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."
It also makes the president’s more recent calls for civility – like his commencement speech last Saturday at the University of Michigan where he said: “You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it” -- ring hollow or even hypocritical. The address made him sound like a victim -- the target of over-the-top attacks -- not a perpetrator of the same crime.
Only three explanations for the Democrats’ politics of contempt seem possible.
First, they’re electorally dim-witted or politically tone deaf. I don’t buy this argument. Based on their performance at the polls in 2006 and 2008, first in Congress and then in the race for the White House, most Democrats understand politics.
Second, they believe Americans want Democrats to find and challenge bad guys. Perhaps. But if the solution to the rogue-induced problem is always the same – create a new federal program, spend more federal money, let Washington figure it out -- many voters get nervous. They’ve heard it before, and they’re not sure it works.
The third explanation makes the most sense. It’s all about mobilizing the faithful. Going into the first midterm election, the president and Democrats need to reenergize their political base. Turnout in these contests typically drops 10-20 percent, and it’s important to get supporters to vote. Demonizing Bush, insurers, CEOs, Wall Street could do the trick, while simultaneously playing the victim card might do just that.
Democrats are panicked the bottom could fall out this November, causing them to lose a massive number of congressional seats. Mobilizing base voters could create a firewall of protection from a worst-case scenario. Building contempt among these core voters is one possible way to do that, but it’s a few degrees lower on the idealism meter than “hope and change.”