Culture War 3.0 and the Charge of the Light Brigade

So, today I had the dubious pleasure of having Rush Limbaugh take a shot at me over a quote I gave Politico’s Alex Burns. And yes, if you’re in the GOP consulting world, you’ll get phone calls and emails when you get dissed by the Big Man.

Here’s where the accusations of apostasy to the cause come from: I’m one of a non-trivial number of members of the hated consultant class who think digging in for Culture War 3.0 on gay marriage is politically foolish, culturally stupid and boneheaded electorally.

It has nothing to do with my beliefs on the matter in the slightest. I’m not even going to discuss how I feel about it, because it simply isn’t relevant. It’s not an argument about religion, or Federalism, or equal protection, or Western Civilization. Nor am I dismissing the enormous complexities, social uncertainties, and religious liberty issues of integrating gay marriage into society.

This is about political counsel, based on experience and reality. I’ve worked in 38 states, not in a radio studio. I’ve helped candidates win races in deep blue states like Vermont and New York and Washington, where the GOP fears to tread. We didn’t win by living in the world we wanted, but in the world as it is.

You go to an oncologist and hear, “You’ve got cancer. Want to keep it, or we can try something else?” You know the answer.

You go to people like us…people who read and understand surveys, who study electoral data, who swim in a sea of demographic and sociological data, who test and retest and tweak the tools and messages of politics and the honest actors are going to tell you that this issue is a stinker, and it’s not going to get any easier. Cultures change, and ours has. Ignoring reality isn’t principled: it’s pigheaded.

Here’s what Limbaugh obsessed about:

“It removes the issue from the Democratic playbook of fundraising scare tactics and political demagoguery and breaks their usual messaging dynamic of, ‘You’re a beleaguered minority; let us protect you from the evil GOP — oh, and here’s your absentee ballot,’” said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson.

I don’t want Democrats to turn gay Americans into a part of their permanent dependency-class vote plantation. I don’t want gay Americans to feel like my party is relentlessly hostile and unwelcoming. Barack Obama kicked our ass down the street twice by growing the Democrat coalition. It’s a zero-sum game, and every gain for them is a loss for us. It’s a cliché, but you grow by addition, always and only.

As importantly, signifiers matter. Voters we need – Republican leaners in affluent suburbs, for instance – are with us on a range of issues, but against us on tone and presentation. Younger voters who are suffering from 25% unemployment and are about to reap the whirlwind of the Obama economy are ripe for the picking…if we understand their social reality (whether you like it, or not) is overwhelmingly opposed to our position on this matter. Bill Clinton dragged the Democratic Party out of the ditch by walking back party policies that had been bypassed by time.

Before my evangelical friends get too far into the “we’ll take a walk” political blackmail, here’s a bit of tough love: you took a walk last time, and Mitt Romney was 100% right on abortion and gay marriage and damn near everything else. You might want to spend some time changing hearts and minds in society at large before you bolt. You might want to keep this fight where you can win it, rather than trusting in the Federal government to deliver your desired endstates…that’s the other team’s strategy.

What was a bit dishonest of Limbaugh was that he falsely mangled the second, and frankly more important quote in the story:

“Democrats won’t be as happy explaining to gay business owners why Obamacare is crushing them; why the regulatory behemoth in D.C. is burying them in red tape; and why the American economy is still faltering. Republicans take an issue out of the federal domain and let states, churches and society handle it, and let’s stick to a message of growth and opportunity for every American.”

I want to fight for every vote. I want to win in places we shouldn’t be able to, and to disrupt their coalition, break their certitudes and wreck their preconceptions. I want to crush the Democratic party and make it politically radioactive. There are lots of ways to get there, but this isn’t one.

It’s not “giving up an issue” to put this fight in the rear view mirror…it’s picking advantageous battlefields, dictating the tempo of the debate, and focusing on the issues that move voters to us, rather than against us.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was romantic and dashing, but most everyone in it died. They deployed based on bad intelligence, stuck to a stubborn approach, and were slaughtered wholesale. 

 Let’s keep that in mind before fighting Culture War 3.0.