I have been reading A Time for Choosing, the wonderful new e-book from RCP’s Carl Cannon and Tom Bevan about the 2012 campaign, and was really struck by this passage about the Democratic counter-punch to Team Romney. Cannon and Bevan note how Democrats decided to attack Romney as:

...the standard-bearer for a political party that has gone so far over to the right, it’s fallen off the deep end…This…point, a fine-tuning of the Bill Burton-produced ad campaign launched the previous November, struck some prominent Democrats as the most salient of the lot – and the one most likely to soften Romney up…

Among those Democrats arguing that the best way to attack the Republican nominee was to attack the Republican Party itself was none other than William Jefferson Clinton.

Clinton found like-minded operatives within the Obama campaign. As the GOP primaries played out, Obama pollster Joel Benenson detected a trend in his data: The “empty core” argument didn’t have nearly as much impact on swing voters as did assailing Romney for the GOP’s rightward tilt.

A few points in reaction to this interesting tidbit.

First, Democrats have been pushing this line since the start of the Obama tenure. Remember the president rebuking the congressional GOP for being in hock to Rush Limbaugh…just days after he was inaugurated? Indeed, ever since then every instance of Republican opposition to the Democratic party has been explained as GOP radicalism.

In this week’s magazine, I argue that the Democrats are basically rewriting the definition of “moderate” and “sensible,” and their rewrites are gaining traction. It is not just that these partisan definitions are getting picked up and repeated by ostensibly non-partisan sources (like the new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein), it is that, according to Cannon and Bevan, the middle of the country is buying into it.

Second, it is a terrible failure that the GOP has not effectively countered these attacks. Time and again, the Democrats have used government to bend the policy needle toward their client groups, then blasted the GOP as radicals for not supporting payouts to the unions, the environmentalists, the feminists, and the trial lawyers...and the public is buying it? Come on! That means the Republican party is not making the argument loudly or clearly enough that Democratic legislation is rotten to the core, and thus it is sensible and indeed moderate to oppose it.

Third, the party is failing to explain to the country that times are changing, and what once was considered rational, sensible, and moderate might now be foolish or even extreme. Take, for instance, the debt ceiling debate. In a lot of respects, the Democrats won that by tarnishing the GOP as extreme for high-jacking a historically pro forma procedure to extract concessions on spending. And, Democrats argued, Republicans wouldn’t even agree to tax increases (er…”revenue expansions”) on a one-to-one basis. How radical!

In a lot of respects, the public bought this message, and the GOP is to blame. It failed to communicate to the public that, while using the debt ceiling as leverage to negotiate was unique, the country is facing – as Indiana governor Mitch Daniels put it – a “red menace” of debt that requires reforms now. And, more specifically, it requires entitlement reform. The kinds of tax hikes that Democrats were demanding simply do not address the structural problems responsible for the national debt, and so the “one-for-one” deal was in fact a red herring.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the Democratic party is not capable of addressing the fiscal crisis this country faces, at least not without a massive new taxation regime, so big that it covers the gaps while leaving entitlements unreformed and government still grossly inefficient. That means that the Republican party is going to have to lead the charge. There are plenty of sensible Democrats on the other side, and they should be actively courted to forge a broad compromise, but the leadership of the Democratic party is simply not up to this challenge.

The only way the GOP can be successful is if it gets public opinion behind it, and that means defeating this notion that the party has suddenly lurched dramatically to the atavistic right. It’s not true, and so long as that idea has traction in the broad middle, the Republicans are not going to have policy success.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.
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