Go for the Throat!
Why if he wants to transform American politics, Obama must declare war on the Republican Party.
On gun control, the National Rifle Association has overreached. Its Web video mentioning the president's children crossed a line.* The group’s dissembling about the point of the video and its message compounds the error. (The video was also wrong). The NRA is whipping up its members, closing ranks, and lashing out. This solidifies its base, but is not a strategy for wooing those who are not already engaged in the gun rights debate. It only appeals to those who already think the worst of the president. Republicans who want to oppose the president on policy grounds now have to make a decision: Do they want to be associated with a group that opposes, in such impolitic ways, measures like universal background checks that 70 to 80 percent of the public supports? Polling also suggests that women are more open to gun control measures than men. The NRA, by close association, risks further defining the Republican Party as the party of angry, white Southern men.
The president is also getting help from Republicans who are calling out the most extreme members of the coalition. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the NRA video "reprehensible." Others who have national ambitions are going to have to follow suit. The president can rail about and call the GOP bad names, but that doesn't mean people are going to listen. He needs members inside the Republican tent to ratify his positions—or at least to stop marching in lockstep with the most controversial members of the GOP club. When Republicans with national ambitions make public splits with their party, this helps the president.
(There is a corollary: The president can’t lose the support of Democratic senators facing tough races in 2014. Opposition from within his own ranks undermines his attempt to paint the GOP as beyond the pale.)
If the Republican Party finds itself destabilized right now, it is in part because the president has already implemented a version of this strategy. In the 2012 campaign, the president successfully transformed the most intense conservative positions into liabilities on immigration and the role of government. Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination on a platform of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants—and the Obama team never let Hispanics forget it. The Obama campaign also branded Republicans with Romney's ill-chosen words about 47 percent of Americans as the party of uncaring millionaires.
Now Republican presidential hopefuls like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal are trying to fix the party's image. There is a general scramble going on as the GOP looks for a formula to move from a party that relies on older white voters to one that can attract minorities and younger voters.
Out of fear for the long-term prospects of the GOP, some Republicans may be willing to partner with the president. That would actually mean progress on important issues facing the country, which would enhance Obama’s legacy. If not, the president will stir up a fracas between those in the Republican Party who believe it must show evolution on issues like immigration, gun control, or climate change and those who accuse those people of betraying party principles.
That fight will be loud and in the open—and in the short term unproductive. The president can stir up these fights by poking the fear among Republicans that the party is becoming defined by its most extreme elements, which will in turn provoke fear among the most faithful conservatives that weak-willed conservatives are bending to the popular mood. That will lead to more tin-eared, dooming declarations of absolutism like those made by conservatives who sought to define the difference between legitimate and illegitimate rape—and handed control of the Senate to Democrats along the way. For the public watching from the sidelines, these intramural fights will look confused and disconnected from their daily lives. (Lip-smacking Democrats don’t get too excited: This internal battle is the necessary precondition for a GOP rebirth, and the Democratic Party has its own tensions.)
This approach is not a path of gentle engagement. It requires confrontation and bright lines and tactics that are more aggressive than the president demonstrated in the first term. He can't turn into a snarling hack. The posture is probably one similar to his official second-term photograph: smiling, but with arms crossed.
The president already appears to be headed down this path. He has admitted he’s not going to spend much time improving his schmoozing skills; he's going to get outside of Washington to ratchet up public pressure on Republicans. He is transforming his successful political operation into a governing operation. It will have his legacy and agenda in mind—and it won’t be affiliated with the Democratic National Committee, so it will be able to accept essentially unlimited donations. The president tried to use his political arm this way after the 2008 election, but he was constrained by re-election and his early promises of bipartisanship. No more. Those days are done.
Presidents don’t usually sow discord in their inaugural addresses, though the challenge of writing a speech in which the call for compromise doesn’t evaporate faster than the air out of the president’s mouth might inspire him to shake things up a bit. If it doesn’t, and he tries to conjure our better angels or summon past American heroes, then it will be among the most forgettable speeches, because the next day he’s going to return to pitched political battle. He has no time to waste.
Correction, Jan. 18, 2013: This article originally identified a National Rifle Association online video as a television ad. (Return to the corrected sentence.)