Once, Talk of an Enemies List Was Shocking

Now candidates openly speak of being proud of the enemies they’ve made.

President Richard Nixon gestures sternly during a press conference in Washington in 1973.
AP Photo
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 28, 2015, 8 p.m.

When Richard Nix­on’s secret “en­emies list” was dis­closed in the Wa­ter­gate hear­ings in 1973, the coun­try was hor­ri­fied to learn that the White House was look­ing for ways “to screw our polit­ic­al en­emies.” It led dir­ectly to the second art­icle of im­peach­ment against the pres­id­ent. Forty-two years later, when five Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates de­bat­ing in Las Ve­gas were only too happy to boast of their own lists of en­emies, the coun­try yawned.

This was des­pite the breath­tak­ing es­cal­a­tion in the use of the term. The Nix­on White House had only 20 people on its ori­gin­al list. The Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner, Hil­lary Clin­ton, has more than 50 mil­lion—in­clud­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party, with its 45 mil­lion mem­bers, and the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, with its 5 mil­lion.

But it took a full week after the de­bate for any­one to really take no­tice. It was then that Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden poin­tedly pro­tested de­scrib­ing polit­ic­al op­pon­ents as “en­emies.” To his sur­prise, his ob­jec­tion was quickly dis­missed by some as naïve. In his 60 Minutes in­ter­view on Sunday, Biden seemed taken aback by the re­ac­tion from what he called “ser­i­ous people” who in­sist that Re­pub­lic­ans “are our en­emy.”

What ex­plains the sharply con­trast­ing re­ac­tions to the use of the term “en­emy?”

“Everything has changed,” con­tends Bill Schneider, a George Ma­son Uni­versity pro­fess­or and lead­ing ana­lyst of Amer­ic­an polit­ics and elec­tions. “There is total po­lar­iz­a­tion now. The town has changed. There are two war­ring camps now.”

He ad­ded, “The deep-felt an­ti­pathy between the parties, the hatred that Hil­lary Clin­ton was re­fer­ring to—that is something that has been build­ing slowly since the ‘60s, and it’s ac­cel­er­ated since the Clin­ton wars, which she was very much a part of.”

In the de­bate, Clin­ton star­ted out ser­i­ously in re­spond­ing to the ques­tion of the en­emies she was “most proud of.” There was the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, the health in­sur­ance com­pan­ies, the drug com­pan­ies, and the Ir­a­ni­ans. Then, with a laugh that in­dic­ated she was jok­ing, she ad­ded, “Prob­ably the Re­pub­lic­ans.”

To many par­tis­ans, though, she was speak­ing the truth. Even while lament­ing the lack of ci­vil­ity in our na­tion­al dis­course and stat­ing that Clin­ton should not have fallen in­to the trap, Schneider, who is a mod­er­ate Demo­crat, said she is cor­rect in her as­sess­ment. “The Re­pub­lic­ans have been pretty mer­ci­less in their at­tacks on her and her hus­band,” he said. “While she might have said it jok­ingly and there might have been some ex­ag­ger­a­tion, the fact is that to many Re­pub­lic­ans, she is the en­emy and so is Obama. They are a res­ist­ance move­ment to everything that the Clin­tons and Pres­id­ent Obama stand for.”

Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Frank Luntz was not at all sur­prised that the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates were quick to list their en­emies, though he ex­pec­ted Clin­ton to be sav­vi­er in her re­sponse. “A good politi­cian would have re­jec­ted the ques­tion and re­fused to an­swer. They would have said the only en­emies we have are out­side our coun­try, that there are none here.”

But the an­swer she gave is sim­il­ar to what he hears all the time now in the fo­cus groups he con­venes around the coun­try. What he hears goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing why talk of en­emies in 2015 doesn’t have the im­pact of an en­emies list in 1973. “We are an an­gri­er so­ci­ety today. We are less trust­ing, more cyn­ic­al, and more will­ing to be­lieve that oth­ers are evil,” he said. “It’s a real prob­lem. It’s what I hate most about polit­ics. And it’s get­ting worse.”

There was no pub­lic out­cry after the de­bate be­cause, Luntz said, “We’ve be­come so ac­cus­tomed to that kind of hor­rible, par­tis­an, di­vis­ive lan­guage. It no longer strikes us as be­ing ex­treme. And that’s a tragedy.”

He sees a big change in his fo­cus groups from when he did his first one in 1988 and star­ted do­ing them reg­u­larly dur­ing the 1992 cam­paign. “It is much more neg­at­ive and much dark­er than 1992,” he said. “You have a seg­ment of the elect­or­ate—al­most a third—that doesn’t want to find com­mon ground. They want to fight.” Now, when he throws out names, people in his groups “im­me­di­ately cast neg­at­ive as­ser­tions about oth­ers that they dis­agree with without even set­ting up the con­text. It’s such an ugly en­vir­on­ment out there. It makes polit­ics a blood sport.”

That en­vir­on­ment poses a real chal­lenge to the can­did­ates ap­peal­ing to the 2016 elect­or­ate. It has al­ways been a giv­en of Amer­ic­an polit­ics that a new pres­id­ent seeks to do what Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln prom­ised in his second in­aug­ur­al ad­dress: to “bind up the na­tion’s wounds” and show no malice to­ward foes. When Nix­on won after a di­vis­ive 1968 cam­paign, he pledged on Elec­tion Night to “bring us to­geth­er.” Twenty years later, a tri­umphant George H.W. Bush prom­ised a “kinder and gentler” ad­min­is­tra­tion. In 2000, his son, George W. Bush, prom­ised to be “a uniter, not a di­vider” after a bit­ter re­count of the vote in Flor­ida.

More re­cently, Barack Obama burst onto the na­tion­al scene with a ringing de­nun­ci­ation of “those pre­par­ing to di­vide us, the spin mas­ters and neg­at­ive ad ped­dlers who em­brace the polit­ics of any­thing goes.” To rising ap­plause at the 2004 Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, Obama de­clared, “I say to them to­night, there’s not a lib­er­al Amer­ica and a con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ica; there’s the United States of Amer­ica.”

But it’s clear that there is a lib­er­al Amer­ica and a con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ica. “We’ve now had four pres­id­ents in a row who prom­ised to bring the coun­try to­geth­er, to unite the coun­try,” said Schneider. “They all failed.” It was the prom­ise that made Obama so ap­peal­ing in 2008, even to many skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­ans. “He was sup­posed to be bi­par­tis­an and biracial,” said Schneider. “But he also failed.”

Now, the res­ults of these fail­ures can be seen in de­bates about en­emies and the in­creas­ingly dys­peptic mood of the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. And while op­tim­ism is an en­dur­ing Amer­ic­an trait, it is dif­fi­cult to be op­tim­ist­ic that the even­tu­al win­ner will be able to suc­ceed where the last four pres­id­ents have fallen so short in unit­ing a coun­try that doesn’t seem to want to come to­geth­er with fel­low cit­izens they view as en­emies.

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