Paul Hackett shows the way
Let me pick up from Steve's post last night.
Major Paul Hackett (D-Fighting Democrat) reduced the winning margin of his Republican opponent (Jean Schmidt, R-Corruption) to 4%, in an extraordinarily strong, gerrymandered Republican district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-1, and where the last Democrat who ran for Congress against a Republican (in 2004), lost by a whopping 44% margin. As Jerome Armstrong (MyDD) pointed out, even if you consider Bush's 2000 and 2004 purported electoral margins in this district (averaging 26% - 63 to 37), Hackett's showing was incredible (despite his very sharp, direct, repeated attacks on Bush) - enough to almost beat a candidate who presented herself largely as a Bush clone in her "safe" district. To think that a virtual nobody could pull this off in one of the reddest states in the country shows what can be achieved if you have good candidates with conviction and passion, who don't hesitate to fight back and attack the culture of corruption, immorality and fraud that has become the hallmark of the BushDelay neocons. I imagine even Charlie Cook, who produced a laughably pro-GOP pre-analysis of this race - which Tim Tagaris appropriately responded to at Swing State Project (SSP) - will have to acknowledge the implications of Hackett's performance. As Cook claimed, trying hard to set the bar as low as possible for Schmidt (emphasis mine):
A Schmidt win of less than five points should be a very serious warning sign for Ohio Republicans that something is very, very wrong...
As the Cincinnati Enquirer said (emphasis mine):
The win by Republican Jean Schmidt in Tuesday's 2nd Congressional District election was in no way shocking, but the fact that Democrat Paul Hackett made it a very close election is nothing short of astounding.
Seven weeks ago, when Schmidt won an 11-candidate primary, few on either side believed that - in a district where President Bush won 64 percent of the vote and no Democrat had come close to winning in decades - this would be much of a contest.
This happened despite Jean Schmidt trying hard to paint Hackett as "a liberal Democrat who is out of step with the district." Sound familiar?
The essence of this race, as Bob Brigham (who did an amazing job at Swing State Project and for the Hackett campaign), has pointed out on multiple occasions, is to take the fight to the corrupt opposition in every state, every district and every locality - something DNC Chairman Howard Dean has long advocated. In a nutshell:
- Start with a good candidate
- Campaign passionately and with unstinting conviction in order to build credibility
- Aggressively take on the opposition particularly on their perceived (i.e., fake) strength(s) and define the terms of the fight in your terms, not theirs
- Build grassroots power to get the votes out for the candidate and
- Motivate large numbers of people (especially locals) to donate small amounts to make a good candidate almost invincible
Can you imagine how the establishment Democrats or their millionaire consultants would have run this race? Or the Blue Dogs? Or the DLC? Assuming they even decided to really compete, which would have been highly unlikely.
Enter candidate Bush Lite (D-DINO), running ads showing him shaking hands with Bush, or saying nice things about Bush now and then, trying hard to show the Republicans in the county how he was like, er, his opponent, who happens to be a real Bush Republican. Then, after the candidate lost, the establishment Dems and their millionaire consultants would have argued how even a Bush Lite Democrat lost so badly that it would be sheer madness to run a Fighting or Reform Democrat in his place, since such a person would be trounced beyond recognition.
Well, let's just say that the OH-02 race did put an end to that always-baseless theory once and for all.
The fact that the theory was very weak was always obvious. The only reason that theory seemed plausible to DCers all these years is that if one did not actually take the risk of examining whether the theory is really right, one would never find out why it is wrong. In real life, one rarely gets great returns on investment without taking above-average (calculated) risk. If you are risk averse, your returns will likely be fair or poor. This is true whether you are making financial investments, investments in ideas or investments in people.
