While the Republican presidential race reached its mean season somewhere around Memorial Day, the Democrats held their fire, aside from a few tracer bullets, until the Halloween Eve fracas in Philly when John Edwards lambasted Hillary Clinton for “double talk.” The epithets continued during Thursday night’s Vegas Vendetta when the steely Clinton accused the always-smiling Edwards of “throwing mud,” while hope-monger Barack Obama likened the former first lady’s sleight-of-hand with numbers to the statistical techniques of (horrors!) “Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.”
Small wonder that Friday marked the beginning of the inevitable cluck-cluck, if-you-can’t-say-something-nice recriminations over the tone of the Democratic debates. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer complained on “Political Capital With Al Hunt” that this Democratic bloodletting “will hurt the party.” Hoyer, who began his political career in the rough-and-tumble circus that is the Maryland Legislature, suggested that the White House contenders should instead “focus on the very significant disagreements we have with the Bush administration.” (The quotes come from an advance transcript released by Bloomberg Television.)
About the time that Hoyer was taping his smile-button sermon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was meeting with a group of left-of-center journalists. In response to my question about the brickbats in the Vegas debate, Pelosi took a refreshing let’s-be-adults stance, saying, “You want to run for president — you jump into that arena and you give and you get. And you have to be ready for it. As I say around here, ‘You throw a punch, you better get ready to take one.’”
Ever since Ted Kennedy carried his fight against Jimmy Carter to the floor of the 1980 convention, the Democrats have been more conflict adverse than a teacher’s manual for a progressive nursery school. It is ludicrous to believe — as Hoyer all but suggests — that the Republicans somehow need Democratic fisticuffs to develop 2008 election issues. The GOP did pretty well with the character-assassinating Swift Boat ads, even though John Kerry’s war record was never even mildly criticized by his 2004 Democratic rivals.
A speak-no-evil policy in the primaries often tends to be self-defeating in the general election. Al Gore, for example, might have learned to be a more adept candidate in 2000 if Bill Bradley had not been such a feckless opponent in Iowa and New Hampshire. In contrast, Bill Clinton benefited from the long 1992 primary campaign in which he used Jerry Brown as a sparring partner. Pelosi made an analogous point when she repeated one of her favorite maxims for fledgling legislators: “The best preparation for combat is combat.”