The Democratic Party's Eternal Search for a Villain in the Obama Age

The party is trying to use the Koch brothers as bogeymen—even though most voters don't even know who they are. It's a replay of the 2010 midterms.
David Koch in 2012 (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Ask most political observers what the Republican Party's most pressing problem is and they're likely to tell you it's disorganization and factionalism; with George W. Bush out of favor among the party and the population as a whole, it's unclear who speaks for the GOP. In the longer term, the party faces a demographic quandary—made worse by the fact that no leader seems able to marshal the party and move it toward a solution.

But the fact that there's no clear Republican leader causes problems for Democrats, too—at least in midterm years. Look at the last three elections where Democrats triumphed: 2006, 2008, and 2012. In 2006, Democrats won running against George W. Bush, using his unpopularity to take over the House and Senate. Two years later, Barack Obama grabbed the White House in large part by campaigning against Bush's foreign policy (the war in Iraq, and his handling of the war in Afghanistan) and economic policy, and insisting a John McCain Administration would be more of the same. In 2012, Obama triumphed while blasting Mitt Romney, doing everything he could to paint his opponent as an insensitive plutocrat out of touch with voters.

In short, Democrats had a clear villain in all three races. Now, this is an intentionally oversimplified account; factors like the economy are generally far more important than messaging. (You can pull your finger off that "send" button, angry political scientists!) But politicians and parties like to have unifying themes to center their campaign, and they like to have a villain to run against.

And the GOP's diffused state makes it harder for Democrats to find a whipping boy in midterm elections. The Democratic Party seems to have chosen Charles and David Koch as its primary targets in the 2014 midterms. The Kochs are major bankrollers of conservative candidates and powerful opponents of causes that the Democratic base loves—climate-change legislation, pro-union labor laws, campaign-finance regulation—so it's no surprise that party leaders don't like them. The problem is that voters don't seem to care. In a new poll, a majority of likely 2014 voters don't even know who they are, a finding that jibes with prior polling. It's hard to build a party's message on vilifying the Kochs if the audience doesn't even know who the Kochs are.

It's reminiscent of 2010. President Obama had swept into office just two years earlier, but the economy remained miserable and Democrats had spent months on a bruising fight to pass the Affordable Care Act. Who could flailing Democrats attack? Here's Charles Babington in September 2010:

President Barack Obama has frequently reminded Americans that the nation's economic crisis began under George W. Bush, a largely unpopular and universally known foil. Now all but ignoring Bush, Obama is criticizing a Republican most voters have never heard of: House Minority Leader John Boehner.

The shift represents a gamble for Democrats, and a tacit acknowledgment that bashing Bush—doing so helped them win big victories in 2006 and 2008—has basically lost its magic.

The risk for Obama and fellow Democrats is that millions of Americans will scratch their heads when they hear Boehner's name (pronounced BAY'-nur). Democratic strategists, however, say the White House has few choices.

It turned out that desperation was warranted. The attacks on Boehner didn't make much difference. The GOP gained 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate, and made huge gains at the state level as well. (It's worth comparing Boehner to his predecessor as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi's unfavorables have hovered around 50 percent for years; Boehner's have been a little better, and his overall recognition has lagged hers. The Ohioan just doesn't seem to be as polarizing.)

In 2014 the White House (and congressional Democrats) once again have few choices. The Republican presidential field two years ago was weak and diffuse; Mitt Romney's ultimate victory came after boomlets for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and, yes, even Herman Cain. At this early stage, the 2016 GOP field promises to be much stronger, but it's still a wide-open race and Romney has shown no interest in giving it another shot, so there's no obvious bogeyman. So who else do Democrats have to attack? Reince Priebus isn't exactly a household name either.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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