Over the past four-plus decades, one of the biggest differences between the two major American parties has been how they have approached the practice of politics. Democrats have mostly played nice and Republicans have played rough, which is why the pugnacious style of Barack Obama's reelection campaign is so striking.
In big ways and small, the President has made clear he is not going to take what deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter bluntly called "their BS." On Saturday at the official start of his reelection bid, Obama offered a rousing backstage pitch to his supporters before, seamlessly, heading out to give his stump speech.
"Let's go get 'em," Obama said as he turned to head onstage. "It's game time."
Over the past couple of weeks, Obama has shown this readiness to take risks and "go for the throat," in political parlance, whether that meant "slow jammin' the news" about college loan rates with late-night host Jimmy Fallon or citing a 2007 comment by Republican candidate Mitt Romney that "it's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch" Osama bin Laden.
On the anniversary of the U.S. Special Forces operation that killed the al-Qaeda leader, Obama even invited NBC News into the White House Situation Room to film interviews with the President and other senior officials who participated in the decision.
Obama's aggressive style has left Republicans and the Right's media sputtering with rage about the unfairness of it all, the lack of presidential decorum, "politicizing" the Situation Room. And, without doubt, there is something strange about watching a Democrat take it to the Republicans when the process has usually been the reverse in recent political history.
One can trace the current era of Republican hardball politics at least back to 1968 when Richard Nixon was so determined not to suffer another narrow defeat that his campaign secretly schemed with South Vietnamese leaders to sabotage President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam peace talks. Nixon's "October Surprise" operation made the safety of a half million U.S. soldiers then in the war zone secondary to his winning an election.
Even though Johnson learned of Nixon's "treason" before the election, LBJ and his top advisers agreed to stay silent for "the good of the country," fearing that disclosure might tear the nation's political fabric apart. Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey and the war continued for four more years at the cost of 20,000 additional American lives and countless Vietnamese. [See Consortiumnews.com's "LBJ's 'X' File on Nixon's 'Treason.'"]
In Campaign 1972, Nixon was back at it with a clandestine operation to undermine and spy on his Democratic rivals, all the better to win a second term. Whether it was "rat-f*cking" the most formidable Democratic contenders or bugging the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate, Nixon and his team were ready to do what was necessary to win -- and they did.
Even the setback of the Watergate scandal did not alter the Republican commitment to win at all costs. After Nixon's resignation in 1974, the Republicans and the Right simply redoubled their efforts to build a political/media infrastructure that would prevent a Republican president from suffering "another Watergate." This well-funded apparatus also served as a platform for bombarding Democrats and liberals.
To regain the White House for Republicans in 1980, operatives for Ronald Reagan's campaign apparently conducted their own "October Surprise" operation by undercutting President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate freedom for 52 American hostages then held in Iran, according to the evidence now available. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "New October Surprise Series."]
Investing in Media
In the decade that followed Reagan's victory, the Right invested even more heavily in media outlets, think tanks and attack groups that, collectively, changed the American political landscape. Because of Reagan's sweeping tax cuts favoring the rich, wealthy executives, like the Koch Brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife, also had much more money to reinvest in the political/media process.
That advantage was further exaggerated by the Left's parallel failure to invest in its own media. Thus, the Right's outreach to average Americans won millions of middle-class voters to the Republican banner, even as the GOP enacted policies that devastated the middle class and concentrated the nation's wealth at the top.
Whenever power was at stake, the Republicans -- bolstered by these media capabilities -- got tough while the Democrats mostly fell back on the defensive and took it in the chops. The 1988 race was particularly instructive as George H.W. Bush -- in what he called "campaign mode" -- pummeled Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, unpatriotic and vaguely foreign.
During this era, the Republicans also put vast sums toward negative campaign commercials, a development that convinced Democrats that they needed their own corporate funding and thus should adopt more corporate-friendly positions.