In that sparkling election campaign that was Hillary Clinton's, Michelle Obama led the call and response: "When they go low... we go high." Problem is, and the election of 2016 is proof, when they go low... we lose.
This is what republicans are good at. In The Cynic, a disturbing book about the political career of Mitch McConnell, we find a gawky, not-very-popular young man who supported women's reproductive rights (!) as well as collective bargaining (!) in his early years. He soon found out, though, just how sweet was the taste of victory, won in any way possible. And the easiest way to win was by attacking your opponent. And claiming to support any cause that would win the election, followed by enacting legislation that benefits the wealthy and powerful.
This is the republican playbook. The moral vacuity that is the republican party will stoop to any depth to win. The wealthy and powerful pay their way. Voters hear what they want to hear, and believe the lies they are told writ large: in ad buys, billboards, Russian fake news (yeah, that's what fake news was until Donald Trump appropriated it to his narcissistic ends).
We Dems just aren't comfortable with lying to win an election. We shy away from attacking our opponent, whether it is because of our values or fear of retaliation. I don't believe we need to, or could possibly, stoop as low as has the republican party. But we have let republican strategists beat us to a pulp while we fight among ourselves.
I imagine that republican opposition research just can't be any more fun these days. What happens is: they find some questionable detail about a candidate, toss it out, and watch Dems fight about it. And if they can't find some small actual thing, they make something up.
Take Jon Ossoff. It wasn't that long ago that he ran the most exciting campaign since Bernie, in the truly red (don't get me started on gerrymandering) district in Georgia from which Trump's handlers plucked the evil Tom Price to Orwellize the Department of Health and Human Services. It is no accident that they have been plucking their deplorables from redder than red districts (South Carolina has been fertile ground). But Georgia's 6th, while solidly republican, also has its share of intelligent republicans, who chose Trump over Hillary by only one percent.
So imagine their alarm when republicans saw the populist excitement over candidate Jon Ossoff. Of course, they did not spend much time biting their nails. They went into action, fund raising and scheming. They (RNC, PACs, and those even shadier groups) went into overdrive. Had the situation been reversed, Dems might have made excuses for why they probably wouldn't win, or complained about how unfair it was that someone from the other side was giving them a tough race (only Donald Trump, in his robocalls, did that, telling voters not to let Democrats STEAL THE ELECTION). Republicans immediately regrouped. McConnell's playbook from his early years proves to have been the gift that keeps on giving. When you are running against a formidable candidate there are two things that work: lying about your opponent, running attack ads, and running attack ads that lie about your opponent (three things...).
Beginning with an ad showing clips that under a more, shall we say, objective framework, would have us think: "What a fun guy, and he sure is clever." But in the hands of the Congressional Leadership Fund, it became a dark-tinged piece of hysteria that nonetheless made national news. And why shouldn't it? Republicans and republican supporters know how to get oppo research and negative messages into every crevice of the American media. That success was followed by pieces of work that became progressively more desperate and evil, from falsely linking Ossoff to "Bay area liberals" and Nancy Pelosi, to a last truly disgusting ad that pronounces that "Now the unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting republicans." Of course, once it was out, it was an easy matter for opponent Karen Handel to denounce the ad. But fact is, it may have gotten those last crazies out to the polls, for which she is no doubt quietly grateful.
Yes, there was some grumbling about the ugliness of these ads. But what did not happen was Democrats coming out in droves to talk to the voters about what they were seeing, that is, a desperate, nasty effort to manipulate the election to vote for the least popular candidate of the two.
If you are planning on running for office as anything other than a right-wing republican these days, you need to start with the assumption that the first thing republicans are going to do is find dirt on you. If it's not dirt, they will make it so. If they can't find anything to turn into dirt, they will lie. So you need to tell the voters that this is going to happen. You need to say:
"Republicans are going to do everything they can to win. They will turn over everything in my past to find something they can twist to make it look bad. They will distort everyday aspects of my life to make them look questionable. They will lie. They will put ads on TV that you won't want your kids to watch.... Why will they do this? Because they can't run honestly on the issues. They know that if you take a good look at their candidate, you will see that they don't have your interests in mind. They know that if you are able to hear my message, without their lies and distortions, you will vote for me. So know that, and let's run this campaign on the issues."
