Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 October 2012

The “Chutzpah” Campaign and How to Beat It

[For my assessment of the vice-presidential debate, click here. This post is more important; it shows how Obama can win.]

The “chutzpah” strategy
Its four (now five!) pillars
Its consequences
How to beat it

The chutzpah strategy

“Chutzpah”—pronounced with the “ch” as a guttural “h”—is a Yiddish word meaning “brass” or “unmitigated gall.”

A joking definition goes something like this: A young kid kills both his parents in cold blood. Convicted of double murder and parricide, he takes a bold step in his sentencing hearing. He throws himself on the court’s mercy because he’s now an orphan.

That’s chutzpah.

For most of the last four years, the Republicans have been running a chutzpah campaign. They’ve been blaming the President and the Democrats for all the calamities they themselves have caused.

They hope to make these false claims stick for four reasons. First, after starting two needless wars, putting them on our credit card, running up huge deficits, and tanking the global economy, they don’t have much of a record to run on. The chutzpah strategy is all they’ve got.

Second, they know that our current Twitter culture gives us the memory and attention span of gnats. They think voters won’t remember or care about things that happened as recently as four years ago. So they hope they can make the chutzpah strategy work for them.

Third, the strategy dovetails nicely with another key GOP meme: that the President, because of his unusual name, background and personal history, is “not one of us.”

GOP strategists know that many people are uncomfortable with the President for various reasons. Some are overt racists. Many are unconscious racists. Some are uncomfortable with the President’s so-called “elitism”—meaning his superb education and high intelligence. Others can’t understand a man who never raises his voice and whose strongest epithet is “inaccurate.”

Based on psychological and market research, GOP strategists think they can turn this free-floating discomfort into distaste for the President and his policies. Then they can mold it into a belief that he, not they, is responsible for all the disasters they caused.

Finally, the GOP has Fox, the most effective and loudest propaganda machine in human history. Republicans think that, if they and Fox’ verbal bullies keep shouting lies long and often enough, people will begin to believe them. It’s the same strategy that Goebbels used for Hitler, and you know how that turned out.

The most important issue in this election is whether they are right. If they can get away with this, democracy is all but dead, not just for us, but maybe for everyone. George Orwell’s 1984 will finally be much closer than we think, with Big Brother not an overt bully, but a convincing liar, a super salesman.

Its four (now five!) pillars

The GOP and Mitt have used this chutzpah strategy in not just one, but four ways. They’ve done so for nearly all the time the President has been in office. It won’t take long to list them.

First, they blame the President for the deficit they caused. They put two needless wars on our credit card and then tanked the global economy. Before the President ever set foot in the White House, they established the precedents of “too big to fail” and bailing out big banks. They spent or committed 6.6 trillion dollars, leaving the President with no choice but to follow or risk a second Great Depression. Now they blame him for the deficits and our high national debt.

Because of those two needless wars and the tanked global economy, the GOP had no record on which to run in 2008. It’s recent record had been an unmitigated disaster.

So what did it do? It concocted its second prong of the chutzpah strategy. It ran the ugliest, most overtly racist presidential campaign in American history, accusing the President of being a Marxist, Kenyan agent, black extremist and terrorist who isn’t even an American citizen.

That campaign didn’t stop with the President’s election. It continues to the present day. Leading GOP elected officials leaped gleefully into the slime, refusing to disavow the most obvious and extreme lies on the Internet, like the President being an alien. Then, whenever he opened his mouth to defend himself, they accused him of being a racist and “playing the race card.” How’s that for chutzpah?

The third big pillar of the GOP’s chutzpah campaign was failure. For thirty years the GOP’s policies of deregulation, lowering taxes (especially on the rich) and downsizing government had dug our country into a deep hole. That hole got much deeper much quicker under Dubya, with his two expensive, needless wars, his rogue bankers making mayhem on our global economy, and his bailing them out as “too big to fail.”

A dismal record of failure on which to run, right? No problem. Blame it all on President Obama as his failure. And that’s what they’ve done since he got into office in January 2009.

Recall Mitt claiming (in the first debate) that Dodd-Frank made “too big to fail” permanent, but never saying how or why? That lie was part of this strategy.

The fourth pillar of the chutzpah strategy is closely related to the third. Just days after the President’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh declared a new strategy: making the President fail. A bit reluctant at first (because this part is essentially treason), the GOP House and Senate leaders—Boehner and McConnell, respectively—eventually picked it up and endorsed it. They did so because, having had such a dismal record of failure—and at the presidential level, no less!—they had no other strategy that remotely made sense.

They gave bipartisan support to the big stimulus in early 2009, but only because their own experts told them we would have a second Great Depression without it. More to the point, their own experts told them they would get blamed.

After that, Republicans created a stone wall against the President’s every initiative. While Democrats still had control of the House, they used the filibuster in the Senate. Once they took control of the House in 2010, they used the crazy Tea Party (which they had created out of nothing) to block every Obama initiative there.

