Straw Men

Jay Cost believes the administration's publicists are looking for something to knock down. It's what they do best, so they need to go on the offensive, on the attack, to make way again. This was easy in the past when they were in opposition. Now that they're the Man they need a Straw Man to achieve the same thing. Since they are in power, the idea this time is to portray President Obama the moderate saving the world from the extremists of the Tea Party.

The old formulas have gone terribly wrong. The stimulus isn't working. Health care isn't taking. The Republican establishment isn't talking, paralyzed by the fear of clamoring activists outside their window. Nothing is working so the strategists are working overtime.  The New York Times said the President's political advisers, looking for a way to salvage his political fortunes "are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said".

For this to work the Tea Party movement has to be demonized but good. They must be portrayed, not just as persons in disagreement, but as evil incarnate. Jennifer Steinhauer quoted Mark Alan Siegel, chairman of the Democratic Party in Palm Beach County, Florida as saying “our strategy is to help voters understand that what these folks are talking about is so far out of the American mainstream that they represent a clear and present danger to the political health of the country.” Some will argue that the Tea Party movement is so dangerous its mere existence will infect the Republicans.

Pennsylvania’s governor, Edward G. Rendell, said Democrats could argue that even a non-Tea Party candidate could soon become a Tea Party lawmaker. “The refrain that I would take,” he said, “is if you vote for a Republican you are probably taking a step toward ensuring that the Republican Party is going to get control of the reins of the House, and the party itself is going to be influenced by the Tea Partiers.”

These talking points have already had comedic results. Reacting to Donna Brazile's declaration that "the party of Eisenhower and Reagan is moribund, usurped by the party of Tea Partyers shouting loudly for something, or perhaps nothing at all", Jay Cost wrote, "first of all, I love that Ronald Reagan is suddenly a moderate!"  Because whatever Reagan was, he wasn't twisted by hate. It is hate, according to Bill Clinton, that has shocked and disoriented President Obama. On CBS's Face the Nation the former chief executive expressed the belief that President Obama is struggling to regain his footing after discovering that he could find no one to talk to in a GOP become as rabid as a mad dog.

"When he got elected, the first thing he said was, 'I don't want any investigations into the Bush years; I want to go right ahead. We want to get this country moving again,'" Mr. Clinton told host Bob Schieffer. "He kept thinking that he would find some partners in the Republican Party. He didn't. ...

Of the opposition coming from Republicans to any proposal put forth by Mr. Obama, Clinton said, "I think that it disoriented him for a while. He just kept trying and kept trying. I also think he believed that if he accomplished a lot on the legislative front, that would be reflected in a better political climate. But the problem is there's a huge lag time once you get in a deep economic hole between digging out of it and having people feel it.

The line is that 'extremists' are standing in the way of recovery. The fond hope of Democratic strategists is see their political opponents divided into two camps. In the first camp they hope to gather the Republican establishment with whom they feel they can make a deal.  In the second camp they hope to isolate the intransigent Tea Party, which won't listen to the what passes for reason in Chicago, and worse, has nobody to pow-wow with. The natural way forward would be to drive a wedge between the Republican Establishment and the "extremists". Hence Brazile's sudden fondness for Ronald Reagan and concern that his legacy might be corrupted by know-nothings. Clinton takes the line forward but without much apparent enthusiasm.

But Jay Cost argues it is too late for such straw-man tactics: "it's clear by now that the midterm is going to be about the deeply unpopular policies of President Obama. Attacking the Tea Partiers is not going to distract them because the Tea Partiers have had nothing to do with those policies. This cycle, the GOP has the better argument, and it is not going to take the bait. Republican candidates everywhere will answer the charge of radicalism with a simple question: "'Where are the jobs, Mr. President?'".

What is working against the administration is the daily experience of hard times. One woman at a Town Hall told the President of the slow collapse back into the "hotdogs and beans era of our lives", to which Obama could only respond by counseling patience. Fore once President Obama was unable to "freeze and personalize a target" because the only individual who could reasonably be held responsible for a return to the age of beans and weiners was himself. His problem was to find someone outside the building to blame. So far, he's had no luck.

Michael Tomasky of the Guardian believes that even the White House undertands the dangers of lashing out against the ghostly Tea Party. "It's risking more political capital to "nationalize" a campaign in this way."  By attacking the Tea Party they may only build it up. Gandhi summed up the danger of empires attacking gnats when said:  "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Tomasky added that a lot of people in the President's own ranks were feeling the heat.

Another reason not to do this is that too many House and Senate Democrats, alas, don't want anything to do with Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi - such that, for example, they fully support the Glenn Beck tax cut. So there will not be party unity behind this attack and it will be undercut from within.

The Nays have won the argument against the big government solution, but the Hope and Changers won't admit it, not even the coded and hedged style of Bill Clinton.  Still the defeats mount and the fight may going out of even the paid hacks, as Andrew Breitbart discovered when he took on a whole crowd of Democratic protesters and actually forced them back in shame. The weight of failure, not the lack of straw, was crushing the Obama administration. Even Clinton's hope that Obama's re-election chances would be boosted by a Republican victory, which would force them to "share some of the responsibility" fell clattering to the floor. If the GOP could not be welded to the Tea Party then affixing the blame of "moderate" Republicans would simply amount to destroying whatever RINOs Bill Clinton hoped to deal with.  He would be destroying his own enemy "moderates". The publicists are still looking for an effective way roll back popular discontent without touching the policies which caused it. In this they will probably fail. Illusion has its limits when set against the hard edge of reality.