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Democrats Underestimate How Much American Voters Punish Weakness

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The great irony is that by the very act of putting political considerations ahead of clear constitutional duty and profound national interest, the Democrats are inflicting serious injury on their own political prospects.

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Having paid a lot of attention to American politics for more than half a century, I hope that I know what I’m talking about when I say:

The Democrats apparently fail to recognize how inclined American voters are to reject leadership they see as in any way weak.

The Democrats seem to think that showing great virtue is how to win voters over, and of course that works up to a point. But they don’t seem to understand that a large chunk of the American electorate cares more about the strength and guts of their leaders than about how fully those leaders align themselves with the Good and the Right.

It would be great if the voters always recoiled against politicians, and political parties, that show themselves of low moral character and base motives— regardless of whether they also show themselves able to fight and win. But that seems not to be the case.

For the past generation, the Republicans have shown themselves to be strong and immoral, while the Democrats have shown themselves to be good but weak. And over those years, evil has gained in strength in American politics.

Just to take one quick recent illustration of how this dichotomy has played out: Recall the scene during the 2016 presidential debates when Trump kept following Hillary around the stage to loom over her in a threatening way. Hillary said in her book about the campaign that she wished she’d turned and said to Trump, “Back off, you creep!” But she did not. Who among us does not join her in wishing that she had?

She took it, she allowed him to get away with that unprecedented act of boorish intimidation. And although one would like to believe that the American electorate would say, “We sure can’t vote for anyone who behaves like Trump did. Foolish to give power to such a mean-spirited bully!” my guess is that Hillary lost more votes for having failed to tell the creep to back off than Trump lost for his unconscionable behavior.

(How do you think the voters would have responded to Hillary delivering that line as that situation called for?)

And similarly, the Bush camp should have been penalized in 2004 for the unscrupulous and dishonest way they got Kerry Swiftboated. But instead, it was Kerry who lost ground through that episode, largely because of the inadequacy of his counter-attack. (It was the shirking W who got to posture as the military hero, while the real war hero whose war record got smeared. And it was W  who — despite the debacle and scandal of the Iraq War – was re-elected.)

(And before him, there was Michael Dukakis, driving around in a tank in a performance that made him look ludicrous, doing the opposite of assuring voters that he’d be tough as John Wayne in the White House.)

Perhaps most of all, there was Obama, who got re-elected but could not bring his party along with him, and whose weakness in dealing with Mitch McConnell and the all-out Republican assault on his presidency — making his failure their top priority — cost him much of his presidential power the American people had given him to wield to advance their interests and values.

That’s a bit of the history.

And now, in response to this lawless President — who shows contempt for Congress in ways no American president has ever done  and who has appointed an Attorney General who corrupts his office like none we’ve ever seen (not even John Mitchell) — the Democrats are again showing weakness.

No impeachment hearings yet; not even using the powers they have through “inherent contempt” to jail those aiding in the obstruction of justice and showing contempt of Congress.

The irony here is that — because of political considerations — the Democrats are holding back from doing what’s right and necessary, whereas – if my understanding of the attitudes of the American electorate is valid – even political calculations should rouse the Democrats to show themselves of strong and fearless resolve.

But it is this lawless President who shows such resolve, shows that he will do anything and everything he can to prevail over the rule of law. And meanwhile the Democrats — doing much less than everything — fail to match the determination of their foe.

Why do they hold back? Because they fear that too many Americans will not “approve” of their doing what their oath of office requires of them.

(Even though it could not be clearer that this President threatens the nation more than any who preceded him (even Nixon), more profoundly than Americans could have imagined not so long ago.)

This is but the latest edition of the kind of fear that has consistently led the Democrats into political disaster:

  • fear that led the Democrats — in 2010 — to hold back from attacking the Republicans in the 2010 election season for their scandalous behavior regarding health-care reform, and
  • fear that kept the Democrats — in 2014 — from confronting the Republicans’ over their indefensible and unprecedented across-the-board obstruction, sacrificing the good of the nation in order to discredit the President from the other Party.

In both cases, for the over-cautious Democrats, the result was a political bloodbath.

Fear has led continually to weakness, and weakness has led repeatedly to too many Americans choosing the aggressive party over the weak one.

Too many Americans have made that choice even though the aggressive party is morally bankrupt and is manifestly unconcerned with making things better for Americans. And even though the weak party has been standing up for what’s decent, and true; standing up for the norms of American culture, for the task of making a better America. for racial harmony, for narrowing the growing inequality between the richest in America and the rest, for respect for the rule of law and the Constitution, for truth-telling, for compassion for the vulnerable and unfortunate, for preservation of the system of life on earth, etc.)

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What does it mean, that people place such a priority on strength and courage in their leaders?

Maybe it’s a function of human nature: if we are to give people the power to be our protectors, we don’t want wimps who won’t have what it takes to stand up to those who threaten us, who will let themselves — and us — be overrun.

Maybe it’s a function of the specifics of American culture, in which a strong John Wayne character is experienced as heroic even when his character wields his evident strength in ways we don’t approve of.

(But whatever the American cultural component, throughout human history we see this tendency displayed— that the people admire and follow the strong.)

Whatever the source, I believe that the value that the American political psyche places on strength and boldness is powerful enough that it is an unwise Party that acts as the Democrats are acting now in their confrontation with Trump. Acting weakly, in the face of an all-out attack from a lawless President, out of fear of the voters’ disapproval if they were to act with the strength and determination this moment requires.

Requires, given how this moment is one of danger, given how it is, in the words of House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, “a time of testing whether we can keep a republic, or whether this republic is destined to change into a different, more tyrannical form of government, as other republics have over the centuries.”

With so much at stake, We need an end to the time when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst // Are filled with a passionate intensity.”

We need Democratic leadership that is not governed by fear, but rather will act from the strength of conviction.