Once again the news headlines are being dominated by ridiculous accusations initially spread by right wing and GOP operatives about President Obama's faith, especially in light of recent polls showing one-fifth of American's believing that he is actually a Muslim. This follows the most recent "controversy" over the proposed Islamic community center a couple of blocks away from the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. All of these "issues" are brought up breathlessly by the mainstream media, implying that Democrats will pay a huge political price in the future.
Sadly, while the mainstream media jumps on these distractions like Pavlovian dogs, much of the left wing does as well. And it's been happening since at least 1988.
The Republicans have been using such tactics since 1988, when Lee Atwater launched his infamous Willie Horton attack ad during the Presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
As some of you may know, Willie Horton was a convicted murderer who was serving prison time in Massachusetts, but due to prison overcrowding he was put on a work release program in which he was allowed to leave prison in order to work and be confined under house arrest. It was during one of these prison furloughs that he killed a an innocent bystander by stabbing him 19 times. The gruesome nature of this crime was used against Michael Dukakis during the campaign, and it was one of the primary reason George H.W. Bush was elected to the White House.
Once the GOP discovered the success of using distraction to shape public policy, they began to use it more frequently, particularly in the 1992 Presidential campaign when Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee. The GOP tried to make a huge issue of Clinton's past infidelity, but a weak economy plus the challenge of Ross Perot short-circuited their efforts to bring Clinton and the Democrats down.
Nevertheless, the GOP persisted in their efforts to distract voters all throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, first by exploiting the suicide of one of Clinton's personal friends and advisers Vince Foster, implying that the Clintons had him "wacked" for allegedly exposing some unspecified illegal activity, then trying to drum up controversy over an obscure land deal which came to be known as Whitewater. When that distraction failed to bring any reaction from voters, they moved on to an allegation from an Arkansas state trooper and state employee named Paula Jones, who alleged that the then-governor Clinton had sexually harassed her. This led to the creation of two independent counsels. The first, led by Robert Fisk, stated that the allegations brought by Ms. Jones could not be substantiated, and that the investigation should be closed. However, now that the Republicans were running both houses of Congress at this time, they were not satisfied with the conclusion of the first independent counsel, so they hired Kenneth Starr to reopen the Paula Jones case. Despite their efforts, nothing came of the Paula Jones case, but they got lucky thanks to Bill Clinton's penchant for infidelity, as he was secretly carrying on an affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. After lying about this alleged affair to Ken Starr, the GOP decided to impeach him for this "despicable" offense. But they couldn't get enough votes from the Senate to vote him out of office, and some of the GOP crusaders were voted out of office in the midterm elections.
Even with President Clinton's second term winding down, the Republicans continued to spread disinformation, trumpeting stories about the President allegedly fathering a black child, and a second sexual harassment allegation brought by Kathleen Willey. While these were patently false, they were strong enough in aggregate to get Presidential nominee Al Gore to distance himself from President Clinton during his own campaign, which may have cost him enough votes from having him win the election in an undisputed fashion. Even as President Clinton was leaving office, the GOP continued to spread lies, claiming that Clinton's staffers had trashed the White House and damaged property on their way out.
Once the Republicans regained the White House along with Congress, they attempted to use their powers of distraction to trash Bill Clinton's legacy. They were helped tremendously by the rise of Fox News Channel. But their tactics were required to change after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. Instead of accusing their opponents of infidelity and petty crimes, they instead went after their patriotism and accused anyone who disagreed with their policies of being un-American and supporting terrorists. In the meantime, this allowed the administration of George W. Bush to launch a questionable and unnecessary invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, which was justified on faulty and contrived evidence of weapons of mass destruction. This culminated in the infamous color-coded terror alerts, which seemed to go into near crisis mode each time President Bush's poll numbers went down.
Even as the second President Bush's time in the White House was winding down, the GOP was anxiously anticipating going after the Democrats in the 2008 presidential campaign, doing tons of opposition research against the likely nominee Hillary Clinton. But what they didn't anticipate was the meteoric rise of then-Senator Barack Obama. When Obama began making the Democratic primaries competitive and then began to overtake Hillary Clinton in the primaries, the GOP was caught by surprise. They had to scramble to find something to scare voters, so they found a YouTube video of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, supposedly making un-American statements following September 11th. Fortunately, Obama diffused those allegations with his masterful speech on race during the campaign.
But as Obama earned the Democratic Presidential nomination, the GOP went into full attack mode, accusing him of being taught in a radical Islamic madrassa during his childhood, being born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to run for the Presidency (despite posting a copy of his birth certificate from Hawaii online for everyone to see), and allegedly associating with 60's leftist radical William Ayers, though the timeline of some of the allegations would have had him participating in marches and bombings when he was eight years old. Fortunately, these attacks lost their potency, especially after the near-complete meltdown of the global financial industry and the bumbling tactics of both John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.
Even since Obama took office, the GOP distraction machine has been on full throttle, continuing the meme of the President being born in Kenya despite having proven to the contrary. When he bailed out GM and Chrysler, he was accused of trying to get the government to take over the auto industry and turn it into a Soviet-style socialist program. When he proposed the health care bill that would be the first major overhaul of healthcare in the USA since Medicare, the GOP and tea party activists accused him of trying to create "death panels" that would have the power to deny care to aging grandparents, thereby sentencing them to death. When alert law enforcement authorities caught an Al Qaeda terrorist attempting to blow up a plane last Christmas, and another American of Pakistani origin attempting but failing to blow up a car bomb in Times Square last spring, the President was railed by the GOP of being soft on terrorism, despite catching these perpetrators in the act before they could harm anyone. Even as BP's lax inspections policies led to a huge oil rig explosion which killed 11 people and created the largest oil spill in history, the Republicans accused the President of not doing enough to stop the disaster. But what is really shameless is the way the GOP is exploiting racial, homophobic and xenophobic tensions in order to regain power.
But in the case of raging homophobia, their scare tactics may be backfiring on them. When the Supreme Court finally overturned the final laws banning sodomy in 2003, the last thing on most people's mind was gay marriage. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples wouldn't have to be subject to arrest and prosecution for practicing consensual, intimate acts in the privacy of their own bedrooms. But the GOP distraction machine, led by Karl Rove, tried to turn this into a massive political issue in the 2004 Presidential election, accusing John Kerry of supporting gay marriage, even though Kerry himself said he would only allow civil unions. But as more voters were made aware of the issue, a lot of them, particularly younger voters, saw nothing wrong with it, and some states even began allowing gay marriage, either by state courts or referendum. And despite the passing of Prop 8 in California, more states are moving to allow gay couples the right of holy matrimony, despite all the attempts to demonize homosexual couples.
So what's the next distraction? And how long will people keep falling for the GOP scare tactics? Will the media continue to jump on the latest non-controversy from the GOP spin machine, or will more people see through these tactics like Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert and see them for what they are, which are distractions to keep people from seeing the real big picture. Only time and insight will tell.