The decision by the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to pull an incendiary ad attacking President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court has produced a fresh round of recriminations within the Democratic Party and a return to a nagging question: Has the opposition lost its nerve?
When conservatives complained about the ad -- which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics -- a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.
Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry's war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.
"Republicans don't mind running an ad that's entirely false, but Democrats have never learned, and I'm not sure many of them want to learn, how to play that kind of politics," said Robert Shrum, an adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns. NARAL had to pull the ad, he said, because "they weren't getting support from any substantial quarter."
There's something almost perverse about a piece about how Dems have no backbone that quotes Bob Shrum criticizing his own side for not defending a fundamentally indefensible ad.
Though it might be true that the Dems have tended to be, until recently, relatively spineless as an opposition party, it's also true that they haven't been quite as spineless since the election. So what's really striking to me about this article is that it was written at all. In what kind of a media environment does one see an article that is about how wimpy Dems are for not standing by a false ad? Only in a media environment where wimpy Dems are already part of the narrative. The trope of the listless, drifting Democratic party has been around since at least the 2002 midterms, created by the republican spin machine, and then internalized by the mainstream media and some Dems themselves (especially those trying to win points in red states).
It's an effective trope with some staying power because there's something sickeningly self-perpetuating about it. Here's how it works:
Dems are a weak opposition party
NARAL runs a mean/slanderous ad
A lot of Dems criticize the mean/slanderous ad
That means Dems don't have the stomach to be tough
So Dems are a weak opposition party.
My point here is that the recurrent trope of the weak Democratic party has made the NARAL ad scandal worse, and made the left look weaker -- this despite the fact that most on the left behaved much more honestly in these circumstances than their republican counterparts in equivalent situations (Swift Boat Vets, etc.).
My more important point here is that the mainstream media is as much to blame as the republican spin machine and the Democratic party is. Only in a world in which the mainstream media fundamentally buys into a republican talking point -- that the Dems are spineless -- can they cover something like the Swift Boat Vets story with a kind of pathetic one-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-I-don't-know-I-guess-the-truth-is-somewhere-in-the-middle coverage but cover the NARAL ad as being outrageously false, as Jeff Greenfield did on CNN.
And as I said yesterday, until the left learns how to change what is a blatant (even if possibly unwitting) bias against them in the mainstream media, they have to learn how to manipulate it.