What is it that compels the leadership of a party that holds all the levers of power in Washington to repeatedly attack political opponents who are out of office, to call for investigations into the actions of administration officials who are totally out of the picture, and plan political campaigns around opposition to politicians who are never going to run again? I’m speaking, of course, of Democrats during the start of the Obama administration.
In 2009, Democrats held both the White House and a commanding majority in Congress, including the 60 Senate seats necessary to overcome a filibuster. Yet on multiple occasions throughout the year, party leaders singled out former President George W. Bush and his administration for attacks.
President Obama, who would let the federal budget deficit soar to record heights during his first term, complained publicly that he had inherited trillions in debt from Bush. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi supported an investigation into potential Bush administration lawbreaking on national security issues. And at the end of the year, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, then the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared that for the 2010 midterm election, the party’s strategy would be to remind voters of how much they disliked President Bush. At the height of the Democratic party’s occupation of elected office in Washington, in other words, a president who had been out of office for nearly a year and would never again hold political power was enemy number one.
You can see a similar instinct at work right now, as Republicans and their partisan allies attempt to jujitsu Trump administration scandals into indictments of Hillary Clinton, who is, you may have noticed, not currently our country’s president, or for that matter, our official anything else.
After the announcement yesterday that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had been charged with conspiracy and money laundering as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that “today’s announcement has nothing to do with the President, has nothing to do with the President’s campaign or campaign activity.” Instead, she said, “The real collusion scandal, as we have said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Russia. There is clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation.”
This morning, Trump responded to news that campaign foreign policy adviser George pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the same investigation. While working on the campaign, Papadopoulos attempted to set up meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian contacts, and he noted that individuals he believed to be connected to the Russian government said they had dirt on Clinton, including thousands of emails. This occurred months before thousands of Clinton emails were made public as the result of a hack. The president used this as an opportunity to says that his political opponents deserve more scrutiny. Papadopoulos, Trump said, was a “young, low level volunteer, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”
This message was echoed by Trump’s GOP allies in Congress: “Don’t forget we still have all the Hillary activity,” said Sen. James Inhofe when asked about the Manafort charges. Just last week, congressional Republicans launched several new investigations into Clinton’s actions as secretary state. And Trump’s most ardent defenders in the media have similarly spent the last week or so downplaying the importance of the Mueller probe while insisting that the Russia investigation that the entire operation is just a meaningless and shoddy Democratic hit job, and also that it reveals important and damning truths about Hillary Clinton and her allies. As always, the real enemy is someone who is out of power, and who will almost certainly never again wield it.
The need for a political enemy, for someone of the opposing party persuasion to despise and blame regardless of their current proximity to actual power, is a consistent feature of the partisan mind. It is a mindset that conceives of politics almost exclusively as a sport, played between two teams, with points to be scored and games to be won.
It’s a zero sum approach to governance, and what it means, in the end, is that anyone who is concerned with improving the performance of government ends up losing, as empty partisan victories inevitably end up prioritized over policy advances. It is politics as a combination of entertainment and petty cultural warfare, and it is a habit that is, at predictable intervals, indulged on both sides of the aisle. It is exhausting, endless, inevitable, and utterly soul-sucking.
The bipartisan nature of this mindset does not mean that what Republicans are doing now is perfectly equivalent to what Democrats did eight years ago. When Democrats blamed Bush for exploding the national debt or for engaging in legally and morally dubious acts in pursuit of the war on terror, they were certainly engaged in a self-serving partisan blame game. But in an important sense, they also had a point: Bush had been president for eight years, and had made a multitude of errors and blunders that profoundly shaped the course of the nation.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, not only isn’t president today—she never was. Yes, she served as President Obama’s secretary of state for four years, and she exerted real influence in that role, but not at remotely the same level as President Bush. And it is all but certain that she will never run for office again. And yes, the Clinton machine, the faction of advisers and advocates and money managers inside the Democratic party, was amongst the most powerful and influential players involved in American politics for decades. It is not entirely unreasonable or out of bounds to note or consider Clinton’s many roles in our recent national dramas. But given who controls the actual levers of power in our current government, it is also far from the most pressing concern at the moment. Yet Trump and his defenders would have us believe that shady Clinton dealings are the most important issue being raised by the current investigation. Perhaps even more bizarrely, the GOP faithful have attempted to turn Mueller, a lifelong Republican with a solid reputation, into a front for Clinton sleaze.
It is not an accident that the GOP’s attacks on Clinton have grown louder and more agitated as the investigation into Trump has made progress. It is a strategy designed to muddle the issue by playing on knee-jerk partisan resentments. Those resentments, meanwhile, have yet to produce much in the way of legislative achievements. Shallow partisan deflection is being forced to serve as a substitute for a popular and successful policy agenda. This is partisan politics at its worst, power-seeking and power-weilding for no reason except empty self-perpetuation, which is to say that it is partisan politics as it usually is.