More often than not in recent years, the Republicans have played the role of "abusive husband," arriving home angry, busting up furniture and slapping around the wife and kids -- before passing out on the couch -- after which the Democratic "abused wife" tidies things up and tries to conceal bruises from the neighbors. Then, hubby arouses and the process begins again.
One might find this analogy unsettling, even unfair, but there is truth in it. Indeed, you could argue that the metaphor has sometimes moved beyond an abusive marriage to hostage-taking, as the Republican-daddy essentially takes the kids (America) hostage and demands capitulation from the Democratic-mommy.
Recently, the hostage metaphor has become popular in discussing how Republicans have dealt with Democrats during the Obama administration -- for instance, last summer's debt ceiling showdown used to extract concessions on spending and the past month's obstruction of jobs bills with an eye toward a weakened President Barack Obama in the 2012 race. The h-word has even been used on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
But Republican political "hostage-taking" is nothing new. The GOP has been playing this game since the days of Richard Nixon, who may have felt justified in adopting more ruthless tactics after losing a very narrow election to John F. Kennedy in 1960 amid allegations that Kennedy benefited from voter fraud in Illinois and Texas.
Though many historians dispute the significance of alleged fraud in the 1960 election, the notion that Nixon was robbed became an article of faith inside the GOP. Nixon grew even angrier after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, when he felt "kicked around" by the national press.
So, in 1968, facing another close presidential race, Nixon's campaign escalated "hardball" tactics to a new level -- by essentially taking the half million U.S. soldiers in Vietnam hostage. The historical evidence is now clear that Nixon sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson's Paris peace talks to block a settlement and deny Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey a last-minute bump in the polls.
Nixon's emissaries pulled off this scheme by promising South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal than Johnson was prepared to offer, thus getting Thieu to boycott the Paris peace talks and killing prospects for bringing the divisive war to a quick end.
Based on documents and audiotapes from that era, we now know that Johnson was personally aware of Nixon's "treason" -- Johnson's term for it. Having bugged the South Vietnamese Embassy's cable traffic and other communications, Johnson knew that Nixon's campaign had dispatched Anna Chennault, a fiercely anti-communist Chinese-American, to carry Nixon's proposal to Thieu.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican gambit. However, his frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon's operatives and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 -- just three days before the election -- Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, putting the peace talks in jeopardy. On the same day, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen to lay out some of the evidence and ask Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
"The agent [Chennault] says she's just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election," Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. "We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We're pretty well informed at both ends."
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information. "I don't want to get this in the campaign," Johnson said, adding: "They oughtn't be doing this. This is treason."
Dirksen responded, "I know."
Johnson continued: "I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don't want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they're doing. I know who they're talking to. I know what they're saying."
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence.