As the Republican Party continues to examine where it lost its momentum during the previous election cycle, finger-pointing is rampant. Establishment GOP players blame the Tea Party, the Tea Party blames the establishment.
But one conservative pundit has boiled the whole fiasco down to one simple rule: Make sure your candidates aren’t jerks.
Friday, for instance, conservative columnist Michael Barone told an audience at Hillsdale College’s center in Washington that the tea party, while bringing some talented politicians to the fore, also brought some “wackos and weirdos and witches.”
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In a video of his comments, posted on the Daily Caller website, he singled out the GOP’s losing Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana — Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — who he said committed “unforced errors” with their remarks against abortion cases of rape. “Don’t nominate dogs, OK?,” he said.
When Grandma They're Taking Our Jobs starts up with you over the sweet potatoes about all the babies you're killing, refuse to engage. Instead, start a new conversation: one that shifts the conversation to the things you believe in.
Merry Thankschrismakuh! The holiday season of hollering about politics at, with, and around our beloved relatives is among us. In keeping with the season, it is appropriate, I think, that I begin this piece with a parable. A tale as old as time, a story we all know so well. Children are involved:
On Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of joining a panel of Texas political experts, party leaders, and writers for a discussion about the recent midterm elections at the fall Texas Junior State of America conference for high school students.
It was pretty cool. Students got to fill up the seats on the Texas House of Representatives floor, where our actual state reps sit in during our legislative session. They had the opportunity to ask questions of Will Hailer, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, and John McCord, the political director of the Republican Party of Texas.
They also got to see, live and in person, what happens when a Democrat tries to argue about facts with a Republican. This is where the tale-as-old-as-time part comes in. Or at least the tale as old as Texas Democrats losing every statewide race in the last two decades to Republicans.
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In the course of the panel discussion, Hailer launched into a pointed criticism of Texas’ voter ID law and noted that a federal judge had called the law a racist “poll tax.” Not surprisingly, McCord jumped at the opportunity to refute Hailer’s claims, taking particular issue with a figure Hailer had mentioned—specifically, the number of people who didn’t have a valid photo identification when the voter ID law was passed. Then, of course, it was Hailer’s turn to explain his side.
Suffice to say that what ensued was a pretty predictable pissing match, with each guy jumping up to the microphone to address the other guy’s claims. Things got a little testy. A little awkward. And, frankly, kind of boring for a lot of people.
You will probably not be shocked to learn, for that matter, that Hailer wasn’t able to get McCord to concede the point he wanted him to concede: that the voter ID law is intended to disenfranchise minority voters. Instead, I watched a couple hundred politically motivated, go-getter high school eyes glaze over.
It was an instructive moment in a larger conversation about what progressives could do to encourage more Democrats and left-leaning voters to get out to the polls—something we’d discussed just minutes earlier on the same panel. And Hailer demonstrated precisely what doesn’t, and hasn’t, worked. He walked into the trap that liberals and progressives set for ourselves time and time again: He tried to use facts and logic to win a policy argument with a conservative. In the process, he lost the support—and the interest—of all the neutral potential allies standing by.
I want you to remember this throughout this holiday season, when you’re sitting down to break bread with your Tea Party uncle, your Republican aunt, or your libertarian cousin. You will never win the fights you have with these people, even if you ultimately “win” them. Hours, days, weeks later—however long it takes, you might eventually secure a grudging concession. But even if, under the best and most unlikely of circumstances, you eventually get your opponent, as it were, to agree to any part of your argument, you will have lost the ears of those around you—and a very important opportunity in the process.
What opportunity? The opportunity to stop talking about policy on conservative terms, and to shift the conversation to something more productive: offering affirmative progressive alternatives.
Sure, the Democrats in that audience on Sunday probably felt validated to hear Hailer say what was on their minds. I know I did. And no doubt the Republicans enjoyed seeing McCord refute his points; certainly McCord seemed pleased at the opportunity to tout the necessity of voter ID laws. But the debate was beneficial for us—people who already knew the answers we were looking for. It wasn’t for folks who are looking for something more relevant to their daily lives, like the high schoolers in the audience.
And I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t have discussions—even heated discussions—about voter ID, or any other political issue. I’m not saying that those topics don’t have an impact on folks’ everyday existence. They do. But although having these arguments is a necessary and important part of civic engagement, they rarely show unengaged voters a new path. Instead, they help people who have already made up their minds shore up their own points of view.
