Book: Stand Up and Fight Back
E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Author and Columnist
Friday, June 11, 2004; 1:00 PM
In his newest book, "Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps and the Politics of Revenge," author and syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. explains why Republicans have been so successful in recent years and why liberals have been stuck playing defense.
Dionne was online to discuss his new book, the political cycle and the tools he gives Democrats to reverse the trend.
Dionne is the author of "Why Americans Hate Politics" and "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives ill Dominate the Next Political Era." A Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University Professor, his syndicated columnist appears twice weekly in The Washington Post.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
St. Paul, Minn.:
Is the title of your book a nod to the Wellstone motto, "Stand Up, Keep Fighting" or is it coincidence?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: As Richard Nixon used to say,I'm glad you asked that question. Stand Up Fight Back emerged as a title after a long series of discuissions with my editor, friends and family. As soon as we settled on it as the title, I realized that it must in some way have been inspired by Paul Wellstone's now famous slogan. I had great affection as well as respect for Wellstone and the more I thought about it the more I decided I'd be honored if people made that link. So I'm grateful that you did. Many thanks.
As a great admirer of your previous books, I'm a little confused by this one. Two things I agree with ... the critique on Bush and the need for Democrats to coalesce. But you seem to prescribe that we Dems merely fall back to being defenders of our past success. Does this not leave the other side open to charges that we are the party stuck in the past? Does this not stifle a lot of what should be creative thinking within our own party on new solutions to old problems?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Great question and thanks for the kind words. I do not think that defending past successes is sufficient, but I do think it is absolutely essential. Many of the things that liberals and progressives did worked: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Americorps and the Peace Corps, environmental protection, the GI Bill -- I could go on -- actually worked. They were innovative and successful ideas. I am tired of hearing vague and, I would insist, untrue talk about "failed big government programs" when there have been, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "more successes than we would ike to know." (I beloieve that is an exact quotation.
But of course resting on the past is not enough. There are new problems, and new ideas about how to solve old problems. Failures should be admitteed. But if defending one's own tradition were not important, then conservatives would not be as eager as they are to claim a legacy for Ronald Reagan this week. You can honor your own past without being trapped within it. Thanks for the thought.
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.:
Many have said that your book "Why Americans Hate Politics," was a blueprint for the 1992 Clinton campaign. Do you see John Kerry adopting the strategies you describe in this newest book? How has his campaign specifically failed or suceeded in taking your advice, and can you predict any future changes?
Thanks very much.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks. Truth is, I can't answer that question becxause I don't know. (In any event, the book has only been out for a couple of weeks!) There is one idea of Kerry's that I mention in the book, his "Service for College" plan, that comes very close to the idea of progressive patriotism I describe in the book. We should reward those who serve their country, in the military and in our communities. I am arguing for a new GI Bill politics which empohasizes on the one side the obligation to service and the ways in which government can promote it; and on the other, government's capacity to make investments in people, as the GI Bill did, to give them opportunities (for education and home ownership). Liberalism and progressivism have never been about dependency. Those who give to the community and earn the community's investment in them embody how a free society can simultaneously strengthen social bonds and enhance individual opportunity.
Chesapeake Beach, Md.:
Dear Mr. Dionne:
I saw your interview this evening on CNBC's Capitol Report. During the interview, I believe you stated that there has been a steady shift of moderate Republicans voting Democratic over the past decade. I find this statement very puzzling. Ten years ago, Democrats controlled the Presidency, the House, the Senate, the majority of governorships, and a majority of state houses. Today, the exact opposite is true. Republicans are in the majority. Moreover, Pew came out with a study last year showing that for the first time since before the New Deal, Republicans have achieved parity with Democrats in party identification. It seems your statement is at direct odds with Pew and the results of elections over the past ten years. How do you explain this?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Thanks. In fact, Democrats won a pluraility of the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. The Republican share of the popular vote in presidential campaigns reached 59 percent for Reagan in 1984, fell to 38 percent for the first George Bush in 1992 (with Perot taking some of the GOP vote) but has only come back to a high of 48 percent for George W. Bush in 2000. That's a lot of lost Republican votes. I discuss this in more detail in the book (see pages 98 and 99 especially). My Post colleague Dan Balz notice long before most everybody else did that the realignment of parts of the south to the GOP called forth a counter-realignment in suburban, moderate Republican counties in the northeast, Middle West and on the west coast (around Philadeplphia and Chicago, for example)toward the Democrats. The shift of the south to the GOP helped create the Gingrich Revolution. The question is whether these shifts in the other direction elsewhere come to affect not only presidential voting, but also Congressional voting. We will see.
