Trolling for Votes

Some people consider A River Runs Through It to be the best movie about fly-fishing ever made – but then it’s about the only movie about fly-fishing ever made. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt couldn’t save it, although it won an Oscar for the cinematography, and for best score, and best adapted screenplay. And then it disappeared, because fishing is inherently boring. And there’s Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea – he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 for that man-versus-marlin tale, and the Nobel Committee cited it the next year when they gave him the big prize. But even he knew it was crap, tossed off late in his career and almost a parody of his earlier signature stoic manliness stuff. His Nobel Prize in Literature was for the body of his work, not a short and shallow yarn that’s now a staple in seventh-grade English classes. By all accounts Hemingway was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. The Spanish Civil War was exciting, and that bell tolled, and bullfighting is exciting, and the sun also rises. The Lost Generation was forever lost and there was big-game hunting in Africa and all the rest. But fishing just doesn’t cut it. Yes, back in 1653 it was Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler – a pleasant curiosity and a bit of a landmark in prose style. But no one reads it for fly-fishing advice. In fact, no one reads it. It’s really about the Joy of Fishing, in minute detail, and that joy is solitary and introspective. Maybe it can’t be explained. No one wants to hear how you outwitted a damned fish. And no one wants to hear about the one that got away.

And certainly no one wants to hear about trolling – mindlessly drawing multiple baited lines along, assuming you’ll eventually be able to reel in a substantial catch of really dumb fish. That’s kind of wholesale fishing, not sport at all. But you will get something – perhaps a lot of fish – and you can just toss back the asphyxiated carcasses of whatever’s useless. It’s crude but effective. And the analogy is in politics – trolling for votes, mindlessly drawing multiple baited lines through the political waters, hoping for a really big catch of really dumb fish. Think of a rust-bucket of an old scow, multiple baited lines out, the slow trolling motor edging it along through the coastal waters, and the bored crew playing cards on deck. That’s the Romney and Obama campaigns these days. They’re trolling for votes. The lines are out. They’ll catch what they can, the somewhat automatic easy way.

And of course with the Catholic Church very angry about the Affordable Care Act mandating that all employer healthcare plans cover birth control, except for those plans offered specially by churches to their direct employees, and with the various parts of the Church suing the federal government about that – the Republicans are now trolling for the Catholic vote. They’re dragging the baited lines through the water. But NBC’s Michael O’Brien suggests that there really is no such thing as the Catholic vote:

The religious assemblage – which has evolved over the past century from a strong Democratic constituency into a national election bellwether – is no longer discernible from most other voter groups. As the community has become less homogenous and more assimilated into mainstream culture, so have its voting habits – sending many politicians on a fool’s errand in pursuit of the “Catholic vote.”

And Andrew Sullivan puts his finger on the problem:

The hierarchy and the theocons have effectively put their collective weight behind the GOP…. For them, contraception, abortion and gays are “non-negotiable” and you risk eternal damnation if you vote for Obama. No other issues – such as the Ryan budget or the repeal of universal healthcare insurance – matter to the same extent. One wonders whether this Christianist campaign will do much more, though, than mobilize the hard right, who were already anti-Obama.

The waters are barren. There are no new fish there, although Ross Douthat says there might be a few:

The Catholic vote does look a lot like the American vote in microcosm, encompassing liberals and conservatives, the lukewarm and the devout, the partisan and the uncommitted and everything in between. But as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru points out, there is evidence that Catholic swing voters are slightly more up for grabs than the average independent. Ponnuru notes that George W. Bush “improved his share of Catholic voters between 2000 and 2004 more than he did his overall share; and the Republican share of the Catholic vote fell a bit more between 2004 and 2008 than did the Republican share of the overall vote.”

So a few voters are slightly more up for grabs here – and that might make a slight difference, maybe. But there’s no big catch here.

But then the Obama folks have baited their lines with Bain-Capital-worms and they’re trolling away too. But in the New Yorker, John Cassidy wonders whether that’s also a bad idea:

If the President was really serious about cracking down on this form of “vulture capitalism” – thanks again to Rick Perry for popularizing this phrase – he would surely be emphasizing specific remedies, such as eliminating the grotesque “carried-interest deduction” which allows private-equity partners to pay such a low tax rate, and limiting the tax deductibility of interest payments on the debts that firms like Bain Capital pile upon firms they acquire. At various times over the past four years, Obama has come out in favor of the first proposal, but he has never made it a top legislative priority. By the time the summer is out, he may well have done so, and he may even have embraced the second idea, too.

But he may not have to do all that, as the assumption is that the fish are dumb and he’ll catch a lot of them anyway. But in the Economist, Will Wilkinson thinks Obama is playing a dangerous game here:

I certainly see the appeal of characterizing Mr Romney as a sadistic “vulture capitalist” who takes pleasure in the suffering of those he gladly fires. But Mr Obama may be playing with fire. He has been careful not to impugn all profit-seeking or even all private equity, yet it’s hard to see how it’s possible to attack Mr Romney for the alleged depredations of Bain Capital without implicitly attacking other profit-seekers responsible for similar labor-market churn. If Mr Romney’s Bain was guilty of something other private-equity firms are not, it’s not clear what it is.

