Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.
When your opponent is drowning, the old saying goes, throw him an anvil. Is Hillary Clinton throwing hers a life raft instead?
In May, the Democratic National Committee’s communication director Luis Miranda wrote to the DNC’s chief operating officer, Amy Dacey, with a serious complaint. The e-mail, part of the trove released by WikiLeaks, began this way:
The Clinton rapid response operation we deal with have been asking us to disaggregate Trump from down ballot Republicans. They basically want to make the case that you either stand with Ryan or with Trump, that Trump is much worse than regular Republicans and they don’t want us to tie Trump to other Republicans because they think it makes him look normal.
They wanted us to basically praise Ryan when Trump was meeting Ryan, or at a minimum to hold him up as an example. So they want to embrace the “Republicans fleeing Trump” side, but not hold down ballot GOPers accountable.
That’s a problem. I pushed back that we cannot have our state parties hold up Paul Ryan as a good example of anything. And that we can’t give down ballot Republicans such an easy out. We can force them to own Trump and damage them more by pointing out that they’re just as bad on specific policies, make them uncomfortable where he’s particularly egregious, but asking state Parties to praise House Republicans like Ryan would be damaging for the Party down ballot.
What a document!
Rarely has the tragedy of the Democratic Party across these past several decades of Republican radicalization been rendered in such crystalline form. Continues Miranda, “We would basically have to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics. We would have to say that Republicans are reasonable and that the good ones will shun Trump.” He concluded, “It just doesn’t work from the party side,” then added a P.S.: “It might be a good strategy ONLY for Clinton (which I don’t believe), I think instead she needs as many voices as possible on the same page.”
You read this, and 20 years of Democratic Party history flashes before your eyes.
You see the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton, kneecapped by his botched initiative to welcome gays into the military, the defeat of his healthcare plan in 1994, and the Republican takeover of Congress the same year, responded by taking Dick Morris’s advice and defining his administration via the neologism of “triangulation”—living halfway between the screaming lunacy of Newt Gingrich on the one side, and the Congressional liberals in his own party on the other, thus enshrining a false equivalency that Democrats fighting to preserve the social safety net and perhaps to even expand it must be, well, just as extreme as the guy who said, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”
There was 2004, when John Kerry’s Democratic National Convention team—at the height of the Iraq debacle, a faltering economy, and a series of corporate scandals capped by the collapse of a fraudulent company called Enron, run by one of George Bush’s old pals—vetted all speeches to make sure they didn’t criticize George Bush. (“Bush will come up this week,” explained Kerry spokesman Stephanie Cutter, “but we don’t have to tell the story of George Bush because the American people are living it every day. What we’re talking about is the future.” Only old man Jimmy Carter, God bless him, exercising a former president’s prerogative, dared defy the ukase.)
Then there was 2008 when, waking up to the smoking ruins all around them, the American people repudiated conservatism so thoroughly that Republican pundits like David Brooks began opining that their party’s “stale, government-is-the-problem, you can’t trust the government” rhetoric was “a disaster for the Republican Party.”
And when, instead of throwing ’em anvils, our new president made Kerry’s 2004 mistake all-but-official party policy. As he put it of our friends on the other side of the aisle in 2010, “no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom,” and it was time to find “common ground.”
Republicans, of course, do things differently. On the campaign trail in 1984, Ronald Reagan would say of the previous, Democratic, administration, “We were being led by a team with good intentions and bad ideas—people with all the common sense of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.” He called the Democrats’ ideology “snake-oil cures.”
The economy had bounded back that year from 10 percent unemployment, thanks to the delayed effect of austerity policies put in place by Jimmy Carter and his Fed chairman Paul Volcker. Reagan endorsed that course by continuing it, while making hay politically by assigning responsibility for every bad thing that had ever happened to the other party, and every thing good to his own.
This was his political job as he saw it: etching the Democratic Party in the minds of the electorate as not normal.
That’s the key word in the e-mail I quoted above: “normal.” That Clinton’s advisers “basically want to make the case that you either stand with Ryan or with Trump, that Trump is much worse than regular Republicans and they don’t want us to tie Trump to other Republicans because they think it makes him look normal.”
It would take more pages than there are minutes in the day, of course, to document fully the ways Paul Ryan Republicanism—“regular” Republicanism—should not in any way, shape, or form be considered “normal.” Let one example stand for zillions: the time even-handed Ezra Klein scoured and scoured Ryan’s 2012 vice-presidential acceptance speech, worried he’d be seen as unfair if he ran an article by one of his colleagues that found only one true statement in the entire text—but was forced to admit that even that one statement was an exaggeration: “even the definition of ‘true’ that we’re using is loose. ‘Legitimate’ might be a better word. . . . Ryan’s claims weren’t even arguably true.”
And, of course, Paul Ryan’s Republican Party nominated Donald Trump. The party did so with Paul Ryan’s eventual blessing. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s new campaign chief Steve Bannon publishes a web empire, the Breitbart News Network, that made its bones savaging Ryan—which renders him more vulnerable within his own party than at any time since he came to Congress in 1999. At best, he’s treading water. Now is not the time to help him swim.
You can understand why Hillary Clinton feels she needs to preserve a relationship with Ryan. If she becomes president, after all, she needs to work with the Speaker of the House. But if the eight previous years have taught us anything, it’s that the Speaker of the House (if the Republicans hold on to their majority) will not believe he needs to work with her. There’s a scenario, of course, in which he might be forced to work with her: if the verdict this November 8 is so devastating for the Republicans, up and down the ticket, that even Paul Ryan knows there must be a reckoning with his party’s radical past.
But it has to come up and down the ticket. Republican congressional candidates have to be tied to a Trumpism that is understood as the apotheosis of the recent history of the Republican Party. Because if they are not, it would be oh so easy for the survivors to say, on November 9: It ain’t me, babe. I’m a Ryan conservative, not a Trumpite. We Ryanites are normal, respectable folk. After all, even Hillary Clinton says so. And, when we utter that oath of office once more in January, and take our seats in the Capitol, we promise to go back to doing normal Republican things: treating the Democratic President as an illegitimate imposter; treating the responsible media as terrorist-abetting, lying cheats; making sure the economy works for the one percent, and shredding the government functions that work for the rest.
Congratulations, President Clinton. On that day, you will have “won.” But you will also have lost the best chance we’ll have in a generation to do what Franklin Roosevelt did: turn the Republican Party into pariahs.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore