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Political Animal

Everything Old Is Old Again

Welcome to the first day of the 2012 presidential campaign!

We only know one person who’s going to be on the ballot for sure at present, but uncertainty and scant facts never stopped anything in the current political environment, so we might as well get right on with the politicking, right? One of the neat things about this job, as former member of Congress Kweisi Mfume once told me, is that if you live long enough, you see everything twice. And considering this column debuted in City Paper 16 years ago, when an embattled Democratic president had to begin his fight for re-election, all I really need to do is go back into the prodigious Animal Control archives and poke around for something pithy and appropriate.

Boy, there’s a lot of dust in here.

From a post-election article by Todd Purdum in The New York Times, circa December 1994:

“I think the next four to six months are crucial for [the president] and will be determinative in a lot of ways,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “It’s crucial for him to be in charge of his own destiny.
“The period right now is really not about explaining what happened,” Mr. Garin said of the Democrats’ rout at the polls last month, “but about understanding what happened and moving forward—smartly.”
Summing up a view of many Democrats, Mr. Garin said the President’s challenge was threefold: to define his legislative agenda succinctly as a fight for the economic well-being of the middle class, to claim the middle ground by seizing on any signs of extremism among the Republicans and to present a much clearer picture of himself as a persistent leader and a man of conviction.

And from another Times article, titled, “Bitter Tone of the ‘94 Campaign Elicits Worry on Public Debate,” which ran on November 13, 1994:

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says flatly that the nation’s political consultants are “destroying debate, undermining even the basic comity that’s necessary for the functioning of the system, destroying respect for the process.”
Other analysts have long feared that a closed loop is developing in American politics: Attack ads that are calculated to break through to a cynical public, which becomes ever more cynical about its politicians, prompting ever sharper attack ads.

Note how much of this can be dropped wholesale into writing about the midterm elections of 2010 without changing a word. If there has been one change in politics in that time, it has been the fracturing and failing of the American media, and the effect it has had on the body politic and the assumptions of the people.

Without today’s media, it could be argued that there would be no such thing as the Tea Party and its inchoate rage over bailouts, the health-care bill, and the economy. It was CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s television rant, which went viral over the internet, that spawned the modern Tea Party movement; the behind-the-scenes financial backing of the Koch family billions then gave it its underpinnings. Like Richard Mellon Scaife was to former President Bill Clinton, so are the Koch brothers—the septuagenarian billionaires from Kansas whose hundred-billion dollar conglomerate make their combined fortune the third-largest in America after only Bill Gates and Warren Buffett—a monumental thorn in the side of a sitting president.

In addition, Clinton didn’t have to deal with running for election while contending with a television network whose sole aim was supporting his opponents and downplaying his message. The Fox News Channel didn’t debut until October 1996, and didn’t really come into its own until the contentious election of 2000. The most Clinton had to worry about was Rush Limbaugh, who is no less influential today.

In the coming months we will get to see if the Tea Partiers are able to hone and focus their message against the president and his party, or if the fracturing of power will cause the rage to dissolve into a million separate messages. In addition, the conservative leaders in Congress have made clear their sentiment that they fully intend to spend the next two years trying to bring down Barack Obama; this from the lips of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. 

Despite these advantages, the Republicans may have found themselves in a tighter bind than they care to admit. They need to find a presidential candidate that can walk the tightwire between the angry extremes on their right during the primary season and the moderate centrists and independents who drive presidential elections, while trying to make the electorate forget what happened the last time the GOP was fully and completely in charge. After all, this is the party that outsourced our savings to Merrill Lynch, our nutrition to Monsanto, our energy policy to Halliburton, and our domestic emergency management to the International Arabian Horse Association.

So if you thought this last election was ugly and reminiscent of 16 years ago, just think how fun the next 24 months are going to be. Sometimes politics are no one’s cup of tea.

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