01.10.11

The Coming Obama Wars

As the new GOP House leaders prepare to probe the White House, ex-conservative attack agent David Brock offers lessons from the Clinton era—and why this time will be much worse.

In recent weeks I’ve been asked what President Obama can expect from GOP investigators now that Republicans control the House. I should know.  The last time this happened, after the 1994 midterms, I was a right-wing ring-leader of the anti-Clinton movement.

My answer: this go-around will be much worse. The blow of the coming investigations and accompanying vitriol will be faster, harder, and the political devastation more acutely and widely felt in the Democratic Party than the impeachment of President Clinton.

I’m struck by how little we have learned from the political traumas of the '90s. The anti-Clinton craziness had nothing to do with the Clintons; it had to do, now as then, with fear of progressive governance. Now as then, outrage will be fabricated at the slightest provocation and scandals will be doggedly pursued even after they are factually refuted.  

A decade later, I now run an organization devoted to defending progressives from spurious attack. From these vantage points along my journey I have come to understand that while the underpinnings of the GOP strategy today are the same as before—throwing sand in the gears of governance and thereby attempting to make the president a one-term phenom—the political realities and dynamics now versus 16 years ago have shifted in distinct, portentous ways. 

Fox is marshalling its oppositionist fervor, massive war chest, deeply invested audience, and singular agenda-setting role to manufacture news controversies that are widely reported outside the Fox universe.

The right-wing’s lead investigator, Congressman Darrell Issa, though ethically challenged himself (before amassing his fortune selling car alarms, he was arrested for auto theft, on top of multiple arrests on weapons charges and an investigation of arson), is no conspiracy-mongering Dan Burton nor dim Jesse Helms protégé Lauch Faircloth, having already proven himself an adept ethics campaigner as he led and financed the recall effort of California Gov. Gray Davis with himself in mind as the replacement. Far from a maverick, on Day One Issa had secured the full-throated support of his leadership and caucus—he describes John Boehner as a “mentor”—that took Keystone Kops investigators in the '90s years to win, overcoming Newt Gingrich’s initial disinterest in scandal politics.  

Issa smartly has chosen to frame his inquiries in support of the overarching anti-government GOP message—as an ideological indictment of alleged government malfeasance, not personal wrongdoing. He has spent months softening up the mainstream media—witness the spate of profiles recasting him as “Washington’s whistleblower” that suggest a triumph of branding.  And he has assiduously worked influential watchdogs like the Center for Public Integrity, which honored Issa as the sole elected official who spoke at the group’s 20th anniversary dinner in October. 

Still Issa’s PR offensive has hit rough patches. Issa changed his statement to Rush Limbaugh that Obama is “one of the most corrupt presidents of modern times” to clarify that he meant Obama was leading “one of the most corrupt administrations.” Although Issa says now that there is “not a chance” the GOP House will impeach Obama, it was Issa himself who raised the prospect a few months back. Such flip-flops indicate trouble ahead as Issa navigates the cross-pressures of tending to his Beltway image while feeding his bloodthirsty base.  

In fact, Issa won’t have much choice but to relinquish the former for the latter or else lose control of the effort to a newly entrenched scandal-complex led by central players in the Clinton years: Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey reprising their roles, only now as prominent well-funded outside agitators. (By contrast, we launched the initial anti-Clinton salvos from obscure platforms like The American Spectator, with little mainline conservative support). 

Gingrich, who recently wrote, “The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did,” heads American Solutions, whose mission is “to save American civilization from the gravest crisis it has confronted since the Civil War.” Armey’s FreedomWorks orchestrated the 2009 Tea Party town hall protests which included members of Congress being shouted down and hanged in effigy and is largely funded by the Koch brothers, the oil and gas magnates who seem to have stepped into the role of Richard Mellon Scaife – the Daddy Warbucks of the Clinton Wars—as the new financial backers of the right. Karl Rove’s new attack machine, American Crossroads, controls tens of millions of corporate money. Then there is Dick Morris, who, following a prostitution scandal, has trained his website, books, Fox TV appearances and PACs on Obama, saying he “might be the first anti-American president we’ve ever had” and issuing approving statements about the seditious activities of burgeoning militia groups.

None of these four hold elective office, they have nothing to lose. Their funding drawn from the far right of the conservative movement, they have incentives to perpetually escalate their rhetoric. They will do or say anything to call into question the legitimacy of the president—and their steady drumbeat can only force Issa’s brigade to proceed down that course.   

Marginal elements represented only a disturbing undercurrent in 1994, until the Oklahoma City tragedy brought them to the fore, though the GOP soon returned to its revanchist agenda as if nothing had happened or been learned, as if right-wing radio had not established a climate in which such violence could occur.  

