Harry Reid isn’t backing down from his claim that rancher Cliven Bundy’s supporters are “domestic terrorists.”
It’s astonishing rhetoric given the White House’s characterization of the mass shooting by a genuine terrorist, Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 Americans at the Fort Hood Army base after yelling “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great.) Rather than labeling Hasan’s actions “domestic terrorism,” the Obama administration is prosecuting him for having committed “workplace violence.”
Democratic rhetoric is become ever more desperate and overheated as we approach the November midterm elections. Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that GOP positions on immigration were motivated by racism. She was followed by Representative Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who said, “To a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements animated by racism.” Even some leftists, such as Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, have rebuked the excess of these attacks. Referring to Democrats’ use of the “equal pay” issue to buttress claims that Republicans are waging “a war on women,” Marcus wrote, “The level of hyperbole — actually of demagoguery — that Democrats have engaged in here is revolting.”
What is going on? Increasingly, journalists who cover the White House are concluding that the smears are part of a conscious strategy to distract voters from Obamacare, the sluggish economy, and foreign-policy reverses; the attacks are intended, the thinking goes, to drive up resentment and hence turnout among the Democratic base.
Major Garrett, the CBS White House correspondent, has talked with White House aides who confirm that the administration is working from the theory of “stray voltage,” as developed by former White House senior adviser David Plouffe. “The theory goes like this,” Garrett wrote. “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness,”
Deliberately misstating information about key issues in order to keep certain issues before the public is often a premeditated strategy. “The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office,” John Dickerson wrote at Slate. “Facts, schmacts. As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good.”
Frank James of NPR is another mainstream journalist who has concluded that the use of incendiary rhetoric is part of an electoral strategy. “Social scientists who have studied voters have found that voter participation rises when voters are emotionally engaged,” he noted. “For some voters, suggestions that some of the opposition to Obama and his policies is more than just honest disagreement — and is indeed racially based — could help do the trick.”
I’m not so sure. Democratic consultants may not care in the short term that such tactics diminish the office of the president and undermine trust among the American people. But Dickerson suggests that presidents are right to “worry that people won’t think they aren’t honest or trustworthy if they keep using facts that don’t pan out.” A new Fox poll finds that 61 percent of Americans now believe that President Obama lies some or all of the time on “important matters,” while only 15 percent say Obama never lies. But among his base voters, 37 percent of African Americans and 31 percent of Democrats say he never lies: These are the people Democrats hope can be brought to the polls with overheated rhetoric.
The White House, of course, denies that deliberate deception is its strategy. But they’ve been caught too often in the web of their own cynicism. Recall President Obama’s statement “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your health-care plan. Period.” The White House tried to blame insurers, even though it was Obamacare that had forced them to end their policies, and it kept up that fiction even after it was revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services had predicted plans would be canceled within weeks of Obamacare’s passage. The Obama administration was left with the lame claim that, in effect, its left hand hadn’t known what its extreme left hand had decided were the facts.
Some political scientists think the White House is playing a clever game, but not necessarily a successful one. Michael McDonald, an expert at George Mason University on voter turnout, is dubious that Democrats can successfully drive base voters to the polls by cherry-picking Dem-friendly issues. “They’re basically trying to reengineer the electorate,” McDonald said last week. “History is not on their side.” Indeed, in special election after special election this year, Democratic turnout has been down and Republicans have won surprising victories — from San Diego to Connecticut to Arlington, Va. As Abraham Lincoln is credited (probably erroneously) with saying: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Democrats may not be able to fool enough of the people this time — we’ll find out in November.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.