember how we didn't take back Congress until Howard Dean was smart enough to initiate a 50-state strategy that went looking for smart, charismatic candidates in places like North Carolina, Kansas, and Montana? Obama is talking about something similar, only on an individual level. If you want to automatically write off 40 to 50 percent of the electorate before you even get to the general election, fine, but you're making your job a lot harder than it has to be.
There's a time for fighting, perhaps even a time for "I told you so," but right now we've got to have more than that. We can either be as aggressively nasty as the Republicans were all throughout Bush's presidency, or we can have a little faith in the American people that they're getting tired of that. After the 2004 election, I wasn't sure I had that faith anymore; after Cullman, I know I do again. I may be proven wrong, but I'm willing to take that chance.