The decision by the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to pull an incendiary ad attacking President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court has produced a fresh round of recriminations within the Democratic Party and a return to a nagging question: Has the opposition lost its nerve?
When conservatives complained about the ad -- which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics -- a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.
Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry's war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.
"Republicans don't mind running an ad that's entirely false, but Democrats have never learned, and I'm not sure many of them want to learn, how to play that kind of politics," said Robert Shrum, an adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns. NARAL had to pull the ad, he said, because "they weren't getting support from any substantial quarter."
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who like Shrum favors hardball politics, protested that "we Democrats bring a well-thumbed copy of Marquess of Queensberry Rules while the other side unsheaths their bloody knives, with a predictable outcome." Lehane said the NARAL ad "was great, and exactly the type of offensive that breaks through in the modern age."
Republican operative Greg Mueller, who advised the Swift boat group, said the NARAL ad was pulled not because of Democratic wavering but because "it was so false, so outrageously false, that they were hurting the Democratic Party." He said Republicans have done "nothing even close" to that level of dishonesty.
The NARAL case was the latest incident to provoke Democratic recriminations. In June, Democrats demanded that Bush aide Karl Rove apologize for saying that liberals wanted "therapy and understanding for our attackers." Rove refused to apologize, and Republicans leapt to his defense. Just before the Rove episode, Republicans demanded an apology from Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, who likened U.S. treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to techniques used by Nazis. Democrats joined in criticizing Durbin, who eventually delivered a tearful apology on the Senate floor.
Republicans say that they have been no more severe or dishonest in their rhetoric than the Democrats, and that they are no more apt to circle the wagons than Democrats are. "They play as nasty and as dirty as you can," said GOP strategist Grover Norquist, who called the NARAL ad a success because "they got the cheap shot out there."
While both parties have participated in their share of nasty and dishonest politics over the years, a number of Democrats have come to the conclusion that they need to be tougher. "You can't blame your opponents for applying a strategy that beats your brains out," former president Bill Clinton said in a speech last month, in which he mocked Democrats for responding to attacks like Pavlov's dogs by saying, "Oh, how mean they are."
"You can't ask them to stop being mean to us," the former president said. "You've got to be tough enough to beat it."
But the Democrats have had trouble shedding a tendency to complain. When GOP ads in 2002 showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and portrayed Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) as soft on terrorism, Democrats howled. But a version of the ad continued, and Cleland, who lost limbs in Vietnam, was defeated.
Democratic protests were similarly ignored in the 2004 campaign, when GOP ads said the president's critics attacked him "for attacking the terrorists." More recently, Democrats have complained about conservative charges that their opposition to some of Bush's judicial nominees means Democrats are anti-Christian -- but the accusations persist.
A number of Democrats still say the party's best hopes are on the high road. "We have to define the reckless left of our party and differentiate ourselves," said former Clinton aide Lanny Davis, who denounced the NARAL ad. He said such "smear and innuendo" has caused his party to lose recent elections.
Still, there is evidence of Democratic punches pulled. In the 2000 campaign, some aides to Al Gore proposed an ad juxtaposing Gore's service in Vietnam with photos from Bush's days as a young sports cheerleader -- but the idea was dismissed as inappropriate.
Some Democratic operatives say their trouble is congenital. "The problem is our politically impractical insistence on always residing on the moral high ground," said Jim Jordan, who was a longtime adviser to Kerry. "A large part of our ethos goes to what we perceive to be moral superiority and the sad truth is in politics that's sometimes inconvenient."
But if this is the case, it was not always. Few who remember the treatment of Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas or Newt Gingrich would assert that Democrats have trouble being mean. Nor are Democrats always inclined to eat their own: When Clinton was impeached, Democrats were almost unfailingly loyal, while Republicans have turned on party leaders such as Gingrich, Trent Lott and Bob Livingston.
David Sirota, a former congressional aide who is forming a group of liberal state legislators, said the behavior has been learned. "Washington Democrats are afraid of their own shadow," he said. "They've internalized all the Republican attacks and made it part of their psychology. It's like if you're a kid and you've been bullied you begin to think you're a wimp."
Republicans, attacking the NARAL ad, trumpeted the finding of the nonpartisan FactCheck.org that the abortion group's ad was "false" and "misleading." But that same organization had labeled the Swift boat ads "dubious" and found "a serious discrepancy in the account of Kerry's accusers," which was at odds with military records.
But Mueller said he never considered pulling the Swift boat ads when Democrats reacted with fury and independent arbiters declared the ads to be misleading. "There was never any question in our minds," he said.