Marginal Nastiness as Strategy

Abraham Lincoln said it best – “Quotes you find on the internet might not always be accurate.”

He didn’t say that? Who knew? Life can be so disappointing, but then some quotes do float free of attribution – someone should have said that one thing so very pointedly, or many people said that same thing, simultaneously, because what was said, or wasn’t really said, sounds just right. Some quotes create themselves, and out here in Hollywood one of those untethered quotes, specifically about this odd town, is classic – “If you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made.”

That sounds like Oscar Levant – the lovable cynic from Pittsburgh who ended up stuck out here in the brutal sunshine, clinically depressed and drinking heavily – but there have been many such people over the years. Hey, someone’s go to carry on the tradition, and that Lincoln joke-quote that’s been posted to thousands of Facebook walls is pretty cool – but the crude irony is misleading. The right words, just a few of them, cleverly arranged, can sum things up nicely, and it doesn’t matter who first said them.

Some things need to be said. The ability to fake sincerity actually may be the secret to success, in Hollywood, and in personal relationships, in business, and certainly in politics. Politicians seek power, to do good things, to change public policy in ways that they sincerely think policy should be changed, or so they say, and so they may sincerely believe, at first. Sooner or later, however, they’ll be faking sincerity to stay in power, saying things they don’t really believe to unhinged groups, because they need those votes. You don’t tell a key voting bloc, very angry about the world, that they’re all assholes – that all of science doesn’t come from the pit of hell, invented by Satan, and the earth really is more than six thousand years old, and Jesus didn’t write the Constitution either, and shutting down the government to get exactly what you want always backfires, and getting rid of government itself, because we really don’t need government at all if we all have guns, would end civilization as we know it. No, it would not be wise to tell them they’re nuts – better to tell them, with as much sincerity as you can fake, that you understand that civilization might be overrated, perhaps, and that you understand their frustration, and that you stand with them. Then go home and take a long, hot shower. Maybe you can wash away the slime before your victory speech on election night – but there will be more slime. Winning and then holding office requires that one fake sincerity, endlessly. Kiss the babies. Visit the floor of the truck factory. Bowl a few lines with the folks in Altoona. And remember some quotes are accurate even if no one said any such thing. Someone should have said it.

Yeah, yeah, politics is a dirty business, but it’s structural – one must be a master at faking sincerity. Obama is one of those masters – seemingly sincere about transparency and ending all the Bush stuff, while keeping the Bush surveillance state in place, if not expanding it, for example. He means well? No one knows, but half the country has cut him some slack on that and many other things, even if he blew that sincere man-of-the-people thing bowling in Altoona in 2008 – everyone knew he was faking it there. He recovered – it was just bowling – but everyone knew John McCain was faking it whenever he talked about the economy, even John McCain, and four years later Mitt Romney became the poster-boy for fake sincerity. He wasn’t a good guy who wanted the best for everyone in the country. The mask fell with that forty-seven percent comment – he was a rich and successful guy who really did think everyone who wasn’t rich and successful was hopeless scum. Anything he said after that comment, to walk it all back, to say he cared for everyone and if president would do good things for everyone, was seen as insincere, at best. If you can’t fake sincerity, you lose. Only Elizabeth Warren seems to be exempt from this rule – she came to politics late in her life and persists in saying what she means and meaning what she says, in all sincerity, take it or leave it. She doesn’t seem to see why anyone should fake sincerity. Why would they? There’s a bit of Harry Truman to her, and no one knows what to make of her. In 2016, the party has to run Hillary Clinton, who is careful and professional and can convincingly fake populism for the base and at the same time make everyone on Wall Street think that she’s really on their side, underneath it all. It’s a gift. Warren is likely to give ’em hell, and also call out foolishness in the base, when they’re foolish. She just doesn’t get it.

