Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress didn’t invent the politics of vilification, and they will not be the last to practice it. The president and his political allies, however, have refined the practice to an art form – they say they abhor vilification, yet consistently demonize when promoting their legislative aims.
But will it work?
Some of the best stories include the worst villains. And political tales are no exception. But the president and Democrats in Congress jumped the shark, in terms of predictability. A clear blueprint has emerged over the past 16 months. Every time the White House and its allies on the Hill decide to promote a legislative initiative they slaughter a sacrificial lamb.
Despite the president’s calls for a new politics in 2008, the vilification began almost immediately after his inauguration. Early last year, the majority in Congress and the president wanted an excuse to spend a lot of money on an economic stimulus bill.
The playbook was simple. First, find a rogue. How about George W. Bush? His policies produced a sputtering economy, faltering financial institutions, crumbling infrastructure -- if it weren’t for his presidency, the story goes, we wouldn’t have to do all this.
Nancy Pelosi got the memo. "The Bush Administration policies created a huge jobs deficit, and getting Americans back to work has been and will remain our top priority," she said in a statement quoted in The Hill newspaper in December of 2009
So did President Obama, although he was more circumspect when it came to demonizing his predecessor by name: "By any measure, my administration has inherited a fiscal disaster,” the president lamented in a speech last March.
Same story on health care. But this time the insurance industry was in the barrel. The speaker joined the public relations fusillade last summer imploring her troops to fight the “immoral villains.” "Of course, they've been immoral all along," she scolded, according to Politico. "They are the villains in this, they have been part of the problem in a major way.”
Obama piled on last month, leading the Washington Post to write: “The messages are part of a strategy that Obama and those around him have begun to employ lately, to ratchet up the pace and the populist appeal of their rhetoric against the health insurance industry.”
The bus continues to drive on. Over the past year, “Big Oil” took its lumps, while CEO’s have been a recurring piñata. Wall Street has now joined the villain of the month club.
True, some folks deserve a little demonization now and then. But why has this pattern become such a predictable part of every single major issue Obama and Democrats pursue? It seems odd and even unprecedented in terms of frequency.
Capitol Hill and White House veterans told me they don’t recall this kind of regular singling out as a political strategy. “The Clintons bemoaned the ‘politics of personal destruction,’ but they were responding to attacks on them.” In other words, they were on defense, not offense.
These tactics also contradict the president’s lofty aspirations in his inaugural address where he beckoned us to bring "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."