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Monday, March 11, 2024

Opinion | Democrats Need to Stop Playing Nice - The New York Times

Democrats Need to Stop Playing Nice

An illustration of a large elephant and a smaller donkey about to box in a boxing ring.
Liana Finck

"By Joe Klein

Mr. Klein, the author of seven books, including “Primary Colors,” writes the newsletter Sanity Clause.

There is a moment in the 2008 HBO movie “Recount” that illuminates an essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. The film was a fictionalized account of the mayhem that followed the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

Warren Christopher, a courtly former secretary of state, represents the Democratic candidate Al Gore. “The world is watching,” he intones. “We are theoretically its last great democracy. If we cannot resolve this in a way that is worthy of the office we seek, what kind of hope can we give other countries that wish to share our values?” James Baker, another former secretary of state, represents George W. Bush. He has a different theory of the case: “This is a street fight for the presidency of the United States.”

Both Mr. Christopher and Mr. Baker later said the contrast was overdrawn. Well, that’s entertainment. But we keep bumping into “Recount” moments in politics. Democrats litigate; Republicans fight. Democrats float toward an almost helium-infused state of high-mindedness; Republicans see politics as a no-holds-barred cage match.

President Biden’s pugilistic State of the Union address last week may represent a new direction. But given the party’s recent history, the Democrats will probably need some CRISPR editing to their DNA.

Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were distressingly saintly in their presidential campaigns, failing to respond to Republican attack ads. Hillary Clinton endured a classic “Recount” moment in her second debate against Donald Trump. Mr. Trump stalked her around the stage. “He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled,” Mrs. Clinton later wrote. “Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on,” she wondered. “Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up, you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me.” Throwing the haymaker might not have won the election, but Mrs. Clinton would have instantly changed the impression that she was a hapless, patronizing, liberal elitist.

Why are Democrats so congenitally weak? Why did it take a group of former Republicans — the Lincoln Project — to create the nastiest, most effective anti-Trump ads in 2020? There are several reasons, which are near-impossible for Democrats to admit in public. The first is that they have a reputation as the favored party of the American Bar Association; they’re rife with lawyers; they see poetry in a well-turned codicil. They are also the party of the so-called helping professions — teachers, social workers, speech therapists, home health aides, ivy-clotted academics. In general, these are not people comfortable throwing a fierce left hook. And they are the party of identity politics, always sensitive to insensitivity, often to a fault. They care a lot more about appearances, and propriety, than Republicans do.

On Tuesday, we will see more evidence of where Democratic high-mindedness gets them. Special Counsel Robert Hur will testify before the House Judiciary Committee, led by Representative Jim Jordan, who will be respectful and very much out of bellicose character. What will the Democrats do?

Mr. Hur, a Republican, was appointed by the excessively dignified Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate President Biden’s alleged misuse of secret documents. Why a Republican? For the appearance of fairness, no doubt. So Mr. Hur took the opportunity to demolish Mr. Biden as a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.”

I can’t imagine that Republicans would ever hire a Democrat to investigate a president of their own. In fact, Republicans would be more likely to appoint a wartime consigliere, as Mr. Trump did when he brought in William Barr to help defend him against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry.

You remember what happened when Mr. Mueller completed his report: Mr. Barr pre-empted it with a not-quite-accurate description. Mr. Trump got his headline: “No Collusion!”

And then he got an assist from the public hearing about the Mueller report run by Jerrold Nadler, then the House Judiciary Committee chairman. No one, except perhaps litigation junkies, remembers that hearing. It was a deep dive into the intricacies of an obscure legal concept, the obstruction of justice. Nadler might have set a different tone from the outset: “Mr. Mueller, if I read your shocking report correctly, there is overwhelming evidence that the Russians worked to elect Donald Trump President of the United States. Is that true?” The headline would have been different. “Mueller: Russians Helped Trump!”

Now that the Supreme Court will hear Mr. Trump’s dubious appeal — the president isabove the law — in the Jan. 6 insurrection case, Democrats face a new challenge. Few doubt that the court will deny the appeal. But it is delaying the case, perhaps until after the election.

What would James Baker — at least, the “Recount” version of him — do? He would declare victory when the ruling came down: “Trump’s criminal behavior is not above the law!” And then he would insist that the federal suit proceed even if it impinges on the informal Justice Department tradition of not hearing political cases 100 days before an election. You can hear him saying: “Tradition be damned! Trump tried to overthrow our democracy!”

Can you imagine Merrick Garland doing anything like that?

Street fighting can be overdone, but it is where Mr. Trump lives. He is perhaps the most impolitic politician in American history. Joe Biden can, at times, wield a wicked sense of humor, and last week he demonstrated that he can be a merry Celtic warrior. But he’ll have to sustain his energy throughout the campaign, and he will need help.

Indeed, one could argue that Mr. Trump is flustered by tough women — like Megyn Kelly of Fox News in 2016 and, more recently, by Nikki Haley. If Kamala Harris were Richard Nixon’s vice president, she’d be tasked with one job: Stomp Trump.

Perhaps the debates (if there are debates) will produce an epiphany, as they have done in the past. They are the most intimate moments in the quest for the presidency, our most intimate office. The president lives in our homes for four years. You want a political house guest who won’t hide beneath the table when trouble comes around. Bill Clinton’s best moment in 1992 came when he felt the pain of a grieving questioner in the town hall debate. As that question was asked, George H.W. Bush was caught looking at his watch. Strength — and Mr. Clinton’s compassion was a strength — is often the deciding factor. To paraphrase Clinton’s later aphorism, strong and wrong usually beats weak and right.

Wouldn’t it be fun if Mr. Biden got tough with Mr. Trump directly, in person, in a debate?

It might be educational for the American public to see how the bully responds to a rhetorical punch in the nose rather than to a lawsuit.

Joe Klein, the author of seven books, including “Primary Colors,” writes the newsletter Sanity Clause."

Opinion | Democrats Need to Stop Playing Nice - The New York Times

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