So, assume, for now, that the Democrats will run Hillary Clinton in 2016, because of her gift for sincerely believing whatever is appropriate to the occasion, or seeming to. In fact, she has finally become a master politician, and the Republicans know it, and for now, have a plan to deal with her. It’s time to sow doubt, to hint that she’s not what she seems, even in marginal ways. The new hearings on Benghazi might not do the trick – there’s really nothing left to discover and everyone has said what they’ve said. They’ll say it again. The public might turn on the Republicans for this colossal waste of time, and they outnumber the party’s angry base, itching for a fight for the sake of a fight. No, what’s called for here is marginal nastiness, a little of this and a little of that, to sow the somewhat generalized seeds of doubt about her. This is politics played at the margins, where perhaps it is always played.

Luckily, Republicans have a master at that, Karl Rove, who is back in operation:

Republican strategist Karl Rove suggested last week that Hillary Clinton suffers from brain damage, according to a new report.

The New York Post’s Page Six section reported Monday that Rove, appearing at a conference with former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs and CBS correspondent Dan Raviv last Thursday, recently waded into the former secretary of state’s health issues. In 2012, Clinton – a top possible 2016 Democratic contender – suffered from a blood clot that temporarily prevented her from testifying about the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. According to the report, Rove said the Benghazi issue should continue to be pushed.

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to the report. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

He’s just asking, and then, having planted the seed, stepped back with an innocent look to watch it grow:

Republican strategist Karl Rove on Tuesday distanced himself from a provocative New York Post headline, saying he does not believe – as the newspaper asserted – that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton suffered “brain damage” from a head injury in 2012.

“Of course she doesn’t have brain damage,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.

But Rove said that it is apparent that Clinton suffered “a serious health episode.” He added that if she runs for president in 2016, “she is going to have to be forthcoming” about the details of where, how and when it happened.

He noted that major media organizations will demand her medical records, as they do for every major presidential candidate and as they did for former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who suffered a series of heart attacks.

That’s par for the course, but now people will wonder if she’ll really release her medical records, and if she does, will they really be the real medicals records – a parallel to the nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate. Expect the same protracted Fox News discussion of what’s really being hidden from us, but there is this:

According to news reports, Clinton was hospitalized for three days, not 30. The secretary of state was admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Medical Center for a blood clot that developed after a fall from dehydration related to a stomach virus, according to Clinton aides and hospital officials.

And the glasses are the same old glasses she’s always worn, by the way, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog sees how his plays out:

Assuming Hillary declares her candidacy for president shortly after her upcoming book tour, and assuming she wins the nomination, she’s going to be in the spotlight for at least the next two and a half years. She’s going to make a lot of public statements. Sooner or later there’s going to be a gaffe – almost certainly more than one. Maybe there’ll be a couple, in quick succession. Maybe there’ll be a physical stumble. All perfectly normal for a candidate of any age – but Rove is shrewdly laying the groundwork now for a discussion of this subject sometime in the future.

There’s just one problem with that:

The press is going to have that discussion anyway. There’s already endless talk about whether Hillary is too old to run. Nobody needs Rove’s input – this will be discussed if Hillary shows any signs of frailty, or even if she doesn’t, Rove notwithstanding. In the meantime, Rove – who, by the way, is only three years younger than Hillary – is indirectly insulting older people, something you’d think you wouldn’t want to do as the mouthpiece of a party that relies on older voters.

Then there’s Rove himself:

Rove may have made us less likely to have a national conversation about Hillary’s age in the next couple of years. Bring up that subject now and you sound like an oily, unsavory Republican political operative. You sound like Karl Rove.

So, no, I don’t think this was Rove being an evil genius. He should have been smart enough to game out the likely impact of this hit on Hillary.

Maybe so, but Peter Beinart points out, at The Atlantic, the history of Rove’s marginal nastiness:

In 2004, Joshua Green reported in The Atlantic that Texas insiders accused Rove of spreading allegations that his rival, Republican consultant John Weaver, had made a pass at a young man at a GOP event. Green also quoted an aide to a 1994 state Supreme Court candidate in Alabama who accused Rove of having quietly insinuated that his boss was a pedophile. Similarly, when George W. Bush ran for governor of Texas that same year, rumors swirled about the sexual orientation of incumbent Ann Richards. “No one ever traced the character assassination to Rove,” wrote Bush biographer Louis Dubose, “Yet no one doubts that Rove was behind it.” Most famously, when Bush was fighting for his life against a surging John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, fliers, emails, and push polls accused McCain of having fathered an African-American “love child” (he had actually adopted a girl from Bangladesh) and of suffering from mental instability as a result of his incarceration in Vietnam. McCain staffers, and McCain’s daughter, have accused Rove of orchestrating the rumors; Rove denies any involvement.

