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Republican rules for Republican rule

By Lawrence Henry
web posted March 18, 2002

Several things - President Bush's unfortunate decision on steel tariffs, the House's passage of an illegal immigrant amnesty measure, and finally, the rejection by the Senate Judiciary Committee of Mississippi District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. as a nominee for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - ought to remind the Bush administration of the rules of national politics for Republicans. Chances are they won't. But here they are, in case anybody's listening.

The only good Democrat is a defeated Democrat. There were once many exceptions to this rule. There are now almost none. As Grover Norquist once told me, in discussing affirmative action, "The intellectual defense of quotas and preferences is dead. We're now just doing hand-to-hand combat with political hacks." That applies to Democrats and Democrat ideas in general. Paradoxically, if you don't like to fight, you're going to get beat up. And the tactics that apply here are the rules of a bar brawl: Hit first, hit hardest, and sucker punch.

A Republican can't buy the votes of any liberal or Democratic interest group wholesale. Yes, Richard Nixon got a qualified endorsement from the Teamsters Union, and President Bush has union support for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That does not mean a lot. Real support - meaning votes - from unions, minority groups, teachers, women, or any other of the usual Democratic factions can be won, but only voter by voter, by a Republican President who does things out of genuine conviction. Pandering and waffling - on abortion, trade, race, or anything else - will simply snap back and hurt you.

You can't take a rest once you win something. . Bill Walton knew how to win a basketball game. He was once asked, when he was at UCLA, if he felt bad about running up the score. "Naw, man," he said. "You want to win by 50 points - a hundred points." President Bush came into office with the vaunted suipport of strong Republican governors. He now appears intent on providing those governors with a kind of early retirement program in federal positions. Instead, he should have twisted arms to make them run for Senate seats. Republicans need Senators.

It is no use playing to the press. You might as well make them good and mad, and keep making them mad. If you make them mad enough on enough different fronts, they'll be too confused to mount a coherent attack. Then they'll make themselves look stupid, in the eyes of most Americans.

There are some constituent groups who will never like you, mainly those who play grievance politics. But most Americans don't like the grievances espoused by those groups. By taking stands (just to cite few examples) to limit and control immigration, to support the English language, and to eliminate race-based quotas, you win more votes than you lose.

Most American people like to be educated - as long as they're told the truth. So tell them the truth, at every opportunity, about the laws of supply and demand, about the principles of federalism, about the value of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, about the great social questions, and about foreign policy. Remember that Ronald Reagan never thought he was "the Great Communicator." He said, truly, that he had something great to communicate.

Public education plays directly to a Republican strength: Presidential speechmaking. There hasn't been a memorable Democrat Presidential speechwriter since Theodore Sorenson. Everybody knows Pat Buchanan, Peggy Noonan, and David Frum.

Finally, political capital is not a finite qauntity, like money in the bank. It is, instead, an attribute, like athletic conditioning. If you use it, you keep it. And you can use it almost anywhere. If you don't use it, it atrophies, and you can't use it at all.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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