The Battle of Attrition for the Presidency, as seen by Peggy Noonan


Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have risen to the top of the American political system in an intensely political era. And yet neither loves politics or appears to have a particularly oversized gift for it. This is a central and amazing fact of the national election.

Mr. Obama has become actively bad at politics. Here is an example of how bad. Anyone good at politics does not pick a fight with the Catholic Church during a presidential year. Really, you just don’t. Because there’s about 75 million Catholics in America, and the half of them who go to church will get mad. The other half won’t like it either.

If you’re good at politics, you quietly allow the church what it needs to survive, which actually is no more or less than what’s long been provided by the U.S. Constitution.

If you’re good at politics but ideologically mean, you string the church along throughout the election year, offering “temporary full waivers” or some such idiotic phrase—politicians love to make up idiotic phrases—on conscience, and then revoke all protections in 2013, after you’ve been re-elected, and have the fight then.

Only if you are really, really not good at politics do you alienate the bishops of a great faith in an election year.{1}

This action against the Cathlolic Church even caused political upheaval among President Barack Obama’s top political advisers, according to an article in Politico.com.  It pitted the  top advisers Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Vice-President Joe Biden (all Catholics) against Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Director of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.{2} Those that argued against this action warned the president that this action was not only against the law, but that it was bad policy.  Those that argued for it, stated that the uproar that would be brought on by such an action would be offset by the overwhelming number of Catholics that actually supported birth control.  At the heart of the argument that prevailed in the end was the belief that the action would draw the votes of suburban women, and that Catholic women would be grateful for the intervention. Planned Parenthood and a number of Senators, notably Barbara Boxer and Jeanne Shaheen also pushed hard for this action.{3}  Sebelius, Jarrett, and the others that argued for it, obviously won the heated debate that occurred behind closed doors, but Chief of Staff Bill Daley resigned over the matter.

The question that Noonan raised–and I’m sure Panetta, Biden, and Daley brought forth in their arguments against the action–was is it good politics to engage in a war with the Catholic Church?  You can play the plus/minus games all day with votes added and lost, but you can’t wipe away the footnote that is imprinted on your political docket that you are in fact subverting (or overriding!) the Jeffersonian ideal of separation between church and state.  Most politicians, regardless of their religion or political persuasions, would see such a battle as a no win situation.

If you’re good at politics, you don’t humiliate a friend and ally who popped off about your campaign strategy. You don’t send Cory Booker on a rhetorical perp walk and make him recant. You quietly accept his criticism, humbly note your disagreement, hold a grudge, and keep walking.

Peggy Noonan doesn’t say it, for saying it would contradict much of what she’s said in the past about the general failings of the Bush Administration, but Bush was much better at handling “friends who popped off” about his campaign strategies.  Bush, like most Republicans, are simply more practice at dealing with it.  As we all know from watching mainstream media outlets, Republicans are more prone to popping off.  Republicans who pop off against their party, are also welcomed with open arms at major media outlets.  A Chuck Hagel, for example, is lionized with his near round the clock appearances on NBC and MSNBC for his disapproval of the Bush administration.  A Joe Lieberman is ostracized as a traitor, and a Corey Booker is made to recant on a rhetorical perp walk.  Democrats are so unused to “friends and allies” dissenting from the party opinion that when it happens they overreact, until these friends and allies learn to walk in lock step.

Other than attempting to redress the Hagel charge that the Bush administration was the “most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen or ever read about” no one in the Bush Administration ever mentioned Hagel by name, and Hagel was never forced to recant on a rhetorical perp walk.  The Bush Administration simply accepted this criticism, and those made by McCain, noted their disagreements, held a grudge, and kept walking.

(President Barack Obama) opened his campaign with a full-fledged assault on his opponent. This is a bad sign in an incumbent! An incumbent should begin his campaign with a full-fledged assertion of the excellence of his administration—the progress that has been made, the trouble that has been avoided, the promise that endures. You’ve got to be able to name these things. Then, once you’ve established the larger meaning of your administration—with wit and humor, and in a tone that assumes fair-minded Americans will see it your way—you turn, in late summer, to a happy, spirited assault on the poor, confused, benighted and yet ultimately dangerous man running against you. 

The president’s campaign is making him look small and scared.

Ms. Noonan then goes after the Romney campaign:

Mr. Romney, too, has had his bad moments. Donald Trump this week is an example. Mr. Trump brings with him the freak-show aspects of the primaries. Mr. Romney has to kick away from that, start a new chapter, begin an appeal to the sane center. Does he think keeping Trump close gains him some kind of right-wing street cred? My goodness, who does he think lives on that street?

