In 1992 Bill Clinton’s political managers – including James Carville – famously posted a sign in their campaign War Room that read: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Although the economy at the close of George H. W. Bush’s term was not really all that bad, Mr. Clinton’s incessantly denounced it as “the worst economy since the Great Depression” – convincing enough dum-dums (who wouldn’t have known the Great Depression from the Great Gildersleeve) that we needed a change. With the help of Ross Perot, who drew off 16% of the vote, Mr. Clinton sneaked in the back door with just 43% of the popular vote and enough electoral votes to win the election.
Turns out, it’s still the economy (stupid!) – much to the dismay of President Obama and his inner circle. Donald Lambro of the Washington Times writes that President Obama can’t possibly run on his economic record, so he has to pose other issues to attract attention away from jobs (or lack thereof), the federal budget deficit (no budget from the Democrat-run Senate in three years, and his own budget defeated unanimously by both Congressional houses), the price of gas (doubled since Mr. Obama took office), and the prospect of a gigantic $500 billion tax-increase on January 1, 2013 (unless Congress and Mr. Obama do something to stop it between now and then).
If not the economy, what “other issues” can Mr. Obama use? There’s a new one nearly every week. First came the donnybrook over forcing Catholic schools and hospitals to supply contraceptives and “reproductive services” – e.g., abortion – to employees and students via health care insurance provided by those institutions. Of all times to issue such a controversial order, why on earth would the president’s HHS secretary do so during a heated election season, while offending Catholics at the same time? The only answer that makes sense is that the order was meant to raise an almighty stink in order to divert attention away from the much more damaging issue of the economy.
Then there was the Gay Marriage uproar. In a bit of Kabuki Theater worthy of Tokyo itself, Vice President Joe Biden appeared to stumble into supporting Gay Marriage while President Obama was still on record opposing it. This seemed to put the president in a corner on the issue, so he eventually came out fully in support of it. A weeks-long media feeding frenzy ensued as commentators obsessed on whether this “helped or hurt” the president or his opponent, Governor Romney. On and on went the endless parade of “human interest” stories about “committed gay couples” yearning to marry and be normalized in American society. It was madcap American politics at its craziest.
Or was it? Sharp-eyed observers (including Yours Truly) noted that during the Gay Marriage uproar the faltering economy was completely eclipsed. Except for the work of Fox News and a few other media organs, one would hardly have known that the jobs picture continued to worsen – indeed, that the unemployment fraction actually rose to 8.2% in May, despite the subtraction of over 300,000 workers from the official worker-population. Gay Marriage was worth almost a full month of media diversion away from Mr. Obama’s most damaging issue. Not bad work in a tough campaign.
Mr. Obama’s declaration that he would halt deportation of illegal immigrants who had been brought to this country as children – provided that they meet various respectable criteria (e.g., no criminal record, a high school or college education, possible service in the military, etc.) – has emerged in recent days. At some level the concept seems almost reasonable, but Mr. Obama’s controversial circumvention of the Congress has ignited another political uproar that promises to dominate the news for some time. Again, nearly all mention of the economy, jobs, the loss of personal wealth since 2008, etc., has been obscured by this latest diversion. The order also appears to please one of Mr. Obama’s valuable political constituencies.
Some Republicans seem to support it, as well, evidently failing to see that enrollment in college and enlistment in the military – at the very least – require a social security number. Any enrollee or enlistee who has supplied a false one for those purposes would thus be guilty of a felony. Rewarding a crime with citizenship does not seem to be wise policy. Consideration of these matters by the Congress can wait until after the election. Mr. Obama’s introduction of them now is obviously a politically motivated diversion.
To be sure, both Mr. Obama’s support of Gay Marriage and his non-deportation decision please key constituencies he hopes will be energized to vote for him in November. So the events serve a dual purpose of helping him in this way, while diverting media attention from the economy at the same time.
This past week has seen a kind of climax of the latest Kabuki Theater installment, with the unfolding drama of Attorney General Eric Holder vs. the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The issue at hand has been Mr. Holder’s resistance to providing full documentation to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding a Justice Department program called Fast and Furious. The program allowed several thousand weapons to be sold to criminals in Mexican drug cartels without effective controls on where they went and who got them. The program blew up when some of those weapons showed up at the scene of the murder of US Border Agent Brian Terry in 2010.
Mr. Holder has slow-walked Congressional investigation of the program since early 2011, initially claiming that he learned of the program only after it hit the news over agent Terry’s death. When certain documents showed this claim to be false, he reversed himself, causing the Oversight Committee, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA), to request full documentation, including copies of all relevant Justice Department e-mails. The Attorney General has furnished some (but not all) of the requested documents in a standoff that has lasted for months. Chairman Issa finally led his committee in a vote to hold Mr. Holder in contempt. (The committee voted entirely along partisan lines, with all 23 Republican members voting in favor of a Contempt citation, and all 17 Democrat members voting against.)
The Contempt citation seemed headed for a certain vote in the full House until this past week, when President Obama unexpectedly placed the requested Fast and Furious documentation under presidential “executive privilege.” This caused eruption of a new media and political debate over the possibility that Mr. Obama knew of and/or was involved in the failed program – something not suggested previously. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also charged that Republicans wanted to bring down Attorney General Holder in order to suppress minority votes. Mr. Holder has blocked laws requiring picture-IDs for voting in some states, on grounds that this would keep some minorities from voting.
All in all, the entire Fast and Furious event has been a glorious success in the Diversionary Dance being orchestrated by the Obama White House. Of course, it can be argued that some of these events arose independently, and were simply used by the Obama campaign as tools that came conveniently to hand. Maybe this is so, but I’m not so sure. Some of them – particularly the Holder duel with the Congress – are just too convenient to be coincidental.
Waiting in the wings for their entrance onto the Diversionary Political Stage are two Supreme Court Decisions on Obamacare and Arizona’s law on apprehending illegal immigrants in the course of ordinary police work. Whether the Court strikes these laws down or upholds them, the political fallout will be enormous and the debate lengthy. Mr. Obama’s team cannot control the publication of these decisions, of course, but they will be used to great advantage in the ways we have outlined here. The media will obsess on both decisions for weeks – possibly months – while economic matters are forgotten.
Watch for more exciting diversions as we march through the campaign season. The real battle will be for the attention of the media – on either the economy or the other sidelights on which Mr. Obama would like us to focus. His campaign will throw in the kitchen sink to capture that attention. More so than for any election in the last 20 years, voters need to concentrate on vital economic problems and on who is best equipped to solve them.
They will get little help from the media on this. Other issues might have some importance, but electing a candidate who can heal and re-invigorate the economy with sound policy will be crucial. If we fail in this, none of the other things that the media has had so much fun chasing will matter very much. Gay marriage or free birth-control pills will not put millions of idle citizens back to work or control federal spending. The boat is going over the falls, and the American people are the only ones who can save it. Pray that they will have the wisdom and the courage to do it.