Lazy Beltway pundits have discovered a new Obama scandal: The president is telling his base the truth about how Republicans are making their lives worse, and he must be stopped.
Last week, Obama was accused of ginning up his base’s anger over voting rights: The New York Times reduced his Friday speech on the issue to an effort “to rally his political base,” while the Washington Post depicted the Democrats’ focus on voting rights as mere partisan strategy, calling it the party’s “most important project in 2014.”
Then came the National Journal’s James Oliphant, declaring that “Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.” Oliphant accused Democrats of cynically exploiting anger over voter ID laws and the failure of bills to hike the minimum wage, reform the immigration system and help women achieve pay equity, for political gain.
Slate’s John Dickerson has topped them all, however, with “Obama trolls the GOP,” his Thursday column accusing the president of lying about the wage gap between men and women in order to win votes. Dickerson is the one doing the trolling, as he sort of admits upfront, blaming the Internet for rewarding columns that call the president names and make an argument without nuance.
But the essence of Dickerson’s argument is of a piece with the lazy “grievance” meme spreading among his peers: Obama is doing something wrong by telling a component of his coalition, in this case women, that Republican policies are hurting them. In other words, telling the truth while also, yes, practicing politics.
We can certainly debate which number we should use when debating pay equity, but the notion that Obama is deliberately lying to create "stray voltage" by choosing the wrong number seems cynical or worse. Dickerson relies on a Major Garrett column that relies on an older Major Garrett column in which White House adviser David Plouffe explained his theory of “stray voltage” – how any controversy, even ones that seem to hurt Obama, can be put to good political use when “stray voltage” from said outrage sparks the ire of Obama’s base.
Supposedly, the controversy around the White House continuing to use the Census Bureau figure – that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar – even though other studies find a smaller gap, cements the impression that Republicans oppose measures to close the gap, and may create “stray voltage” to galvanize women voters in 2014 and 2016. Oliphant likewise relies on the pay-gap flap, and the Democrats’ embrace of the doomed Paycheck Fairness Act, as an example of unfair “grievance politics.”
But Republicans do oppose virtually all measures that might close the gap. It’s not just the Paycheck Fairness Act; take the minimum wage. Republicans (and others) say that 77 percent figure exaggerates the pay gap between equally qualified men and women, because women are clustered in low-wage fields. Raising the minimum wage would be a great way to get at that particular pay-gap widener, since two thirds of minimum wage workers are women. But of course, Republicans oppose not only the Paycheck Fairness Act, but an increase in the minimum wage as well.
Oh, but Democrats continuing to agitate for a minimum wage hike? That’s also unfair “grievance politics,” according to Oliphant, because “it may animate minority voters.” Concern about traditional low turnout in midterm elections, he writes:
… has forced the party to find reasons for people to come out and vote, and they've selected issues that target slices of the electorate. Hence, equal pay, an issue that especially resonates with single women; the minimum wage, which may animate minority voters; and immigration reform, which galvanizes Hispanics. And likely coming soon to a [Harry] Reid press availability near you: student-loan modification, teed up for the hard-to-get youth vote.
So let me make sure I understand. Telling your voters, accurately, that Republicans are trying to make it harder for them to vote, and are blocking action on pay equity, the minimum wage and immigration reform is unfair “grievance politics”? Likewise, any effort to deal with the scandal of $1 trillion in student loan debt? Oliphant compares it to the grievance politics practiced by Republicans under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But that form of grievance politics mainly relied on inflaming white voters’ fears of cultural and racial change with false or highly exaggerated claims about Democrats.
I would also argue that when one party’s leaders declare upfront that they’re going to block everything the other party’s president tries to do, and when that party even retreats from solutions to problems that it once favored – in the GOP’s case, that includes the individual mandate, immigration reform, cap and trade, the Voting Rights Act, and periodic increases to the minimum wage -- the cultivation of anger in order to turn out voters is an excellent and entirely defensible strategy. In fact, Republican obstructionism seems designed at least partly to demoralize the Obama coalition -- many of them occasional voters already discouraged by the political process. If you can convince young people, Latinos and women that voting changes nothing, you can make up for your reliance on aging white voters.
This new story line also reinforces a core Republican claim about Obama and the Democrats: that they’re trying to buy off the electorate with “gifts,” to use sore-loser Mitt Romney’s term. When rich people use the political process to make their lives better, that’s just the way things work. When people who aren’t rich do so, they’re looking for a handout. This new “grievance politics” story line is just one more way mainstream journalism’s weakness for false equivalence, which is intellectually lazy, politically rewards Republicans.