Skip to main content

When did the GOP become the whiners?

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
updated 6:57 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howell Raines: Romney press secretary's outburst at reporters part of new GOP whining
  • He says you know political ground shifting when a party complains about mistreatment
  • He says Romney faces team more like tough Kennedys of '60s, not usual whiny Democrats
  • Raines: Romney cries foul when opponent uses his own attack tactics; Dems being effective

Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney press secretary Rich Gorka's outburst in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, during which he told a reporter to "shove it," is of a piece with the Barnumesque spectacle of his candidate's world tour. But to this veteran of many campaign tours, the incident raises a provocative question about modern campaign history: When and how did the Republicans become the championship party of whining?

Rahm Emanuel brought it up earlier this month with his bracing instruction to Romney to quit complaining about Democrats' negative campaign ads. Such ads, deployed against Rick Santorum et al, were after all the instrument that brought Romney the GOP nomination.

Any short history of the whining sweepstakes should start by noting that a tectonic shift is taking place when the candidates and handlers of one side begin asking, in some form, this question: Why are they being allowed to do to us what we've happily been doing to them since -- to choose a recent precedent to this partisan shift -- the swift boating of John Kerry? You see what's that led to? Why, these Obamians want to turn Romney's brilliant business career into an unpatriotic defect!

News: Romney trip an 'embarrassing disaster,' Obama team says

Howell Raines
Howell Raines

The current situation is noteworthy because the Democratic Party seemed to have the exclusive franchise on piteous bleating dating back to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968 and throughout the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years. Truth be told, the Democrats managed to keep whining throughout most of the triumphant Bill Clinton years.

The game changer clearly has been Barack Obama, whose surprising taste for bloodying the noses of domestic critics and foreign adversaries seems to hark back to the last time the Democrats were unashamed political warriors.

That would be 1960, when John F. Kennedy and his snarling little brother Bobby made political "ruthlessness," unrestrained campaign spending, Teamster support and Mayor Richard Daley's vote-counting techniques into virtues. The era of bullying Democrats pretty well ended with Jimmy Carter's cardigan sweater and "malaise speech."

Video: Romney aide to media: 'Show respect!'

Then, with the victory of Reagan in 1980, the Democrats' claimed the whining trophy outright.

Walter Mondale sealed the Democratic ascendancy with his high-pitched complaints about Reagan's "compassion gap." And it has taken Romney to mount a full-scale effort to take back the title. (Pioneering credit, however, must be given to Sen. Bob Dole with his plaintive cries of "Where's the outrage?" in response to voters' apparently bottomless forgiveness for Clinton's shenanigans.)

To find the wellsprings of 2012 Republican whining, I think one has to look at the party's setters of tone and themes.

Start with Romney and his cries of foul over the Obama campaign's use of "Chicago-style" politics. The vibe of this complaint is that of a suburban prep schooler who has wandered into a playground where the mean city boys took his football and then twisted his arm really hard.

News: Romney trip may not matter much to voters in November

The signature moment in this year's use of the W word came in early July when an Obama staffer said that Romney was either a "felon" or was "misrepresenting" in his Federal filing about the length of his tenure as head of Bain Capital. Like much of today's campaign talk, the accusation was hyperbolic, verging on the demagogic. In other words, it was well within the strike zone the Republicans institutionalized in 1988 when they turned the GOP's amiable hitman Lee Atwater loose with his "Willie Horton" ad against Michael Dukakis.

But when the White House dared escalate the rhetorical arms race, Romney feigned outrage. Now he wanted an apology even though he had defended his own blistering attacks last spring on his primary rivals as a standard part of grown-up politics. Romney's campaign even piled one whine upon another by running a commercial showing a plaintive Hillary Clinton saying "Shame on you, Barack Obama" during the savage 2002 Democratic primaries.

"Stop whining!" Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, demanded on the George Stephanopoulous Sunday show recently. ""If you want to claim Bain Capital as your calling card to the White House, then defend what happened at Bain Capital."

There's something inescapably petulant about Romney's preference for critiquing all aspects of the economy—but not his role at Bain. The Democrats should turn a deaf ear to his pleas for mercy on his record as a businessman and tax shelterer. The new Quinnipiac poll figures showing Obama ahead in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania demonstrate that Republican-style attack politics work for anyone with the gumption to use them, including this year's pugnacious Democrats.

For the rest of this election season, if Democrats are smart, they'll keep reaching into the Lee Atwater bad-boy trick bag and let the season's reigning choir of complaint blend its many voices: the charismatic duo of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the tea party, the anchors and panelists of Fox News and now the hapless Rich Gorka.

They all seem to know the same tunes: Why don't voters believe what we do? Why isn't Obama the milquetoast he looks like? Why can't we change the photo-op rules for Mitt?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT