Whining about the Koch brothers is a losing strategy
Democratic leaders are understandably worried that their liberal base will be AWOL in the congressional midterm elections. But they're nuts to think that turnout can be stoked by a campaign to demonize the Koch brothers.
Yet, at least for now, that seems to be the plan. Various Democratic senatorial candidates are running ads that assail "out-of-state billionaires spending millions to rig the system" and depict Charles and David Koch (pronounced coke) in scary black-and-white imagery. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party arm entrusted with defending the fragile Democratic majority, has launched a multi-platform crusade that features the allegedly clever slogan "The GOP is Addicted to Koch."
But the top Koch antagonist is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, on three recent occasions, has attacked the brothers on the Senate floor, essentially contending that the conservative money moguls are termites devouring the American woodwork.
Reid did it again last Thursday: "These two multibillionaires can spend millions of dollars of their own money rigging the political process for their own benefit....I will do whatever it takes to expose their campaign to rig the political system....(They want) to give themselves the unfettered right to pollute our air and water. We have to look out for our children and grandchildren....It will be terrible to allow the Koch brothers to buy Congress and to buy our country. And that is what they are trying to do."
Democrats have a legitimate political beef with the Koch brothers, who are heavily invested in the GOP's bid to capture the Senate. Koch front groups like Americans for Prosperity have been hammering Obamacare in highly deceptive TV ads, taking full advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court's money-is-speech decree that frees up fat cats to dominate our discourse. But the notion that Democrats can gin up their voters by marketing fear of the Kochs is dumb and delusionary.
Why do I say this? Because the anti-Koch strategy is classic "inside baseball" - of great interest only to those voters who obsess about the political process.
The most committed Democratic partisans already hate the Kochs, but they're probably jonesing to vote in November anyway. The party's main goal is to stoke mass turnout among Democratic-leaning voters who are disillusioned with President Obama - yet there's scant polling evidence that they go to bed at night fretting about the Kochs. Hard as it may be to believe, millions of people have barely heard of the Kochs; a January survey sponsored by the pro-Democratic group America Voters reportedly found that as low as 29 percent of registered voters in five battleground states could even identify them.
Republicans had the same kind of problem in the 2006 midterms, when they tried to stoke GOP turnout by demonizing liberal mogul George Soros. The most committed conservative partisans knew all about him, but the more casual Republican-leaning voters didn't know or didn't care. They stayed home, marinating in their disillusion with George W. Bush and his Iraq war. As Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson writes, "Soros' spending has certainly been a target of the right, but it's hard to imagine a single voter casting a ballot for the GOP because they want to send a message to George Soros."
And today, even if the Kochs were household names known, the average voter would probably say, "So what?" I can assure you, based on my own experience, that most voters have two basic assumptions about big money in politics: (1) "There will always be a lot of it" (2) "Both sides do it." Those assumptions are obviously correct - especially (2), because even as the Democrats complain about the Kochs, they're busy enlisting their own billionaire benefactors, including hedge-fund executive Tom Steyer.
Most voters are surely concerned about big money in politics, but they rarely cast their ballots on the basis of that concern. It's a low-priority issue; Gallup has routinely reported that only one percent of Americans rank it high. And according to a Washington Post-Pew poll conducted in 2012, only 24 percent of Americans said that the high spending by outside groups was having a negative impact on the presidential campaign. Heck, only 40 percent even knew what a super PAC was.
It's also a sign of weakness when a party or a candidate whines that the campaign process is unfair. The anti-Koch complaints take me back to the autumn of 1988, when Michael Dukakis was running for president. Under relentless attack from Republican TV ads, he gave the OK for a series of commercials that basically complained about the Republican TV ads. One Dukakis commercial showed some Madison Avenue guys (actually, actors portraying Madison Avenue guys) yukking it up at the Duke's expense.
The Dukakis ads bombed. As media consultant Kevin Delaney told me at the time, "It's a dubious 'spilt milk' kind of strategy to just cry about the other guy's tactics."
What Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own - "There's no crying in baseball!" - applies to politics as well. In their bid to craft a galvanizing midterm message, Reid and his compatriots would be wise to dry their eyes and start from scratch.
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