Shell Game in Politics
One of the keys to the Republicans' electoral successes over the last few years has been their ability to make campaigns and elections about everything EXCEPT meaningful, substantive issues. A national political party cannot win elections if it is openly hostile to fiscal responsibility, education, health care, women, minorities, and working people, as the Republican neoconservatives (and their fellow travelers on the religious right) who have come to dominate the party are.
But the GOP is very good at getting people to vote for its candidates by changing the subject. By taking the focus off of meaningful issues, and instead cultivating a culture of fear, inventing red-herring bogeymen like the "threat" of gay marriage, and launching numerous vicious, personal attacks against any Democrats who might be in the way, Republicans have been able to get all too many Americans to vote against their own personal interests.
Sound a little exaggerated? Well, how much ink and bandwidth was wasted by our media last fall on the Swift Boat fabrications against Senator John Kerry (D., MA), especially compared with such subjects as the war in Iraq, or the gargantuan, Bush-created budget deficit, or our sluggish economy, or the disastrous Medicare bill?
How much did we hear about Howard Dean's Iowa pep rally, instead of where he stood on health care or gun control? How many "strong leader" images were grafted onto George W. Bush, as opposed to actual in-depth examinations into his quantifiably inadequate performance on national-security matters?
The sad fact is that our political campaigns are little more than theaters of the trivial and the banal. The Democrats still seem to think they're about real issues, a behind-the-curve attitude that helps explain their electoral reversals of late. The Republicans, on the other hand, acutely understand that a good racy sex scandal will trump fiscal-policy talk every time, and craft their strategies accordingly - and effectively.
The GOP's smear tactics have worked extremely well over the years, so who could blame them for keeping at them? And that's exactly what they've been doing.
Just ask Senator Harry Reid (D., NV), the U. S. Senate minority leader.
Senator Reid has drawn a line in the sand opposing President Bush's lunatic Social Security privatization scheme. His objections are well-founded - the administration has not been forthcoming about the costs and structure of this "reform;" we're in no position to be adding $4 trillion to the national debt; and the plan, as currently constructed, would benefit nobody but a gaggle of Wall Street bankers.
Not to mention that given the Medicare bill debacle and the $9 billion recently "lost" in Iraq, there is zero reason to trust President Bush on financial matters anyway. It is an affront to what Social Security is supposed to be about - insurance for the elderly - and Senator Reid (one of the most conservative Democrats) is right to stare down the Republicans on this issue. Mr. Bush's harebrained initiatives are well worth obstructing.
So what is the Republicans' response?
Well, President Bush mumbles empty platitudes about "reaching across the aisle" and "working with the Democrats." Meanwhile, the RNC circulates a memo detailing its plan for a coordinated, organized smear campaign against Harry Reid and his family. They won't debate Senator Reid on the actual issue of Social Security, because they can't win such a debate, and they know it; ergo, Harry Reid must be destroyed.
Mr. Bush? Well, he claims he knows nothing of this memo, bipartisan guy that he is and all. Sure. And he's balancing the budget. And Iraq had nukes. And the cow jumped over the moon.
Closer to home, the state GOP has begun to launch its missiles of personal destruction at Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a possible opponent of Governor Robert Ehrlich in next year's Maryland governor's race. One of Mr. Ehrlich's operatives has just been nailed spreading vicious, unfounded rumors about Mayor O'Malley's personal life on a right-wing website.
Governor Ehrlich has nothing to run on for re-election ("Slots! Slots! Slots! We need to be more like Mississippi and West Virginia!"), give or take Diebold, so his party needs to do its best to proactively damage his potential 2006 opponents.
Predictably, the Governor denied knowledge of his assistant's activities, expressing all the requisite outrage. (And, of course, the rumors about Mayor O'Malley now get an airing in the media, which was probably the whole purpose behind this exercise to begin with.) I'd say he's about as credible as President Bush, but let's wait and see if Joseph Steffen resurfaces in a different role before we cast judgment.
It's only February, and we've already got two visible Republican smears-in-progress.
But something has changed. Maybe these little whisper campaigns won't work as well as they once did.
That's because Harry Reid is no Tom Daschle. Senator Reid has fired back, decrying the smear tactics, calling out the Republicans as "destructionists," and signaling that the days of the Democrats crawling into a fetal position at the first Republican raised eyebrow are over. And Mayor O'Malley is not likely to take this attack sitting down either.
With the ascension of former Gov. Howard Dean (D., VT) (who knows a thing or two about being smeared) as Democratic National Committee chairman, it appears that the Democrats have the strongest fighters in key positions they have sported in years. There's now a good chance to stop Republican innuendo-driven attacks dead in their tracks.
And maybe elections can start being about issues again. That's the last thing Republicans want.