Why does Rove allegedly smear his opponents this way? Because it works.

Marginal (and deniable) nastiness is strategy, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Not only do Rove’s drive-bys leave debris on their victims; he always seems to escape unscathed. Even when the administration whose political strategy he crafted crashes and burns, he comes out of it wealthy and powerful as ever. Even when he appears to waste tens of millions of dollars in ineffective ads, there he is again wielding enormous sums of money, and pontificating in every medium.

So yeah, he’ll keep up the smears and the spin, on account of it works, to paraphrase a blue-collar ad for a gasoline additive back in the day.

And to go back further, Rove could well quote the infamous challenge of Boss Tweed: What are you going to do about it?

That’s the whole point, and Ana Marie Cox in the Guardian goes further:

What frustrates me the most about the news of Rove’s remarks is that no one seems to have nailed down the context of them. He “stunned the conference” he was at; he was there with former White House advisor Robert Gibbs and CBS correspondent Dan Raviv; the conference was “last week” and “near Los Angeles”. It can’t even be narrowed down to something obviously political or think-tank-y or ideas festival-esque, because Rove and Gibbs have been appearing anywhere that can fork over the $100,000 or so they have been charging for a joint appearance since Gibbs left the White House.

It’s a travelling road show sort of about politics, but Cox thinks it’s absurd:

I’m not sure which is worse: the idea that Rove and Gibbs might be imparting valuable insider information to these paying audiences at largely closed-door events; or that they’ve willingly emptied out whatever convictions they have about politics and agreed to play-act as partisans for sheer entertainment value.

It’s not a news flash that political debate has morphed into entertainment, but there’s something unseemly about the format being commercialized so blatantly. Their glad-handing we’re-all-really-friends appearances – and Gibbs and Roves are far from the only culprits – cheapens any debate about issues or real ideological differences, and gives Americans yet more evidence that party divides are largely for show (and that the real divide in American politics is between the powerful and the powerless)…

What’s more, however skillfully Gibbs might argue his ideology and policy with Rove his convictions are undermined by continued presence on the stage – especially in this instance, given Rove’s outrageous “brain damage” hypothesis. Gibbs refused to comment on the quote, which seems to confirm that Rove did make the accusation, and absolutely makes Gibbs (and perhaps Raviv) complicit in legitimizing it.

Think about it: Rove apparently unleashed this idea in front of a seasoned news reporter and a Democratic operative personally familiar with Clinton… who apparently said nothing, let the comment pass or nodded sagely! Neither Gibbs nor Raviv are responsible for that Rove said, but their apparent silence underscores what might be the larger problem with Rove’s comment: he made his musings in a for-profit setting where outlandish accusations generate more bookings, and substantive debate and principled moral stands give you more time at home with your principles.

Appearing with Rove validates him, and appearing with him dozens of times, debating the exact same topics, over and over, says that you have no real interest in moving the conversation forward – and creates the suspicion than that you might not take the conversation very seriously to begin with.

Hey, everyone was faking it the whole time anyway, which infuriates Cox:

Look, if you dangled a $50,000 speaking fee in front of me to appear alongside Karl Rove, I would probably take it. But I can’t imagine doing it for years on end without, at some point, wanting to throttle him. See, I actually have fundamental philosophical disagreements with Rove. I think that what he did over the years is objectively bad for America. I believe that he helped create policies that led to the needless loss of thousands of American lives. He is one of the men behind the signature military failure of modern American history. He is the architect of the plan that used fear-mongering about gay marriage to turn out GOP votes. He helped steal the 2000 election. This is not “agree to disagree” stuff. I don’t respect him and I don’t think I would learn from him.

