Republicans, Learn from the Left: The Power of 'No'

For the past three months, Republicans have ruminated over the many reasons that Mitt Romney lost the presidential election and the party failed to win the Senate. And today, there are just as many suggestions for improving the GOP’s future prospects. But most are missing the key element--one that Democrats used against George W. Bush, and continue to use against Republicans: a firm commitment to say “no” to the other side.

That is not to say the other ideas are poor; they are simply incomplete. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is proposing that the Republican Party change its message, placing a greater emphasis on the everyday struggles of American families and showing them a softer touch on complex issues such as immigration. That is similar to what Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana suggested to the Republican National Committee (RNC) last month.

Newly-re-elected RNC chair Reince Priebus has told his party that it must do more to reach out to communities in which it has done poorly, particularly “minority communities, urban centers, and college towns.” And the Wall Street Journal reports to day that some Republicans have placed their faith in a “red-state model,” using achievements at the state level to make a pitch for Republican governance to voters at a national level.

Grass-roots activists have focused their suggestions on the mechanics of political campaigns, especially training and recruiting political volunteers, and closing the data and digital divides that have opened up between Democrats and Republicans over the past eight years. In theory, at least, Republican officials agree with the need to fix the party machinery. But without the right strategy, the best tactics and tools will fail.

What Republicans lack--and Democrats do not--is a sense of the importance of “no.” In fact, all of the current suggestions for improving the party’s fortunes are oriented around different ways to say “yes” to something. The same impulse is encouraging Republican leaders to make hurried compromises--on taxes, on immigration, on defense--that risk bedrock conservative principles in the vain hope of sharing credit for whatever passes.

Republicans have succumbed to a mainstream-media enforced double standard that reserves “no” for Democrats, casting opposition as brave and dissent as patriotic only when the GOP is in power, punishing a “do-nothing Congress” in which the Democrat-held Senate, not the Republican-held House, has been the obstacle to new legislation. But the media are not the fundamental problem. Lack of Republican self-confidence is.

“No” is not the answer to everything--though it must be the answer when core values and constitutional principles are at stake. There are issues on which compromise may be necessary, either for policy or political reasons. On those, Republicans should say “no, unless”--and demand that Democrats give up something important to them in return for GOP compromise. If Republicans cannot do that, their own voters will lose heart.

It is well past time for Republicans and conservatives in general to study how the left took over and rebuilt the Democratic Party after its complete defeat in the 2004 election.  The left’s victory in the 2006 midterm elections may have been accomplished with the help of superficially moderate candidates in conservative states and districts, but the underlying ideology of the party lurched radically to the left and has remained there.

Barack Obama made the most of that shift in his primary victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008, then defied conventional wisdom by moving further left after his party lost the 2010 midterm elections. His strategy was to say “no”--to govern as if he were still in the opposition. He lost votes, and lost independents, but won re-election. There are lessons in both his failures and his successes, and Republicans ought to start learning them.

The most important guide to the Obama administration’s political strategy may be an obscure volume entitled Listen to Your Mother: Stand Up Straight! How Progressives Can Win (Seven Locks, 2007). The 600-page book was written by Robert Creamer, an Alinsky disciple and convicted fraudster from Chicago who is closely connected to the leftist clique surrounding Barack Obama and is married to Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

Breitbart News first drew attention to Stand Up Straight! in December 2009, when we pointed out that Democrats had likely borrowed from it in carrying out their “Astroturf” campaign to sell Obamacare to a resisting public. Creamer--who began writing the book from federal prison in 2006--had laid out a plan, three years in advance, to manipulate public opinion against the health insurance industry and pass comprehensive reforms.

For Creamer, universal health care was to be only the first in a series of policy steps undertaken by a “progressive” president to achieve the “democratization of wealth.” He hoped to use Stand Up Straight! to train a cohort of left-wing activists to carry the plan out. Though it was a commercial flop, it was endorsed by the likes of John Podesta, Arianna Huffington, and David Axelrod, who called it “a blueprint for future victories.”

Creamer had the chance to put that blueprint into practice after he emerged from prison and was hired by the fledgling Obama campaign to train volunteers in 2007. He directed the Democratic National Committee’s “rapid response” field operations in 2008, and set up nationwide shop in 2011 to assist the 2012 effort. Creamer’s ideas remain critical to understanding the successes and failures of the Obama campaign--and its future plans.

Stand Up Straight! begins by analyzing the post-2004 political landscape from a liberal perspective. Many of the questions Creamer wrestles with, in the wake of Democratic defeat, are the same that conservatives are asking themselves today after Obama’s re-election. He notes that “progressive political power in the United States reached a fifty-year low,” but that victory in the 2006 midterm elections had created new opportunity.

