Sen. Claire McCaskill, facing difficult re-election prospects in 2012 as a Democrat running in Missouri, made a daring gamble: She bought millions in TV and radio ads designed to push Republican primary voters toward the least-electable candidate in the field, Rep. Todd Akin. The high-risk maneuver worked, as Akin won the GOP primary, then went on to run a disastrous general election campaign made immortal by his remarks about “legitimate rape.” A Senate seat that looked set to turn red instead stayed blue, and McCaskill earned credit from campaign operatives everywhere for her savvy interference with the GOP’s nominating process—an age-old tradition sometimes known more colorfully as “ratfucking.”
Now we’re seeing some ratfucking once again, only this time, it’s coming from Republicans, who are trying to meddle in the Democratic primary for president. During Sunday night’s Democratic debate, the Republican National Committee issued several blast emails to reporters defending Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton. As Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur put it, “one could be forgiven for thinking the RNC communiques came from the Sanders campaign.” They certainly looked that way:
One RNC e-mail, which was titled “Clinton’s Misleading Health Care Attack,” defended the Vermont senator from what it described as “the Clinton campaign’s inaccurate remarks on Sanders’ single-payer plan,” and quoted news articles that featured rebuttals of her arguments. A second message countered Clinton’s attacks on Sanders over gun control by pointing out her gun-friendly statements in the past. Two other e-mails sought to bolster Sanders’ case that Clinton is too close to Wall Street and the drug industry.
But Republicans are doing much more than just sending out debate-night emails that happen to be friendly to Sanders’ cause. American Crossroads, the GOP dark money group founded by Karl Rove, is running ads in Iowa depicting Clinton as a tool of Wall Street.
Narrator: “Ever wonder how Hillary Clinton can afford so many ads? Chances are, they were paid for with Wall Street cash. Hillary Clinton’s gotten 54 times more money from Wall Street interests than from all of Iowa. Hillary rewarded Wall Street with the $700 billion bailout—then Wall Street made her a multi-millionaire.”
Clinton: “I represented Wall Street.”
Narrator: “Heh. You sure did, Hillary. Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?”
Karl Rove didn’t suddenly become a rabid critic of Wall Street’s influence, just like the RNC didn’t just turn into overnight Bernie fans. The truth of the matter is a lot simpler: They’d prefer to see Sanders win the Democratic nomination because they think he’d be easier to beat in November.
If you don’t like the implications of that conclusion, there are a couple of ways you might respond. You could point to general election polls showing Sanders with bigger leads on potential GOP opponents than Clinton, but there are flaws with that approach. As Markos Moulitsas put it, “[Y]ou can’t compare a candidate who has been through the media wringer for decades and has universal name ID” like Clinton, to someone like Sanders who is only now reaching the national stage and about whom almost a fifth of voters still have no opinion. Put another way: If Sanders were to experience the same white-hot glare of hostile GOP attention that Clinton has for her entire public life, that polling gap would disappear, or perhaps even shift in Clinton’s favor.
A better argument might be that Rove is an idiot—he’s the guy who told NPR he had “the math” showing Republicans wouldn’t get wiped out in 2006, and he’s also the same doofus who had a live TV meltdown on election night in 2012 when Fox News (doing something correctly, for once its life) called the state of Ohio, and thus the election, for Barack Obama.
But that’s Rove mugging for the cameras (or microphones). The public Rove is cheerleader-in-chief for the Republican Party, no doubt. But for all his clownish bluster, I’m not convinced that he isn’t a lot smarter in private, when he isn’t playing to an audience and can be honest about what the numbers actually say. What’s more, for the “Rove is a moron” theory to actually carry the day, not only would Rove have to be in the wrong—the RNC would as well.
Now, that’s not impossible. We’ve certainly seen wide swaths of the GOP fall under the spell of various electoral delusions at various times. (Remember "shellshocked Romney?") But the evidence for this case is far from certain, and it always pays to be skeptical in politics. After all, a spokesman for Todd Akin declared that McCaskill “would be very unwise to want to run against” Akin and said that his boss “poses the greatest threat” to the senator. Both of those statements turned out to be very wrong.
I would hope this goes without saying, but I am emphatically not comparing Bernie Sanders to Todd Akin. I am only comparing their situations: The opposing political party in each case thinks the man in question is the weakest possible opponent and thus is trying to boost his chances to win his own party’s primary. That’s as far as the comparison goes, and no farther.
And while McCaskill ultimately proved to be right, the GOP could yet be wrong here. But what if they’re not?