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"We were a little surprised"

Are the Democrats too nice for a knife fight?

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "it's deja vu all over again."

This morning, as I scanned a New York Times story about President Obama's "new playbook" for the health care debate, I was stopped by this paragraph:

"And Democratic Party officials enlisted in the fight by the White House acknowledged in interviews that the growing intensity of the opposition to the president's health care plans — within the last week likened on talk radio to something out of Hitler's Germany, lampooned by protesters at Congressional town-hall-style meetings and vilified in television commercials — had caught them off guard and forced them to begin an August counteroffensive."

Then, a few paragraphs later, a top Democratic communicator weighed in: "To be fair, I think we were probably a little surprised - just a little - at the use of swastikas and the comparisons to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich that even Rush Limbaugh has fanned the flames on. And we were a little surprised at the mob mentality."

Then, farther down in the piece, an Obama administration deputy added this: "The lesson we've learned is you ignore these rumors at your peril, and the right answer is to take them head on in as big a way as possible."
All the italics are mine. All of which prompts me to wonder (for the umpteenth time) whether there is some fundamental flaw in the Democratic gene pool that fuels their perpetually delusional belief that noble intentions are sufficient to prevail in a knife fight.

They were "caught off guard" by the cacophonous conservative assault on health care reform. They were "probably a little surprised." They now insist that they have learned "lessons" about how it's nuts to simply let the nuts peddle their lies.

This is where Yogi's deja vu rule kicks in. Over and over, decade after decade, the Democrats have revealed their naivete.

Back in the 1988 presidential race, it was Mike Dukakis; amidst all the smears being heaped upon him by the Republicans during that long hot summer (polluter! pal of rapist! funny Greek name! crazy wife! flag-hater!), the candidate and his advisers sat back and did nothing, convinced that voters would never swallow such slop. They did, he plummeted in the polls, and he never recovered.

During the 1993-4 health care reform battle, the Clinton White House was outmaneuvered by the Republican right and their corporate allies, who swayed the electorate with all kinds of devious hyperbole. And, more recently, in the 2004 presidential race, John Kerry and his advisers sat back and did nothing for three crucial summer weeks, absolutely convinced that voters would never believe the Swift Boat attacks on his Vietnam record. That strategy worked out pretty well.

And now we have the Obama people, waking up to the idea that maybe it's not politically wise to sit mute and allow themselves to be tarred as fascists who would euthanize granny, ration health care, and slash Medicare benefits. (It's priceless to hear the Republicans portraying themselves as the defenders of Medicare, given the fact that, if they had been in charge back in 1965, they never would have enacted Medicare in the first place. But I digress.)

The Republican right understands the power of the visceral; it knows how to stoke emotions at the expense of civility. This is not exactly a fresh observation, yet it's amazing how flat-footed Democrats seem always to discover it anew. They seem forever convinced that the power of high ideals should be sufficient for victory - that, in the present case, Americans should simply be convinced, on the merits, that health care reform is preferable to the dysfunctional status quo. As Howard Paster, Clinton's health care guy in 1993, told The Times this morning, "The expectation (among the Obama people) was that things have gotten so bad in the last 16 years that there would be a consensus on the need to act this time."

But that's not how the other team plays the game. Indeed, numerous Democratic strategists and commentators have been trying to make this point for a long time. A couple years ago, for instance, radio host and ex-California Democratic chairman Bill Press offered this advise to his brethren: "In politics, if somebody slaps you on the cheek, you punch him in the nose. Then you punch him in the gut. Then you kick him in the groin. Then you crack a chair over his head. Then, just to make sure, you jump up and down on top of him with both feet...The only way to win is to fight back. Hard and tough. If they don't, they don't deserve to win."

Press was characteristically a tad over the top, but his basic point was that Democrats should stop being surprised to learn that politics ain't beanbag. This is not to suggest that Obama should retaliate by retailing lies equal in virulence to those being spewed by his opponents; if he was to conduct himself as his opponents are doing, he would be promptly attacked for failing to change the tone in Washington.

His best option is to do what he probably should have done months ago: find an attractively repeatable health reform pitch that can fit on a bumper sticker, something that can appeal to positive emotions. (Perhaps if Obama had done that during the spring, he could have at least partially preempted the nabobs of negativity.) Indeed, there are reports today that Obama will now pitch his plan as a vehicle for ending unfair insurance practices, for protecting the millions of Americans who have pre-existing health conditions.

Maybe a positive emotional pitch can still work - unless it is too little, too late, and insufficient weaponry for an alley fight.