Too many Democrats at all levels are making a critical error in the final stretch of the fight for Congress. This is the same mistake that lost the Kerry campaign and that has plagued Democrats for more than a decade. It's not the fault of any one committee or consultant -- this is a cultural problem that afflicts almost every Democratic and progressive entity.
The problem is that we don't fight. Three psychological barriers have overtaken our subculture and left us defenseless against the schoolyard bully: 1) Fear of the ball, 2) self-doubt, and 3) meanness.
Fear of the ball
Polls show a majority of Americans are unhappy about the war and have lost faith in the Republicans on national security issues. Democrats should smell blood. Instead, too many are taking the "we'll let them hang themselves" approach, hoping it will be enough to play up their own strength (the economy) while bad news from Iraq automatically erodes Republicans' traditional advantage (national security).
That is the wrong reaction. That is not how to fight. You're afraid to get into the action and mix it up, afraid of the ball -- because what if it hits you in the face, WHAT IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG!? For sure, something will go wrong. But if you've got a competitive race, and your opponent knows it's a fight, then you're guaranteed to lose if you don't join the action.
For the next two months you MUST attack your Republican opponent on both their weakness (the economy) and their strength (national security). Momentum is on our side -- and that means our blows do more damage than they normally do. That means you should use more force, not less.
Attack them on their strength: "YOU BOTCHED THE WAR ON TERROR."
Attack them on their weakness: "AND NOW YOUR RUINING THE ECONOMY TOO."
They will counterattack, but you can handle that! (Catch the ball, run with it!)
The Kerry campaign was a spectacular example of Republicans loving the ball and Democrats fearing it. John Kerry's big strength was that he was a decorated veteran. We built the whole convention around it. So what did the Republicans do? Attack his war record. They attacked with maximum force. (Most of you reading this never even saw the insane ads they were running in Ohio -- they were totally overwhelming and shameless.) But here's the really important lesson: Once they weakened that strength, did they sit back and wait for Election Day? No, they continued to attack with maximum force until what was a weakened strength became a real liability with a large chunk of swing voters.
There is risk in attacking an opponent's strength. What if he uses that very same strength to hit back? But there is more risk in relinquishing control of the ball to your opponent. He's going to attack you from his strength no matter what! That's why you must: attack first, on your own terms, in surprise, and with maximum force. Don't "test the waters" to see how an attack will play -- that is always a bad idea. You (or that consultant you're paying) have to be strategically gifted because the wrong attack will certainly backfire. But the correct attack, executed timidly in dribs and drabs, is also guaranteed to fail and can never be resurrected once begun.
Of course, the battleground wasn't up to us. "John Kerry voted against body armor for our troops," was the subject of the very first Bush ads in April 2004. The claim couldn't have been more preposterous -- but it was just crazy enough to ring true for many voters. The Bush campaign and their friends would spend the next nine months repeating the claim, and many more absurd ones.
That example brings us to the second barrier: self-doubt. A big reason the Kerry campaign and other progressive campaigning organizations failed to attack (or counterattack) on the body armor and related issues was that, in some dark place inside our hearts, we kind of felt like the Republicans had a point.
After all, Kerry HAD voted against the Iraq war spending bill...
Rubbish! RUBBISH!! At a time when the troops were fully funded for months to come, Kerry stood up to an insane spending bill that would have bankrupted America for the sake of Halliburton profit and which included no special provisions for equipping the troops before deployment. None! (There's your counter attack).
What is it about Democrats that makes them want to believe the worst about themselves and the candidates they're working for? Where does this self-doubt come from? Ann Coulter? Bill O'Rielly? No, but they sure know how to prey upon it, don't they?
Self-doubt plays out in the current cycle in the following way: Just about every Democrat running for office fell for the Bush-Cheney story about Saddam Hussein and WMD. And they know that their party wasn't doing any better protecting against the gathering threat of terrorism when it was in power either. Their conscience recoils at the thought of a full-bore attack on national security because...it's not like they have been vastly different from the Republicans where it's really mattered.
Stop doubting yourselves! This is what Democracy is all about. The Republicans have been in power since 9-11 brought home the reality of terrorism. And what have they done? Made their friends at Halliburton richer, and made America less safe. What would you have done? You would have done 100 times better! You're not sure about that? -- just trust us, get into office, and do 100 times better when you're there. How about that?
The fifth anniversary of 9-11 is not for the Republicans to own. This is the ball coming into your court. Use this anniversary (no, not on THE DAY OF) to highlight the Republicans' utter failure to make us safer.
Want to overcome self-doubt? Dick Cheney is a great one to study. He stands up there, righteous and doubtless in front of the nation, after he just gave $20 billion of our money to his friends at Halliburton to piss away. He made up stories about Saddam having chemical weapons ready to go in 45 minutes -- and nukes that would be ready in a matter of months. But look at him. Not one hint of shame or regret. And you: You're actually trying to do good by your country -- so act like it!
Again, study Dick Cheney. Have you ever seen him be mean? (Don't count the times he was off mic or in private! The voters don't.) He's caused immeasurable harm, but we've never seen this guy show one flicker of a dishonorable demeanor in public.
Democrats, too often, are like the schoolyard brain, who, after years of being tortured, finally decides to stand up for himself. Usually that is a very ugly matter -- sometimes so ugly that even the bully can walk from the scene looking like the victim (even though he didn't even really get hurt).
Like the attack on Cheney's lesbian daughter in the debates, which I'm sure cost us tens of thousands of votes. That was the classic tortured nerd freakout move: Maybe the bully has been beating on this kid for the whole year. Maybe he's sent him home black and blue every friday. Maybe he's totally humiliated him in front of every girl in the school. And then one day the nerd -- using his brain -- jumps out and trips the bully when he's running full speed on the pavement. Blood everywhere. Until he finally goes off to Carnegie Mellon eight years later, this kid is going to be treated like an axe murderer by his peers. And the bully will still keep beating him (now he deserves it!).
And then there was the moment when Kerry's consultants finally let him hit back on Medalgate, and told him, thinking it was the most aggressive thing to do, to hit on Bush and Cheney's war records (or lack thereof). The problem was that neither Bush nor Cheney had ever actually launched an attack on Kerry's record. They always went out of their way to say that Kerry "served honorably" before then agreeing that the questions being raised by their insane surrogates were indeed, "very troubling." The mean work was done by well-funded garbage men in 527s.
Going on the offensive in the most extreme way doesn't mean losing your head and becoming a monster. You have to attack, but you have to attack smart, and with honor. Maintain the moral high ground at all times!
There you have it. I hope that helps. You've got a tough job in front of you, and I don't envy any of you. But just think of the reward if you can get yourself out of this rut and learn to fight. The reward is the chance to actually start fixing the mess these Republicans have made, and to give us humble citizens a chance to make a better America.
OK, come to think of it, I do envy you.
Follow Zack Exley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zackexley