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No Argument: Democrats Adopting the ‘Python’ Strategy

One of Monty Python’s funniest skits was an exercise in lunacy called the Argument Clinic. Michael Palin comes to the “clinic” to buy a five-minute argument from official “arguer” John Cleese. With the clock running, Cleese flusters the astonished Palin with one rapid-fire contradiction after another. It goes something like this. [IMGCAP(1)]

Palin: “I came here for a good argument.”

Cleese: “No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

“No, you came here for an argument.”

“But an argument’s not the same thing as a contradiction.”

“Can be.”

“No, it can’t. An argument’s a collective series of statements to establish a different proposition.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is. It isn’t just contradiction.”

“Look, if I argue with you, I must take a contrary position.”

“But, it isn’t just saying, ‘No, it isn’t.’”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Arguments are an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

You get the picture. With respect to the current political discourse, does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Listening to the Democrats in full Bush attack mode last weekend, it occurred to me that the only thing missing was John Cleese. Contradiction, not argument or fact-based debate, seems to have become the Democrats’ latest attack mode of choice. If Bush says the sky is blue, a Democrat somewhere will say, “No, it’s not.” The domestic discourse goes something like this:

“The $400 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit will help seniors.”

“No, it won’t.”

“The economy’s near-record growth over the past year is a sign of solid recovery.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Bush fully funded the No Child Left Behind Act, quadrupling Bill Clinton’s $6 billion education budget increase (over eight years) to $25 billion in just three years.”

“No, he didn’t.”

But it’s the area of national security issues where the Democrats have truly checked into the “Argument Clinic.”

“The world is safer without Saddam.”

“No, it’s not.” (Ninety House Democrats last week voted to that effect by opposing the Iraq War anniversary resolution.)

“The coalition in Iraq is an international coalition of the willing.”

“No, it’s not.” (Tell that to Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Australia and the 45 other nations on board.)

“The Madrid bombings weren’t George Bush’s fault.”

“Yes, they were.” (So implies Howard Dean.)

“George Bush has the character to be commander in chief.”

“No, he doesn’t.” (So says Howard Dean: “[Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld] don’t mind sending people to die.”)

Yet when Democrats are pushed for substantive ideas on winning the war on terror and something beyond contradictory attacks, most of them — from Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy to Jimmy Carter or any other Democrat on the Bush-bashing circuit these days — offer nothing more than vague platitudes about international cooperation and the need for the United Nations to play a bigger role.

I can’t help but think that Bush must shake his head when he hears that one. Going to the United Nations. Now, why didn’t I think of that?

This would, of course, be the same United Nations that is now embroiled in one of the biggest financial and political scandals in modern history — its Iraq oil for food program. Pushing the Peter Principle to new heights, the Democrats blithely assert that the world would be better off with this crowd in charge in Baghdad.

When it comes to key national issues, Kerry and the rest of the Democratic bench have become “Johnny-one-notes,” castigating Bush in the most vile personal terms for a go-it-alone foreign policy, for lying and misleading us into war, for snookering seniors and cheating children. At this rate, we should expect to see Bush blamed this week for the cold front in New England, the tuna crisis, and Kentucky’s upset loss in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The Democrats’ contradiction strategy of “we’re against whatever George Bush favors” is self-defeating in the long term. Republicans ought to know. They tried a similar approach with Bill Clinton and paid the price in the 1998 Congressional elections. Voters rejected a negative campaign of contradiction and confrontation and could likely do the same this year.

Argument and contrast are essential ingredients in any campaign but especially in presidential campaigns. Debating the merits and demerits of candidates’ records, their solutions for the nation’s problems, and their vision for the future is necessary for an informed electorate to make sound decisions at the ballot box. That’s democracy in action, but political arguments need not get personal nor be contrary for contradiction’s sake. As the campaign moves into high gear, perhaps the Democrats should consider “something completely different.”

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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