The Republican Playbook
Turn an opponent’s biggest strength into his or her biggest weakness.
In the summer of 2004, Democratic Party voters selected Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as their presidential nominee. At that time, Kerry was a nearly 20-year veteran of the United States Senate and his campaign was centered on his contrasting stance on America’s involvement in the Iraq War. Not only was Kerry on the right side of history with his stance on the Iraq War but he also had a distinguished career of military service, having won three purple hearts for his actions in Vietnam. It was during this time that not only was public opinion dramatically shifting away from supporting the war but it was also a time when incumbent President George W. Bush was under fire for a CBS report questioning his service in the Texas Air National Guard. Despite that report ultimately being proven false, it was apparent to those in Republican circles that Kerry clearly had the upper hand when it came to military matters and this was something that was a huge liability in Bush’s reelection campaign.
So Republicans went to work to try and discredit Kerry in the voters’ eyes by giving them a reason to doubt his military service. A cohort of military veterans was assembled as a 527 group to begin a smear campaign against Kerry’s actions that won him those three purple hearts. Calling themselves the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” this group made the rounds on conservative media and TV. One of Kerry’s most outspoken critics was a former platoonmate named Stephen Gardner, who was a strong supporter of President George W. Bush and who decided to come forward only after hearing about Kerry’s campaign on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. Despite lacking definitive proof of their allegations against Kerry, the Swift Boat Veterans were nonetheless effective in turning the public against the popular perception of him being a war hero. At the end of the day, Kerry not only lost the popular vote and electoral college but he also lost the veteran vote with 57% of veterans voting for George W. Bush over him.
Flash forward four years to 2008. At a time when George W. Bush was term-limited, the economy was crashing and it was now a Republican war hero in John McCain who attempted to salvage the damage. This time around, Republicans could not swift boat their opponent as this opponent was a then-relatively unknown senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. So what do you do when you have an unknown? You try to make him or her out to be scary. And that’s what Republicans considered doing to Barack Obama, starting with his affiliation with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But rather than going all-in as George W. Bush did with the Swift Boaters, John McCain chose not to attack Obama for his previous association with the pastor. Obama later gave a speech titled “A More Perfect Union” where he shared his views on race and religion and it was this speech that eventually quashed the controversy before it got out of hand. Putting this behind him and rallying Americans behind his mantra of “hope and change”, Barack Obama rode a wave of unprecedented enthusiasm to the White House in November of 2008, delivering a decisive victory over his Republican opponent.
This would be the last time Republicans would play nice.
Because after having been out of power for 8 years, and having Barack Obama leave the country in much, much better shape than when he found it, Republicans knew they would be facing an uphill climb. Combined with the fact that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was one of the most qualified candidates in the last century and had a 69% approval rating as Secretary of State and it was quickly becoming apparent that Republicans would not be playing nice as they did with Barack Obama the first time around. Fortunately, much like with John Kerry, Republicans now had a vault of material to work with but they also had an American media landscape that had 25 years of Hillary hate built up, ready to unleash. Knowing that Hillary Clinton’s greatest strength was her competency at her job, Republicans sought to undermine this by attempting to portray her as reckless in a way that would show her endangering the lives of Americans citizens.
It was this idea that became the basis of their entire 2016 campaign. Politically, this idea was centered on the deaths of four Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Controlling both the House and the Senate, Republicans held 7 Benghazi probes and 33 hearings with the sole intention of bringing down Hillary Clinton’s credibility. Despite successfully testifying at the last hearing for 11 hours, this constant nagging portrayal of Clinton as being untrustworthy was starting to seep into the American mainstream. Of course, Republicans would eventually reveal that the entire Benghazi hearings were a charade when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would admit that they were done in an effort to hurt her poll numbers, but by that time the seed had been planted. All that was needed to help this seed grow would be some kind of manufactured scandal.
