How Obama Got Into the Republican Party’s Head

The president likes to make Republicans look like “kooks.” And they usually take the bait.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) leaves a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on February 5 in Washington, DC.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) leaves a news conference in the U.S. Capitol Tuesday.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

“Attn skeet birthers,” tweeted David Plouffe. “Make our day—let the photoshop conspiracies begin!”

It was Feb. 3, a week and change since Plouffe had left the White House and joined Twitter, and he was already on top of a meme. The New Republic had asked President Obama whether he’d ever shot a gun. “Up at Camp David,” he’d said, “we do skeet shooting all the time.” A small number of conservatives asked—totally reasonably—whether there was any proof. The White House released a photo of the president firing a shotgun.

But it did so by having deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer call the critics “skeeters,” and then came Plouffe, egging it on. “Day made,” he tweeted, hours later. “The skeet birthers are out in full force in response to POTUS pic. Makes for most excellent, delusional reading. #whereistrump”

Why, in 2013, is the White House still talking about Donald Trump? Has any of its domestic enemies been vanquished as completely as the host of The Apprentice? No, none of them have. The point of this exercise didn’t become clear until Tuesday, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrapped up a sophisticated two-day exercise in Republican rebranding. Day 1 meant a visit to a D.C. charter school with media in tow. (“Eric Cantor grabs a plastic dinosaur from the pile of toys in front of one-year-old Mekhi Scott, taps the beast on the table and growls, RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”) Day two meant an hourlong speech at the American Enterprise Institute, flanked by Real Americans Who Feel the Real Impact of Washington.

“With us today is Erin Shucosky,” said Cantor. “Erin has been a clinical nurse for 30 years in Baltimore. She spent the past 10 years coordinating the research on a study to approve new replacement discs to treat patients suffering from crippling neck and back pain.” Alas, “the new medical device tax in Obamacare makes it harder for researchers to develop these innovative devices in the U.S. and thus makes it harder for patients like Erin to get the care they need.”

Republicans have been talking about scrapping that medical device tax since five or six seconds after Obamacare passed. Democrats like Elizabeth Warren have joined them. A Google News search on that tax reveals around 3,200 recent stories. A search for tales of Obama and the great skeet hunt: 135,000.

The easy knock on the Republican “rebranding” campaign is that it microwaves ideas and gimmicks from previous, partially successful campaigns. This White House makes that harder, because it has an intuitive understanding of what could make Republicans look stupid. The Republicans are aware of this tactic, and they resent it, one of them describing it to me as “finding four people on Twitter and making it look like they speak for us.”

But it usually works. In 2008, as Plouffe recalls in his memoir The Audacity to Win, the Obama campaign repeatedly pivoted away from damaging stories by making the stories themselves sound nutty. They focus-grouped possible attacks on Obama’s friendship with Bill Ayers, and according to Plouffe, “it became clear we could not blow off the subject as simply more negative politics from McCain.” But the McCain campaign “utterly flubbed their injection of the Ayers argument into the main artery of their communications.” Its vessel was not McCain, but Sarah Palin, “who had almost zero credibility and little standing with the broader electorate.”

This continued into 2009. But after the election, for a while, it stopped working. The White House portrayed Republican obstinacy as kookery, elevating the most colorful-sounding kooks. On Feb. 19, 2009, CNBC’s Rick Santelli denounced the nascent Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan and called for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest this plan to bail out “the losers’ mortgages.” Asked about it the next day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs delivered a long, prepared denunciation of Santelli, daring him to drink “decaf.” This only inflamed the Tea Party.

From then through 2010, Democrats hoped that the most extreme-looking Republicans would bring the entire party down around them. They didn’t. The GOP’s opposition was actually mostly popular, because the 2010 electorate and (to a lesser extent) the broader public also opposed the president’s health care bill, and doubted that the 2009 stimulus package had worked.

The Republican House of Representatives changed that relationship. After the debt limit fight of 2011, voters consistently blamed Congress, not the president, for Washington’s inexplicable manias. And that’s why Republicans have launched the ever-evolving rebrand. Cantor’s AEI speech was crafted to tie every Republican idea to a Hallmark movie problem. Instead of talking “tax reform,” there was this: “In our attempt to make the tax code simpler, we must continue to demonstrate support for young parents who invest in having kids and raising a family.” Instead of a lecture on school choice, there was the tale of Rashawn, who “flunked the first grade” and was put “in special education classes,” so broken is the system.

Every Republican leadership move this year has been designed to take away the president’s “kook” card. That was clear on Tuesday, as the party rejoiced at news that the president wanted “tens of billions of dollars in short-term spending cuts and tax revenue” to replace the scheduled cuts of sequestration. They’re aware of just how easy it is for the president to portray them as radical, and to spotlight their weirdest tics, and that he will get another chance to do this next week at the State of the Union. But how reasonable do they need to sound before people pay attention to them? They are learning that, at a speed much slower than skeet.