By Karl Rove, The Wall Street Journal
Presidents throughout history have kept lists of political foes. But the Obama White House is the first I am aware of to pick targets based on polls. Even Richard Nixon didn’t focus-group his enemies list. Team Obama — aided by Clintonistas Paul Begala, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg — decided to attack Rush Limbaugh after poring over opinion research. White House senior adviser David Axelrod explicitly authorized the assault. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel assigned a White House official to coordinate the push. And Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gleefully punched the launch button at his podium, suckering the White House press corps into dropping what they were doing to get Mr. Limbaugh.
Was it smart politics and good policy? No. For one thing, it gave the lie to Barack Obama’s talk about ending “the political strategy that’s been all about division” and “the score-keeping and the name-calling.” The West Wing looked populated by petulant teenagers intent on taking down a popular rival. Such talk also shortens the president’s honeymoon by making him look like a street-fighting Chicago pol instead of an inspirational, unifying figure. The upward spike in ratings for Rush and other conservative radio commentators shows how the White House’s attempt at a smackdown instead energized the opposition.
Did it do any good with voters not strongly tied to either party? I suspect not. With stock markets down, unemployment growing, banks tottering, consumers anxious, business leaders nervous, and the economy shrinking, the Obama administration’s attacks on a radio talk show host made it seem concerned with the trivial.
Why did the White House do it? It was a diversionary tactic. Clues might be found in the revelation that senior White House staff meet for two hours each Wednesday evening to digest their latest polling and focus-group research. I would bet a steak dinner at Morton’s in Chicago these Wednesday Night Meetings discussed growing public opposition to spending, omnibus pork, more bailout money for banks and car companies, and new taxes on energy, work and capital.
What better way to divert public attention from these more consequential if problematic issues than to start a fight with a celebrity conservative? Cable TV, newspapers and newsweeklies would find the conflict irresistible. Something has to be set aside to provide more space and time to the War on Rush; why not the bad economic news?
Here’s the problem: Misdirection never lasts long. Team Obama can at best only temporarily distract the public; within days, attention will return to issues that clearly should worry the White House.
Not even Team Obama can forestall unpleasant reality. And among those America now faces is Mr. Obama adding $3.2 trillion to the national debt in his first 20 months and 11 days in office, eclipsing the $2.9 trillion added during the Bush presidency’s entire eight years.
Another reality is that Mr. Obama’s fiscal house is built on gimmicks. For example, it assumes the cost of the surge in Iraq will extend for a decade. This brazenly dishonest trick was done to create phony savings down the line.
Mr. Obama’s budget downplays some programs’ true cost. For example, his vaunted new college access program is funded for five years and then disappears (on paper); the children’s health insurance program drops (on paper) from $12.4 billion in 2013 to $700 million the next year. Neither will happen; the costs of both will be much higher and so will the deficits.
Mr. Obama’s budget also assumes the economy declines 41% less this year and grows 52% more next year and 38% more the year after than is estimated by the Blue Chip consensus (a collection of estimates by leading economists traditionally used by federal budget crunchers). If Mr. Obama used the consensus forecasts for growth rather than his own rosy scenarios, his budget would be $758 billion more in the red over the next five years.
Then there’s discretionary domestic spending, which grows over the next two years by $238 billion, the fastest increase ever recorded. Mr. Obama pledges it will then be cut in real terms for the next nine years. That’s simply not credible.
Then there’s his omnibus spending bill to fund the government for the next six months, laden with 8,500 earmarks and tens of billions in additional spending above the current budget. What happened to pledges for earmark reform and making “meaningful cuts?”
In the face of our enormous economic challenges, top White House aides decided to pee on Mr. Limbaugh’s leg. This is a political luxury the country cannot afford, and which Mr. Obama would be wise to forbid. Or did he not mean it when he ran promising to “turn the page” on the “old” politics?
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.