A Character Problem?

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September 20, 2010 6:52 a.m.

I wanted to pick up thread from last week about just what the Dems are thinking on whether or not to push this tax cut vote. TPM Reader NB thinks it’s a matter of character rather than strategic clarity. But I think we’re talking about two sides to the same coin. First, NB

You say you see a “lack of strategic clarity” in Dem failure to grasp the potential advantage of forcing a vote on the tax question, but I think there is a character issue involved, linked with a fundamental misunderstanding of how attack politics work. As a communications consultant who works with a lot of advocates, we coined the term “beaten dog syndrome” to describe a generation’s worth of Democratic electeds and operatives who have so internalized GOP attacks that the mere suggestion that they are coming cause these people to involuntarily cower. It’s just ingrained, and it’s pathetic.

They don’t seem to understand that shying away, trying to avoid the inevitable attack not only does not prevent the attack, it highlights the lack of character, the inability to stand on principle, of the people in question, basically reinforcing the attack. Inextricably tied to this is the difference between offense and defense. The saying is, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Offense means you set the agenda, and it means having to have the gumption to do so, but it also means getting credit for having the courage of your convictions, something which continues to elude many of these folks.

What NB is talking about is something I once called the “bitch slap” theory of politics.

Late last week I had a few impromptu debates with people, some online, some not, about whether I wasn’t being unrealistic or unfair to the Dems. Their point basically came down to this: You can say all you want about how Democrats just need to hold the vote. But what if they don’t have the votes? Let’s say Pelosi brings the bill to the floor of the House. Republicans will push a motion to recommit (which basically means a majority vote prevents the bill from even being voted on). If enough conservative Democrats vote with the Republicans they’ll force the bill back to committee and have the upper-income tax cuts attached to the bill. And then where are the Dems?

This is a good point on the merits. But I think this is a matter of two sides talking past each other. And the mentality on the part of the folks on the Hill is the one NB and I are talking about. The first thing you need to do is understand that in an campaign context taking the initiative and setting the terms of the debate is almost everything — not just because it yields particular results but because of what it communicates to voters more generally about effectiveness and belief, as NB and I have each described in different ways. Once you realize that your goal is to hold a vote and force people on to the record on the critical issue, you see that their are various routes to get there. And the failure of the vote to get a majority is not necessarily a bad thing. You also see that visibility into what “the caucus” thinks is critical. Absolutely critical.

This is a standard way that politicians and, paradoxically, political journalists treat legislative developments. We hear that ‘the caucus’ isn’t ready. But there’s no real ‘caucus’. There’s just a bunch of people. Who’s ready and who’s not? We have some idea of which House Dems want to extend all the tax cuts. How many would vote with Republicans on that ‘motion to recommit’. That’s a different question. Get those names out there and the calculus starts to change. The public gets to have some say in the matter. How many would allow a vote to go forward if Speaker Pelosi called for two separate votes — one on the middle class tax cuts and one on the upper-income tax cuts. More clarity on what your goal is. More clarity on who stands where. And more determination to do it and things start to fall into place.

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