Then there's this question of "hardball." This is broader than the Rand/Conway race, but what, exactly, is the evidence for the widespread Democratic belief that Republicans are ruthlessly effective tacticians while they are wilting violets? [...]
A lot of liberals I know believe that conservatives are coldblooded in a way they simply aren't, but should be. And so on some level, they're really glad to see Democrats bringing a howitzer to a gun fight. But I just don't see the evidence that this stuff is working out for Republicans. What accomplishments do they have to show for it? What enduring majorities? Where's the payoff for quieting your conscience? Putting aside the morality of "these vicious, horrible people will do anything to win, and therefore so too should we," where's the evidence that it works?
The other part of this is that conservative activists believe the exact opposite -- they believe that Republican pols are a bunch of wimpy, half-hearted idealists who allow ruthless liberal Democrats, who play this game for keeps, to trample all over them. Indeed, this follows the Iron Law of Politics that everyone believes that the other side is better at the mechanics of politics: the other side is always more ruthless in their exploitation of the rules and willingness to ignore ethical niceties, more tactically adept, better at extracting money from their base, and (depending on who is complaining) either better at ignoring the policy demands of their crazy ideological base in order to win the center or better at addressing the policy demands of the base, while our side uses and then ignores the policy demands of the base.
In a second item, Klein notes as evidence of successful GOP hardball tactics the Swift Boaters from 2004; while he doesn't include it, many Democrats believe that a difference in willingness to fight hard was responsible for the outcome of the 2000 recount. But Republicans have their own list of grievances, including the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush's driving record in 2000 and the stuff about his military service in 2004.
While I'm not sure that I would say that both parties are in all cases equally ruthless, or equally unethical, I would say with some confidence that most of this is just the Iron Law in action, nothing more. That's not to say that the parties have followed identical strategies; Republicans, as far as I can see much more than Democrats, have exploited situations in which ignoring unwritten rules can help them, such as the decision to redistrict in Texas once the GOP took control, rather than waiting for the next census. In opposition in Congress, Republicans in 1993 and 2009 followed rejectionist strategies, while Democrats in 2001-2006 for the most part did not. But as far as I can tell, those are choices (right or wrong) of optimal strategy, not a question of guts vs. fecklessness. And I agree: to the extent that the parties have followed different strategies, it's not at all clear that Republicans have benefited.