Why is Barack Obama vilifying Fox News? Why does Harry Reid push an immigration bill he knows can't pass? Why won't Chuck Schumer compromise on regulatory reform, and why does he try to hang Goldman Sachs around the GOP? Why did Bill Clinton blame conservatives who oppose big government for the Oklahoma City bombing?
All share one motivation: to increase their base's turnout in the off-year elections of 2010. Going after Fox News stimulates a feeling of victimization on the left. The immigration bill and the new Arizona law catalyze a Latino turnout. Goldman Sachs enrages liberal anti-Wall Street populists. By characterizing the Tea Party activists as dangerous, liberals are aroused to vote in November.
There are two ways to win any election: energize the base or appeal to the center. Obama is, predictibly, choosing the former, deliberately pushing policies that drive independents into Republican arms as the price for generating passion on the part of his supporters.
Turnout in presidential year elections averages about 20 points higher than in off-year legislative races. Normally, the decrease in turnout is primarily among the least educated voters -- African-Americans and Latino-Americans -- and among young voters. These groups are, of course, precisely those that rallied to back Obama and put him over the top in 2008. A falloff in their turnout would be fatal to Obama's hopes of continuing Democratic control of Congress.
So Obama is doing all he can to generate a turnout, even going to the lengths of fostering racial tensions over immigration to energize his base.
Ultimately, the two events of this past week -- the oil spill and the Times Square terror attack -- will work in opposite political directions. While Obama may lose the day-to-day effort to convince us that he acted in a timely way to contain the spill, the more damage the oil does, the more environmentalists will be activated and fears of offshore drilling will be stoked. Advantage: Obama.
And the reverse is true of the Times Square attack. While Attorney General Eric Holder and the Homeland Security folks may win the day-to-day coverage of how they located and arrested the terror suspect, pulling him off a plane on the runway at JFK, the entire episode will raise fears of terrorism. Voters will ask why we have had three attempted attacks on U.S. soil since Obama took office (Ft. Hood, Detroit airplane and Times Square), while we had none in the seven years of George W. Bush after Sept. 11. Advantage: Republicans.
The more either story has legs, the more the spill spreads and the more terror fears escalate, the more the respective political parties will benefit.