Just three weeks before Election Day, Democrats are still searching for demons.
Why? Richard Nixon once explained: “Politics is battle, and the best way to fire up your troops is to rally them against a visible opponent on the other side of the field. If a loyal supporter will fight hard for you, he will fight twice as hard against your enemies.”
President Obama has long heeded this advice. His early political training came from disciples of Saul Alinsky, who also taught about the value of villains. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he fired up his supporters against President Bush. Since his election, however, he’s had a hard time finding foes who not only can stir up the base but can scare independent voters over to his side.
Early last year, White House officials and their allies denounced Rush Limbaugh, dubbing him the leader of the Republican party. They amused themselves with the claim, but in the end, the attacks only served to increase Limbaugh’s audience. A Democratic leader told Politico: “We have exhausted the use of Rush as an attention-getter.”
The Limbaugh gambit fizzled for lack of plausibility. A talk-show host who has never held office and often faults Republicans is hardly believable as the GOP’s leader. As I predicted back in March 2009, Chief Justice Roberts was the next logical target. Though Roberts is not a party leader, he does have real power. And sure enough, the president took the unusual step of attacking the Citizens United decision during his 2010 State of the Union address, with Roberts and the Supremes sitting in front on him. He has kept it up, most recently sneering at “the Roberts court” in his Rolling Stone interview.
That tactic has failed, too. Months after the president’s sniping began, only 28 percent of respondents in a Pew survey could even identify Roberts as chief justice. (Given a choice of names, 8 percent picked the long-deceased Thurgood Marshall.) The basis for the president’s attacks is Citizens United, and the only people who strongly care about it are political junkies and wonks. (A political junkie is someone who knows about campaign finance laws. A political wonk is someone who actually understands them. Both categories make up a tiny share of the electorate.)
In any case, the party of George Soros has no credibility on the issue. A few weeks ago, the president repeated his Roberts-court-has-opened-the-money-floodgates message at a $30,000-a-plate DNC fundraiser, demonstrating that he lacks self-awareness and a sense of irony.
The search for demons is getting desperate. For a brief time, the president aimed at House GOP Leader John Boehner, even though the minority party in the House has practically no say over anything. The short-lived assault had little impact: Two-thirds of respondents in an NBC-Wall Street Journal polleither did not know the well-tanned Boehner or were neutral. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any deep prejudice against orange people.
In recent days, there has been a new target. President Obama and his supporters have suggested that sinister outside groups are influencing elections with tainted money, including foreign donations. The New York Times, however, has acknowledged that the Democrats have no evidence for the charge. But President Obama has cited Karl Rove by name, and a DNC attack ad accuses Rove and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie of “stealing our democracy.”
That approach won’t work either. Even though the most partisan Democrats dislike Rove, most Americans don’t have a negative (or positive) opinion. And while Gillespie is highly regarded among political professionals, he has such a low profile with the general public that pollsters don’t even ask about him. The only people who would respond to the attacks are political junkies with a paranoia problem. If the person next to you in the subway or supermarket line is muttering about “the Gillespie threat,” avoid eye contact and step away quickly.
There you have it: The Democrats are in such bad shape that they have to rally people who are off their meds.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.