An pro-death penalty ad in southern state Virginia backfired in 2005 against a liberal politician. How did the anti-death penalty movement do it? A lot of it is the cost argument. Don't say you're against the death penalty, say the death penalty doesn't work.I disagree on the principle here. If you genuinely would support the war if only it would work, then talk pragmatically. I've said before that there's little to be gained in the future planning debate by arguing about how we got into Iraq, and we might as well focus on the fact that eventually we won't be in Iraq.
That's how John Murtha talks. He never says he's against the war, he says that having American troops in that region is making things worse. And that's based on the facts that he got, from the military.
Don't wear your anti-war attitude on your sleave; it's a pragmatic thing. Then when right-wingers say that they are for the war, they will look like mindless ideologues.
But there is something to be gained by talking about the lies that took us to war, and the incompetence that put us in Iraq with an escalating death toll.
That discussion is about the competence of different leaders. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were not and are not competent to plan a war or to lead this country in times of danger. They aren't honest and they abused our trust to push a war that was unnecessary and unwise.
To suggest that you support the war if you don't is dishonest. That's why the "flip-flop" charge stuck. People figured Kerry didn't really think Iraq was so smart in 2002, but that he voted for it because he found it politick to do so. That feels sleazy. More important, it feels like people who do that lack convictions and moral strength.
The same logic applies to the death penalty, or to torture. If you would support the death penalty if it would only reduce crime rates, say so. But if you feel in your hear of hearts that the death penalty is immoral, that's the thing to say. People respect moral stands.
Martha Raddatz on This Week said something to the effect that (and I paraphrase) "the real question is whether torture works." The answer is no, but that isn't the real question. The real question is whether torture is an acceptable means to any end. If we endorse the utilitarian premise of Raddatz's question, what place is there for moral principle in our governance? If torture (like this) can be justified by its ends, what cannot be justified? Puppy eating? Baby raping? Why not?
For too long, Democrats have taken shelter in this sort of pragmatism, and we've paid a price. Policy excellence is great, but people want to know what principles motivate that policy.
Say you take the pragmatic approach, and say "eventually we'll leave Iraq, let's make a plan to do it." Why should anyone vote for Democrats to make that withdrawal, rather than Republicans? If people trust Republican motives more, they might trust them to handle that withdrawal.
That's how Medicare prescription drugs got hijacked from a sound idea. The pragmatic approach was to say "prescription drugs are expensive and a key part of modern medicine. They weren't when Medicare was enacted, so we should change Medicare." The Republicans stole that pragmatic base and introduced a monstrosity that doesn't do simple things to let Medicare act like a medical insurer, like negotiating for cheaper drugs.
Same for education reform. Democratic pragmatism sold the principle of improving public education, and Republican ideology turned NCLB into a catastrophic mess that hasn't improved schools and probably never will.
Social Security was a victory over that pattern. Democratic pragmatism sold Social Security reform (think of the Clinton years and the Gore campaign), then Republican ideology was set to destroy the program's bedrock. Democrats attacked the principle of privatization and won. There's still work to be done, but it isn't so urgent that we can't think carefully about the consequences and the details.
And so on and so forth. If you aren't framing your policy in a principled stand, you're just wasting valuable campaign time, money and oxygen.
“Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones from the album Beggars Banquet (1968, 3:18).