On a recent trip to Omaha, Neb., I found a note prominently displayed in my hotel room warning of the possibility of “extreme weather” including “tornadic activity.” The clunky euphemism was no doubt meant to soften or obscure what they were obliged to communicate: There may be a tornado, look out.
That’s what’s going on nationally. Tornadoes are tearing up the political landscape.
Everyone talks about the tensions between the Republican establishment, such as it is, and the tea-party-leaning parts of its base. But are you looking at what’s happening with the Democrats?
Tensions between President Obama and his supporters tore into the open this week as never before, signifying a real and developing fracturing of his party. Mr. Obama, in an interview in Rolling Stone, aimed fire at those abandoning him: “It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election.” The Democratic base “sitting on their hands complaining” is “just irresponsible. . . . We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard—that’s what I said during the campaign. . . . But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”
At first I thought this was another example of the president’s now-habitual political ineptness, his off-key-ness. You don’t diss people into voting for you, you can’t lecture them into love. The response from the left was fierce, unapologetic—and accusatory. Mr. Obama had let them down, he’d taken half measures. “Stop living in that bubble,” shot back an activist on cable. But Jane Hamsher of the leftist blog Firedoglake saw method, not madness. She described the president’s remarks as “hippie punching” and laid them to cynical strategy: “It’s about setting up a narrative for who will take the blame for a disastrous election.” She said Mr. Obama’s comments themselves could “depress turnout.”
Take the blame? Disastrous? Setting up a narrative?
This isn’t the language of disagreement, the classic to-and-fro between a restive base and politicians who make compromises. This is the language of estrangement. It is the language of alienation.
There is a war beginning in the Democratic Party, and the president has lost control of his base.
The Democratic leadership in the House appears to have lost another kind of control, fleeing Washington without passing a federal budget or extending even part of the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire on Jan. 1. Democrats hold a solid majority in the House. They have a hitherto-powerful speaker. And the decision to adjourn passed by only a single vote—that of Nancy Pelosi, who saw 39 Democrats join the Republicans in dissenting.
The Democratic Party right now is showing signs of coming apart under the pressure of the election and two years of an unpopular presidency. But it’s not a split in two, with the left versus the establishment. It’s more like a splintering, with left-leaning activists distancing themselves from the party’s politicians, and moderate politicians distancing themselves from Mr. Obama.
And part of what’s driving it is what is driving the evolution of the Republican Party. The Internet changed everything. Everyone has facts now, knows who voted how and why. New thought leaders spring up and lead in new directions. Total transparency leads to party fracturing. Information dings unity. We are in new territory.
Another tornado: The president’s influential counselor, David Axelrod, attempted this week to insinuate into the election what Democrats used to deride as “wedge issues.” In an interview he said abortion will “certainly be an issue,” for Democrats. It will be raised “across the country.”
This suggests a certain desperation. Whatever stand you take on the social issues, you have to be blind to think they will make a big difference this year. The issue this year is the size, role, weight and demands of government, and the public sense that its members selfishly look to their own needs and not those of the country. A GOP congressman told me this week that he very much disagrees with the characterization of tea party and Republican voters as enraged or livid. They are scared, he said. He has never, in two decades in politics, heard so many people tell him they are “scared,” frightened for their own futures and for the future of their country.
No one will get revved in the way Mr. Axelrod hopes who isn’t already a reliable Democratic vote. His raising of a wedge issue speaks not only of a certain cynicism but of what appears to be an endemic White House cluelessness.
Yet another tornado: The Democrats have begun what Grover Norquist predicted a month ago. They saved their money for the end of the campaign and have begun running negative ads. They are not speaking in support of their own votes on health care and other issues. They are avoiding the subject of their own votes on health care and other issues. They are focusing instead on accusations of personal scandal. Both parties have done this in the past, to their mutual shame. But this year, with some exceptions and for obvious reasons, it appears to be largely a Democratic game. At this point in history, with America teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, negative advertising is even more destructive, more actually wicked, than it was in the past.
Negative advertising tears everything down. It contributes to the cynicism of the populace, especially the young. It undermines the faith in government Democrats are always asking us to have, by undermining respect for those who govern, or who seek to. It wears everyone down. And in the long term, though this can never be quantified, it keeps from electoral politics untold numbers of citizens who could bring their gifts and guts to helping solve our problems. I will never forget the visionary real-world entrepreneur who sighed, when I once urged him to enter politics, “I’ve lived an imperfect life. They’d kill me.”
But let’s go to what is traditionally the only way journalists and political professionals judge such ads: Do they work? In the past they have. But here’s a hunch: This year they will not be so effective.
The primary reason is the severity of the moment. But another is that negative ads worked so well in the past. For a generation, the American people have been told their politicians are lowlifes. You know what they now think of them? They think they’re lowlifes! People don’t really expect high character from their political figures anymore. “Congressman Smith cheated on his wife.” That’s her problem. Cut my taxes.
Good practical advice on all this comes from Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels, who met this week in New York with conservative activists, journalists and historians. Our country is in real peril, he said, we have a short time to do big things to get it right. Republicans “need to campaign to govern, not merely to win.” If Democrats are “the worst, the most malevolent” in their campaigning, “don’t match ‘em, let ‘em.” Be better. Be serious about the issues at a serious time.
What appears to be coming is a Republican rout. The main reason is the growing connection between public desire on various issues and Republican stands on those issues. But another is what is happening among Democrats—the rise of a spirit of destruction, and the increasing fact of fractured unity.