To get an idea of just how much and how often the GOP obstructed the President’s program, you need just consider a single statistic, which you can verify from the Senate’s own careful records. From 2006, when the Democrats took nominal control of Congress to 2010, when the GOP took control of the House, the rate of filibusters leaped to 142 times the rate during the entire period 1917 to 1972.

That long period was hardly one of peace and tranquility. It included four major wars (the Korean War, World War II, and parts of the Vietnam War and World War I), the civil-rights movement, women’s liberation, the beginnings of the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam-war protests that drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Yet somehow, during that entire turbulent 55-year period, the Senate managed to get along with using the filibuster 142 times less often. Not under the GOP of McConnell, Boehner, Limbaugh, Rove and now Mitt!

I referred above to the Democrats’ “nominal” control of Congress because they never had any real control. From 2006 to 2010, they never had a real filibuster-proof majority, despite Republican claims to the contrary. Senators like Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska were renegades, voting Republican on crucial issues like health-insurance and tax reform. (I wrote an angry post about them at the time.)

Even with them, the Dems never had more than 59 votes; you need 60 to overcome a filibuster. And there were serious policy disputes among other Democrats as well. The Democrats could never rely upon lockstep agreement among themselves like that among Tea Partiers in Boehner’s House.

After the first stimulus package, no significant legislative initiative of the President ever got more than a handful of Republican votes in either House of Congress.

This GOP strategy of complete, lockstep, intransigent obstruction dovetailed perfectly with last pillar of the Republicans’ chutzpah strategy: blaming the President for GOP failures. If Republicans had worked with him to clean up the messes they had made, the results would soon have become obvious, and voters would soon have noticed improvement in their lives. The President would have gotten the credit. That, GOP leaders thought, we surely can’t have. So they did their level best to keep the President from improving the economy or anything else: the two needless wars, the huge deficits, or the bailouts, which Europe is continuing.

Now Republicans are doubling down on this strategy. It’s seemed to work so well so far, and they have so little else, that they are starting to blame the President for their own extreme partisan obstructionism.

How do I know? Because they’ve done it already. Halfway through, the hatchet-job on the President that PBS’ “Frontline” aired this week spent minutes discussing the President’s supposed “polarizing quality.” The rest of the program reviewed the President’s legislative “failures” without ever mentioning the GOP’s many filibusters in the Senate and lockstep opposition in the House.

That was a test run for the GOP’s fifth, latest and most outrageous pillar of its chutzpah strategy: blaming the President for its own obstructionism.

Apparently GOP political consultants liked what they saw on the Twitter-sphere and in their focus groups. So they tried it again last night. Paul Ryan used the same ploy in his closing statement, calling the President partisan and polarizing and blaming him for the gridlock. He could get away without rebuttal because a coin toss had let him speak last, and Joe Biden couldn’t reply. (The GOP is nothing if not clever in exploiting every unfair advantage, from suppressing votes to telling new lies when they can’t be reubutted.)

Its consequences

If this lying scoundrel’s strategy puts Mitt in the White House, its practical consequences will soon be obvious. The Dems will have no choice but to do the same thing.

Democrats will still have the filibuster. There’s no chance whatsoever that Republicans will have 60 or more senate seats next January. In fact, they’re likely to lose a few senate seats. So partisan bitterness and gridlock will continue.

Can you imagine how savvy Democrats, including me, will feel if this outrageous strategy succeeds? If you think you’ve seen bitter partisanship so far, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Congress will begin to mimic its behavior around the Civil War, when members took weapons into its chambers and actually shot at each other. Today no weapons are allowed, but I predict we will see fisticuffs on the House and Senate floor. There are limits to human patience and even pompous pols’ decorum.

How to beat it

There may be a way out yet. Blaming the President for all the wrong the Republicans have caused is not just a chutzpah strategy. It’s also a precarious “emperor’s new clothes” strategy. Once enough voters see that the emperor is naked, the game is up. For the GOP, it’s a high, high risk strategy and always has been.

The President lost the first debate because he had no good strategy of his own. He tried to predict what Mitt would say in his and the GOP’s defense. That turned out to be a fool’s errand, which no one could run.

We now know now that Mitt is a totally unscrupulous master salesman. We now know that he, Ryan and their party of extremists will say whatever they think they need to say to win. No matter how patent a lie and no matter how outrageous, they will say it with an utterly straight face, as if to imply, “doesn’t everybody know that?”

They will say different things to different audiences. They will abandon and deny positions they took last week. They will lie through their teeth about facts and numbers because they know that remaining undecided voters don’t remember or credit facts and can’t do arithmetic.

The President could stay up all night for the few remaining days until the next debate and never prepare himself fully for what “creative” things Mitt might say next. Mitt has not just “pivoted.” He’s whirled like a Dervish, often seeming to face in all directions at once.

The only constant in the whole GOP campaign has been its chutzpah strategy. All else is smoke and mirrors. The GOP’s five pillars of false blame are the fundaments of its Temple of Lies.

When you think about it, the chutzpah strategy is all they have. And it’s not just constant; it’s their weakest link, the one on which all others depend. Once you realize that all the things that went wrong are actually GOP products, you become a Democrat instantly. So the only hope the GOP has for winning again so soon was—and is—to blame it all on Obama.

