Will it be easier to persuade people that Barack Obama is wrong on the issues or to try to convince them that he is outright evil?
That’s a crucial question facing conservatives as we gear up for fateful election battles in 2010 and 2012.
Based on human nature and political history, the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Americans have often felt that our leaders make mistakes or pursue destructive policies but we have rarely (if ever) believed that they did it deliberately to damage the country. In the last 80 years, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush all got voted out of office by an angry electorate but a majority of the public never embraced the idea that these floundering presidents were actually bad guys. Only during President Nixon’s Watergate scandal did a substantial segment of the population come to believe that their president might well be evil or insane, and that belief led directly to the president’s resignation. The next impeachment crisis turned out very differently, of course: with GOP efforts to portray Bill Clinton as a dangerous ethical monster bringing the president the highest approval ratings of his career from a public that preferred to view him as a lovable (or at least forgivable) rogue.
Despite this history, many conservatives insist on outspokenly demonizing Barack Obama and express self-righteous certainty that these paranoid characterizations represent an effective political strategy. Leading talk show hosts repeatedly declare that the president is pursuing a diabolical, deliberate scheme to wreck the U.S. economy so that a desperate, impoverished populace will welcome the imposition of socialism. A prominent new group called the “Impeach Obama Campaign” asks: “Are you willing to let him construct a totalitarian regime: fascism, socialism, Obamaism… take your pick?” The leaders of this new movement (including former GOP office-holders and prominent political professionals) go on to declare: “Make no mistake. We’re now in the middle of a bloodless coup — the takeover of an entire nation by the hate-America crowd — a cold-blooded gang that despises America’s prosperity, our standing in the world, our trust in God and our generosity and goodness….What can we do to stop this monomaniac, this American dictator?”
This sort of rhetoric has encouraged a climate of opinion among conservatives that resulted in an alarming Harris Poll in the midst of the recent health care debate. According to a survey of 2,230 individuals, 57% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim, 45% agree that he “was not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president,” and 38% back the statement that “Obama is doing many of the things that Hitler did.”
If sane conservatives refuse to confront and discredit such attitudes and arguments, we will help to ensure the president’s re-election and the bitter collapse of the conservative movement. For several reasons, the instinct to portray the president as a traitor, an alien, a would-be dictator or a deliberate nation-wrecker represents a suicidally stupid strategy for blocking his power.
1. Obama remains far more popular than his policies. The ten most recent major polls on the president’s job approval (taken between March 10 and 26th) all showed an almost even division among the public, with no more than 50% and no less than 45% supporting the president’s performance in office (he averaged 47.1%). On health care, however, eleven polls (between March 3 and 21st) showed average support for Obama’s approach of only 39.4%, with every one of them showing more people opposed to the proposed reform than backing it. Why should Republicans concentrate their fire on the president’s personality and motivations, where at least half the country is still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, rather than focusing on his ruinous policies, where most people already agree with us? In fact, debating the president’s character, or arguing about whether he truly intends to harm the nation, only takes attention away from his specific mistakes and wastes energy on an irrelevant argument we ultimately can’t win. No matter how fervently some movement conservatives may believe that the President of the United States intends to pursue some mad kamikaze mission of wrecking the country he leads, each time the TV screen fills with gauzy images of a smiling Obama interacting with his beautiful family, or the elegant commander in chief saluting the troops or performing some traditional ceremonial function, most viewers will come away convinced that he’s a hardworking guy who’s trying his best.
2. Hysterical rhetoric about socialist takeover and looming dictatorship will lead the public to fear conservatives more than they fear the president. The same Harris Poll that showed a majority of GOP’ers think Obama is a Muslim also suggested that a full 24% of Republicans believe he “may be the Antichrist.” Why would independent, moderate or undecided voters ever want to associate themselves with such people? When Tea Party supporters eagerly tell the smirking New York Times about their preparations for armed resistance and potential civil war, most politically disengaged Americans (precisely the segment of the population we need to reach) will run in horror in the other direction. If we talk about out-of-control spending, rising deficits and the potential of economic disaster, we make the situation and Obama’s policies sound scary. If instead we talk about some invisible cabal to inflict totalitarian takeover, while we promise to play the role of musket-toting Colonial Minutemen, we make ourselves sound scary. Describing Obama as a Marxist or a Muslim or a scheming nation-wrecker doesn’t isolate him; it isolates us.
