I think I finally understand what is wrong with the Republican Party of Virginia. I think I've discovered the key to why the RPV has presided over so many losses statewide in recent years and why all signs point to a continuation of this pattern. I've even coined a name for it: the "RPV death spiral."
The starting point for the RPV's death spiral is the fact that the Republicans really don't have anything positive to offer Virginians. The RPV is largely defined by what it is against; it really isn't for anything. It occasionally couches it's policies in "faux-pro" language, but nobody is fooled anymore. "Pro-marriage" is transparently anti-gay, because nothing the Republicans have ever suggested has helped anyone stay married: all their "pro-marriage" legislation is really aimed at hurting gay people because they hate gay people.
Their so-called "pro-life" agenda is anything but "pro." It's aimed at taking away reproductive rights from uppity women. The Republican Party has shown no interest whatsoever in ensuring that the lives of children are better, that they have a fighting chance at a positive future. Republicans oppose SCHIP and any other kind of public health. At least one Republican candidate for elective office in Virginia this year has advocated doing away with all funding for public schools!
The Republican Party has staked itself out as the anti-government party. All it promises to do if elected is to dismantle government and--privately--to arrange corrupt sweetheart deals for their supporters. With nothing positive to propose, with nothing positive to defend, the Republicans can only attack--and therein lies their Achilles heel.
Republicans pride themselves on their ability to deliver extremely nasty personal attacks against their opponents. In the past they have had some success with this methodology, but with the rise of new medias this strategy has fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns: the more they use it, the less effective it becomes.
Have you ever noticed that Republicans never seem to know when they've gone too far?
I first noticed this back during Jerry Kilgore's campaign for governor. Kilgore spent tens of millions of dollars to self-destruct spectacularly--his "Hitler" ads cost Kilgore tens of thousands of votes. His inability to pledge to limit his negative attack ads to less than half when prodded by Larry Sabato cost him many, many more. Kilgore's mentor George Allen self-destructed a year later in an even more memorable fashion.
What did both of these races have in common? What will they have in common with future Republican campaigns? In a word, nastiness. Not just any kind of nastiness, but unrelenting, unreasoning, unstoppable nastiness. Don't get me wrong: Democrats use negative tactics too, they just use them very differently. If a Democratic candidate goes too far or if a negative line of messaging appears to be failing, a Democrat will back away, change themes, maybe even go positive and talk about plans for the future.
Not so with Republican campaigns. We've all seen the pattern repeat itself, time and again. A Republican candidate decides to go negative and launches a series of negative television ads or mailers. Sometimes this works; often--and more and more, lately--the negative attack fails and even damages the Republican candidate. Think Kilgore's Hitler ads; remember Allen pedophilia ads. Both of these attacks failed miserably. Did the Republicans back up? Did they "go positive"?
Of course they didn't. They did what they always do: they went more and more negative.
Looking back you can almost see them scratching their heads, asking themselves what went wrong? The answer always seems to be the same, they always conclude that their attacks didn't go far enough. "If only we had been nastier," they seem to say. "We let up too early, we should have taken it even further--meaner with more money and more TV spots."
It is this dynamic that forms the RPV death spiral. As each progressively nastier attack fails, they devise additional, progressively nastier attacks. They sink lower and lower . . . and fail.
They have already promised us the nastiest campaign in Virginia History aimed at Mark Warner next year. It looks as though they'll never learn, and that's something Virginia's Democrats have cause to be thankful for.