Forget about the "Eleventh Commandment" — Ronald Reagan’s famous admonition that Republicans not attack each other. In South Carolina, in this week’s first-in-the-South Republican debate, it was every man for himself, and the gloves came off.
Unlike the silly session sponsored recently by MSNBC at the Reagan Library, the South Carolina debate was serious, substantive and pretty darn vicious considering how early it is in this campaign.
In part, that was the result of the very smart questioning of our FOX News Channel friends, Chris Wallace, Wendell Goler and especially moderator Brit Hume — who came off as the sharpest person on the stage.
But it was also a reflection of the dynamics of the race, with the three front-runners trying to hold onto that status and the second-tier candidates trying to show that none of those three deserve the votes of true conservatives.
Of course, the Democrats also have three front-runners trying to hold onto their leads and an array of second-tier candidates trying to break through. And certainly, in men like Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, you have Democratic candidates unafraid to take on the front-runners in terms as harsh as any used by Ron Paul or Tom Tancredo last night.
But there is a very big difference between the Democrats’ attacks on each other and the Republican version, in terms of the potential damage it may do to the party and its nominee.
The big issue on the Democratic side is which candidate is MOST against the war in Iraq. That is important to Democratic primary voters, who are overwhelmingly liberal, but it’s hard to see how the eventual nominee will be hurt in the long run by the Iraq issue. Quite the contrary: Whoever the Democrats ultimately run will be the anti-war candidate — which is the majority position in this country — as compared to his or her Republican opponent, who will, one way or the other, be stuck defending a war most Americans have come to hate.
The fact that Hillary Clinton wasn’t as early or outspoken in her opposition as some in the party would have liked, or that John Edwards initially supported the war, is not going to hurt either of them in a general election against someone who is still arguing that we were right to invade Iraq.
The Republican debate, by contrast, highlights issues on which conservatives are in a minority. In a country that has accepted Roe v. Wade and does not seek a return to the criminalization of abortion, the Republicans are tearing each other apart over who hates Roe the most, and for how long they’ve hated it and who can be trusted to get rid of it.
In a country still reeling from the massacre at Virginia Tech, the Republicans attack each other for not being strong enough supporters of the right to own assault weapons. Bipartisan efforts to enact legislation, which most Americans strongly favor, are a no-no in Republican debates, as the repeated debate attacks on John McCain for working with Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold underscored.
Only a hard-core, punitive approach to immigration will do among the Republican hard core, while a majority of Americans support a more moderate solution that includes both enforcement at the border and an opportunity for those who are already here, working and paying taxes, to attain legal status.
So while the Democrats debate their degrees of separation on Iraq in a context that puts all of them on the same side as the majority of voters on that issue (considered by that majority to be the most important in the campaign), the Republicans debate about who is the most consistently conservative on hot-button topics that most Americans either disagree with their viewpoints on or don’t really care about.
The danger for the Republicans is that in trying to “win” the internal debate about conservatism, they will damage themselves in the eyes of the always-decisive swing voters who will ultimately be looking for someone in the middle.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.