Thomas Byrne Edsall on the New York Times‘ Campaign Stops blog (7/23/12) accuses Barack Obama of “the politics of anything goes.” His evidence: The Obama campaign is running ads attempting to persuade voters not to vote for Mitt Romney.
The logic here is sort of hard to follow. First Edsall quotes Obama telling “those who are preparing to divide us” in 2008 that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” Then he points out that Obama’s 2012 campaign (like, undoubtedly, his 2008 campaign) identifies various demographic groups for messaging. I know, shocking.
And not only is Obama ’12 trying to reach various groups, the campaign is running “ads demonizing Romney” in order to “suppress turnout and minimize his margin of defeat in the most hostile segment of the electorate, whites without college degrees.” And “not only whites without college degrees, but in particular white men without degrees, a constituency Obama has no hope of winning.”
Edsall, oddly enough, is accusing Obama of dividing America by aiming campaign messages even at “the most hostile segment of the electorate.” Apparently if he wanted to be a unifier, he would ignore those voters and leave them to Romney, to whom they naturally belong.
Note the implication that demographic groups are like states in the electoral college–winner take all–making it pointless to look for votes among groups you have “no hope of winning.” In reality, of course, convincing a million people to vote for you in a group that’s mostly opposed to you is the same as convincing a million more people to vote for you in a group that favors you.
Also implicit in Edsall’s line is that there is something underhanded about the ads Obama is running against Romney; they’re not just negative ads, they’re “demonizing” him. How so? Well, they go after Romney for his career at Bain Capital, which at times involved firing workers and moving jobs overseas. For corporate media, this is crossing a dangerous line–criticizing a capitalist for doing what capitalists do.
The word “suppress” is key to Edsall’s argument, and he returns to it repeatedly:
- “Vote suppression is important for Obama because his numbers among whites without degrees are worsening, despite the omnipresence of anti-Romney ads in the battleground states.”
- “Romney is particularly vulnerable to a campaign designed to suppress turnout because his support is more tepid than Obama’s.”
- “The importance of vote suppression in a close contest can be seen in the following hypothetical [involving making up numbers to illustrate a simple premise to make it look like you’re doing political science].”
Now, “voter suppression” has a specific meaning in political discussions, and it doesn’t mean negative advertising: It refers to dirty tricks and discriminatory electoral laws that keep people who want to vote from voting. (See Ed Kilgore and Steve Benen on the critical distinction Edsall glosses over.) When voters are suppressed, they’re disenfranchised; when a campaign convinces a voter not to vote for the other guy, that’s democracy in action.
As Edsall notes, the Republicans are at this very moment busily engaged in actual voter suppression:
Over the past two years, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been conducting an aggressive vote-suppression strategy of their own through the passage of voter identification laws and laws imposing harsh restrictions on voter registration drives.
But in Edsall’s framing, Republicans are just involved in the same kind of “anything goes” politics as Obama. Edsall’s reference to the GOP strategy serves to justify voter disenfranchisement than to criticize it, thanks to the magic of false equivalence.
I guess you could call this an example of “anything goes” punditry.