Creamer’s formula for “progressive” success is instructive. The problem in 2004 was not Democratic policy, he says, but Democratic tactics. Therefore Democrats should not seek political moderation, Creamer advises, but say “no” to the GOP while asserting their own values--”consistently, proudly, self-confidently”--and learn how to market those values more successfully to a reluctant public using time-honored organizing methods.

The battle between the left and moderate wings of the Democratic Party would only be decided in the late stages of the 2008 presidential primaries, and Obama would not have won without the media, the bizarre candidacy of John Edwards, and the brazen use of racial politics to subvert the super-delegate system to assist an insurgent campaign. Yet Obama’s steadfast opposition to the Iraq War distinguished him from his opponents and excited grass-roots activists, who made the difference in caucus states.

The Obama-led opposition helped Democrats to do after 2006 what Republicans did not after 2010--namely, to build on the momentum of their recent victory. The Tea Party largely demobilized in early 2011, and the GOP produced an establishment nominee who lost. Creamer’s book helps explain how “no” helped Democrats avoid that path.

Creamer’s strategy for the “progressive” movement starts with absolute clarity about its ambitious goals: not just a return to power, but a fundamental “realignment” of American politics, a new, long-lasting, “progressive” majority that will support left-wing policies. In policy terms, he aims at a radical redistribution of wealth in the U.S., and “progressive” control of governments worldwide. Winning elections, he says, will make that possible.

The major challenge that Democrats faced after 2004, he writes, was that poor voters had voted for cultural preferences rather than class interests (Thomas Frank’s complaint in What’s the Matter with Kansas?). To win, Creamer says, Democrats would have to move beyond economics and frame political choices in moral, right-versus-wrong terms that embrace voters’ need for broader meaning beyond their immediate material needs.

Notably, Creamer rebukes Democrats who might be tempted to work together with Republicans, or to offer liberal alternatives on conservative-driven issues such as Social Security reform. Voters do not reward moderation or compromise, he says. What they admire, even if they disagree with you, is strength. Likewise, he says, it is better to seek confrontation than to find solutions, because voters want leaders who fight for them.

Practically, he notes, the key to political strength is organizing among both “mobilizable” and “persuadable” voters--and there need not be a conflict between the two. The strong opposition that motivates the former can be combined with the positive ideas that attract the latter. Though he does not discuss technical tools, it seems that much of the Obama campaign’s eventual digital media strategy closely parallels this analog strategic model.

Looking back at the past six years, it would seem that Creamer’s opposition strategy and his organizing tactics have proved largely successful--certainly in electing, and then re-electing, Obama. One tactic, for example, used frequently by the campaign and by its organizing offshoots, is encouraging supporters to take some kind of action, even symbolic action, to cement their relationship to the candidate and the cause--or, just as frequently, to express their opposition to something they do not like about the other side.

Another is the repeated use of political confrontation to drum up enthusiasm for the candidate. “The fight’s the thing,” Creamer says, arguing that politicians should risk alienating their opponents in order to excite their core supporters. Obama, who once portrayed himself as a uniter, has used that tactic throughout his divisive presidency.

Creamer is adamant about “framing,” a concept he borrows from linguist George Lakoff. The key to winning every issue, he says, is defining the parameters of debate. And the key to that, he says, is “repeating, repeating, repeating” until the audience is “cleansed” of its “unconscious” conservative prejudices. One particular frame is most important: framing fiscal policy as “rich vs. poor,”--a frame the Obama re-election effort embraced.

Media support, too, is vital, Creamer says--and he does not take their left-wing politics for granted, but encourages “progressive” activists to cultivate loyalty among journalists by appealing to their self-interest, feeding them access and information. He also calls for creating a “progressive echo chamber” to “surround” conservatives, demoralizing and dividing them by making them feel they are far outside the American mainstream.

It is important to note that Creamer’s strategy also failed in some key respects. The Democrats’ insistence on pushing Obamacare through Congress led to the crushing defeat of the 2010 midterm elections. Creamer had once hoped that his party could use the re-districting process after the 2010 census to cement “progressive” gains. Instead, Republican-controlled redistricting after 2010 has helped the opposition dig in.

Conservatives have also won on issues that Creamer identified as essential to the left’s success, such as Card Check, which would expand unions by eliminating the secret ballot in union elections. Increased unionization, he argued, would turn “white, male gun owners” into Democrats. But Card Check failed to gain momentum, and several states passed right-to-work laws or limited collective bargaining by public sector unions.

More broadly, the left’s “progressive” policies have been an abject failure. At the end of Obama’s first term, unemployment remained where it was four years earlier, with 8.5 million fewer Americans in the workforce. In foreign affairs, the U.S. is less popular than it was during the presidency of the hated George W. Bush. Obamacare raised the cost of health insurance instead of lowering it; expensive stimulus led only to record debt.

