Playing political hardball

PLAYING POLITICAL HARDBALL…. NBC News’ First Read had an interesting item yesterday, which generated some good discussion. If you missed it, the piece noted that Democrats “don’t play political hardball as well as Republicans do.” We knew that, of course, but the site pointed to an example from this week.

After House Democrats pushed Republicans into voting against middle-class tax cuts, First Read noticed that it had only seen a few press releases from the outgoing majority. “If the shoe had been on the other foot, however, Republicans would have mercilessly pounded Democrats for weeks — if not months.” Similarly, the GOP was “relentless” when it came to hyping Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) ethics allegations, but Dems largely ignored Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) corruption/sex criminal scandal. “Republicans just play the political message game better than Democrats do,” NBC News concluded.

Entire books can be written on why this is, and how it came to be, but Jamelle Bouie had an item yesterday that rang true.

The bigger issue, I think, is that Republicans have an astounding level of ideological unity and a keen understanding of the political dynamics at work. Most Republicans agree on the big things — tax cuts are always good, regulation is always bad, and the more belligerent the better — and those that don’t are still able to see the utility in being a team player; if Democrats lose, the party wins, and the potential naysayers gain (or at least, avoid losing, in the form of a primary challenge or poor committee assignment).

By contrast, Democrats don’t have the luxury of ideological cohesion, at least not at the level the GOP enjoys. Any attempt to play hardball — especially from the left — is met with skepticism and opposition from members who are too liberal for their districts (and want to stay safe) or who have a reputation for “moderation” that they want to uphold (even if it’s preening and vacuous). As hard as it is to find Democratic convergence on policy, it might be harder to find convergence on strategy, which is why Democrats scatter when confronted with GOP unity.

I agree with all of this, but I’d add a couple of related thoughts.

One is that the political media is wired to accept Republican arguments in a way that’s awfully tough to shake. First Read’s point is entirely fair, but even if Dems had flooded reporters with press releases, or screamed bloody murder about John Ensign, there’s a reasonable assumption that the political establishment wouldn’t have cared anyway.

The other is that Democrats have a nasty habit about a commitment to reality and truth, while their Republican counterparts have no such burden. First Read is right that Republicans “play the political message game” better than Democrats do, but this omits a relevant detail: the GOP doesn’t mind blatantly, shamelessly lying.

As E.J. Dionne noted several years ago, “A very intelligent political reporter I know said the other night that Republicans simply run better campaigns than Democrats. If I were given a free pass to stretch the truth to the breaking point, I could run a pretty good campaign, too.”