The Magazine

How to Ride the Wave

Republicans should ignore the petty attacks and focus on issues.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By SPENCER ABRAHAM
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“GOP congressional candidate accused of supporting legislation that helped relative’s husband.”

How to Ride the Wave

“Republican governor received donations from investors in companies that received state grants.”

“GOP candidate for Congress worked for company that bought products from Chinese firms, costing Americans jobs.”

“GOP Senate candidate blindfolded girl and made her swear allegiance to Buddha.”

And on and on it goes. Almost every day a Democratic campaign or major media outlet launches an attack against a Republican candidate on some trumped-up or distorted charge of either misconduct in office or in private life. These allegations are now so numerous that a casual observer just reading the headlines might conclude that the GOP spent 2009 raiding the nation’s minimum security prisons (and the occasional coven) during its candidate recruitment effort.

Every Republican candidate with a business background turns out to be Gordon Gekko or a pawn of the Chinese. Every candidate who advocates traditional Republican positions on taxes and federal spending is alleged to have “fully embraced the Tea Party agenda.” And if the candidate is an incumbent office holder at any level, his actions in office “seem to reveal a pattern” of misconduct of some sort, no matter how implausible. And then, of course, we have President Obama, rallying his base with absurd charges against the Chamber of Commerce.

This, in essence, has become the 2010 strategy of the Democrats. Notwithstanding the fact that two of the party’s most senior congressional members, Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters, stand charged with countless ethics violations, that its 2010 Senate nominee in South Carolina is a recently convicted sex offender, or that various other Democratic officials and candidates have been tagged with major ethics violations. In the eyes of the mainstream media, 2010 has become the year of tainted/corrupt Republican nominees.

Most Republican leaders and activists are, of course, not surprised by such a two-front attack from Democrats and the media. But consider what this strategy says about the philosophy and agenda of the president and his party. After trumpeting the triumph of postmodern liberalism following the 2008 elections, nearly the entire slate of candidates running on the Democratic ticket in 2010 are either silent about their positions on major issues, or campaigning on agendas that sound almost identical to the Republican platform.

Can anyone find a Democrat running for federal office in anything resembling a competitive race who will defend tax increases, Obamacare, federally funded abortion, more stimulus funding, federal bailouts of private industries, cap and trade, or any of the other staples of Democratic Washington? Not an easy assignment. The confident pronouncements of Democratic leaders and liberal pundits that 2008 represented a sea change in American public opinion were dead wrong.

Over the last few years the politics sections of America’s bookstores have featured an array of books touting the Democrats’ rise and the Republicans’ demise, such as Sidney Blumenthal’s The Strange Death of Republican America and Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism. But if current polling trends hold, Republicans will end 2010 with a majority of governors and House members, and a close to even number of senators. If this is death, let us make the most of it.

To achieve these gains, however, Republican candidates now have to close the deal. The key to doing so: Don’t allow their races to be hijacked by those who want to divert attention from the issues that Americans care about. Frustrating as these low attacks can be, the fortunes of GOP candidates are likely to turn on whether they have the discipline to stick to the strategy that got them where they are today.

In 1994 Republican challengers and open seat candidates faced a similar Democratic strategic choice. As that campaign came to a close most of us found ourselves under assault based on one or more allegations of a personal sort. In my case the fact that I was a past party chairman was used to claim I would always put party ahead of Michigan’s interests in Washington and be unable to get much done because of my longstanding “partisan” activities. 

It was tempting to respond to this charge, and my fellow House and Senate candidates faced similar temptations as the personal assaults on them piled up in the waning days of that campaign. For the most part, however, we successfully resisted the instinct to play defense and stayed on message. Right up to Election Day we reminded voters that the Democrat-controlled Congress and Senate along with President Clinton had passed the largest tax hike in history and were working tenaciously to pass nationalized health care along with the rest of their very liberal agenda. 

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