To Win, Conservatives Must Play Offense, Not Defense

When men speak ill of thee, live so as nobody may believe them.

– Plato

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Imagine, for a moment, a very different world from the one we live in today.

In this world the far Left continues to substitute insults for serious debate. They still accuse conservatives of hypocrisy, racism, homophobia, and indifference to the poor and unemployed. They still ascribe selfish and venal motives to those who support limited government and maximized opportunity.

Sadly, even creating an alternative world from whole cloth can’t change human nature. But imagine that in this other world, rather than taking insults seriously we refused to become rattled or distracted by such unserious tactics?

In our imaginary world, conservatives are secure in the knowledge that we aren’t hypocritical, racist, homophobic, or mean spirited. We know that simply saying a thing doesn’t make it so. We know , with the unruffled assurance of unblemished conscience, that namecalling is the refuge of an opponent who fears he’ll lose an argument on the merits. We recognize ad hominid attacks for just what they are: an attempt to hijack and control the political debate. We understand that feeding trolls gives them exactly what they want. Taking their insults seriously makes us look defensive and unsure of ourselves. It gives far more weight to their accusations than they deserve.

We understand that Lefties call us names for two reasons:

1. They hope we’ll become angry, lose our tempers and retaliate in kind, providing them with additional evidence to support their message: “Don’t vote for Republicans. They’re a bunch of buffoons: spiteful, angry, bigoted, selfish, mean spirited people who don’t care about your problems.”

2. They want to control the terms of the debate. When voters turn on their TV sets or pick up a newspaper, the Left doesn’t want voters to hear how conservative policies will make America a better place. And they certainly don’t want voters to hear us explain why Obama’s policies are destructive and foolish. They want those messages to be crowded out by the spectacle of conservatives arguing about whether or not Rush Limbaugh is a big, fat weenie or trying to prove God didn’t really tell Sarah Palin to slaughter transgendered Alaskan timber wolves with an illegal assault weapon from the safety of a taxpayer funded helicopter.

Now imagine the Republican Presidential candidate for 2012. As has happened in every presidential campaign since the birth of this nation, much mud is slung at him.

He is called racist for opposing institutionalized unfairness like affirmative action and racial preferences.

He is called a homophobe for expressing doubts about the wisdom of altering the definition of marriage as the fundamental building block upon which stable societies are built.

Because he advocates competition and industry as the best foundations for success, he is accused of being indifferent to poverty and financial hardship.

Because not everyone who espouses conservative ideals practices them perfectly (we are, after all, only human), he is called a hypocrite.

But in our alternative universe the Republican candidate and his supporters react to these slurs quite differently than they do in our world. This is because, in marked opposition to today’s world, conservatives simply refuse to take ad hominem arguments seriously.

When conservative spokesmen are called bigots, homophobes, or mean spirited capitalistic oppressors our response is always the same: we sideline the attacker by pointing out that his insults are irrelevant. Calmly, we reply that namecalling is neither an argument nor a rebuttal of our ideas.

Even if it were true that Rush Limbaugh were a big, fat hypocritical racist who hates women, blacks and poor folk, do Americans elect a President based on the personal qualities of talk show hosts?

Of course they don’t.

Every minute spent rebutting ad hominem attacks is a minute the American people hear our opponents’ message instead of our message. In our alternative world we realize the attention of the American voter is a limited resource. We understand that we have a clear choice.

We can accept the legitimacy of the politics of personal distraction.

We can expend precious time and effort playing defense, if we really believe Rush Limbaugh’s or Ann Coulter’s reputation is critical to the future of the GOP. Or we can refuse to allow the conversation to be derailed by silly insults and stay focused on our message. We can choose to play offense instead of defense.

Dan Riehl understands what I was trying to say the other day:

The Republicans have been on defense for so long on topics like this, I’m tired of hearing the defenses….

Not since Reagan have Republicans taken the time to effectively articulate that for which they supposedly stand. In this case, fairness for all through understanding and acceptance, not a government hand. Also, individual liberty, along with low taxes and small government are supposed to represent the Republican brand.

…it won’t be until they regain some credibility as standing for those things that they can then get around to articulating them effectively in forceful, proactive arguments.

Right now the GOP is actively being portrayed as an irrelevant, ineffectual party that’s out of ideas and spends its time engaging in nasty infighting. But what if we chose to counter that message by projecting the image of a serious party that welcomes debate and believes free and vigorous competition will help us select the best path for America’s future?

What if, the next time the Left engaged in personal attacks, we calmly and confidently refused to rise to the bait?

Repeating a simple, clear, consistent message over and over again works. And that message should be that unlike the opposition, we are a serious party who don’t have time for food fights. I think Donald gets this:

All Barack Obama had to do was tack with the wind of Bush fatigue and war weariness. In turn, McCain had little in his policy quiver to offer voters besides “fight with me.” Well, when people weren’t so worried about the fight overseas, when the guts were being sucked out of the American financial system, and when the housing debacle sucked everything under with it, McCain was left stumbling along the campaign trail like a dumb mule.

The funny thing is that conservative ideas are there. In education, in economic policy, in deregulation, in energy. The list goes on. The problem is that ideas such as reliance on personal initiative and self-reliance, on school choice, vouchers, and market competition in service delivery, on domestic energy exploration and production, on downsizing government, on compellence in international relations … all of these ideas are reviled by progressives, unions, and the liberal media establishment. Conservatives have ideas. They haven’t been tried. George Bush managed the war on terror. He fought for American national security in Iraq and the broader Middle East. The conflict was not a “disaster.” But we’ve been told that so many times it’s become the conventional wisdom. Young people’s minds have been turned off to the realities of market choice at home and the deployment of power abroad. People have been led to believe that spending trillions of dollars, and preparing for Democratic budgets as far as the eye can see, won’t cost them anything. The “rich” will pay for it! Let’s raise taxes! Make them pay their fair share! And then as soon as hundreds of thousands of Americans take to the streets and the plazas to protest the loss of liberties on April 15th what happened? We were all attacked as … wait for it … tea-baggers and racists!

There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there in Conservative Land. I feel it too. But we need to use that frustration and anger constructively. We can settle for the temporary satisfaction of winning small battles or we can focus on what’s really important: convincing the American people that our policies will be better for them than progressive ideas with a disciplined, well crafted message repeated over and over again until they can’t ignore it:

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This picture should be on every news show, every talk show, day in and day out. It’s devastating. Hammer away until your opponents can’t take it any more, and ignore anything that distracts from the message you want voters to take home.

That’s what Reagan did, and it works. There is nothing more devastating that making your opponent seem irrelevant. That’s what the Democrats are doing to us today to great effect. The more we squabble and insult each other, the easier it becomes for them to sideline us in the eyes of the public.

What’s needed here is not more anger and nastiness, but an impressive display of confidence, competence, and self-discipline that convinces the American people conservatives practice what they preach and are ready to govern again. We need Reagan’s sunny, unruffled confidence and firm conviction. In our hearts, we know how to win. We’ve licked our wounds long enough.

Now let’s get to work.

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