“I Live in a Rather Special World”

Published March 6, 2014

Commentary Magazine

When I was driving my son to school yesterday (there was a two-hour delay in opening), I listened to Mike Gallagher, a talk show host whom I like and on whose show I have appeared.

During the portion I listened to, Gallagher was urging Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016, assuming she’d be relatively easy to defeat. When it came to the “perfect” GOP candidate to beat her, Gallagher named Senator Ted Cruz. The reason, he said, is that Cruz will focus attention on and prosecute the case against Mrs. Clinton in two areas: the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and her role in the various Clinton scandals of the 1990s. Mr. Gallagher contrasted Cruz with John McCain, who (to Gallagher’s consternation) didn’t make Barack Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright a prominent part of his run for the presidency. The implication was that if he had, McCain would have done much better.

Now I happen to believe that all of the issues Gallagher names are legitimate ones to raise – and indeed I’ve written about them myself. I certainly don’t think they should be off limits if Mrs. Clinton runs. Of course her record and actions are legitimate lines of inquiry.

But my sense is that Gallagher, as well as other conservatives, believe re-litigating the Clinton years and Benghazi will move voters into the Republican column. Their argument, as I understand it, is that a major problem, and maybe the main problem, with recent Republican presidential candidates is that they haven’t been aggressive enough; that if, say, John McCain had talked more often and with more outrage directed at Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright, he would have done much better in 2008.

I don’t think there’s any empirical evidence that supports that theory and, in fact, it almost certainly would have backfired on McCain. As for Hillary Clinton: if she is the nominee, relentlessly pounding her on Whitewater, the firing of White House travel office director Billy Dale and attacking Ken Starr would  boomerang, making the attacker appear to be (among other things) out of touch. Her culpability on Benghazi is (potentially) another matter — but even then, it may not be a terribly effective line of attack and it will never be anything like a decisive factor. The drawback to those who embrace the re-litigation strategy is that it will distract Republicans from a far more urgent need, which is to develop a comprehensive conservative governing agenda that will reach voters who are not now voting for GOP presidential nominees.

What this highlights, I think, is a temptation we all face in politics, which is to assume what we care about and feel passionate about is what others must as well. If the misdeeds surrounding what happened in Benghazi or Whitewater infuriate you, it will surely infuriate others. And if they’re not reacting the same way as you are, it must be a communications problem. You simply need to make your case more often, more vocally, and with more passion. You need to make the case over and over again, until you make voters care.

I know of what I speak. In the last 1990s, during the Clinton impeachment battles, I assumed that at some point, as President Clinton’s lawlessness (including perjury), his abuses of power and his predator behavior were exposed, the American people would turn on him. They never did. (Remember when Bob Dole, in the last days of the 1996 campaign — before the Lewinsky scandal — asked, “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage?”)

To return to the Gallagher example: a majority, and probably a vast majority, of his listeners are energized and interested in Benghazi and the Clinton scandals. That’s fine. The error, I think, is in assuming that the rest of America must care about it, too, and that focusing on these issues would help a GOP nominee win the presidency.

This is the downside of the modern media age, when those on the left and right can read and listen almost exclusively to people who share their worldview and serve to reinforce it. I’m reminded of the comment by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who after the 1972 presidential election reportedly said, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” (Kudos to John Podhoretz forcalling attention to the actual Pauline Kael quote.)

Probably more than ever before, more and more of us live in “a rather special world” in which those who hold views different than ours are outside our ken. That’s true for me. I imagine it’s true for Mike Gallagher and Rachel Maddow. And who knows; it may be true for you, too.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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