On the other hand, trolling is a crude and mindless activity, and usually quite effective. And in this case the waters aren’t barren. Many are angry at the big-money guys. You don’t need special bait. Anything likely may do just fine. This is wholesale politics.

But the oddest bit of trolling comes from Kevin Williamson at the National Review Online, where he claims the Republicans are really the party of civil rights:

Worse than the myth and the cliché is the outright lie, the utter fabrication with malice aforethought, and my nominee for the worst of them is the popular but indefensible belief that the two major U.S. political parties somehow “switched places” vis-à-vis protecting the rights of black Americans, a development believed to be roughly concurrent with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the rise of Richard Nixon. That Republicans have let Democrats get away with this mountebankery is a symptom of their political fecklessness, and in letting them get away with it the GOP has allowed itself to be cut off rhetorically from a pantheon of Republican political heroes, from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, who represent an expression of conservative ideals as true and relevant today as it was in the 19th century. Perhaps even worse, the Democrats have been allowed to rhetorically bury their Bull Connors, their longstanding affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, and their pitiless opposition to practically every major piece of civil-rights legislation for a century. Republicans may not be able to make significant inroads among black voters in the coming elections, but they would do well to demolish this myth nonetheless.

It’s hard to tell whether he just feels sorry for himself or if he’s trolling for black votes – maybe it’s a bit of both – but Jonathan Chait is simply amazed:

Williamson crafts a tale in which the Republican Party is and always has been the greatest friend the civil rights cause ever had. The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights.

And Jonathan Bernstein is having none of it:

You would never know from reading this quite long article that there was a northern wing of the Democratic Party at all. Democrats, for Williamson, were Southern Democrats, and they collectively and inexplicably had a “radical turnaround” in 1964. But of course that’s not even remotely true. The real story is that the Democratic Party essentially split in two over time, with the Southern branch eventually disappearing. The key event is the 1948 Democratic National Convention, at which Humphrey gave a famous speech in favor of a strong civil rights plank -and the South responded by walking out and running a separate campaign.

And Ed Kilgore is even more specific:

Prior to 1964, southern white Republicans were a hardy minority built on the Mountain Republicanism of regions that had opposed the Confederacy and middle-class business-oriented city-dwellers. While neither faction was loudly racist, nor were they champions of civil rights, either. Not all Democrats were virulently racist, but the virulent racists were all Democrats. … The most race-sensitive white southerners, centered in the Black Belt regions of the Deep South, stuck with the White Man’s Party even as other southerners defected to the GOP in 1920 (over Prohibition) and 1928 (over Prohibition and Al Smith’s Catholicism). In 1948, these same racists heavily defected to the Dixiecrats in a protest against the national Party’s growing commitment to civil rights. They mostly returned to the Democrats after that uprising, until 1964, when they voted almost universally for Barry Goldwater, purely and simply because Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Four years later most of them voted for the race-centered candidacy of George Wallace, and four years after that just about every one of them voted for Richard Nixon.

These were not people attracted to the GOP, when they were, because it was “pro-civil rights,” as Williamson asserts, or because they favored that party on any other issue. It was all about race, which is why, for example, the GOP percentage of the presidential vote veered insanely in Mississippi from 25% in 1960 to 87% in 1964 to 14% in 1968 to 78% in 1972.

And the history is clear:

Jimmy Carter (who was endorsed by Wallace and most other surviving Democratic ex-segregationists) got a lot of those voters back for the obvious reason of regional pride, and after that issues other than civil rights did matter in the region, though the racial polarization of the two parties was evident from the beginning in Mississippi and eventually spread elsewhere. But however you slice it, the idea that Barry Goldwater in 1964 was viewed by white southerners as anything other than the direct descendent of the Dixiecrats is just ridiculous. Sure, issues other than civil rights buttressed GOP strength in the region later on, but it would not have happened if the GOP had not also rapidly become the party most hostile towards or indifferent to civil rights. It’s also worth mentioning that among the Republicans who were notably interested in civil rights in and after 1964, none of them were southerners.

And Digby adds this:

Also too, the sun came up yesterday and we have a long border with Canada. Plus gravity. This is not in dispute. There is no controversy. There isn’t even a slightly different interpretation. It is what happened, period.

But she sees what’s going on:

In order to create an alternate reality it’s important to re-imagine a past that led to it. And I think that the more blatantly dishonest it is the better. People have to really strain to accept it and that makes it more emotionally valuable. …

But I’ve come to realize that it has a bigger purpose than just being a gadfly and getting under liberals’ skin. These people lay the groundwork for an alternative history which, when their followers finally hear it espoused by someone like Kevin Williamson, sounds like something they’ve always known.

