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The Right Loses Its Fight

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

These are very tricky times for conservatives in America. For starters, they don't really have a candidate. OK, that's familiar. More unusual: They don't really have an opponent to hate.

Can that be?

Conservatives still hate Obamacare (even if whatever we have that isn't Obamacare seems worse than any possible replacement could be). They still rant and rave about the deficit and stimulus money and even about bailing out their friends and relations.

But the one thing that conservatives cannot rant and rave about is what has been their most predictable refrain since the Cold War: national security. Of all the things President Obama has done to conservatives in America, this may be the cruelest. He has taken away their national security argument.

Democrats are supposed to be "weak" on foreign policy, the kind of people who love to talk about the UN instead of unilateral action; of diplomacy, not airpower; of bringing the troops home, not sending more to serve abroad. It is because Democrats are supposed to be (and, some would say, often are) so many of those things that they end up wandering around tank factories wearing silly hats. It is because they don't want to be called any of those things that the party would jump to nominate a candidate with military experience, even if he had more experience opposing military positions than serving in them.

Barack Obama is definitely a different kind of Democrat. He is not afraid to be called a liberal. On the other hand, by many liberals' lights, he isn't one.

On national security, perhaps to everyone's surprise, he has done exactly what he said he would do. He said he would reduce American troop presence in Iraq. He said he would put priority on Afghanistan and even increase troops to get the upper hand. He said he would support efforts to secure democracy around the world.

Some days, liberals definitely have a problem figuring him out. Is this our guy who is sending more troops to Afghanistan? Our guy who has authorized bombing raids in Libya? It is.

He is the same man who gets credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, whom even Dick Cheney has to praise, and he is not the host of "Celebrity Apprentice."

How could such a thing happen to conservatives in America? How do they attack a guy who is doing exactly what they could only hope one of their own would do -- if he were to manage what now seems the modern miracle of getting elected?

They look around. They look frustrated. Watch TV these days, and you'll see a lot of frustrated conservatives, eyes darting in search of someone to attack, forced to admit that they agree with Obama here and there and everywhere -- but that it doesn't mean a single thing.

As any veteran of politics in the past 30 years can tell you, the sword is stronger than the shield. Attack politics work. Getting people to hate the other guy is almost always easier than getting them to like you. Getting them to give money to take a stand against something invariably yields more funds than an impassioned appeal to give money for a good cause.

So imagine the predicament for Republicans. Their best strategists are already telling them it's time to back away from the wedge issues that defined the party for decades. Opposing abortion doesn't get you to 51 percent -- and may cost you that prize. Neither does opposing gay rights. Gays in the military is history. Even immigration has a politically dangerous downside. And now you're taking away "weak on terrorism."

What is an independent group loaded with dough to do? Ask people to trust that the Republicans will be better on Social Security? I don't think so.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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