It may be hard to believe for people who didn’t grow up before Nirvana and flannel shirts were things, but once upon a time Republicans could reliably beat Democrats about the head and shoulders with a club labeled “soft on crime.” Moreover, pompous liberal doofuses like Michael Dukakis would walk right into the trap, for example, arguing that complaints about programs that furloughed convicted rapists to rampage again could only possibly stem from racism. Dukakis, the poster boy for the robber slobbering, was notoriously unable to even summon up even faux anger at a hypothetical criminal hypothetically attacking his wife. No wonder he lost.
It was Bill Clinton, that wily Arkansas politician, who figured out what was remarkably clear to everyone else except his fellow liberals – that criminals were scumbags and the political price of excusing their depredations was not even remotely worth paying.
So, Governor Bill Clinton allowed his state to execute a lowlife cop killer despite the usual chorus of whining from the left. And when he became president, instead of treating policemen like goose-stepping fascists out to oppress the downtrodden, Clinton reassured the mommies in suburbs across America that he would protect them from the criminal element by famously putting 100,000 cops on the streets.
Liberals had embraced the conservative agenda that the cause of crime is criminals, and that the proper response to criminals is not soul-searching introspection into how society has victimized these unfortunate souls but, rather, to consign them to our dungeons for long periods without a hint of regret. By figuratively tossing criminals into jail and throwing away the key, the Democrats freed themselves from the soft-on-crime ball and chain.
As America coalesced around the conservatives’ views on crime, the Republicans lost perhaps their most potent political weapon.
Flash forward two decades as the Republicans still search for a weapon of comparable power to the mugger-hugger imagery that served them so long and so well. Sure, the tax and spend charge is nice, but it just doesn’t have the same visceral impact as a Willie Horton.
In 2012, the Democrats certainly had a field day beating on the Republicans, but this time it was on the cultural issues that America – for better or worse – seems to have made up its mind about. It’s not a perfect analogy – liberals really did, at some level, believe criminals were victims while modern, mainstream conservative don’t hate gays or minorities or women or want to keep Kevin Bacon from dancing.
All their work over the years to normalize homosexuality, to promote acceptance of minorities, and to redefine the roles of women has succeeded. The liberals have largely won these fights – to the extent they were even being fought other than on some issues regarding gays. But that success may turn out to be a problem for them in the coming years.
After all, besides savaging Republicans for all sorts of imagined oppressions, what more remains for the left to talk about? Republicans are too sensible with our money? They want America to be too powerful and too free? Maybe immigration, except the Republican establishment is generally so eager to reform the system that Obama seems to be trying to torpedo the entire endeavor in order to keep it around to milk with chants of “¡Sí se puede!”
What’s left after the cultural issue scourging strips away the issues that most Americans hate? What remains are positions most Americans love?
In future elections, the Democrat desperately seeking to tar his opponent as anti-gay, anti-minority or anti-woman is going to have to contend with a Republican who is gay, a minority, a woman or even all three. Then what will the Democrat have to talk about? His party’s record on job creation? Ha!
Politics aren’t static – people and societies change, and what is a powerful line of attack in one election cycle may very well become a hackneyed cliché in the next. The fact is that even many conservatives are slowly embracing the cultural consensus – or just conceding the field by figuratively muttering “Whatever” (although how society is generally moving in a conservative direction on issues like life and religion is another subject entirely). Pretty soon, the liberal’s tired attacks on conservatives as culturally out of touch may draw shrugs instead of votes.
One moment, the liberals have harnessed a powerful meme; the next, it’s gone in a puff of smoke. As Gomer Pyle might say, ”Shazam!”