General George S. Patton was famous for delivering gritty yet honest speeches during World War II. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” he reportedly told his troops. “You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
The quote’s authenticity isn’t certain, but its meaning remains clear: being willing to fight isn’t enough. You must be able to win. If politics is war by other means, then Patton’s lesson could be applied to the run-off for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s 6th Congressional district.
Paul DeMarco, a state lawmaker from Homewood, says he’s a fighter for the conservative cause. “I’ll fight for what we believe, no matter what,” he said in one typical campaign commercial.
DeMarco recently proved his willingness to fight by launching an attack ad against his opponent, Gary Palmer, the former president of the conservative-leaning Alabama Policy Institute. The ad implies that Palmer is for tax increases by quoting half of a sentence he wrote in 2003 about a package of state tax increases and accountability measures known as Amendment One.
DeMarco’s attack ad displays the following sentences from an op-ed written by Palmer during the debate about the amendment: “I would be willing to support a tax increase…”
The ad doesn’t show the rest of the paragraph, which reads, “…but only on the condition that we first set in place some meaningful accountability measures. Unfortunately, the proposal before the people of Alabama [Amendment One] falls well short of the mark.”
The ad obviously takes Palmer out of context. I’ve followed Palmer and his institute’s work for years and it’s unlikely he’d support a tax increase. His opposition to Amendment One was a political profile in courage considering many of his friends in the political establishment and supporters of his institute were in favor of the measure.
Politics ain’t bean bag, though, and I won’t join the chorus of conservatives criticizing DeMarco for going on the attack. But I will highlight his seeming inability to deliver the attack very well, which—like it or not – is a critical skill our leaders must possess.
DeMarco’s internal polling may indicate differently, but many observers say his ad fell flat. It broke a basic rule of a good attack ad, which is sort of like the basic rule of a good joke: It must contain an element of truth to be effective. This ad wasn’t truthful.
The attack also failed to follow another basic rule: the combination punch. A good campaign ad, known as “paid media,” should be a springboard to a wider discussion of the issue in the public, known as “earned media.” An attack ad is the first punch, but a strong follow-up must deliver the KO. DeMarco’s unsure defense of the ad on the Matt Murphy Show was cringe-worthy for its weakness and caused many to doubt his ability to defend conservatism and attack liberalism on a national stage.
Some say the ad even backfired – the worst of all outcomes since he’d be paying to increase Palmer’s numbers. This happened in the 2002 Republican Primary for governor when Alabama Lt. Gov. Steve Windom attacked then-Congressman Bob Riley claiming Riley voted on issues that impacted the growth of a mutual fund he owned. The ad was demonstrably false, Windom looked hapless defending the tactic and his campaign never recovered. The same might be happening to DeMarco.
Why should conservatives care about a candidate’s ability to attack, especially when it seems unsavory? Because candidates during the Republican Primary must prove they can throw a punch – and take a punch – or else they’ll be hammered by the Democratic candidate in the general election, manipulated by the establishment once in office or defeated by the liberal attack machine when trying to advance conservatism. Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment never to speak ill of another Republican sounds nice, but even he didn’t follow it.
The Republican Party needs honest candidates who are as clever as they are tenacious, or as the gospel of Matthew puts it: wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove. Being a willing fighter is great, but we need winners.