Now that Christmas is behind us and the next major election is less than ten months off, 'tis the season to be fighting. And President Obama himself has just scored the first punch of the new year.
Oh yes indeed. Our great conciliator, our champion of consensus and bipartisan cooperation has finally realized what it takes to make significant change: a clenched fist.
In naming Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he has openly defied a bipartisan pact: the "gentleman's agreement" that lets Congress thwart recess appointments by simply holding pro forma sessions in which no business gets done. Predictably, Obama's move has drawn howls of outrage from leading Republicans charging that he has just shredded the Constitution. But as Lawrence Tribe has cogently demonstrated, the president has done no more than his duty under the Constitution, which is to "fill without delay" appointments "necessary for the public service." For many months, Republicans have blocked the appointment of a chief of the CFPB because they don't want to it regulate financial companies at all. But since Cordray is eminently qualified and since we consumers desperately need someone to protect OUR interests, it was high time for Obama to fill this post.
And now it's also time for Democrats to start fighting -- with words.
Monday morning this week on the Diane Rehm show, I heard once again what all of us have been hearing for months, if not years: the left can't beat the right because it doesn't have the kind of language that wins political fights. Not the meticulously shaped arguments and expert testimony that good old-fashioned academic liberals like me love to dispense but rather two-fisted slogans that will take the wind out of the right.
So what am I asking? That we all set out to ape Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly? That we leave the high ground of progressive principles to wallow in the mud of invective? That we stop making reasonable cases for our candidates and policies and start flinging mudpies at the candidates and policies of the right?
Not exactly. Let's try a different metaphor. Let's forge simple slogans that can each become the sharp point of a long spear made of the best metal we can find: solid arguments and evidence that will drive that point home.
Consider one of the right's favorite slogans: "pro-life." Over three years ago on this site, I argued that the phrase is grossly hypocritical as well as grossly misleading, for it implies that anyone who supports a woman's right to choose is "pro-death." But even when backed by the reasoning of saints like Augustine and Aquinas, arguments like mine will probably win no converts -- not unless they can be brought to a sharp point.
So how about two simple words: NO CHOICE?
When any candidate for president says that he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and thus recriminalize abortion, he's a no-choice conservative. He wants to abolish the Constitutional right to choose abortion. Candidates like Rick Santorum go even further: by banning contraception, they seek to abolish the right to choose between pregnancy and its opposite. Even without changing the law, when conservatives reduce or block federal funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood (recently de-funded in my own state of New Hampshire) they are waging war against one of the most important choices that anyone can make. They are NO CHOICE conservatives.
NO CHOICE also applies to the conservative stand on gay marriage. Heterosexual couples are now free to marry in any state of the land, and absolutely no one thinks we should abolish that right. In New Hampshire, for instance, where gay marriage is legal, everyone is free to choose a marriage partner of the opposite sex, and so far as I know, no heterosexual marriage in any state has ever been harmed in any way by the legality of gay marriage. (The only real threat to the stability of marriage as an institution comes from divorce, which not even conservatives would dare to ban.) But if conservatives had their way, no one in any state could legally choose to marry anyone of the same sex.
So when it comes to anything involving sexual relations -- whether marriage, conception or childbirth --conservatives are NO CHOICE all the way. And the spear behind that point has a very long shaft.
Now consider another favorite talking point of the Republican right: Obamacare. Along with "government takeover" and "death panels," it's their nickname for the Affordable Health Care Act, which they've all pledged to repeal. But none of them has even tried to explain how THEY would make health care affordable for the 52 million people who lacked health insurance in 2010, the additional 73 million adults who had trouble paying for health care, and the 75 million who put off treatment because they couldn't afford it.
Republican candidates don't care about any of these people. They want us all to return to a system in which insurance companies could refuse coverage for preexisting conditions, decline renewal of coverage after an expensive illness, or even deny coverage for a life-threatening illness and let one of their own customers die. (If you really want to know what a death panel looks like, rent The Corporation, a 2004 documentary film in which a former executive for a health insurance company tells a Congressional committee that under orders from her superiors, she denied coverage for treatment of a life-threatening condition that did indeed take a life.)
All things considered, the Republican line on health care can be summed up in just two words: NO CARE. No care for anyone who can't afford strictly private health insurance such as we had in 2009, when it cost well over $16,000 a year for the average American family of four. No care for the twenty thousand Americans who die each year for lack of health insurance. (Five years ago, a study by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, put the figure at 18,000 a year.) No care for any young pregnant woman who can't afford adequate pre-natal treatment -- even if she makes the only choice that conservatives allow. And no care for the millions of children whose parents cannot afford regular checkups for them, and who as a result may be permanently handicapped by learning disabilities.
Let's start saying it now: Republicans are indeed the party of NO. No choice, no care, no solutions for the critical problems we face at home and abroad.
And if you're wondering whether we Democrats can hold the White House, retake Congress, and regain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, I've got just three words for you: YES, WE CAN.