The Politics of Yes and No

June 6, 2007

After listening to Republicans debate on June 5, Democrats ought not get too comfortable. Republicans have fielded some articulate spokespeople who speak with passion about all the things that are wrong. They will make a strong, mostly negative, case again in 2008. Negative has been good for them in the past.

As front-runner Rudy Guilani said, America is locked in a war between good and evil. It is that simple, and evil must be fought with every ounce of national purpose to keep evil from coming again to our shores. Evil recently attempted to come ashore at La Guardia airport and in New Jersey and in London. We must continue to fight evil overseas and everywhere in the world so that we can keep it from returning to New York. This furious resistance to evil will be centerpiece of the Republican campaign. Such resistance is further reinforced by the knowledge that they claimed of God’s support. (They were not, unfortunately, apt to explain how God works both for them and Islamic fundamentalists at the same time.)

Comprehensive resistance is an attitude that makes Republicans hang together, up and down the line. Resistance spawns a “no” not only to evil but to all evil’s children: big government, big taxes, and big compassionate programs. The simplicity of “no” is breathtaking. “No” to health care reform, “no” to immigration compromises—just build a fence and kick out the 12 million who are already here. “No” to limiting pharmaceuticals’ profits—they must have money for research. “No” to sending Libby—who only committed the little crime but not the big crime—to jail. “No” because “no” is comfortable and a whole alienated, disappointed electorate can join in the angry cry.

“Yes,” to God, of course, but “no” to God’s children who need more money for schools or more protection from global warming, or more insurance, and “no”, in general, to compromise on immigration, or the Iraq war, or to Iran. When the overarching attitude is “no” then it can feel coherent and simple and clean.

They all said “yes” to military spending and yes to empire building and to supplementing the oil economy but these are in their own way a “no” to any sacrifice by Americans and a “no” to new programs that would reach out to the rest of the world diplomatically, or economically, or through education or health care. “No” is the language not only of the alienated but also of the very satisfied.

Unfortunately, this big resounding, comprehensive, all-purpose “No” resonates. “No” to big government, “no” to taxes of any kind except for the military, “no” to evil Al Qaeda, “no” to evil Iran, “no” and “hell no” to any Democrat who searches for universal health care.

Republicans are free now to sit back and criticize. Congressional Democrats are walking into this void by patching together program after program, much as they did in 2004. This gives Republicans a wide range of ways to say “No” again, over and over.

Consistently, Republicans on June 5—with the laudable exception of John McCAin—did not offer new programs, nor any positive vision, but were content to fire away at Democrats who are attempting to patch together something on immigration, or on health care, or on global warming and alternative energy. All these compromises and negotiated settlements are flawed, of course. That is the nature of legislation. It is always imperfect. As a result, all Republicans have to do now is say: “Democrats, do something!” And when the Democrats try to do something, say, “No, no, not that, not that, and certainly not that.”

Unfortunately, this approach will give them a good chance in 2008. Voters—especially those who are generally alienated but not sure why and don’t have time for details—have a hard time understanding and accepting the compromises and tradeoffs that go into real programs. The Big No is therefore quite attractive. It has worked for Republicans before and Democrats will have to be very clever and very charismatic to keep it from working again.