Judging from the title of your book, I'm going to hazard a guess that it picks up some themes in your past columns and commentary. Having read your columns diligently over the years, I've heard you form a thesis that in the Bush Presidency the Democrats were willing to compromise, the Republicans took that willingness and burned them and railroaded a radical agenda down their throats. I guess my memory fails me but other than a brief period of national unity after 9/11, I missed the Democrats' spirit of giving. The foreign policy honeymoon may have lasted for a year or so, I suspect because Bush was doing what a Gore would have done (invaded Afghanistan). But the domestic policy unity ended by November of 2001 with the fight over federalizing airport screeners. Seems to me the Democrats got their way (mostly) on that issue, and the atrocious 2002 agricultural welfare bill, just to name a few. The 2002 Democratic campaign wasn't at all congenial, it consisted of "Enron, no Social Security reform and the most generous expansion of Medicare" (familiar populist themes). It wasn't a question of being too "nice", it just didn't sell. I even remember a certain Washington Post columnist who suggested the Democrats should exploit falling values of 401K funds. I seem to remember Dick Gephardt pushing an "Investors Bill of Rights," but it didn't sell either. Can you tell me where I'm wrong?
Sorry for the wordy comment/question. Despite the somewhat adversarial nature of these comments, I'm a disillusioned former Bush supporter who will join you in voting for John Kerry in November.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks for that note, and for your excellent memory. For what it is worth, I explicitly make a poiint in the book of saying that Liberals and Democrats "perenially claim that their side is too 'nice' to win" and argue that "the turth is that liberals and Democrats are not always 'nice.' They too have been known to fight to win in political campaigns and judicial nomination battles." (pp 138-139).
What I go on to say is that the larger reason for conservative victories is their success in building their own insitutions (in the media and think tank worlds as well as in politics) and in their success in bringing relentless pressure on all non-conservative institutions (including the media) to move right. "The shift in our politics," I write, "is about a solidarity that exists on the right that does not exist in any comparable way on the center-left." I go on to note that in the wake of 2002, there is afinally some interest in solidarity on the center-left.
By the way, I dfiscuss the airline security issue in the book. I'd only say that Dems who favored government control over airline security did not accuse Republicans who had another idea of being unpatriotic. (At least, I don't recall that.) I think some of the resentment you see among the Democrats is anger at having their patriotism questioned just for disagreeing with their adversaries.
Again, I am grateful for your thought. To you and to others: I apologize that these answers are so short. I am trying to answer as many questions as I can!
Is there anything people who are not Republicans should be doing differently in regard to the passing of Reagan? It is one thing to pay respects to a past president. It is another thing to see and read nonstop tributes that are making Reagan out to have been a saint.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Thanks. It is difficult for those who disagreed with Reagan but do not want to speak ill of the recently dead to be properly respectful while insisting that the 1980s were not nirvana and that they opposed many of Reagan's policies. I heard from many readers about a column I wrote suggesting that if Reagan could learn some things from FDR, then liberals might try to learn from Reagan. I mentioned some of what went wrong under Reahan, but my tone seemed approriate (to me at least!) for a column written the day after he died. Critical readers, for reasons I understand, wanted a stronger citique of Reagan, Reaganism and what happened in the 1980s.
My guess is that in the coming weeks, as the debate turns from Reagan -- the sunny optimist who was a very consequential president -- to the ideas and policies of the 1980s, the discussion will become more balanced and more critical voices will be heard. And to their credit, some writers and broadcasters did try in this period to talk about the downsides of the 1980s and Reagan's failures as well as the upsides and his successes.
You were highly offended at the ads run against Max Clelland and other Democratic senators on Homeland Security that alledgedly questioned their patriotism. If I had devised such ads, I would have done them differently but the issue in contention, union veto power over Homeland Security organization was real. Maybe if the Senate Democrats hadn't been so slavishly loyal to their special interests (federal employee unions) the result would have been less divisive.
Also, were those ads any worse than the NAACP's James Byrd dragging ad against George Bush in 2000?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Thanks, and fair point on the James Byrd ad. But remember: that ad was sponsored by an outside group. The ads by non-party groups (on behalf of both Republicans and Democrats) tend to be much tougher and nastier than the ads sponsored by the parties and candidates themselves. That's why the ad against Cleland stood out. It was part of the regular Republican campaign. And yes, I do think Cleland was owed some deference because of what he gave to his country. There were plenty of ways to take issue with the Democrats on their stand on Homeland Security without running an ad that showed pictures of Saddam and bin Laden, the ad used against Cleland. And it's worth noting that Bush attacked the Democrats for blocking his version of the bill creating homeland security department only after opposing that very idea for months.) There were compromises on offer before the election on the union and civil service issue, but Republicans didn't want to take them and seemed to prefer having the issue to use in the election campaign. The strategy worked in 2002, but it should be surprising that it left a legacy of division.