The reason I’d like to debate Rove is that I’d like to win the debate, to delegitimize him and to prove that his ideas are dangerous and wrong.

Cox obviously didn’t get the memo about fake sincerity being what politics is all about, and marginal nastiness the tool that can be used to win power, as Slate’s John Dickerson explains here:

Hillary Clinton has been accused of being involved in a murder plot, lying to a grand jury, and orchestrating her daughter’s pregnancy for political gain, so being accused of concealing a brain trauma is probably not shocking. Going after the front-runner early is also now a best practice. The Obama team brags about how attacking Mitt Romney long before he was the official nominee was a key to its success. Raising issues about health and age is also standard operating procedure in campaigns; in modern history, it has been a chiefly Democratic technique, used against Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain. Dick Cheney also enjoyed speculation about whether his heart condition had made him go nuts.

This is political Best Practice, but it is risky:

Clinton’s health has come up in lots of conversations I’ve had with Republican political strategists and even some potential presidential candidates, but the topic dribbles away because Clinton’s doctors cleared her of neurological damage and said she didn’t have a stroke. It is a legitimate issue, but it’s awfully early. Rove knows better than most that the press will raise the question once the campaign begins in earnest. Now that the age issue is out in the open, though, perhaps some conspiracies can flower. The questions about her health might grow so baroque that they blossom into the spectacular nuttiness of the Obama birth certificate claims. Or, these daily questions about Clinton could achieve a collective weight on her candidacy. So many issues, so much drama, it’s always something with her.

On the other hand, Rove’s counter-diagnosis to the official one could also make it look like the GOP is totally unhinged about Hillary Clinton, so fevered in its desire to drag her down that it will engage in medical speculation. (In addition to Clinton staying in the hospital for only four days and not 30, Rove appears to have been wrong about the glasses. Clinton’s glasses appear to have been her normal ones.) Baseless allegations could create sympathy for Clinton, rally her supporters, and put each incremental GOP claim, regardless of its merits, into the category of wolf-crying.

And there’s the matter of timing:

This is a spasm miles away from the election, so no one can make any serious claims this will matter. (It won’t.) But it does highlight a historical quirk of the Clinton candidacy, if there is one. If Hillary Clinton runs, she will be the most uncontested presidential nominee since 1908, when both William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan had relatively easy ascensions.

So, Rove may have jumped in too soon, or on the other hand, any old time would do, because Clinton has this wrapped up. Either way, this had to happen. Our politics is the politics of fake sincerity, and when your opponent is damned good at that, winning the votes of a far too diverse array interest groups, the only way to counter that is with carefully applied marginal nastiness, used early and often, no matter what the policy issues are, or in spite of the policy issues. After all, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made in this town, and after all, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. Someone said that too, although no one knows who, and it really doesn’t matter. Quotes you find on the internet might not always be accurate.

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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2 Responses to Marginal Nastiness as Strategy

  1. Rick says:

    “Raising issues about health and age is also standard operating procedure in campaigns; in modern history, it has been a chiefly Democratic technique, used against Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain.”

    Hey, the Democrats weren’t the ones doing that. They didn’t need to, since everyone was already asking those same questions on their own about those guys, many of whom were Republicans in primary season.

    And as I remember, it was some Republican who originally suggested that Gerald Ford had “played too much football without a helmet.”

    While some Republicans, in a fit of paranoia, have accused Hillary’s team of having arranged for Monica Lewinsky to come out now with her book, we need to remember that they always turn out to be the ones with minds that work that way. The idea that politics is a game, properly played by dirty tricksters, is mostly a Republican idea, not a Democratic one. The idea, from Donald Segretti through Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, has always been to exploit a common public suspicion that, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

    Yet, after all these years, you’d think voters might finally come to realize that, where there’s smoke, there’s probably a bunch of Republicans blowing it.


  2. SalvaVenia says:

    How people could wake up, if education is practically non-existent? Even, if you’d start proper education today, it would mean another safe harbour for another quarter of a century for all those Rove’s of our time as well as in future.

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