Back in the late ‘70s, Alan Baron, a liberal, labor union-loving McGovernite; Ken Bode, then of the New Republic; and I hosted a biweekly poker game that regularly included three Republicans, three Democrats and one journalist. Every player had to have worked in or, in the case of the journalist, covered a presidential campaign, and no conversation that took place at the table could be repeated outside.
The day a game in which then-Sen. George McGovern had been invited to play, I got a call from Terry Dolan seeking a favor. Dolan ran the granddaddy of all conservative political action committees, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, or NCPAC. McGovern, Dolan and NCPAC are no longer with us, but they were all notorious in different ways back then. Dolan said, “I’m putting together a fundraising letter, and it would really help if you could get McGovern to attack me and NCPAC.”
It was a sensible request. In the political fundraising business, villains are worth their weight in gold, and to conservatives back in the day, McGovern was as villainous as anyone could get. I told Dolan that perhaps the two of them could attack each other “so you can both raise money.” Senate business kept McGovern away that night, but the point is that effective fundraisers need a “villain” to scare the bejesus out of those from whom they are seeking money.
Democratic fundraisers this year feel blessed to have two villains: Charles and David Koch. As polls show, voters may not know the Koch Brothers, but Democratic activists do, and invoking their names in fundraising appeals works at least as well for liberals as raising the specter of a world controlled by George Soros and “union bosses” works for conservatives.
This is all business as usual as far as it goes, but too often contributors, activists and candidates begin to believe their own mail. That seems to be what’s happening this year among liberals and Democrats.
The Harry Reids and Chuck Schumers of the world are beginning to think that since the activists they run into at gatherings of left-wing fever-swamp dwellers know and despise the Koch brothers and applaud their every attack on them, real live voters will do the same.
Equating the craziest of one’s supporters with real people who vote in actual elections is almost always a mistake. The Koch brothers aren’t going to be on the ballot anywhere this fall, and no matter how many times Harry Reid takes to the Senate floor to malign their patriotism or how many error-filled columns Paul Krugman writes denouncing them as the devil’s spawn, if the 2014 elections are influenced by anyone not actually on the ballot, his last name will be Obama, not Koch.
Still, Democrats persist, no doubt hoping to find a way to run a campaign this year like the one that worked so well two years ago when the president himself was on the ballot. Mr. Obama’s managers knew as 2012 dawned that their candidate was going to lose millions of voters who had marched to the polls to elect him four years before, but had been disappointed in his performance as president.
To win they had to make sure those voters wouldn’t cross over to vote for Mitt Romney. They had to convince them that whatever they thought of the president, electing Mr. Romney would be worse.
To accomplish this they spent millions demonizing Mr. Romney as a heartless billionaire who not only didn’t care much about the less fortunate, but built his fortune destroying jobs, throwing workers out onto the street and perhaps even killing some of those employed in the firms he and his fellow venture-capitalist “vultures” acquired and dismembered.
The Obama campaign got away with it because Mr. Romney could in some ways be made to seem to fit the caricature, made a few comments they could exploit and was too decent or naive to think he had to respond to such attacks.
The problem facing Democrats seeking a rerun of 2012 is that Mr. Romney isn’t going to be on the ballot and the candidates they would have to demonize to make the strategy viable this year are a diverse bunch from all walks of life. They wish Mr. Romney clones were running for the Senate in North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska and a dozen other states. If they were, perhaps they might once again persuade voters to vote for Democrats as the lesser of two evils. To make the dream a reality, they are spending millions to convince voters that the Koch Brothers are Romney 2.0 and that individual Republican candidates the nation over are little more than puppets controlled by a couple of grasping, evil billionaires.
It’s a pretty weak bet, but they don’t seem to think they have any choice. The president’s poll numbers have tanked, the public doesn’t like his signal accomplishment, not a day goes by that Russia’s Vladimir Putin doesn’t run rings around him and Democrats running this year wish he’d go away. So Democratic strategists are dreaming up ways to change the subject and have come up with the idea of making 2014 a referendum on the Kochs, rather than on Mr. Obama.
It is likely to prove an impossible dream, but they will no doubt keep trying. So the Koch brothers are in for a tough few months, but can take some comfort in the fact that targeting them is a sign of desperation. Besides, the brothers, unlike so many business leaders who head for the tall grass in the face of political hostility, have already demonstrated an ability to stand up to the attacks on them without so much as flinching. It’s almost as though they know that they and those who share their vision of a free and prosperous America will have the last laugh … in November.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.