What's Tony Thinking

Lots of (Republican) Advice for Democrats


One of the more curious, even paradoxical, features of this election cycle is the number of Republicans offering urgent advice to the Democratic Party and its Presidential candidates.

After the first round of Democratic Presidential debates in June, David Brooks and Bret Stephens, both Republicans who write for the New York Times, pled with the Democrats to give them a candidate they — “never Trump” — Republicans could vote for.

After the second round of debates, former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, offered her counsel to the Democrats in a column in the Wall Street Journal (August 3/4, 2019).

Noting that the “rhetorical atmosphere of the (Trump) administration has been grim for some time,” she urged the Democrats not to try to out-grim the current occupant of the White House with their own accounts of how awful America is. She lamented that the Dem’s “are showing little hopefulness; (and) they’re not voicing any expansive sense of faith in their country.” She wished they would.

“I understand,” she wrote, “that it is the job of the challengers to lambaste the status quo, to criticize, to say, ‘This isn’t working.’ But the rhetorical atmosphere of the administration has been grim for some time. American carnage, cities are dead and swimming in garbage, violent rats are eating our feet, throw ’em out, lock ’em up.”

“So you’d think the challengers would qualify their critiques with a certain modified strategic confidence. Instead they’re out-griming the president.”

I think Noonan is onto something. Democrats aren’t likely to out-do Trump in nastiness and fearfulness. So how about a little hopefulness, a little sense of “we are better” and “we can do better”? Hope that isn’t naive or platitudinous is sorely needed. That is what Obama offered.

Most recently, a former chief-of-staff to John McCain, Truman Anderson, has weighed in suggesting, “Democrats, Try Speaking to the Whole of America.”

Anderson inveighs against politicians playing the polarization game: appealing to a rabid base, animating that base, but damning everyone who is not part of that moral elite. Such polarizing is intoxicating in the short term, but in the long term it is destroying the body politic.

Here’s Anderson:

“Democrats must remember: Divisions among their own party’s traditional constituencies helped pave the way for Mr. Trump’s election. A narrow, polemical campaign — even if successful — will do the country further, lasting harm if it leaves large numbers of our citizens embittered and estranged. How Mr. Trump might be defeated matters in its own right.”

More advice for the Democrats!

What are we to make of all these Republicans providing aid and counsel to the enemy?

First, it seems there are a substantial number of Republicans and independents who would very much like to vote for whoever opposes Donald Trump, so long as that person is not a left-wing mirror image of Trump’s divisive, name-and-blame, politics.

Second, these Republican commentators raise the prospect of the Democrats as lead actors in some sort of uniquely American tragedy. A defeatable Trump at hand, the Democrats will find a way to blow it. That is, they are fated, by their own passions, to deliver a second term to Trump.

Third, the politics of polarization are the quintessential version of what the great political scientist, James McGregor Burns, called “transactional leadership,” i.e. “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” Quid pro quo that descends ever downward.

Burns contrasted this with “transformational leadership,” which he said elevates the values and the vision of the electorate. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Is this form of leadership still possible?

It is what Truman Anderson hopes for as he concludes, “We must demand leadership in place of gamesmanship from all of our candidates.”

This much is true: there is no shortage of would-be advisors for the Democrats and their presidential aspirants.

Another truth: the primary process empowers those of narrow, if pure, vision, making it harder to sew the big tent that Brooks, Stephens, Noonan and Anderson all advise.










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