The Conservative Smear Machine Has Failed Conservatism

Bill Scher

Earlier this week, highlighted the above clip of Conor Friedersdorf and myself discussing the effectiveness of, in Conor’s words, the attitude of parts of both conservative and progressive movements to treat politics as “war” with “ruthless” tactics.

Putting aside the debate whether liberals and conservatives are equally unethical on this score (Conor suggested there is equivalence, though I didn’t push him on the point to get his specific view) I thought he raised a more interesting question, particularly as it regards the conservative movement.

Even if ruthless war-like attacks achieve tactical victories – such as the resignations of Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod or the end of ACORN – do they help conservatives achieve their long-term interests. As Conor said on, in terms of lasting policy achievements, the Rush Limbaugh era “hasn’t been particularly friendly to conservatives” compared to the Ronald Reagan era.

In a follow-up piece at The Atlantic, he was strongly critical of the leading figures of the conservative movement:

…the conservative movement is asserting goals that require a decade long project, and they’re elevating as their champions people who specialize in generating page views, winning individual news cycles, and selling books …

It isn’t that there is never an instance when these tactics are effective — it’s just that even in those rare instances, it is only a short-term tactical victory, because it is based on slightly altering the balance of political power at a frozen moment rather than beneficial changes in long term public attitudes.

Liberals should reflect on Conor’s assessment. We often assume the conservative movement is omnipotent, but it has failed to build on Reagan’s foundation. President George W. Bush may have gotten the Iraq War that he wanted, but neoconservatives are not getting the permanent military bases they craved. Bush may have won his tax cuts for the wealthy. But unlike Reagan’s tax reforms, Bush’s were never made permanent, and will likely expire at the end of this year. And Bush’s grandest attempt at a conservative legacy, privatizing Social Security, was a colossal failure.

In other words, today’s conservatives know how to destroy. But they don’t know how to build.

Furthermore, even their attempts at destruction have shrunk in their ambition. The 1990s conservatives went after President Bill Clinton and his inner circle directly. Today’s conservatives flail to attack mid-level government workers and obscure non-profits. The 1990s conservatives actually killed health care reform and passed financial deregulation. Today’s conservatives embarrassed themselves screaming “death panels” and barely got on the field while financial reregulation became law.

In Conor’s post at the Atlantic, he levels similar charges on part of the progressive movement, but he mainly focuses on a single two-year old comment by a member of the now-defunct Journolist arguing that liberals should be far more aggressive at accusing conservatives of racism. I think you could argue this is happening more, though not by elected officials, not dishonestly a la Brietbart, and not in any kind of coordinated way that turns comments by conservatives into career-ending scandals.

The progressive movement today is not wasting its time trying to destroy conservative figures. It may be wasting its time being preoccupied by conservative figures, though as I mentioned on, there is an understandable concern for conservative attacks after the Clinton impeachment and the swift-boating of John Kerry that vicious smears from the Right cannot go unanswered. I don’t think the right-wing fringe can be totally ignored — it was absolutely necessary to beat back the “death panels” smear, for example — but obsession I personally think unhelpful.

Despite that, progressives have not ignored the importance of long-term legacy achievements. I’d argue progressives are far more focused than conservatives were in the Bush Era — who didn’t seem to know what to prioritize after passing the tax cuts and before the 9/11 attack, and later bet a lot of chips on denying Terri Schiavo her desired death with dignity.

The bigger progressive problem lies in determining what constitutes progress towards legacies, when the Obama administration sees the need to compromise with corporate interests and a smattering of sane-if-maddening Republican “moderates,” not to mention right-leaning Democrats. The community is often split, which reduces coordination and effectiveness, but I would argue progressives still were influential in both in the health care and financial regulation debates even if they did not get everything they wanted.

But resolving those questions involves deciding how best to respond to corporate interests and self-proclaimed moderates, and not in how best to respond to right-wing smear merchants.

The fact that the Brietbarts of the world have achieved so little, as Conor usefully highlights, may help to focus us.

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