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Is It "Demagoguery" To Compare the Two Parties?

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.

Jay Cost is one of those conservative political writers whom I've always respected for his interest in empirical analysis and reasoned debate. But in a Weekly Standard column published this week, which pushes back against Democratic efforts to highlight the growing radicalism of the GOP, he made a frankly offensive statement that strays from analysis to agitprop:

At best, this strategy might help swing an odd election here and there to the Democrats--e.g. Delaware and (maybe) Nevada--and increase the historically low levels of Democratic enthusiasm by a point or two. But that's it. For the swing voters who determine elections, it's clear by now that the midterm is going to be about the deeply unpopular policies of President Obama.

Attacking the Tea Partiers is not going to distract them because the Tea Partiers have had nothing to do with those policies. This cycle, the GOP has the better argument, and it is not going to take the bait. Republican candidates everywhere will answer the charge of radicalism with a simple question: "Where are the jobs, Mr. President?" The fact that the White House is thinking about such demagoguery is another strong indication that it is simply looking to keep Democratic turnout high enough to prevent a 1974-style tsunami.

It's "demagoguery" for political leaders of one party to ask voters to compare their policies to those of the alternate party? Last time I checked, the U.S. Congress hasn't adopted the system that some states have for judicial elections, in which voters simply decide whether to retain or reject incumbents, without knowing anything about their potential replacements. Elections are inherently comparative. Yes, many swing voters do tend to treat elections as a referendum on the party in power, but they don't have to, and many don't. And, far from being demagogic, it's responsible for the major parties to try to educate voters about what they're choosing, rather than simply what they're voting against. (What about the center-right voters who pulled the lever for Obama in 2008, but then complained when he turned out to be liberal in office? Should they have paid more attention to what they were voting for?)

In any event, it would be folly for Democrats to accept Cost's view that the ideas of the GOP are off the table in 2010. There is abundant evidence that the ascendant conservative wing of the Republican Party is determined to pursue policies for which there is relatively little public support, from renewed military aggression in the Middle East, to major changes in Social Security and Medicare, to abandonment of a federal role in environmental protection and education, to destruction of progressive taxation, to maintenance of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and continued assaults on abortion rights. If anything, the Tea Partiers deserve attention for being honest and even proud about the radicalism of their agenda--and Democrats have every right to ask if other Republicans agree with it.

Jim DeMint, who has evolved from a lonely extremist into a genuine Big Dog in the GOP, is clearly not indifferent to the ideological agenda of his party. Yesterday, he announced in The Washington Post and on CNN that the Republican Party would soon be "dead" if it does not keep the outrageous promises it has been making this year. Why is it all right for DeMint to focus on Republican policies, but not all right for Democrats to do the same?

This foot-stamping insistence that the election must be a referendum on the Democratic Party is reckless, in that it excuses the minority party from any inhibition on extreme measures it might take to mobilize its base. At a time when conservative leaders are spewing unprecedented--yes, unprecedented--radical rhetoric about the character, patriotism, motives, and competence of the president and congressional Democrats, labeling liberals "demagogues" for demanding scrutiny of GOP candidates is hypocritical in the extreme. In addition, it is self-defeating: Just wait to see how the Republicans fare in 2012 if their current fervor is given full vent.