Columns » Warwick Sabin

Art of war

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Do you want a good example of why the Republicans keep winning and the Democrats keep losing?

Last week, a columnist with the Stephens Media Group, David Sanders, detailed Attorney General Mike Beebe’s use of his government office and chief of staff for meetings related to his gubernatorial campaign. The conservative blogs in Arkansas howled their outrage, amplifying the story with the hope that major media outlets would pick it up.

Assisting that effort was Republican state Rep. Mark Martin, who formally requested a legislative inquiry into the matter. Then, Gov. Mike Huckabee criticized Beebe on the Arkansas Radio Network. Beebe defended himself in the articles that followed by the Associated Press, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media, but by then it was too late. Only three days after Sanders’ column appeared, Beebe’s chief of staff, Ruth Whitney, announced her resignation from the attorney general’s office.

Compare that to the series of articles in the Arkansas Times about Huckabee’s use of the State Police plane for out-of-state travel. He refuses to justify the practice or account for the expense, which comes out of the State Police’s general budget for law enforcement. Like Beebe’s situation, it may be technically legal but it is surely ethically dubious and deserves further scrutiny.

But since the Times started reporting about the issue last October, there has been no other action. No Democratic office-holder has asked for a legislative audit or called for a new policy. The Democratic Party has been silent, and it has no comparable representation in the blogosphere. Mainly for those reasons, no other media organization has mentioned it.

The Republicans were correct to go after Beebe for his ethical lapse. Using state property for campaign work is clearly inappropriate, even though the expense to taxpayers is minimal. To determine it, you could divide the salaries of the participants by the time they spent in campaign mode, and possibly factor in the wear and tear to the chairs and carpeting.

On the other hand, Huckabee’s plane travel costs thousands of dollars every time he catches a ride. He says he needs it for “security” but refuses to explain why. And because no one challenges him, he continues to take advantage of the lack of regulation.

And that is the Democrats’ fault. For better or worse, the two opposing parties keep each other in line. The Republicans are as likely to initiate action against Huckabee as the Democrats were to have called Beebe on the carpet. That’s how our government works.

Except now it doesn’t, because Democrats everywhere have become embarrassingly inept at political warfare. With so many opportunities to attack an administration that has failed so miserably in so many areas, the Democrats can neither deliver a compelling message nor inspire confidence in their ability to lead.

They need to realize that political tactics are as important as ideas and policies. Maybe some Democrats wonder why they keep losing even when their proposals make more sense and often appeal to a majority of Americans. But the good guys don’t win battles just because they’re good. They win only if they wage a smarter and more effective campaign.

After Samuel Alito was confirmed by the Senate as the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice, the New York Times published an article comparing the Democratic and Republican approaches to his nomination. It was headlined, “Two nominee strategies. One worked.”

Other publications have documented not only the advance preparation and organization that built grassroots support and positive media coverage for Alito, but also the decades of strategy and planning that led to the current Republican ascendancy at all levels of government.

When it comes right down to it, many of the Republicans’ ideas are unpopular, haven’t been implemented correctly or have proven disastrous for the nation. But their electoral and marketing tactics keep them in power.

That model is being replicated here in Arkansas, where the Republicans are setting up a nimble machine. Understanding the evolution of political communication, they established a network of blogs and email lists to drive their message. And it’s working, as demonstrated by events last week.

But the Democrats have yet to show any evidence that they know how to plan ahead, formulate a strategy and apply it with sophistication. In fact, the only Democrat to survive and succeed in the years since the Republicans began executing their modern maneuvers was Bill Clinton. Yes, he had great ideas. But he also had an appreciation and talent for the tactical game.

Remember his winning campaign in 1992? It was disciplined, aggressive and quick to respond to an attack. There’s a reason why they called it a “war room.”

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