So this kind of dialogue, where folks are entrenched in their own beliefs and interested only in scoring points with the other side—if it can be called a “dialogue” at all—doesn’t advance the ball. At least, not in the meaningful way that Democrats need to advance it if, in Texas, they’re ever going to end the GOP domination of politics in a state with the lowest voter turnout in the country. People on the outside of these debates aren’t seeking “gotcha” points. They’re looking for reasons to vote for a person who espouses a policy that will help them in their daily lives. And I think a lot of what they hear when these conversations happen is something akin to Charlie Brown’s teacher: wooaaaahh waaaah waaaaaaaaah, with a Democratic or Republican accent.
Instead of getting into weedy and wonky arguments that put Republican policies and ideologies front-and-center, Democrats need to start a new conversation about what they’d like to see happen. We need to stop getting defensive, or putting Republicans on the defensive.
This holiday season—and, hell, in the months that follow—stop engaging in bad-faith debates about whether Republican policy is bad, and start talking about progressive solutions to the problems presented and magnified by right-wing legislators. There’s a fundamental disconnect that I see when progressives engage conservatives, and it has to do with the fact that we’re not engaging each other on the same basic terms. Liberals believe in battling systemic oppression perpetuated by the state, for example, in the form of things like voter ID laws and abortion restrictions; Republicans, on the other hand, couch these things as protecting fundamental freedoms.
We’re not on the same starting line. We’re not even playing on the same field when it comes to our respective political ideologies. When Democrats try to argue that voter ID laws are racist, or that abortion restrictions are meant to, well, restrict abortion access, they expect that Republicans are playing the same game. They’re not. They’re not even playing the same sport. And honestly, there are barely any spectators.
By contrast, we’ve seen that when Democrats propose progressive changes, or take bold stances on issues like abortion and immigration, the response is positive, and people who otherwise might not take an interest in politics get engaged and excited. We saw it in Texas at the state capitol during Wendy Davis’ filibuster. We’ve seen it in the days since Obama’s immigration reform announcement.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t criticisms to be made, or that every progressive is pleased with any given Democratic policy, but it shows people—potential voters who are exhausted by the talking-heads game and turned off by negative political advertising—that there’s more to politics than tit-for-tat exchanges that inevitably put Democrats on the defensive.
What if people like us simply said: I believe in ending private prisons, implementing a minimum wage increase, same-day voter registration, marriage equality, immigration reform, or affordable health care, and talked about why, and let those ideas simmer with our friends and loved ones?
Here’s what I suggest: if the conversation turns, over turkey, to the Fox News Headlines of the Day, refuse to engage. And y’all know this kind of thing is coming for you, because ole’ Uncle Tri-Corner Hat has already spent every day since last Thanksgiving thinking of new ways to get the mouthy feminist at the table all riled up over abortion again. Then he gets to give his impassioned lecture about the baybeeeees again, and you get to throw up your hands in frustration because that’s what happens when you try to argue with a self-aggrandizing brick wall.
I don’t mean refuse to speak. I don’t mean change the subject to the great Black Friday deals at Kohl’s tomorrow. I mean refuse to engage with the idea that you, as a progressive or a feminist or a liberal or a Democrat owe anyone, least of all Auntie Anchor Babies, a full accounting of your personal political beliefs.
Yes, talk about why you believe the things you do. But don’t feel obligated to respond to right-wing talking points that presume you’re the bad guy, that force you to defend positions you don’t have. Yes, Grandma They’re Taking Our Jobs thinks you want to chew the U.S. Constitution to tiny bits and grant asylum to serial killers. It’s tempting to try and refute those claims, because they feel so wrong and so hurtful. You know they don’t reflect your beliefs or your actions. Don’t give them the opportunity to entertain the idea in the first place.
What do we get at the end of these kinds of arguments, most of the time? Bad feelings, frustration, and antagonism. Maybe some validation. Maybe some more wine. What we don’t get are new conversations about solutions that might help people live more economically sound, healthier lives.
Have a look around at some proposals that Democrats have made in your particular geographic area. If you live in Texas, you can check out some of the bills that have already been filed in advance of the 84th Legislature coming up in January. Rep. Celia Israel has proposed a bill that would allow for electronic voter registration. Rep. Mary Gonzalez filed a bill that will lower the age requirement for participation in the Texas Women’s Health Program. A number of Democrats have proposed raising the minimum wage and starting universal pre-K programs for underprivileged and at-risk kids.
Talk about why you support these ideas. Talk about why you think they’re good for your city, your county, your state. Acknowledge that Cousin Pull Up Your Pants disagrees, and move on.
