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No Prisoners: How To Win In 2008

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The third smartest thing that the Democratic Party could do for themselves (and for us) would be to nominate a decent candidate for president next year.

The second smartest thing they could do would be to assist the Republicans in nominating a loser.

And the very smartest thing they could do, of course, would be to relocate their long-lost spines and then immediately schedule a surgery to have them reinserted and arc-welded into place.

That first item is probably not going to happen, what with the inexplicable Hillary Train chugging along relentlessly toward victory (what’s up with that, Democratic voters?), and the third item is the subject of a whole ‘nuther discussion altogether (what’s up with that, Democratic ‘leaders’?), so, instead, let’s talk about winning the old-fashioned way: by using some smart guerilla warfare tactics against your opponent.

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And one of the very best ways you can do that is to pick your opponent.

My guess is that Hillary, if she does in fact secure the nomination, will run a smart and tough campaign. But not as smart and tough as Karl Rove would run. On that, she should reconsider. It’s not necessary to indulge in the filth and the demonization of your typical Rove scorched earth campaign in order to engage its take-no-prisoners style of hardball politics. It is necessary to do the latter in order to win, because – Rove or not – Republicans will be doing it, as they always have since the era of Joe McCarthy.

Clinton, if she gets the nomination, will enter the general election campaign with one major strike against her: the person at head of the Democratic ticket. She brings together into a singularly toxic brew more baggage than JFK airport the day before Thanksgiving, less charisma than a pile of dirty laundry, and all the principled moral exhilaration of a down-on-his-luck bail-bondsman. Even holding out the very real prospect of becoming the first woman president cuts both ways. Seven percent of American women tell pollsters that they would never vote for a female to hold the office (now that’s a truly scary barometer on the state of the union); who knows, maybe twice that many men feel the same way. Democratic voters could hardly choose a more laden and uninspirational standard-bearer if they sat down at a drawing board to design one on purpose (Let’s see here – add one part Michael Dukakis to one part Mark Foley and one part Margaret Thatcher, and presto!, an instant boring and alienating candidate is born, complete with sex scandal history.)

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Well, okay, I take that back – maybe Hillary’s not the worst imaginable. Despite all appearances to the contrary, John Kerry’s attending physician insists that he is actually still alive, and they’ve even published his vitals to prove it. So if Democrats insist on committing political suicide next year, why not just do it the right way and let Kerry report for duty again, complete with the same smarmy salute? Maybe Harry Reid could be drafted as the vice-presidential nominee – talk about your charisma factor! And they could get Bob Shrum to run the campaign again. After losing his ninth presidential race straight, he’d only need one more after that to advance his perfect record into double digits!

The only reason Hillary has a prayer of winning is because this is the year that any Democrat with a pulse should be able to beat any Republican this side of Jesus himself, hands down. Never has the American public been more anxious for change, nor more angry at the current class of clowns nominally in charge. It’s the Democrats’ election to lose, which they – of course – seem intent on doing, having perfected the technique over the last forty years, only twelve of which have seen a Democrat in the White House (both of whom were, by the way, obscure Southern conservatives who nevertheless seemed to spend most of their time in office happily serving as punching bags for the radical right). A Clinton nomination, with all the negatives and no compensating positives, neutralizes the gift of George W. Bush to the Democratic Party in 2008 and turns the damn thing into a horse race, after all.

(As proof of this point, consider the wagers I offered to a right-wing ranter who was badgering me on email about how wrong I was concerning the mood of the country. To shut him up, I offered him three bets of $100 each: That the GOP would lose the White House in 2008, that Democrats would increase their majorities in both houses of Congress, and that these increases would be huge. My only caveat was that there be no ‘national security’ October surprises before the election. Not entirely surprisingly, he declined all the bets other than the first one, and would only take that on the condition that Hillary was the Democratic nominee. I believe that’s what poker players and nuclear brinksmanship contestants refer to as having your bluff called – bigtime – but in any case, the more important illustration is of the weakness Clinton introduces to the ticket.)