And a manufactured scandal was something our media was waiting for as Hillary Clinton was clearly a superior candidate to Bernie Sanders. After effectively clinching the nomination in May and winning by over 900 delegates, the media was all too giddy to find some way to close the credibility gap between Hillary Clinton and failed reality TV star, Donald Trump. So they turned to her emails. Yes, emails. You know remember her emails, don’t you? Because our media does. In fact, our media happily gave Hillary’s emails four times as much coverage as Donald Trump’s admitted sexual assaults. Republicans knew this would happen and they ran with it. It became their rallying cry. “Lock her up!” was chanted at every rally by people like Mike Flynn who are now actually being locked up for their crimes. Trump himself, in his first (but not last) act of asking a foreign country to intervene in an election, openly asked Russia to find her “missing” emails. In just six days, The New York Times ran the same number of articles on Hillary’s emails as they did in 69 days covering her policy positions. That, dear friends, is how you sway public opinion.
In the end, Republicans and our media had so battered Hillary Clinton’s reputation that she was viewed as the second least favorable candidate to ever run for president; second only to Donald Trump. A woman with a 69% approval rating was now approved by 41% of Americans, making for a 28% drop. This had real-world consequences in the three key battleground states that were decided by less than 78,000 votes as it was these declining favorability numbers combined with voter suppression, Russian disinformation, and James Comey’s actions that proved a hill too steep to climb for Hillary Clinton. Nearly 63 million Americans elected the most historically unpopular presidential candidate in our nation’s history but thanks to racist, sexist, and privileged White voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman, America would now have to endure 4 years of a human tire fire, a measly morsel of a man more than willing to watch Rome burn from his perch on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And so, here were are on the cusp of the 2020 election. Thirteen months to the day, to be exact. Despite hardly winnowing the field, it’s clear that the Democratic nominee will likely be one of a handful of candidates. Donald Trump and Republicans know this and Donald Trump and Republicans know how successful their misinformation campaign was in 2016, thanks in large part to an assist from the Russians. Knowing that nothing stopped them in 2016 and that the Mueller Report exonerated them in their eyes, why wouldn’t you immediately get to work in taking out your potential 2020 opponent?
That’s exactly what Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, William Barr, and the whole cabal of criminals attempted to do. Again, they went to the Republican playbook of attempting to undermine a candidate through his or her greatest strength. This year’s gig? Family-man. More specifically, the role of Joe Biden as a loving, caring father. This is the image many of us think of when it comes to Joe Biden, from his swearing into office with his sons in their hospital beds to his emotional words and grieving with the passage of his son, Beau to cancer. The one thing that most people think of when you say Joe Biden is family values. He has been a faithful husband so what better way to attack the man than to somehow insinuate that he has used his position in government to somehow enrich his family and that his family is a willing participant in this corruption?
That right there is what Donald Trump was attempting to prove in Ukraine. It’s the Republican playbook to a T. But fortunately for all of us, Donald Trump got caught. And then today he not only doubled down on getting caught but he openly committed the same act again on the South Lawn. Trump is the Wharton School’s most famous D-student for a reason, and he’s showed us why over the past few days. But laugh as we might at Moron Hitler what we cannot and should not laugh about it just how far Republicans are willing to go to maintain the presidency. Rudy Giuliani was willing to follow an Alex Jonesque-type of conspiracy theory because he thought that it could bring down Joe Biden. But that’s how detached this administration is from reality. They cannot distinguish between information and InfoWars. It’s what happens when the Commander-in-chief advocates for OANN, which is a more extreme version of Fox News. They’re so far into the bubble that everything they see and hear is their reality, regardless of what the actual truth is.
Collectively, we need to see this Ukraine example as the latest in just how far Republicans will go. We need to stay vigilant. We need to monitor our media, especially a media that yearns for another presidential horserace. They learned nothing in 2016 and they will again amplify the right’s dishonest disinformation campaigns if they think that it will create competition. Most importantly, we need to realize that no matter who the Democratic nominee is that he or she will be swiftboated/Jeremiah Wright’ed/Benghazi’ed/but-her-emails’ed to death by Republican talking points and these talking points will again find their way to voters through the mainstream media and through Russian influence on social media. There are more of us than there are of them, but we still will have to fight a massive disinformation campaign once again with our Republic on the line. We saw what can happen in 2016 and the stakes are even higher in 2020. Republicans know the game and they know that there are no rules.
We simply have to stop the one play that they’ve been relying on for the past 16 years.
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