Now, I will concede that Hackett's military background probably helped him a bit in this race, but the more important aspect to the race which will likely be glossed over by the overpaid consultants of the Democratic Party is the fact that Hackett had no qualms whatsoever in strongly attacking Bush (and the GOP), on their turf, on their fake strengths on national security and war, in a manner that almost no other Democrat running in a swing or strongly Republican district has done before. As John Nichols points out in The Nation (link thanks to Steve, emphasis mine):
For one thing, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's "50 state strategy" -- which argues that Democrats should compete hard in contests that had previously been ceded to the Democrats -- makes a lot of sense when the opposition party can find smart, edgy candidates who are willing to break political rules. Hackett was just such a candidate. The Marine Reserve major who volunteered to serve in Iraq did not hesitate to trumpet his military, but he was also blunt about his feelings regarding the commander-in-chief. Calling the president the greatest threat to the safety and security of Americans, Hackett said of Bush during the campaign: "I've said that I don't like the son-of-a-bitch that lives in the White House but I'd put my life on the line for him." In a sense, that's exactly what Hackett did, re-enlisting in the Marines in 2004 and then serving in the high-profile fight for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. In a pre-election interview with USA Today shortly before the election, Hackett rebuked Bush for his swaggering 2003 declaration regarding the Iraqi insurgents that: "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on." "That's the most incredibly stupid comment I've ever heard a president of the United States make," Hackett told the interviewer. "He cheered on the enemy." Hackett also referred to Republican supporters of the war who had not served in the military as "chickenhawks." Serious Democratic candidates have rarely been so blunt regarding the president's shoot-from-the-lip management style. But Hackett's willingness to take Bush on, as well as his own compelling story, played well in the special-election contest. No, not well enough to win. But certainly well enough to position Hackett for a run against Schmidt in 2006 -- and certainly enough to encourage other Democratic contenders to take the gloves off. It is true that not every challenger will have the military credentials that Hackett brought to the Ohio contest. It should be noted, however, that a number of veterans are expected to run for the House in 2006 as Democrats, including another Marine, David Ashe, who came close to winning an open Virginia seat in 2004.
As Hackett pointed out (emphasis mine):
"Meant it, said it, stand by it," Hackett, a 43-year-old Indian Hill lawyer, said Tuesday night. "I'd say it again. For every vote I may have lost because of it, I probably picked up one or two."
You betcha! What a great candidate! (Let me add this: although a win would have been the best outcome, losing after giving the opposition the fight of their life rather than losing like a wimp is a tradeoff I'll take any day).
Some people have commented that maybe it was just as well that the DCCC stayed out of this race until the very end. I don't agree with that necessarily. It must be the DCCC and DSCC's mission to search for, cultivate and groom people of strength, conviction and character in every district and state across the country using the grassroots, and then support them like there is no tomorrow. If you want the best people to be part of your party, you have to build a wall of steel around them by supporting them, grooming them and defending them aggressively and relentlessly when they come under false attacks from the frauds on the Far Right. If you run at the first sign of fake attacks from the Right, then the best candidates will run from you as well and so will the voters.
At a fundamental level, Hackett merely demonstrated the principle that most establishment Democrats simply don't seem to understand. If you can't fight (like a lion) for your own principles and beliefs, if you can't stand up for yourself, and if you can't take the fight to the opposition in the most aggressive way possible, why should voters feel any confidence that you will stand up for them when you (or they) are under fire? Winning elections is no different than winning leadership posts in other avenues of life. Granted, elections and the publicity that come with them bring more challenges, but fundamentally, the unifying principle is credibility. People choose the candidate they believe is most credible in their eyes. What the GOP has done in the past decade, in particular, is field the worst candidates possible - morally bankrupt and corrupt - and use their Republican media machinery to fraudulently and relentlessly attack the opposition to make them seem less credible. Democrats responded by demonstrating a predictable lack of courage in defending themselves or their candidates, and worse, failing to define the opposition for what they really were. Average voters, fed on a daily diet of Faux News or Rush Limbaugh or [pick your favorite fascist fraud], will be very unlikely to put their trust in those who are unwilling to take a stand, and unwilling to prove that they are different enough and credible enough to merit their support.
Let me provide a (weak) analogy from the business world. If a CEO is doing a poor job, would the Board of the company take a lot of time and money to pick another CEO barely different from the first one - when, on the problem that is most of concern to the company (where it is challenged the most), the new candidate expouses views almost identical to that of the current CEO? No - by definition, the Board was looking to replace the current CEO because the latter's views on the most important problem facing the company were not conducive to solving the problem.
Politics is not all that different from other areas in life in terms of the fundamental principles and strategies one should use. Yes, it is nastier because of the publicity and the strongly right-tilting mainstream media, but those are problems that can be solved by having a candidate with extraordinary conviction, who is well financed. Neither of those should be a real problem, at least for the most important races.