Winning By Losing
Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Rick Perlstein read from Nixonland here in LA. There were many interesting questions and among them, naturally, were some about the current election. One, during the book signing phase, was "do you think the Democrats can possibly win?" which Perlstein deflected to me, explaining that I've been writing for the past year that it's in the bag, "tell him in 25 words or less, why you think the Democrats can't lose..." Since I go into brain freeze at times like that, I think I muttered something about seismic forces and tsumanis, so I'm sure the poor fellow thought I was confused and thinking about the natural disasters in Asia.
Upon reflection, I think the short answer is this: Because the Republicans want to lose.
It's not that I believe the winds of change aren't at our back. They are. And it's not because I don't think that the modern conservative movement is tired and played out. I do. There is a shift happening toward the liberal side of the spectrum which started with the Nader campaign, grew with the Dean campaign and has reached critical mass with the Obama campaign. The broad middle is disgusted by what Bush has wrought (he was never that popular to begin with, you'll recall, and only became so after a terrorist attack.) They too are listening to the Democrats for the first time inmany years. There is fundamental discontent with GOP governance and the people are highly unlikely to reward them for it.
But just as important, I think the conservatives have always taken the long view of politics and they understand the value of a tactical retreat. The Bush years have weakened them considerably and they are going to take some time to count their ill gotten gains, rest up and reengage. The Republicans are all about ressentiment. They understand the value of being out of power and know how to advance their agenda from that perspective. I wrote this a while back:
The truth is that they know the Republicans are very, very likely going to lose the presidency anyway. And they are fine with it. It brings them together. Here's old hand Richard Viguerie making his pitch for GOP to lose in 2006:
[Sometimes] a loss for the Republican Party is a gain for conservatives. Often, a little taste of liberal Democrats in power is enough to remind the voters what they don’t like about liberal Democrats and to focus the minds of Republicans on the principles that really matter. That’s why the conservative movement has grown fastest during those periods when things seemed darkest, such as during the Carter administration and the first two years of the Clinton White House.
Conservatives are, by nature, insurgents, and it’s hard to maintain an insurgency when your friends, or people you thought were your friends, are in power.
They use their time out of power to grow their movement and one of the main ways they do this is by obstructing anything positive the Democrats want to do. They are organized around the principle of being insurgents --- outsiders --- victims. It is not in their interest to cooperate with Democrats.
When they have damaged their reputations as badly as they have under Bush, they recognize the value of allowing the chickens to come home to roost on the Democrats' heads and obstructing any efforts they might have to advance their own agenda.
So, I think they want to lose. That doesn't mean they won't do everything in their power to damage Obama and deny him a mandate. They want the Democrats to win and then fail. The first is fairly easy --- the second, not so much. If President Obama is wily and tough he can outmaneuver and outsmart them. The presidency has a lot of power and with a majority can do some amazing things. But the Republicans' sole energies will be put to making it impossible for them. They love to play defense and are good at it. As Viguerie says above --- it's their very identity.
I think the Democrats are destined to win this election for many reasons. And I believe they have a chance to set in motion a new progressive era. But I also think the Republicans are happy to let them win this one, will regroup and try to obstruct them with everything they have to tee up 2012. Then they will bring in The Man Called Petraeus to save us all.
If the Dems govern well, they won't be able to pull it off.