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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of February 18, 2022, in 9 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① Democratic leaders have belatedly concluded that GOP culture war attacks are incredibly potent and have done enormous damage to them

② But the only thing they can think to do in response is neutralize the attacks with fact checks; they still can't fathom picking culture war fights and winning them, or even fighting the ones Republicans pick to a draw 

③ It's all of a piece with their larger tendency to abjure partisan matters in general, and that augurs poorly for the coming election—a zero-sum contest against hyper-partisan Republicans who grow more authoritarian by the day

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DCCC-ING THE LIGHT

Here are two inkblot tests in one. First, the headline: “GOP culture war attacks 'alarmingly potent,' DCCC warns.” Then, the text itself, which I’ll leave to you to read.

What you’ll take from the report will depend a lot on your broader view of the party. “It’s good that Democrats recognized this,” or, “Did this really just dawn on them?!” are both valid reactions. If you’re predisposed to blaming young progressives or party leaders or the media for the Democrats’ problems, there’s something here for you. A Politicornucopia of interpretations.

I see it mainly as a view into profound differences between how our major political parties view the abstract question of what partisan politics in a two-party system actually means. It’s also a warning that in this two party system, Democrats seem paralyzed by extreme Republican partisanship, to the point where they can’t fully function as an entity whose main task is to defeat its opponents. That’s a particularly worrisome conclusion to draw as the GOP’s drift toward fascism reaches its point of no return. 

① PIPE DREAMS

Let’s start with a tale of two culture war flashpoints, one that’s real, and one that Republicans fabricated out of whole cloth. 

The latter began after the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing organ, whipped up the false claim that the Biden administration would distribute crack pipes “to advance racial equity”—that is, Dems are gonna spend tax dollars on crack pipes for black drug addicts. 

It was, of course, false. Federal funds do support public-health measures aimed at reducing the dangers of drug use. And these measures often target underserved communities where the dangers are magnified. But no, there are no Biden crack pipes. 

Congressional Republicans, some of whom surely knew the report was false, others of whom didn’t care if it was true or not, reveled in the Biden crack pipe story. They treated it as gospel, and pretended to be outraged, hoping to convince as many people as possible that this Democratic government was using its power to facilitate crack use as part of its woke agenda.

The Democratic response was telling: It wasn’t to stand up for the general policy of reducing the spread of disease and death from drug use. It wasn’t, alternatively, to make a huge stink about Republicans getting caught lying. It was to scare-quotes “neutralize” the issue by disowning the idea of giving out crack pipes, as if the attack had validity to begin with, and harm reduction is an inherently sketchy policy goal. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) even coauthored the Preventing Illicit Paraphernalia for Exchange Systems (PIPES) Act with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the Republicans who spread the lie in the first place. The story in sum is one where Republicans picked a culture-war fight for sport, and Dems reacted in a way that both validated their false attack and made it look like they were the ones sneaking shady culture-war stuff into law.

Meanwhile, here’s the other story, which is about a group of eight Senate Republicans weighing in with the Justice Department on behalf of abusive, antimask airline passengers who have been banned from particular carriers for attacking flight attendants and other passengers.

The idea that fringe actors or marginal members of Congress have lastingly damaged Democrats is basically dogma among Democratic Party leaders and frontline members. They ascribe The Squad and the outside activists who tweeted “defund the police” almost mystical influence over how the party as a whole is perceived, and even cower when Republicans straight-up invent a politically toxic concept (Biden crack pipes) and tattoo it on the Democrats in bad faith. But when nearly 20 percent of Senate Republicans out themselves as plainly pro-abusive airline passengers it’s crickets. No major statements. No outrage. No message bills with clever acronyms. Nada.

② REBUT THERE’S MORE

That Politico article isn’t about either of these two incidents, but both incidents map neatly on to what the article does report. Namely, Democrats have reached two conclusions: 1) Republican culture war attacks are scarily effective; 2) Democrats can partially neutralize those attacks through the power of defensive debunking. 

The data showed that Democrats could mostly regain the ground lost to Republicans if they offered a strong rebuttal to the political hits. When faced with a “defund the police” attack, for instance, the presenters encouraged Democrats to reiterate their support for police. And on immigration, they said Democrats should deny support for “open borders or amnesty,” and talk about their efforts to keep the border safe.

I can’t claim to know everything Democrats have sought to learn about these attacks or how to rebut them. But I do know that “rebut the attacks” isn’t the only possible move available from the belated realization that GOP culture war attacks are, in fact, effective. 

Take a random snapshot of the partisan fray, and it’ll depict political battle that’s transpiring on either Democratic or Republican terms, with the parties engaging either aggressively or evasively. It’s a problem, but not an iron rule, that for the past year, Republicans have set the terms of the culture war, and Democrats have responded evasively. And it suggests that this larger matrix of possibilities simply eludes Democrats. 

For instance, if data confirms that GOP culture war attacks are potent, it may well follow that culture war attacks are powerful tools of partisan politics in general. Likewise, if defensively denying Republican attacks helps to blunt them, it may well follow that reframing the issues on more advantageous terms works even better. If a subset of Republicans align with feral maniacs who threaten or attack airline employees, educators, and election officials, that can be used to tar the whole party. If Republicans fan a racist lie to associate Democrats with black (and only black) drug users, there are presumably better ways to respond than to concede that, if the lies were true, it would be bad. One way to address a false “defund the police” attack is to say “I actually support the police!” Another is to say “our party funded the police, your party voted against the funding, sent over 100 of them to the hospital, and spread lies about COVID that killed hundreds more.”