Ah, it’s just trolling for votes – crude and sometimes effective – although in this case you’re trying to catch fish you already caught. Maybe Kevin Williamson was just feeling grumpy.

And Andrew Sullivan adds more:

Williamson is dead-on when it comes to the past. The party of Lincoln was indeed a noble cause. But it was consciously killed by Nixon and then Reagan.

And Sullivan reminds Williamson of the words of Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As Sullivan says, why would Atwater lie?

But the idea is to get the dumb fish to swallow the bait – hook, line and sinker. And as Salon’s Joan Walsh points out, in crude and broad trolling, almost any bait will do:

With so many Republican lies about President Obama, it’s pretty hard to pick out the worst one. The most vicious stuff, of course, comes from the crazy birthers, who won’t go away. (Way to spend Arizona’s tax dollars, Sheriff Joe Arpaio!) Then there are the more mainstream slurs – Newt Gingrich calling him “the food stamp president,” or Obama’s “friend” Sen. Tom Coburn saying he favors government programs because “as an African American male,” he received “tremendous advantage from a lot of these programs.”

But if you measure the power of a lie by its utter truthlessness combined with the breadth of its reach, the notion that Obama has presided over a wild federal spending spree is probably the biggest whopper spread by the GOP, with the help of the right-wing noise machine and lazy mainstream media. Mitt Romney regularly rails against the “debt and spending inferno” the president supposedly ignited. Last month on Fox, Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s spending “radical, unprecedented,” and CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller reported that the “National debt has increased more under Obama than under Bush.”

That’s great bait for trolling, and then there’s the small problem discussed by Rex Nutting in an article in the Wall Street Journal of all places:

Although there was a big stimulus bill under Obama, federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s. Even hapless Herbert Hoover managed to increase spending more than Obama has.

Oops. Maybe Rupert Murdoch will now fire Nutting, for pointing out that in his first term Obama will have increased spending by 1.4 percent, and in his last three years, George W. Bush increased annual spending by an average of 8.1 percent, and then in Bush’s last fiscal year, 2009, spending jumped 17.9 percent. And Ronald Reagan increased spending an average of 8.7 percent in his first term.

Nutting:

After adjusting for inflation, spending under Obama is falling at a 1.4 percent annual pace – the first decline in real spending since the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon was retreating from the quagmire in Vietnam.

In per capita terms, real spending will drop by nearly 5 percent from $11,450 per person in 2009 to $10,900 in 2013 (measured in 2009 dollars).

And Walsh is puzzled that the Nutting article was tagged as commentary:

I guess because he’s an opinion columnist, but his facts and figures come straight from the non-partisan Office of Management and Budget and Congressional Budget Office. The charts he uses are vivid and leave no room for doubt: When the president says he’s dropped spending to its lowest levels since the Eisenhower presidency –back before the Civil Rights Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Water Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, or the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Education – he’s telling the truth.

And there’s this:

Mild-mannered White House press secretary Jay Carney was nearly moved to swearing on Wednesday, pointing to the facts outlined by Nutting and telling reporters “don’t buy into GOP B.S.” (That became a leading Politico headline later in the day.) But will the media heed Carney’s warning?

We’ll see. Somehow I doubt it.

Yes, trolling is crude, but effective. And in the Washington Post, there’s Jamelle Bouie:

The Romney budget outline – if implemented in full – would be a disaster for the federal budget. It would require either deep cuts to existing social programs or tremendous deficits, and since past Republicans have been reluctant to make the cuts necessary to square the circle, there’s a high likelihood that Romney would also take the path of least political resistance. And so, like his Republican predecessor, a President Romney would finance massive tax cuts with soaring deficits. Instead of trying to stop the “prairie fire of debt,” as promised in his speech, he would spark it.

And Jamil Smith:

If we’re going to have a conversation about the “prairie fire of debt,” let’s be honest about who started it, and who would douse it with gasoline.

And this had to happen:

At a fundraiser for his re-election campaign in Denver tonight, President Obama set out to upend conventional Republican wisdom that his administration has been defined by excessive government spending.

“I’m running to pay down our debt in a way that’s balanced and responsible. After inheriting a $1 trillion deficit, I signed $2 trillion of spending cuts into law,” he told a crowd of donors at the Hyatt Regency. “My opponent won’t admit it, but it’s starting to appear in places, like real liberal outlets, like the Wall Street Journal: Since I’ve been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years. Think about that.” …

“I just point out it always goes up least under Democratic presidents. This other side, I don’t know how they’ve been bamboozling folks into thinking that they are the responsible, fiscally-disciplined party. They run up these wild debts and then when we take over, we’ve got to clean it up.”

So don’t take the bait.

But people do, and the mindless trolling goes on. And yes, fishing is boring – but that’s what we’ll be watching until November. And if you thought that Robert Redford fly-fishing movie was empty and depressing….

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Trolling for Votes

  1. Great article except for your total lack of appreciation for A River Runs Through It. I’ve watched it over and over.

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