And you need to say it and say it again, every time there is a negative ad or attack. Keep bringing voters back to the issues. Keep reminding them why your opponent is going so low.
The other thing we Dems need to all get together on is getting together on our candidates. These are people who for the most part don't have donors with deep pockets. If they do, as did Hillary, you can bet republicans (talk about the pot and the kettle) will bring up their ties to Wall Street. If they have gone to Harvard, they will make the Ivies sound like dirty words. For gods' sake, they will bring up Nancy Pelosi and make it sound like you cohabit.
And here is where they get us, every time. I am still hearing the smackdown between Bernie and Hillary supporters. Trump taunted us by talking about his love for Bernie, gloated in the in-fighting. Could he have done better after Bernie's admittedly half-hearted pleas to support Hillary than to have us turn against each other?
And then they threw out the Ossoff bones and sat back and watched us fight. Does he support Pelosi, and why didn't he stand up for Pelosi? Republican hate of all things liberal even became, "Is Jon Ossoff really a liberal, or is he just pretending?" After the attack ads claiming that Ossoff wasn't really a small business owner, I heard Democrats repeating their concern that he wasn't really a small business owner. Boy-o, talk about getting bang for your buck.
In some ways it is truly nice that Democrats don't toe the line the way republicans do. But it is time to get political, folks. I may have my problems with the Democratic Party, but I value any candidate that steps up to what is likely going to be a bloodbath. Republicans don't just control all three branches of government, plus most of the states. They have made sure that their tentacles reach the media and college campuses, where they successfully divert attention from their own manipulations by attacks on "liberal media" and "liberal college campuses."
And what they will do every time in every way, is support their candidate. Right-wing republicans represent corporate America. Period. And they will do anything they need to do to get that victory. McConnell is the master at controlling the message and the race. Ryan knows where his financial bread is buttered. And voters routinely mistake the unity of those who run the republican machine for truth.
Democrats can "go high," but we need to recognize the reality of politics. You are not going to get your perfect candidate. That means you confront a candidate that threatens not to support those democratic causes that make us Democrats. But when it comes down to the vote, you ALWAYS vote for the best person. That means Hillary over Trump, no matter how your heart aches for Bernie. That means Archie Parnell even though you could see Alexis Frank, another woman on the floor of the House over the years becoming a national treasure. And that means, stop chasing those nasty old bones the republicans throw out so they can step back and watch us fight.
About Pelosi. She is the person who brought a bunch of hissing cats together to get the Affordable Care Act passed. And Hillary. She is the one who has fought internationally for the rights of women, standing up to Putin knowing that he would be a nasty and powerful enemy. When republicans are done with them as useful targets, they will turn their sights on Elizabeth Warren (as both Trump and McConnell have already done).
These women are being targeted, not only because they are women, but because they are smart, powerful women. And they tell truth to power, and to everyone else who will listen. We need them, and we need to support them, wholeheartedly. Shame on those who say Pelosi is too old to be effective, when republicans stand behind the old white men who are united with Trump in his plan to destroy our democracy (After the Georgia election there was a time when I was hearing Dems say Pelosi is too old AND Ossoff was too young, both bones tossed out by republicans.). And shame to those who have let the unproved allegations of thirty years keep them from taking a look at all Hillary has done for us.
Fact is, when they feel threatened they attack. What threatens them is candidates that will fight for the people and for democratic values. And the louder we shout, the more voters respond, the bigger and uglier the attacks. We know this. We can fight back.
2018 is happening. Let's stand with our courageous candidates. Let's stop fighting among ourselves; let's stop listening to the lies and rumors put out by republican opponents. Let us vote for our values, but let us be loud in our outrage at the perversion of our democracy that has been created by money and power.
We can go high when they go low, but we need to get down to their level to look them in the eye when we call them out.