So that’s where the President needs to put his focus in the remaining debates. Mitt can’t change the strategy now because his party has run it for four years.

And it’s all he’s got. His entire campaign has been to accuse the President of failing. (Some Democratic researcher should count how many times he’s used the words “fail,” “failure” and their cognates in referring to the President and his policies; I’m sure it’s astronomical.)

Persuade enough undecided voters that the GOP, not the President, is responsible, and the whole strategy collapses. The President wins.

Here’s how the President might break one pillar of the chutzpah strategy—the latest and most outrageous one:
“They say I’m partisan and divisive. Really??!? Remember the guy whom nobody ever heard of, who got some headway in 2004 with a speech saying, ‘There is no red or blue America; there is only a United States of America?’ Remember the guy who came to Washington promising to end partisan gridlock? I was, and still am, that guy. I even wrote a book about bipartisanship. It’s called ‘The Audacity of Hope.’”

“Remember the guy who negotiated a bipartisan $ 4 trillion deficit-reduction package with Speaker Boehner, who then couldn’t get the House and its Tea-Party members to pass it? That was me.”

“Remember the guy who said, just days’ after my inauguration, that the GOP’s goal was to make me fail? His name is Rush Limbaugh. Remember how that statement at first embarrassed Mr. Boener and Mr. McConnell, the GOP leaders in the House and Senate, but then they quickly adopted it?”

“I’ll tell you a little well-kept secret: everything they’ve done since then has been right from that playbook. Since the Democrats won the House in 2006, they have used the filibuster in the Senate at a rate 142 times higher than both parties used it during the period 1917 to 1972. Except for my early-2009 economic stimulus package, I’ve never gotten more than a handful of Republican votes for any of my major legislative initiatives. Often I’ve not gotten a single GOP vote.

“My American Jobs Act would have provided many jobs by lowering taxes—precisely the GOP’s prescription for the last thirty years. But the GOP’s lockstep obstruction continued, and that bill died in Speaker Boehner’s House.”

“Except for the stimulus, the Republicans have worked in lockstep against me since the day I took office. Now they want you to believe I’m responsible for failing to cooperate to get things done. Americans are just not that stupid.”

“If this strategy lets them win, you know exactly what will happen next. I’ll be out of the picture. But the Democrats will use the filibuster to do the same thing to a president Romney. No president, Republican or Democrat, will get anything significant done until we drop this strategy of obstruction and blame. If you reward it, you are voting for gridlock to continue indefinitely.”
Why start with this particular pillar of the Temple of Lies? Because it’s the latest and the weakest. The record of GOP obstructionism—from the Tea Party’s last-minute murder of the debt deal to the premature demise of the American Jobs Act, which contained so many Republican ideas—is still fresh in voters’ minds. Polls blame Republicans, not Democrats, for gridlock in Congress.

Rove’s minions must be getting desperate to try to build this weak new pillar now, right at the end of a long campaign. But what else have they got? Hatchet jobs like the “Frontline” show take time to produce; they must have started it long before Mitt unexpectedly did so well in the first debate. Now Ryan’s closing statement has committed them.

Now they’re stuck with a highly risky strategy. And the President, like a blind Samson seeking to pull down the Temple of Lies, had best go for its weakest pillar.


The President must call out this outrageous chutzpah strategy out for what it is: treachery to our country and our Founders’ legacy.

If Mitt can win with it, the Democrats will have no choice but to continue the cycle of obstruction and blame against Mitt. Their only alternative would be to abandon their principles and the very notions of representative democracy and loyal opposition. And they will have the means and every motivation to make things just as tough for Mitt as the GOP has done for Obama.

Another cycle or two of this kind of chutzpah, and we Yanks will have been dead in the water for a decade or more. Worse yet, we will have lost our Republic and any pretense of reasoned democracy. We will be set on a path of decline to make the Roman Empire’s fall seem slow and mild.



  • At Sun Oct 14, 10:39:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Maqx said…

    Great analysis Jay... I agree that the Dems and Obama have to clearly highlight the repub obstruction during this Presidency. If it were a matter of loyal opposition to incredibly poor governance it would be one thing but the fact that it was due to an edict by Rush is inexcusable. Who do the Repub congress people reporting to? Rush or the American people?

    Biden came close with his Norquist statement, I hope Obama finishes the thread.

  • At Mon Oct 15, 10:51:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Maqx,


    I just hope the Dems’ TV ads are using Rush’s fat face and bullying manner to good advantage.

    The notion that a major American political party should take its lead from such a vile oaf would be beyond my imagination, except that it actually happened.

    Once a president takes office, he deserves loyalty and support. As much as I detest Mitt, I would hope he (and we!) succeed if he were elected, although I would take everything he said with a large grain of salt.

    To hope your own president fails, from his first days in office, and to work hard to cause his failure, is what we used to call treason.

    But that was in the old days, when Americans had common sense and pulled together for the common good. Maybe the President can remind us of them.




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