Like many of you, no doubt, I’ve been following the wide-ranging debate about the domestic political implications of the British terrorist bust of last week. It has come as no surprise, of course, that Republicans and their conservative allies have seized on the foiled plot to claim, for the thousandth time, that it shows how important it is to have a party focused on national security in charge in Washington, even if the consequences of its Iraq policies are looking more disastrous every single day. (The GOP’s comcomitant campaign on the theme that Joe Lieberman’s loss in Connecticut proves there’s only one party committed to fighting terrorism, absurd as it is, is Part B of its longstanding implicit argument that however much Bush is screwing up, he’s screwing up with the right intentions). But I do wonder if the revelation of an advanced plot to replicate 9/11 on a large scale isn’t going to unravel the whole line of “reasoning” that has reinforced the persistant gap between public feelings about Bush’s performance in Iraq, and the GOP’s general reliability on national security. We’re all familiar with the “flypaper” theory, so often articulated by Bush himself, that whatever else is going on in Iraq, the insurgency there is drawing jihadist attention and resources away from attacks on the U.S. (“We can fight them here or we can fight them there,” as Bush routinely says). And I personally think this factually crazy contention has been far more important to Bush and the GOP than most of us would like to accept. Back during the last presidential campaign, I became convinced, mainly through conversations with undecided voters back home in Georgia who would up voting for Bush’s re-election, that the most powerful thing the incumbent had going for him was a rough and unsophisticated argument that went like this: Some Arabs came here and killed a bunch of Americans. George Bush went over to Iraq and killed even more Arabs. Since then there have been no attacks. He must be doing something right.Anything and everything that reminds Americans that the Iraq War has not done a thing to reduce the terrorist threat against the United States will erode that argument, and with it, the GOP’s belief that any and all concerns about national security will benefit it at the ballot box. To the extent that clearly focusing on what they would do to deal with the actual terrorist threat undermines both parts of the Republican argument, while connecting public unhappiness with Iraq with residual concerns about terrorism, Democrats should hammer away on this subject every day. This administration has been a national security disaster. The “flypaper” has worn out, leaving us with a horrific mess in Iraq, an energized and growing jihadist threat, and a country more exposed than ever to terrorism. It’s time for a dramatically new direction.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Noting a shift in some of the rhetoric we are hearing from both parties, I tried to explain it at New York:
Earlier this week, I got an unusual communication from a member of the White House press corps who wondered if I had inspired Joe Biden’s use of the term ultra-MAGA for Rick Scott’s wildly right-wing 2022 agenda for Republicans. I owned up to contriving the term in an effort to describe Scott’s combination of Trumpian rhetoric with Goldwater-era policy extremism. But I had no idea if Biden or someone in his circle read my piece and decided to borrow the neologism or (more likely) came up with it independently for parallel reasons.
Biden hasn’t just hit Scott with “ultra-MAGA”; in the same speech, he also referred to Trump himself as “the great MAGA king.” And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has taken to railing against “MAGA Republicans” as well.
So Democratic leaders are now saying “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) where they would have once used “right wing” or “ultraconservative” or even “wingnut.” This appeared to be a strategic decision, not just a verbal tic or a tossed-off insult. And indeed, on Friday, the Washington Post reported that the rhetorical shift is the result of a six-month research project led by Biden adviser Anita Dunn and the Center for American Progress Action Fund:
“The polling and focus group research by Hart Research and the Global Strategy Group found that “MAGA” was already viewed negatively by voters — more negatively than other phrases like ‘Trump Republicans.’
“In battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a ‘MAGA Republican’ than would be more likely. The research also found that the description tapped into the broad agreement among voters that the Republican Party had become more extreme and power-hungry in recent years.”
Despite the potential liabilities, usage of “MAGA” and its variants has been spreading in Republican ranks as well — and the trend began even before Trump decided he liked Biden’s insult and started posting MAGA King memes on Truth Social. For example, Steve Bannon referred to Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette’s rivalry with the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz as “MAGA vs. ULTRA-MAGA.” The former Trump adviser was using “ULTRA-MAGA” as a compliment; in his eyes, Barnette is deeply devoted to The Cause, while the TV doctor is most palpably devoted to self-promotion.
So why is this happening now? And is the greater embrace of the term on both the right and the left just a coincidence? I don’t think so.
Democrats really need to make the 2022 midterm elections comparative rather than the usual referendum on the current occupant of the White House, who is held responsible for whatever unhappiness afflicts the electorate, which is reflected in Biden’s chronically low job-approval ratings. They also need to find a way to motivate elements of the Democratic base to vote in November, which isn’t easy because (a) Democratic constituencies (particularly young people) rarely vote in proportional numbers in non-presidential elections without extreme provocation, and (b) many base voters are “unenthusiastic” about voting thanks to disappointment over the limited accomplishments Biden and his congressional allies have chalked up since taking control of Washington.
The tried-and-true bogeyman who could help make 2022 comparative because he continues to meddle in politics and threaten a comeback is, of course, Trump. The specter of his return could be especially scary to young voters, whose unusually high 2018 turnout was attributable to their loathing for the 45th president. So it behooves Democrats to remind voters as often as possible that the Republican candidates who are on the ballot this November are surrogates for the Great Orange Tyrant. And invoking the red-hat symbolism of MAGA is an efficient way to do that. “Ultra-MAGA” suggests there are Republicans who are Trumpier than Trump, like Scott. The whole GOP, we can expect Biden to regularly suggest between now and November, is crazier than a sack of rats and getting crazier by the minute. That’s more important than the price of gasoline at any given moment.
For similar reasons, in intra-Republican politics, the MAGA brand is legal tender among the majority of GOP voters who turn to Mar-a-Lago for direction the way that flowers turn toward the sun. Wearing the red hat or referring to themselves as “MAGA warriors” is a way for Republican politicians to show a particular attachment to Trump. And ultra-MAGA is essential for candidates like Barnette who follow the Trump agenda slavishly but don’t have the Boss’s actual endorsement for whatever reason. It’s also a handy way for ambitious right-wing politicians to suggest there is a cause that will survive Trump’s own career and will indeed flourish under their own leadership. MAGA works a lot better as a symbol of Trumpism Without Trump than such debatable and obscure terms as national conservatism or conservative populism. When he goes after Mickey Mouse with a claw hammer, Ron DeSantis is definitely ultra-MAGA, especially compared to such damaged goods as Mike Pence, who is merely MAGA or even ex-MAGA.
So get used to it. Until we get a better fix on how to describe the ideology of the followers of Donald Trump, both they and their political opponents are likely to keep relying on the MAGA brand, which now means more than the nostalgia for the white patriarchy of yore that Team Trump probably had in mind when it came up with the slogan to begin with. If Trump runs for president in 2024, he’ll have to decide whether his slogan will be “Make America Great Again, Again” (as he has already redubbed his super-PAC) or something else. But for now, everybody pretty much knows it means one person’s dream and another’s nightmare.