Having undergone training by students of Saul Alinsky, President Obama knows the value of a good enemy. By stirring up fear and hatred toward a key figure on the other side of the battlefield, Alinsky taught, organizers can fill their war chests and rally their troops. In the 1990s, the Democrats’ designated demon was Newt Gingrich. For the past several years, they counted on President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Now that Bush and Cheney are out of power, who is next?
Earlier this year, White House officials and other top Democrats tagged Rush Limbaugh as the leading figure in the GOP. They were hoping to put Republicans on the horns of a dilemma: defend Rush and alienate moderates, or criticize Rush and anger conservatives. They had fun for a while, but it would not have been smart to sustain the tactic for long. For one thing, it lacked plausibility. Only the most hydrophobic partisans actually believed Limbaugh was the driving force behind the Republican congressional delegation, and professionals such as Rahm Emanuel could barely stifle giggles while making the argument. For another, the attacks drove up the Limbaugh listenership. Recently, one Democratic leader told The Politico: “We have exhausted the use of Rush as an attention-getter.”
Democrats won’t find profitable enemies in the GOP congressional leadership. Unlike Gingrich, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell do not have a habit of making incendiary comments. And because the Democrats have such strong majorities in both chambers, they cannot claim that the minority leaders wield terrifying power. Their web ads sniff that the Republicans lack alternative programs, a claim that will hardly motivate the townsfolk to grab their pitchforks and torches.
There was some talk that they might focus on House Republican Whip Eric Cantor. But going after the House GOP’s number-two guy — practically unknown outside D.C. and his home district in Virginia — would be scraping the bottom of the villain barrel. If the Democrats ran anti-Cantor TV spots, most viewers would scratch their heads and ask: “Why on earth are they sliming some old-time radio singer?”
Wall Street might appear to be a ripe target, but Alinsky stressed that the enemy has to be a specific person, not a category or an abstraction. And if the Democrats tried to pick individual demons from the world of money, they would quickly find that a lot of them have Democratic ties. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the finance/insurance/real-estate sector gave just over half of its 2008 campaign contributions to Democrats. Over the years, for instance, Bernie Madoff gave a total of $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After hesitating for weeks, the DSCC announced last week that it would give the tainted money to victims of Madoff.
So is there anybody left for the Democrats to boo and hiss? Yes, there is one figure in Washington whom liberals really do hate and fear, because he could help thwart their policy goals, especially on social issues.
That person is Chief Justice John Roberts.
In many ways, Roberts is the perfect enemy for the Democrats. He’s a conservative white male who owes his appointment to the hated President Bush. One of his core principles is that the judiciary should make decisions on a purely legal basis instead of a policy basis. President Obama thinks that judges should be champions of the powerless, regardless of the law. As a senator he voted against confirming Roberts, saying that he had “used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.” Therefore, the president would probably be happy to see Roberts’s face on issue ads and his name in fundraising letters. Even better, Roberts could not defend himself, since justices are severely constrained in their public statements.
In a recent talk with reporters, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave us a preview of this line of attack. Roberts, he said, misled the Senate during his confirmation hearings by posing as a moderate even though he had a nefarious conservative agenda all along. Expect much more in this vein the next time the Supreme Court issues a decision that upsets liberals — on abortion, gay marriage, or even the Minnesota Senate race.
If the chief justice wants to know what he might be facing soon, he should take a break from the law books and thumb through the works of Saul Alinsky.