I'm sorry to say I haven't read your book yet. It seems to me that the Republicans have been very successful, through the constant repetition by their "echo chamber" and then in the mainstream media of extremely simplistic messages, in establishing their "brand" as the party of low taxes, moral values, and patriotism and a strong defense. Once this "meme" is established in the public mind, it's hard for the Democrats to compete, even if the reality is more complex. What do you think, and how can the Democrats compete with this?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks. I have to start writing even shorter answers! Just on your theme: In the book (p. 193) I cite John Podesta of the new Center for American Progress quoting a business person saying of liberals: "All you guys do is show individual products. You never show a brand." There is a failure to link liberal and progressive ideas to a larger purpose. I speak in the book of a progressive patriotism which I think could provide such a framework.
How important do you think it is for liberals to maintain civility and politeness in their discourse with Republicans who often exhibit neither? I go back and forth. On the one hand, I believe that a kind of civic humaneness is vital if we (and I mean the U.S.) is to advance at all towards, yes, a better world. On the other, I wonder whether Republicans view civility as weakness, where metaphorically speaking, they only respect people carrying baseball bats?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Good thought. Can you be tough and civil at the same time? I would say yes, but I don't pretend it's easy, especially in the context of 30-second campaign ads. What does not work is a timidity about defending core principles. In the book I say that Democrats spend so much time saying who they are not that nobody knows who they are. That is beginning to change, but the change has been a long time in coming. Many thanks.
By the way: to other readers: I will stay on for another half hour to try to get to your questions.
A quick question regarding the conventions. Usually the candidates get a large bump in ratings after each convention. With a highly divided electorate and the fact that so many people have made up their minds, do you think the candidates will get the bumps this year?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: There will be a bump. I think the polls suggest that at least 20 percent of the potential electorate is still in play (this group consists mostly of independents and moderate Republicans, plus some moderate-to-conservative Democrats). They will be affected by what they see at the Conventions. Since I think it's fair to see this election primarily as a choice to rehire or fire Bush and since Kerry is still unknown to many voters, the impression he makes first in Boston and then in the debates will be critical. He needs to be an acceptable alternative for voters who decide they want a new president.
I never knew you were at Georgetown, I graduated in 2002, did you teach any classes? Anyway, I am 24, my generation is generally uninterested in politics to the extreme I think, and although my generation is far more socially liberal than older generations, If people generally don't start to vote until they are established, have morgatages, etc. do you think this bodes poorly for the Democrats in the future.
Also do you think the Democrats embrace of abortion rights has hurt them? I know many people that hold solidly Democratric Ideals but now vote Republican because they do not like abortion
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks. I know many such people, too. I think the Democrats need to make clear that they are open to pro-life voters who, on so many other issues (the death penalty and assistance to the poor, to pick just two) are on the more progressive or liberal side of politics. I have a hunch this might happen this year.
As for your generation, I believe it could be one of the great reforming generations in our country's history. (I wrote a column on this some years ago.) You are more service-oriented than your predecesssors, and if you linked that sense of service with your own form of polics, your impact could be huge. And by the way, I don't pretend yours or any generation is of one politicasl mind, as I learn all the time from my Georgetown students. But the service orientation among Americans under 30 is strong, and I think very heartening for the future.
San Francisco, Calif.:
I have never understood the seeming disinterest that the media had in George Bush's record/history/opinions during the 2000 campaign. Did you feel that the treatment of the two major party candidates was balanced? Do you still?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Thanks. A lot of people did good profiles of Bush. I wrote one myself in 1999 (you can judge whether it was any good or not!) in which I suggested that Bush was in all likelihood more conservative than his rhetoric suggested. Bush was at times quite candid about his conservative views (on taxes and social security). So I do think that news stories emphasizing that the difference between Bush and Gore were small were simply wrong. On Bush's background, it was puzzling that parts of it were not made larger issues in the campaign. (More was made of his draft and service record recently than in 2000.) This is only a theory, but I think, oddly, that there was a hangover from the Clinton period and a reluctance to go too much into the personal. The paradox is that overdosing on the personal stuff during Clinton's years may have led to less scrutiny of a Republican nominee. Also, Bush and his aides were more skilled than Gore and his side proved to be at handling the press corps. And Democrats were less united behind Gore than Republicans were behind Bush. The result of all these factors led to some pretty tough treatment, relatively speaking, of Gore. I talk about this in the book, especially with reference to the battle over Florida, where Republicans were much more aggressive from the beginning of the fight.
It seems like U.S. politics over time has an ebb an flow than brings ascendancy to either party, depending on the circumstances and people involved. For instance, the victories of FDR and Carter were historical inevitabilities, given the failures leading up to their respective elections.