Having blown their prohibitive advantage by, presumably, nominating Clinton, the Democrats’ best hope will be is to run the smartest and most aggressive campaign they can. This would involve a number of key steps.

One of them is to choose your opponent. Nixon did it 1972, using dirty tricks to sabotage the Muskie campaign so he could run against McGovern instead, a nice fat target for a country unable then, as now, to differentiate true morality and heroism from the manufactured and cynical kind you’d think would lose its appeal at about the same time that playing war in the dirt with GI Joe dolls does for adolescents. Alas, in too many cases it does not, and the dolls just seem to get replaced with football players on TV. There is also some evidence to suggest the Rove pulled the same trick with Howard Dean in 2004, in order to stand up Kerry as his punching bag. A very smart move, of course. Democrats need to do likewise for this race, to the extent they can, and they need to start today.

Giuliani (and to a lesser extent McCain) is the greatest threat to Democratic hopes of winning the presidency. To my admitted astonishment, Republican voters seem to understand this and appear willing to forego their true preferences to embrace a winner, just as Democratic voters are doing the opposite. (Not that there is necessarily a compelling alternative choice for Democrats. John Edwards is the obvious progressive choice with a chance, but I continue to be nagged by the prospect that he is simply wearing his progressive hat today because he thinks that’s what might sell best among angry Democratic primary voters.) What makes Giuliani dangerous is that he is the least Bush-like of the four main Republican contenders. The others – Thompson, McCain and Romney – all more or less ape the troglodyte line on economic, security and social policy, while the Rude Man is only down for the first two (and the least unappealing) of those ideological categories. That makes him a lot more palatable to moderate voters put off by the gay-bashing, Schiavo-intervening, stem-cell-blocking and abortion-halting strains of today’s GOP. And that marginally greater appeal, along with Hillary’s vulnerabilities, makes him dangerous.

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Which means that a smart Democratic Party and a smart Hillary Clinton would do everything in their power to make sure he is not the nominee next year. That’s no easy trick, especially if – unlike Tricky Dick or Kaveman Karl – you have some ethical and legal limitations on what you’re willing to do. That said, there are possibilities for making this happen, and there’s no prohibition on campaigning against him now, especially through surrogates. Ghouliani has massive vulnerabilities, especially among religious right voters, many of which cannot be pointed out, at least overtly, by his GOP rivals, either because they share some of the same weak spots themselves, or because it would be seen as a violation of the GOP’s supposed Eleventh Commandment that thou shall not speak ill of another Republican (as articulated by Ronald Reagan, who then proceeded in 1976 to run against sitting president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, presumably breaking the rather less well-known commandment against costing a fellow Republican the presidency).

It’s not clear who among the front-runners in the party would be the weakest opponent – and therefore the one Democrats should help arrange to get the nomination – but only because Mitt Romney is every bit as obsequious as Fred Thompson is comatose. In the end, though, I think the SmarMitt is probably the better choice. One of the keys to winning this race is going to be turning the Republican candidate into The Monster from Right-Wing Hell – not exactly a difficult chore, mind you – especially since Romney has been hard at work on that task for the last year, completely reinventing himself as the evil twin brother of the guy who once was the liberal governor of the liberal Massachusetts, but is apparently now locked up securely in an attic somewhere in the suburbs of Worcester. Even people dumb enough to lap up the gospel of Rush every day aren’t so far gone that they don’t find the guy suspicious. And then if he got the nomination and then tried to tack back to the center, he’d only alienate both sets of voters. Either way, a smart Democratic nominee could, should and must hammer him or any other GOP nominee as a right-wing freak.

The nice thing about Romney is that he’s spent the last months actually writing that script himself, but Thompson would also do, in a pinch. Freddy’s lumbering campaign couldn’t even light a fire in Southern California at this point. Out on the stump, he’s got the potential to make James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s infamous "Who am I?" running mate, seem like a Nobel laureate by comparison. No wonder Nixon thought Thompson was "dumb" back in the Watergate era. Thirty years of acting and lobbying don’t seem to have improved matters a lot.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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