③ CHICKEN OODA SOUP

So I see Democrats’ late grappling with the potency of GOP culture war tactics as both necessary and terribly myopic. It’s also of a piece with the party leadership’s tendency to recoil from partisan matters in general—to react, rather than take charge, only when forced, and to do so in the most shrunken and narrowcast possible way. 

I could fill the page with examples, but they define the past decade, particularly the Trump years. What began as steadfast opposition to impeachment turned into “self-impeachment” then “skinny impeachment” then a second impeachment without any witnesses. Democrats were blindsided during Bush v. Gore, blindsided by Republican weaponization of the filibuster, blindsided by the GOP’s unscrupulousness in redistricting after the 2010 midterms, blindsided by the theft of the courts, and when they eventually caught up to the fact that democracy needed retrofitting they aligned behind the slimmest defensible set of reforms, omitting Senate malapportionment and the judiciary from their calculus altogether. That they lacked the votes to change the filibuster rules and pass that bill was more of a historical happenstance than a symptom of this same problem, but it wasn’t entirely unrelated, either. 

David Remnick interviewed Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for a special edition of the New Yorker this week and her responses to his questions were laced through with profound frustration less at the fact that the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced a particular social-democratic policy agenda than with this stuff—with leaders who don’t seem to know how to fight for the things they say they want. Politico’s John Harris described it as “a difference grounded in a cultural mindset about how politics should look, sound and feel… grounded much less in ideology than meets the eye.”

The way I’d put it is that the most important division in Dem politics isn’t left vs. center—it’s partisan and procedural boldness vs. timidity. I really think, and have for a long time, that the party’s internal problems would become much less salient if they were regularly winning fights against Republicans, big ones and small ones, instead of avoiding them or conceding them or fighting them reluctantly, but only after tying their own shoelaces together first. To do that, though, they'd first have to accept, as AOC does, that “political realities can be shaped by self-confident proclamation. Power can be seized by equally self-confident assertion.”

I was reminded this week of a passage in Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, where he writes about the moment he became the kind of officer with the mettle to eventually become commanding general and win the Civil War.

As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see [Col. Thomas] Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.”

In all their partisan fights, Democrats remind me of Grant, moments before he realized he wasn’t fighting invincible warriors—just other men who, however puffed their chests, were no less susceptible to fear and no less mortal than he was. 

Because they’re scared, Democrats can’t seem to recognize the GOP’s huge and obvious vulnerabilities when they arise, let alone exploit them. Whatever the bone of contention happens to be on any given day, Republicans approach it by trying to disrupt the Democratic OODA loop, and Democrats, almost always playing for defense, let it happen. It’s allowed Republicans to set the terms of national discourse on almost all issues—the economy, the pandemic, education, everything outside the penumbra of January 6—with the federal government under unified Democratic control. 

It’s why I worry about the looming public phase of the January 6 investigation, the last piece of high ground Democrats hold. I worry in particular that Democrats won’t anticipate and plan around the many things Republicans might do to skew or draw attention away from the hearings themselves. I'm also left wondering whether Democrats will air the facts in a way that creates maximum impact; whether the committee’s hearings and report will blend into a larger campaign to deny Republicans a toehold on power on the basis of their unfitness for office, or whether the leadership will use them as the latest offramp from the unpleasant terrain of raw partisanship, back in to the pacifying realm of kitchen-table economics. 

It would be no surprise if, after letting Republicans define their party for a year; after dodging the culture wars only to belatedly poke their heads up to say “that is false!”; after missing opportunity upon opportunity to catch Republicans out on the losing side of issues; Democratic leaders decided to steer their party back on to the only roads they know and hit cruise control. What is the point, after all, of "neutralizing" culture war issues, other than to clear the air so voter can make rational decisions about the bread-and-butter issues they really care about. That's the sweet spot; that's where they defeat Republicans in the zero-sum midterms by reminding voters that they passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill with Mitch McConnell, a man of honor.

Related stuff here from Greg Sargent.

Here’s food for thought from Matt Yglesias on the shortcomings of “misinformation” as a catchall for rot in U.S. politics. I don’t agree with every point, but I do agree that misinformation per se isn’t really what has people so worked up. People have always been misinformed. What’s new, and what I think people are reacting to, isn’t the existence of untrue claims or the ease of spreading them, but the fact that a major U.S party has embraced totalitarian propaganda tactics and paid no obvious political price for it. Unfortunately for the discourse, there are plenty of rich people who will open their wallets to address that problem by “curbing misinformation”—through changes in communications and tech-industry rules and practices, or whatever else—but few who will fund “taking on the GOP for poisoning the political culture and creating group identity around cruelty and lies” as an explicit objective.

Speaking of totalitarian propaganda tactics: they are why Bill Barr, at Donald Trump’s behest, appointed John Durham as special counsel to investigate the investigators of the Russia scandal. He’s now been at it almost twice as long as the Russia investigation itself, producing obscure, conspiratorial materials that, whatever they actually say, are meant to fuel mass GOP lies and create a miasma of criminality around Trump’s enemies. It happened again this week. And this basic method describes the party’s approach to politics generally. 

But in real scandals, Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars, fired him on the basis of his serial financial fraud, which has spawned multiple New York investigations that Mazars appears to be cooperating with.

Burn! (And also, yikes…)

Hope everyone except one person had a Happy Valentine’s Day! 

Some people just can’t stop showing off

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