When will conservatives learn that being right doesn’t matter? Having the correct answer to a philosophical problem is gratifying on a chalkboard, but it means little in political confrontations. The left learned this lesson a long time ago. The right needs to catch up.
In his 2007 opus “Politics Lost,” liberal scribe Joe Klein examined the political machinations of candidates and campaigns over the last 40 years, ultimately lamenting something or other. It’s not important. But in one of his presidential anecdotes, almost in passing, Klein observed that one of the more remarkable things about Ronald Reagan was that he got Ted Kennedy talking about the danger of inflation.
Hallelujah! Once again, Republicans can learn at the foot of a master.
Getting Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion, to take a respite from pummeling deceased equines and engage in a debate over inflation was no mean feat. But it wasn’t magic either. Having once been a union leader and an FDR Democrat, Ronald Reagan knew how to fight and win in politics: Get your opponent to fight on your turf.
In almost every political battle, the winner is predetermined by whose turf is being defended. In a battle over taking care of the elderly, feeding the hungry and healing the sick, the Democrats will win. (Americans are a generous people, and we like free stuff.) In a battle over individual liberty, reckless spending, the national debt and enslaving America’s future generations to the Chinese, Republicans will win. (Americans are a generous, self-sacrificing, patriotic people who want the best for their children.) None of these characterizations necessarily pertain to a side of a given issue. Each is a way to frame a debate (i.e., to define a political skirmish’s terrain.)
The left does this as a matter of routine. Last March, under the looming threat of a government shutdown, Senator Chuck Schumer was caught on an open microphone giving invidious marching orders to his fellow Democratic leaders. He told his colleagues how to characterize the GOP’s modest proposed cuts, coaching them to use words like extreme and draconian. Schumer wasn’t writing talking points. He was establishing turf, setting the parameters for a battle in which the Republicans would have to capitulate. And, in short order, they did.
It was John Boehner’s first opportunity to flex his post-2010 landslide muscles. The speaker could have told Schumer that elections have consequences, throwing President Obama’s line right back at him. Boehner could have ignited the just-victorious tea party to action, marching under any number of banners that would have altered the turf. Instead the GOP leadership griped about Schumer’s folly, then proceeded to defend their proposed cuts as perfectly reasonable, which was exactly what Schumer wanted them to do. And then they caved.
For a winning recipe, Republicans need not look far. Why was the tea party successful?
Obama and the Democrats attempted to stage the battle over H.R. 3200 on their home turf. Health care is a human right. The Democrats care about the people. Who wants to tell granny that she can’t have a hip replacement? Anyone who doesn’t want to provide health insurance to the poor is a selfish, greedy plutocrat. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we give free flu shots in Des Moines?
The tea partiers didn’t respond to the left’s assertions. They didn’t answer the left’s questions. They made assertions of their own. They talked about individual liberty, the Constitution, the 10th Amendment. They spoke of death panels, the public option, the individual mandate. The tea partiers made the left defend itself on conservative turf. And what did the left do? It ran and hid. Democratic congressmen avoided town hall meetings like vampires avoiding sunshine.
And it was fun.
The problem is that the Grand Old Party, despite being saved by the tea party, refuses to learn from the tea party’s success. In political combat at the highest level, Republicans almost always take the Democrats’ bait. It’s insane. Not every question deserves an answer. Not every battle deserves to be fought. And when an answer is warranted and a brawl is worth brawling, conservatives need to drag the fight back to their home turf.
Take a more recent example. During the January 7th Republican presidential debate on ABC, George Stephanopoulos posed the question: “Do you think that states have the right to ban contraception?”
I remember thinking that the question was sinister when Stephanopoulos first posed it to Mitt Romney. Dick Morris believes that the query was the first move in an elaborate collusion between the White House, Stephanopoulos and the liberal media. But even if you don’t buy into Dick Morris’s theory, Stephanopoulos’s question was clearly intended to create a straw man out of social conservatives (i.e., if elected, pro-life candidates will make contraception illegal.) His intent is clear because there had been no serious suggestion of such a ban. No GOP presidential candidate had a contraception ban in his platform. And there had been no momentum for such a ban from any substantive political movement.
Despite Stephanopoulos’s intent, the question was more stupid and inane than it was sinister. When stoking the flames of fear for political purposes, the fear must first exist. LBJ’s insidious 1964 “Daisy” ad worked because, at the time, there existed a real fear of nuclear war with the Soviets. Today, the public does not fear that states or conservative candidates will attempt — let alone, succeed in an attempt — to ban contraceptives.
Yet Santorum is taking the bait.
This fight could and should deliver a knockout blow to the left. Why is Rick Santorum answering questions about contraception? Every time a Republican candidate is asked about contraception, he should tell the questioner that they’re missing the point. This debate is about freedom. It’s about conscience. It’s about the hugely unpopular Obamacare legislation. It’s about a president who doesn’t respect the freedom of religion. It’s about big government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.
That’s our turf.
It boils down to this. When the left attacks, a conservative needs to stop and look at his feet. If an individual liberty argument can’t be made from where he’s standing, then he shouldn’t defend himself. He should step back and attack from his home turf.
(Yates Walker is a conservative activist and writer. Before becoming involved in politics, he served honorably as a paratrooper and a medic in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)