Democrats Need to Stop Playing Nice

There is a moment in the 2008 HBO movie “Recount” that illuminates an essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. The film was a fictionalized account of the mayhem that followed the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

Warren Christopher, a courtly former secretary of state, represents the Democratic candidate Al Gore. “The world is watching,” he intones. “We are theoretically it’s last great democracy. If we cannot resolve this in a way that is worthy of the office we seek, what kind of hope can we give other countries that wish to share our values?” James Baker, another former secretary of state, represents George W. Bush. He has a different theory of the case: “This is a street fight for the presidency of the United States.”

Both Mr. Christopher and Mr. Baker later said the contrast was overdrawn. Well, that’s entertainment. But we keep bumping into “Recount” moments in politics. Democrats litigate; Republicans fight. Democrats float toward an almost helium-infused state of high-mindedness; Republicans see politics as a no-holds-barred cage match.

President Biden’s pugilistic State of the Union address last week may represent a new direction. But given the party’s recent history, the Democrats will probably need some CRISPR editing to their DNA.

Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were distressingly saintly in their presidential campaigns, failing to respond to Republican attack ads. Hillary Clinton endured a classic “Recount” moment in her second debate against Donald Trump. Mr. Trump stalked her around the stage. “He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled,” Mrs. Clinton later wrote. “Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on,” she wondered. “Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up, you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me.” Throwing the haymaker might not have won the election, but Mrs. Clinton would have instantly changed the impression that she was a hapless, patronizing, liberal elitist.

Why are Democrats so congenitally weak? Why did it take a group of former Republicans — the Lincoln Project — to create the nastiest, most effective anti-Trump ads in 2020? There are several reasons, which are near-impossible for Democrats to admit in public. The first is that they have a reputation as the favored party of the American Bar Association; they’re rife with lawyers; they see poetry in a well-turned codicil. They are also the party of the so-called helping professions — teachers, social workers, speech therapists, home health aides, ivy-clotted academics. In general, these are not people comfortable throwing a fierce left hook. And they are the party of identity politics, always sensitive to insensitivity, often to a fault. They care a lot more about appearances, and propriety, than Republicans do.

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