3. Pronouncements about “the end of freedom” or “the destruction of capitalism” will sound like crying wolf to the great majority of Americans. Within the next few months and years, as Democrats seek to defend their Congressional majorities and then the White House, there is little chance that the every-day lives of ordinary Americans will change dramatically. On the health care bill, for instance, Obama cunningly delayed the implementation of its most substantial provisions until 2014—long after he hopes he is safely re-elected. Even at times of economic suffering (like the current moment), all surveys show that Americans remain overwhelmingly optimistic about their personal situations and prospects; by huge margins, we like our jobs, our families and our neighborhoods. The chances that a majority of Americans will, within the next few years, actually experience the loss of freedom or the national destruction right-wingers warn them about are, fortunately, almost nil. After years of dire alarms from conservatives about imminent catastrophe, what are we supposed to do if that catastrophe doesn’t arrive? Assuming that the nation will somehow muddle through the next few years without a complete financial collapse or some devastating terrorist attack, we will look like demagogic alarmists who tried to frighten the public for political gain. Instead of concentrating on our own predictions of total disaster, we should focus on Obama’s predictions of robust recovery and falling unemployment. He’s profoundly unlikely to see his rosy scenarios unfold, just as GOP gloom-and-doomers are unlikely to see our worst-case scenarios come true. Why not highlight Obama as a failed and false prophet rather than embarrassing ourselves with our own far-fetched prophecies of destruction?
The practical arguments outlined above seem so obvious that it’s difficult to understand or explain the apparently powerful instinct to portray Obama as some sort of fanatical true-believer who craves America’s destruction more than he values his own popularity or place in history. Every week during the “Open Mind Friday” and “Disagreement Day” features of my radio show, the phone lines swarm with impassioned callers who are determined to persuade me (and the world) that Obama knows precisely what he’s doing and that he purposefully wants to wreck the nation in order to impose some alien system. These calls, often from highly intelligent and sophisticated individuals, test my commitment to on-air openness because they make conservatives look bad (and needlessly divided) while taking time from more fruitful lines of attack in discrediting the administration.
A recent caller, exasperated by my refusal to concede Obama’s malevolence, asked an important question: “If you’re so sure you’re right about this, why is it that everybody else on the radio says he’s a socialist who wants to destroy the economy? Why should we believe that you’re the only one who’s right, and everybody else is wrong?”
The answer to that question raises an uncomfortable fact about talk radio and highlights the dangers of allowing media figures to set the anti-Obama agenda. The great majority of Americans remain politically disengaged – they won’t ever listen to partisan talk on the radio or tune in to news programming on cable TV, shunning Fox and MSNBC with similar consistency. The leading political cable shows in the country draw viewership that amounts to barely 1% of the national population; the top radio program in the United States (hosted, of course, by Rush Limbaugh) will draw only 5 or 6% of the available listeners – and much less than 1% of the overall population – even in major markets where it crushes the competition.
This salient but seldom-acknowledged fact highlights the difference between the successful pursuit of media ratings and the successful pursuit of electoral majorities. Heavy-breathing warnings about impending doom can make for riveting radio, as can melodramatic descriptions of the president as the ultimate incarnation of pure evil. Such conversation can help deliver 6%, or even 9%, of all those tuned into the radio at a given time of day or night. But there’s a world of difference between a few percent of available radio listeners, and the more than 50% of available voters you need to persuade to win meaningful political power.
If conservatives persist in characterizing the President of the United States as vicious and radical, insanely bent on the destruction of the Republic, we may find reassurance from the already like-minded but we’ll lose nearly everyone in the persuadable middle. As a result, we could spend the next decade or more as an increasingly impotent, irrelevant and angry opposition, howling in the political wilderness.