I spent the Memorial Day weekend with Rahm Emanuel. No, I wasn't hanging out at the beach with President Obama's chief of staff. Rather, I spent the weekend reading Naftali Bendavid's The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.
Emanuel's tenure as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 election cycle is the model Republicans must attempt to reverse-engineer if they hope to regain power in Washington anytime soon. And Republicans are never going to succeed if they listen to those who tell them the reason they've been losing elections is that the GOP is too "mean-spirited."
Ever since Rush Limbaugh spoke the Four Words Nobody Is Allowed to Say About Obama -- "I hope he fails" -- Republicans have heard a symphonic serenade from a chorus of critics who insist that blunt words and other such mean-spiritedness are the essential sources of their party's woes.
Chief among the choirboys of niceness is Rod Dreher, the former National Review staffer, Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet blogger. In his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, Dreher accused the "conservative mainstream" of believing that "accumulating wealth and power is…the point of life," and further declared, "The tragic flaw of Western economics is that it is based on exploiting and encouraging greed and envy."
Lately, Dreher has endlessly whined about talk-radio personalities he considers uncouth lowbrows. In March, Dreher said that Limbaugh's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference "made clear that the GOP and the conservative movement are stuck on stupid." In April, Dreher said Glenn Beck was "giving crackpots a bad name." Then Friday, Dreher called Mark Levin a "cretin," a "creep" and a "trashmouth."
Levin had responded to a liberal caller ("Obama is a lot smarter than you folks give him credit for," the lady said) by wondering why her husband didn't commit suicide. This is the kind of bombastic putdown Levin's regular listeners expect from the man Sean Hannity dubbed "the Great One," and whom Limbaugh often calls "F. Lee Levin."
"Cretin"? A magna cum laude graduate of Temple University, Levin served in the Reagan administration, ultimately as chief of staff to Attorney General Ed Meese, before becoming president of the Landmark Legal Foundation. All of this Levin accomplished before beginning his successful radio career and, most recently, authoring the No. 1 bestseller Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto.
That Levin employs hyperbole and sarcasm on his show is only shocking to people who don't listen to talk radio. More importantly, Levin believes conservatives are in a fight they cannot afford to lose, against implacable adversaries determined to win at all costs. When a guy begins a fight by slamming a barstool into the back of your head, the Marquis of Queensberry rules do not apply. If you respond by ripping open his carotid artery with the jagged edge of a broken beer bottle, whose fault is that? ("He needed killing," as Texans like to say.)
"Turn the other cheek" is an excellent moral principle, but it doesn't work in politics any better than it works in saloon brawls. When Democrats were encouraging their friends at MSNBC to describe conservatives attending Tea Party rallies as "teabaggers" -- a term borrowed from gay-porn vernacular -- where were Dreher's complaints about incivility? And if Dreher considers "trashmouth" to be a mortal sin, why isn't he throwing stones at Rahm Emanuel, who unloads f-bomb barrages as remorselessly as the RAF pounded Dresden?
Naftali's book about Emanuel and the 2006 campaign is an emphatic rebuke to the Dreheresque notion that niceness is a winning formula in politics. Emanuel is a hard-driving Chicagoan ("intense+Rahm+Emanuel" = 46,800 Google results) who takes pride in the brutal effectiveness of his political tactics.
Too much analysis of recent Republican electoral woes has been written by intellectual elites in search of a "Big Picture" trend that explains how the GOP went from dominance to near-irrelevance in four short years. Rather than propounding abstract ideological theories, Naftali's detailed account of the 2006 campaign offers concrete examples of how Democrats won through improving the basic mechanics of partisan electioneering.
One telling vignette: In summer 2006, accusations of shady dealings by Democratic Rep. Al Mollohan of West Virginia threatened to wreck Emanuel's message that Republicans had a monopoly on corruption. And if an incumbent Democrat were defeated, that would change the math on Emanuel's strategy to recapture a House majority.
How did Emanuel rescue Mollohan? By calling the incumbent's Republican rival a liar. The GOP challenger had been in the military during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and called himself a "Gulf War veteran," although he hadn't deployed overseas. Emanuel seized on this and had DCCC staffers push it to reporters. "We need that story," Emanuel said. "It's all about Al Mollohan unless we come up with something." The result? "Mollohan Foe Battles Résumé Charges," said the headline on a news story by Roll Call's John Bresnahan. Other publications followed suit, effectively changing the subject -- exactly the outcome Emanuel sought. Was this unfair? Ask Emanuel that question, and you'll get a two-word response. (Hint: The second word will be "you.")
Whatever you think of Mark Levin's radio program, he at least seems to understand that employing the politics of niceness against today's Democrats is like sending a church-league women's softball team to do battle with the Crips.
Meanwhile, Dreher urges conservatives to choose as their role model fifth-century Italian monastic Benedict of Nursia. Piety is a virtue, but the founder of the Benedictine order has not been previously renowned as a political strategist.
Let Rod Dreher urge Rahm Emanuel to be more like Benedict of Nursia. He'd get a two-word response, which is all he deserves from Mark Levin.
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