Because somebody at your table is dying to witness more than a pissing match that taints the gravy. Somebody at your table is dying to hear new alternatives, and they’re anxious to hear about them from someone they love.
As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was winding down his 20-hour seizure of the Senate, arguing for a measure that would shut down the federal government unless funding was killed for implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) suggested that the Tea Party Texan might just be doing the Democrats a favor with his epic speech.
Designed to resemble a filibuster, Cruz’s speech—which ended around noon Wednesday, just before the Senate began the voting process to move forward a stopgap spending measure known as a continuing resolution (CR)—in fact did nothing to delay the vote, earning it the Twitter hashtag#fauxlibuster. Over the course of his oratory, Cruz equated people with pre-existing conditions to houses that had burned down, and compared Republicans who failed to stand with him to Nazi appeasers. And then there was his reading of Green Eggs and Ham.
When the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the CR earlier this week, it included a measure that would defund the federal health-care program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to strip the defunding provision from the bill in Wednesday’s Senate vote, before sending it back to the House. If the two chambers do not agree on the final bill, the government could be forced to shut down for lack of operating funds.
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At a press conference on the benefits of Obamacare to pregnant women, new mothers, and children, Rewire asked Stabenow to respond to the opposition Cruz stated on the floor on Tuesday night to provisions in the ACA that forbid insurers to deny coverage to those who have a “pre-existing condition.”
“I wish we had money to pay for ads,” Stabenow said with a smile in response to a question from Rewire. “I’d like to take what he said on the floor and make sure that every American had the opportunity to hear it.”
Stabenow, who sits on the Subcommittee on Health Care of the Senate Finance Committee, served as emcee for a press event staged by most of the women senators in the Democratic caucus on Wednesday. She was surrounded by mothers holding babies, several women in white doctors’ coats, and at least one pregnant woman, in addition to her fellow senators.
“We, as Democratic women, have stood here before,” Stabenow said. “In April of 2011, House Republicans took us to the brink of another government shutdown, over what? Women’s health care.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, the point the women senators sought to make is that before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, women who were pregnant were systematically rejected when attempting to purchase health insurance, the pregnancy classified as a “pre-existing condition.” Stabenow brought a young mother, Fran Faircloth, to the podium, a baby in her arms, to tell the story of how she found herself without insurance when she graduated law school and was in the early stages of pregnancy.
When the baby started to fuss, Faircloth’s husband stepped forward to take the baby from the podium, and someone remarked, “That’s sexy.”
Another young mother and small-business owner told of how her Blue Cross coverage wouldn’t even pick up the tab for her prenatal testing because she had opted for a home birth attended by licensed midwives.
“When it comes to reaching out to the women of America, I can’t imagine who in the Republican Party is actually thinking this strategy [to shut down the government] is a good idea,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “Maybe it’s the same guys who made the ad with Uncle Sam in the examining room,” she said, referring to a video by Generation Opportunity, a group linked to the billionaire Koch brothers, that is designed to frighten young people from purchasing health insurance under the rules of the ACA. The ad shows a creepy looking Uncle Sam figure standing between the legs of a young woman on an examining table with her feet in stirrups.
“Maybe it was the guys who thought rape was a great campaign message,” Murray continued, presumably referring to failed 2012 Senate candidates Todd Akin (R-MO) and Richard Mourdock (R-IN).
“Maybe it was the guys who thought that blocking millions of women from getting protection under the Violence Against Women Act was a way to get back in women’s good graces,” she said, referring to the 22 Senate Republicans, Cruz among them, and the138 House Republicans who voted against renewing the law, which passed both chambers earlier this year.
Some senators spoke of how other provisions of Obamacare benefited women and young children. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) told the story of a child in Baltimore who died of what could have been a simply treated oral infection, because the child’s family could not afford dental care. The ACA would prevent such tragedies, she said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer during a gubernatorial run in 2000, said she received a letter of encouragement to stay in the race from a single mother with breast cancer who had taken a second job in order to pay her medical bills.
Speaking of a health-care plan similar to the ACA already in place in her home state of Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she knew Obamacare would work as her state’s plan had succeeded.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) expressed frustration at the many measures on which the Senate has yet to act, while time was being taken up with the theatrics over Obamacare. Those include the farm bill, the immigration bill, and a budget bill, which, she said, the Republicans have refused to work out in conference committee. “In the end,” she said, “we aren’t playing these games.”
Other senators at the event included Tammy Baldwin (WI), Mazie Hirono (HI), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Jeanne Shaheen (NH). Stabenow read a statement from Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA), who did not attend.