Here’s the problem with disassociations, as most conservatives see it.  On the Democrat side, when a politician “kicks away” from a Donald Trump-type in their party, it is called a Sister Souljah moment.  They have a name for it, because a Democrat so rarely distances themselves from the radical, left wing faction of their party.  We need a name, and an analogy, to help us understand the incident better.  When a Republican doesn’t do it, on the other hand, there is shock and awe in the liberal community.  John McCain took this so far that on one occasion he actually distanced himself from a radio show host that loudly enunciated Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein.  He didn’t associate that middle name in any way, he simply said it.  He may have enunciated it more than Barack’s other two names, and there may have been some gamesmanship at play there, but at the end of the day he didn’t do anything worthy of disassociation in most Republicans’ minds.

Much of McCain’s 2008 election strategy involved pre-emptive disassociations.  He tried to distance himself from characters that he thought brought his campaign into a bad light, and he attempted to beat the media’s calls for it.  These disassociations became so prevalent in the McCain campaign that it almost became a disassociation campaign.  McCain wanted it known what he stood against, but after a while Republicans began to questions what the man stood for…in the vein of heartfelt Republican ideals. It was not a successful campaign strategy, and Romney saw that.  Romney saw how many Republicans began disassociating themselves from McCain, and he realized that he had to do a better job of building coalitions.  Most conservatives don’t believe that Romney should align himself with some of Trump’s statements, but Romney should be able to find some sort of middle ground.  He should be able to do something like call Obama out for not disassociating from Bill Maher.  He should be able to go on offense on this one, for he should know that the defensive, disassociation game that McCain played in ’08 did not work.

More important, when you’re good at politics you know what you have to do, if not immediately then soon. Mr. Romney has to give us a plan. He has to tell us his priorities. To lead is to prioritize, to choose: “We will take this path, at this speed, toward this end.” He hasn’t done this yet. He told me last week of some immediate intentions: repeal ObamaCare, and move boldly to unleash America’s energy resources—he called them “newly discovered and extraordinary.”

Fine. But afterward I realized these issues are immediately and personally associated with President Obama. They are not associated with the president I suspect Mr. Romney really has on his mind, George W. Bush.

Mr. Romney should be talking about the big things, taxing and spending, and offering a plan on both, a hierarchal declaration of needs. But taxes and spending are issues that are associated with Mr. Bush, and not happily. That, I suspect, is a reason Mr. Romney avoids addressing them at length or in a way that’s easily understood. He doesn’t want the Obama campaign to accuse him of being “just more Bush,” of peddling the same medicine that helped make us sick. That was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 charge against Walter Mondale, that all he offered was the empty, warmed-over liberalism of the past.

Mr. Romney should face what didn’t work the past 12 years. Republicans took some wrong turns, and they know it. Centrists and independents know it, too. Candor here, delivered in a spirit of honesty, without animus, would seem not like a repudiation but a refreshment. And this would be deeply undercutting of Mr. Obama, who needs this race to be a fight between two parties, not a fight between a past that didn’t work and a future that can.

The Bush family will understand. They respect politics, and its practitioners.

Most conservatives appreciate Ms. Noonan’s words on a general level.  As Ms. Noonan correctly states: “Republicans took some wrong turns, and they know it.”  To say that the entirety of Bush’s eight year term needs to be repudiated is a bit of a stretch however.  Perhaps Romney could candidly repudiate the actions of the last eight years, for that would call into play the actions of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and Senators Christopher Dodd, Charles Schumer, and Harry Reid.  Perhaps Romney could focus attention on all of these players, and their harmful legislation, and ostensibly implicate Bush in the overall condemnation of the “past eight years”.

Would he be called out on these indirect criticisms of the Bush Administration?  Of course, but he and his advisors could develop a strategy that criticizes that administration while complimenting them in a roundabout way for keeping us safe in the seven years that followed that horrific day on 9/11/2001.  He could say something like: “I think even President Bush would admit that we became distracted from domestic, economic concerns in those years.  Who wouldn’t become distracted by the overwhelming charge of protecting 300 million people against a faceless force that wore no inform and acted in anything but a uniform fashion? But thanks to the efforts of that Bush Administration that you so roundly criticize, we have been afforded the luxury of getting our focus back on domestic, economic concerns, and that will be the goal in a Romney Administration.”

{1} http://online.wsj.com/article/declarations.html {2} http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/72612.html{3} http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/02/wont_you_come_home_bill_daley.html#ixzz1wr9SjvJ3

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