For the last two years, conservatives have been organizing anti-Obama radicals into groups that play fast and loose with revolutionary themes in broad daylight.  

The Tea Party, whose name conjures images of the American Revolution, supports candidates who speak of “Second Amendment remedies” in their supposed defense of liberty. Ignoring the fact that this President got more votes than anyone in history, the motif of “taking our country back” has manifested itself in a considerable portion of the GOP believing Obama is not an American citizen. Other Republicans tell pollsters they view Obama as “the anti-Christ.” It is these fantasists to which are beholden the Tea Party candidates who constitute a significant bloc of the incoming GOP freshman class. 

Although many are reluctant to discuss it, there is no denying that the continuing swirl around Obama’s place of birth, the baseless New Black Panther voter fraud allegations, the orchestrated outrage about the World Trade Center mosque, and the mobilized bigoted opposition to the Dream Act constitute a new low of exploitation of racial tensions by the Republicans for partisan gain.  

The investigations will play out against a backdrop of not only a more anxious and radicalized Republican presidential primary electorate but a very different field of candidates. In 1996, GOP standard bearers Bob Dole and Jack Kemp never practiced a politics of gross misrepresentation and character assassination. The same can’t be said of  Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin, who infamously posted a map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election in the last cycle; those Democrats, including Gabrielle Giffords, were denoted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun.  

But nothing may be more important in the next two years than the centrality of Fox News, which did not exist in the early Clinton years and first became a political force in the 2000 elections. I well remember the cognoscenti scoffing when the Clinton White House produced a document accurately showing how right-wing forces in the U.S. used the British press to launder scandal stories that would then wash up on American shores. No such ingenuity will be required this time around. 

Since the election of Barack Obama, Fox has morphed from a talk-radio-on-TV model into a partisan political operation that is at war with progressives disguised as a news channel. Its activities have included organizing the grassroots around theses of anti-government extremism; engaging in explicitly partisan advocacy and lobbying; fundraising for and contributing to the coffers of the GOP and the conservative movement; stoking panic in its viewers about everything from the stability of the U.S. currency to the alleged plot by the government to confiscate guns; and inciting several acts of actual political violence by relentlessly demonizing progressive leaders and sanctioning Glenn Beck’s talk of rebellion against the Obama “regime.” 

Already in the wake of the killing spree in Arizona there are calls to “change the tone” in Washington. Those calls should be directed to the tone at Fox News. When, a few weeks before the election, I publicly called on Fox contributor Sarah Palin to disassociate herself from Beck's violent rants lest they lead to another Oklahoma City, she did the opposite, declaring on Beck's radio show, "I stand with you Glenn!"

With victory defined as the destruction of the Obama administration, Fox is marshalling its oppositionist fervor, massive war chest, deeply invested audience, and singular agenda-setting role to manufacture news controversies that are widely reported outside the Fox universe, fundamentally altering mass perceptions and, therefore, pulling our political reality ever-rightward.  

Look for the tail to wag the dog as Fox ends up setting the strategies and storylines of the inquisitors. I have no doubt that now, as before, articles of impeachment will be filed—that’s what happens to egregiously “corrupt” administrations—and they will be believed by a substantial sector of the public regardless of merit. Whereas it was well into 1997 until a credible conservative like Robert Bork provocatively floated the notion of impeachment, the term is being casually tossed around on cable news now before a hearing even opens. 

Now as then, my logic-minded fellow Democrats will figure the hearings can do no real harm because “there is no there there.” They won’t comprehend the emotional punch of the televised anti-government Fox show trials.  

They will convince themselves the public doesn’t like partisan witch hunts and wait for the tactics to backfire. Rather than face down the hypocritical House wrecking crew—27 members of the Nixon, Reagan and two Bush administrations were convicted of crimes committed while in office while gazillions of probes later only one Clinton official was—they will clumsily try to change the subject to “the President’s agenda.” They will allow their own desires to pursue valid oversight to contribute to the conservative narrative—until it’s too late to undo it.  

Of course the Gingrich-led Republicans failed to remove President Clinton from office and were rebuked by voters. Events would have never gotten that far had Democrats then understood what we know, or should know, now about the right—that they are fully capable of trying to overthrow the government to get more power.  

Clinton left office with one of the highest approval ratings of any President in the 20th century. But not without aggressively calling out the dangers to our democracy of GOP radicalism and putting up a fight worthy of that challenge.

David Brock is founder of Media Matters for America and of American Bridge, a new Democratic federal political action committee.