A few months ago, John McCain unveiled his health-care reform plan in Florida. On the same day, his opponents pounced - unleashing an aggressive media fusillade to discredit the Arizona senator’s proposal. The political assault, however, did not come from a predictable perch. Neither the Obama campaign nor the Democratic National Committee orchestrated the well-timed hit piece. Instead, a labor group - the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - produced the attack.
More recently, television ads targeted Mr. McCain again. This time they criticized his environmental policies. But the Obama campaign was not behind these ads either. The Sierra Club funded the initiative.
This pattern repeats itself every day. Earlier this month, after House Republicans organized protests in Washington demanding Congress return from its August recess and vote on energy legislation, MoveOn.org announced it would run ads against House Republicans spearheading these efforts. Democrats regularly benefit from well-organized, well-financed and effective outside liberal advocacy groups who relentlessly investigate, attack and criticize Republicans. The GOP lacks this kind of advocacy infrastructure.
Why the asymmetrical warfare? I believe it’s because liberals understand and want “the prize”: controlling the levers of power in Washington, spending, taxes, regulations, rules and jobs. Conservatives are far less passionate and unsure when it comes to the prize. They recoil from big government, higher taxes and an overly intrusive bureaucracy. For them, too much federal activism produces a frightening Leviathan. For liberals, government operationalizes their worldview, creating a better life through more services and rules to protect people. They are passionate about harnessing the power of government to achieve these ends.
And over the years, this zealousness has ballooned. Liberal activists have grown increasingly restive and well-organized over the past 15 years. Their grievances mounted when Republican political power grew in Washington between 1995 and 2006. Impeachment, the disputed 2000 election and the Iraq war all have helped focus liberal anger like a laser.
Conservatives scare liberals. Not only because they don’t share activists’ viewpoint, but because they either try to shrink government or invest in different priorities.
So, liberals know what they want and how to fight for it. They possess the “motives” and the “means” necessary for political warfare. Conservatives are more ambivalent - and not sure they want to control something they don’t really like. Their advocacy involvement reinforces this view.
“The ‘storming the castle’ narrative is a very powerful motivational tool,” Republican online strategist Jon Henke told me last week. Republican control of all the levers of power fomented the grievance culture among liberals. The GOP stole “the prize,” and the left wanted it back.
Conservatives also suffered over the past decade because they lacked a coherent narrative about what they would do with government once they controlled it - or at least a vision that could sustain a majority of American public opinion support. They needed new ideas and communications channels for these policies. Liberals are working on such a comprehensive model.
Last month, columnist Fred Barnes outlined the nuts and bolts of this expanding liberal infrastructure. In a piece called “The Colorado Model,” Mr. Barnes describes a growing set of tactics that include seven components: 1. Intellectual ammunition; 2. Investigative powers; 3. Political organizing abilities; 4. Tools to fight media bias; 5. Litigation power; 6.Train new leaders; 7. Sustain a new media presence. “Colorado liberals have now created institutions that possess all seven capacities,” Mr. Barnes wrote. So have liberals in Washington, DC.
The labor and environmental special-interest groups’ rapid response to McCain initiatives are examples. And even when businesses respond they experience the political equivalent of WWF Smack Down. Wal-Mart discovered this when The Wall Street Journal revealed the retailer “educated” its employees about the risks of a Democratic win in November. A union-backed group issued a press release saying the article demonstrates that “Wal-Mart intimidates its workers.” A similar “ride to the rescue” from the liberal cavalry occurred two weeks ago, when Republicans taunted Mr. Obama about his “save energy by properly inflating your tires” comments. The liberal group Americans United for Change defended Mr. Obama and attacked Republicans for taunting the Democrat by handing out tire gauges as a symbol of his energy plan.
Conservatives will never possess liberals’ passion for the prize. But they need to build new advocacy institutions simply to fight back against the increasingly sophisticated and effective liberal infrastructure. If they don’t, the “just leave me alone” conservatives will get some unwelcome company, overrun by the insurgent liberals at the gate.
Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.