The Death of Dog-Whistle Politics
If you go over to Politico right now, in the "Hot Topics" listed at the top of the page, along with Obamacare, immigration, and the Olympics, is the name Monica Lewinsky. Which might strike you as odd, given that Lewinsky has been rather quiet in the decade and a half since her affair with Bill Clinton became public and led to his impeachment. But aged though it may be, the Lewinsky scandal is back. This is a story about intramural Republican party competition, the GOP's inability to learn from its mistakes, and the death of dog-whistle politics. The problem for the Republicans is that they don't seem to have realized it's dead.
The latest round of Lewinsky-mania started when the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that defines its mission as "combat journalism" ("At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them."), went through the papers of Diane Blair, a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and found notes that described Hillary's words and feelings as the Lewinsky scandal was going on. The material is certainly interesting from a historical perspective, but there isn't anything there that could possibly be politically damaging to Clinton's 2016 political fortunes, if that's what they were looking for.
But you can't tell some conservatives that. Rand Paul has been talking about Lewinsky, and when RNC chair Reince Priebus got asked about how Lewinsky might figure in 2016, instead of saying the logical thing—we have plenty of things to criticize Hillary Clinton about without getting into that—he instead said, "I think everything is on the table."
It seems pretty clear what Rand Paul has to gain by putting himself at the forefront of an effort to refight the Clinton impeachment. As Peter Beinart argued, as the libertarian 2016 candidate, Paul will have to convince social conservatives that he shares their values, and this is a handy way to do it. Among those values, hatred of the Clintons ranks awfully high, exceeded, perhaps, by that delicious combination of salacious titillation and moral condemnation over anything having to do with sex.
The trouble is that if Republicans are going to talk about Monica Lewinsky, they're going to do it in front of everybody, which will reinforce a whole raft of negative impressions people have of them: that they're stuck in the past, they're consumed by anger, that they're puritanical,11To be clear, I'm not saying that condemnation of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky is itself puritanical, because it isn't. What was puritanical was their obsession with the sexual details of the affair, and their belief that Clinton's obvious evil found no greater expression than in his sexual appetite., and that they are willing to do enormous damage to the country in order to destroy their enemies. These are the things the Lewinsky scandal represents for people who aren't conservative Republicans. Which is why Karl Rove, who has a better grasp than most Republicans of the dangers of letting their instincts run wild, told Paul to put a sock in it.
Though a potential presidential candidate like Rand Paul might like to send a subtle message to primary voters—something along the lines of "I'm with you on the sex thing, and I think the Clintons are as monstrous as you do"—in this day and age, dog-whistle politics have become impossible. Every comment is noted, every speech is recorded, and it's just no longer possible to send multiple messages without everybody noticing in a short space of time.
In case you're unfamiliar with the term "dog-whistle politics," it gained wide currency during the George W. Bush administration, when liberal bloggers began noticing the way Republicans skillfully crafted appeals that were meant to only be understood by the party's base, while the rest of the electorate took no notice (Wikipedia dates the term as far back as the 1980s, but it was in the Bush years it came into common use in this country). One prime example came during a 2004 debate, when in answering a question about what sorts of Supreme Court justices he would appoint, Bush dropped in what sounded to most viewers like a non sequitur about the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery. To Christian conservatives, however, Bush's meaning was clear: without ever mentioning abortion, he was telling them he would appoint justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. To know that, you'd have to know that anti-abortion activists often compare Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott. If you didn't know that, the message was as inaudible as a dog whistle.
To succeed, though, the dog whistle must have two characteristics. First, only your people are supposed to understand the hidden meaning, and that's no longer possible, since there are armies of writers and analysts ready and able to translate anything you say, then feed it back to reporters so it can get discussed again and again. Second, the surface message has to itself be pleasing, or at least innocuous, to the larger audience. And talking about Monica Lewinsky as a way to indict Hillary Clinton is anything but.
Which leads me to a final question: Why don't Democrats have any Lewinskys? By which I mean, issues that they talk about amongst themselves, and that Democratic presidential candidates might feel moved to echo in order to reassure them of their ideological bona fides, but which are absolutely disastrous when put before the broader public. Sure, there are positions that many liberals take that might be too extreme for a general electorate. But I can't think of anything that a liberal might stand up and say at a town meeting, whereupon a smart Democratic operative would say in an urgent whisper, "For god's sake, don't bring that up! Do you want to ruin everything?"
Part of that is because, as the saying has it, Democrats hate their base and Republicans fear their base. But it's mostly because the well of extremism just runs deeper and wider on the right. Which is why a Republican member of Congress can have a woman say to him that the President of the United States "should be executed as an enemy combatant," in part because of "the Muslims that he is shipping into our country through Iowa in commercial jets," and the congressman will respond not by saying, Pardon me ma'am, but you're a nutball, but by nodding his head and responding, "Look, everybody knows the lawlessness of this president," then going on to spout off a couple of bizarre conspiracy theories of his own.
The Republicans can't send a dog whistle to that woman, and they can't hide her either. Everything is exposed. And that's why it's going to be really tough for them to win in 2016. And don't forget, they despise Hillary Clinton just as much as Barack Obama. Imagine if their own hatred of her is precisely the thing that gets her elected president.
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