Also, while the Republicans of today seem to be on the attack, they often do so by taking positions from the Democrats. No Child Left Behind is an example of the Republican party leaving behind some of its previous principles to score political points. By the same token, the Democrats do the same thing, as during the Clinton administration, the Democrats became the party of fiscal responsibility (an easy thing to do, when income increases beyond expectations).
Each side preys upon the other, and often garners support through base fear and loathing of the other side. This pattern has continued through my entire lifetime.
As an independent citizen, it seems to me that partisanship and ideology are enemies of effective, accountable, reasonable government. The good of the country often seems to be left behind in the endless squabbles between the two parties, that never really get anywhere, anyway.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: At the beginning of the book, I call it a letter to three friends, a liberal, a moderate and a conservative. I note that my moderate friend might ask how "has a fundamentally middle-of-the-road country gotten a politics characterized by so much meanness and division? Why do so many in politics have so little ability to understand and even hear each other across party lines?" (p. 3)
Different people trace the meanness back to different places, depending upon their point of view (to Richard Nizon or to the Clarence Thomas fight or to Clinton's impeachment.) I do think the impeachment and Florida battles set a tone that we are still living with. I think there was a certain ferocity on the right toward Clinton which is now calling forth a comparable ferocity toward Bush. I don't expect my conservatiuve friends to agree with that, but I'd urge them to look again at what was said about Clinton even before the Lewinsky scandal.
I don't have the space here to make the whole case, but I argue in the book that for the moment, the natural alliance is between center and left, between moderates and liberals. Moderates and liberals may dissagree on means, but they do agree on a role for government in problem-solving, greater fiscal respoonsibility, and (I would submit, anyway) moderation in the culture wars.
Finally: I agree that in retrospect, at least, election results do seem inevitable. But that is usually clearer after the fact!
New York, N.Y.:
Jimmy Carter and his fellow Democrats may have had the right idea when they declared the energy crisis was the moral equivalent of war, yet they then never rallied the troops to go into battle. Ronald Reagan understood that the public prefers to hear upbeat messages and follow them through with policies he wanted passed. I think Democrats have always offered a better package than Republicans--environmental protection, funds to schools, more equitable taxes--yet, they always packaged their issues in terms that sounded desperate and tragic. Shouldn't they take a lesson in Reagan and be more upbeat about things? Maybe if Kerry could package his energy "Manhattan Plan" as a call to Americans to show their dedication in acheiving success in our country, he can beat Bush, who lately has begun to come across as a little gloomy lately?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Could not agree more about being upbeat. Reagan brilliantly stole optimism from the Democrats, and Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he stole it back. Agree that energy is a promising area where a combination of private incentives and public spending could push us in the right direction. The country is in no mood for higher energy taxes, though as former Republican Congressman and Indpendent presidential candidate John Anderson suggested back in 1980, if energy taxes were included as part of a package that included offsetting tax reductions, we could at least begin a debate we ought to have. But even without energy taxes, there is a lot to be done.
And again, hope and optimism beat pessimism in the United States almost every time.
I would have to say that, except for a brief period right after the 2000 "election," your own criticisms of Bush and his crew have been expressed in exceptionally moderate tones. Is your book in any way a retrospective admonition of your own activities?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks. Republicans certainly don't see my columns that way. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I did moderate my comments and strongly supported the war in Afghanistan. For a few months, I though Bush was more moderate himself. (I talk about this in the book.) My tone toughened as events warranted, or so I would argue. I try not to yell in the column. (Readers can judge whether I pull that off or not!) I'm trying to make a case not only to people who already agree with me, but also to those who may not be as persuaded as I am of a given point. But has my tone gotten tougher? I suspect the answer is yes, and I talk about why in the book.
Do you think the reason liberals seem defensive is because they've allowed conservatives to define them on issues like values and patriotism? I think so. For decades conservatives have implied that liberals want to destroy the values that made America great and have also implied that they are less than patriotic. That's because liberals have let those attacks go unanswered. There are liberals that are too quick to blame America. What they should do is to make clear that they believe that America is the good guy and explain how their vision is better than conservatives. Regarding values, people in the South and rural Midwest view liberals as snobs who look down on dearly believed values. Liberals should instead embrace values and redefine them. What do you think?
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: Many thanks. I need to sign off now, but wanted to share your thought with the readers here. I do think that liberals and progressives need to define themselves -- including the L-word itself! -- and need to speak their own language, as opposed to stealing language from the other side. The last chapter of the book is called: "A Fair Fight: Why Democrats and Liberals Should Stop Bein Afraid." That captures what I am trying to argue. Many thanks to all, and apologies to those who asked good questions I could not get to.
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