Despite Creamer’s attempt to reshape American values in favor of “progressive,” big-government policies, more Americans today feel that government is a threat than a help. The only apparent shift in values has come on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and the legalization of marijuana. Those shifts have not been driven by politics but by changes in popular culture, even if they reflect the political left’s favored policies.

Ironically, Creamer fails to anticipate grass-roots conservative opposition, believing incorrectly that voters would eagerly follow the Republican politicians they elect into sacrificing principle for self-interest. Throughout Stand Up Straight! he treats core conservative principles (e.g. tax cuts boost the economy) as if they are prejudices or hollow, albeit successful, slogans rather than true convictions based on experience.

He knows that he should not treat conservative voters as dupes, but cannot resist doing so. In the same way, Creamer acknowledges that humans have needs that transcend the material world (a point made by Barry Goldwater against the left in 1960), but still regards people as “pack animals” and “herding animals” who think in groups, do not respond to rational argument, and act only to protect perceived material self-interests.

Creamer’s own policy ideas are mostly re-hashes of dogmatic left-wing attacks on the war on terror, climate change skepticism, and religious “fundamentalism.” He confirms Evan Sayet’s cogent criticism of liberals--that while casting politics as a moral struggle, they refuse to discriminate between good and evil, and deny such distinctions exist.

Ultimately, Creamer’s most important misconception is not about conservatives, but about “progressives”: he argues that they believe “power must be diffused to everyone,” but in fact that “diffusion” must be mediated by an all-powerful state. The question is not just whether government, as such, is good, but whether government should do, or even can do, what Creamer imagines it can and must. Either way, much of what he proposes to achieve is impossible given the urgent fiscal consequences of past liberal policies.

Like much of the left, Creamer excuses its failures by referring to its good intentions. He produces a false history of “progressivism” in which it is described as the gradual expansion of freedom to new people. He ignores the actual history of the progressive movement, which often denied freedom to individuals, and tolerated bigotry as long as it left state power intact. Creamer also takes credit for movements--such as abolition, racial equality and women’s rights--that Republicans led and that Democrats blocked.

Yet if Creamer fails to make a convincing case for “progressive” values, and has failed to shift American society in a left-wing direction, it is undeniable that the strong opposition he prescribes in Stand Up Straight! helped demonize Republican policies and guide the Democratic Party back from the brink to the pinnacle of power.

Creamer’s efforts may not yet have produced the realignment he sought, but point to the power of “no,” and the emergence of opposition as the new constant in U.S. politics. 

We are governed, in effect, by two opposition movements. On one side of Capitol Hill is the Democratic Senate, elected in 2006 on the back of the anti-war movement. On the other is the Republican House, which swept to power in 2010 through the Tea Party.

That may, if it continues, commit our nation to fiscal and foreign policy restraint as the least common denominator in a very divided nation, for better or worse. Yet President Obama is evidently not satisfied with the current uneasy balance: like Creamer, his aim is a permanent, leftward shift, a redefinition of the very founding principles of the nation. And a discouraged, internally embattled Republican Party may give him the chance.

The immediate danger is that Obama will succeed. He has proposed policies that are of little concern to American voters--immigration reform, gun control, climate change--but which vastly expand government power, exploit fault lines within the opposition, and maximize Democratic political advantages. (Creamer encourages immigration reform primarily because it could help create “a gigantic block [sic] of progressive voters.)

The weakened Republican opposition still has two assets. One is fiscal reality. The bill for decades of profligacy will eventually come due in the form of higher borrowing costs, and the size and cost of government will have to be reduced. Resistance to new taxes and federal spending are not only the best but also the only basis for conservative unity. That is where the fight must be fiercest--where the Republicans’ “no” must be absolute.

The other asset is that Republicans’ long-term goal has already been achieved, and must only be protected: the Constitution. Unlike Creamer and Obama, we are not telling Americans to become what we never have been, but to embrace the liberty that is already our heritage. Democrats cannot defend their utopian visions except to create constant crises that makes the unthinkable reasonable and the impossible, possible. 

The key to Democrats’ success from 2006 to 2012 lay in refusing to accept the current configuration of political and cultural forces as a governing reality. They tolerated what they could not change--e.g. the Iraq “surge”--but continued to say “no” regardless. In an age of opposition, conservatives must do the same, while building permanent field operations--perhaps based on Tea Party groups--and investing in media and culture.

There is much to learn from Democrats’ recent strategy and tactics. The most critical lesson is that “no” is the most potent weapon in American politics. Conservatives must, as the left once did, articulate a positive long-term goal: namely, scaling back the state and restoring freedom (“properly understood,” as Tocqueville said, not Creamer’s “you’re on your own” caricature). But to campaign without “no” is to plan for defeat.


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