Nearly 200 years ago, following French architect Pierre L’Enfant grand plan for the greatest capital city in the world, a canal flowed where Constitution Avenue now runs (a lock keeper’s house still stands at the corner of the 17th Street Northwest).
It wasn’t great; the canal was so shallow it accommodated only boats drawing less than 3 feet of water. The pathetic little waterway ran to the Capitol, passing in front of where the building’s equally malodorous reflecting pool now stands, then split south to catch back up to the Potomac River.
Congress poured money into it for 50 years, but by the 1850s, the pathetic canal, with just a few inches of water in it, became a sewer for city dwellers, who dumped in buckets of human waste. Soon, mosquitoes took over, and malaria flourished. In the blistering Washington summers, the entire city reeked, especially the stretch from what is now the Lincoln Memorial, right past the White House, and straight down to Capitol.
The first post-partisan president — “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America, and Latino America, and Asian America, there’s the United States of America” — has spent the past 39 months dividing America, by class, by race, by sex.
Thus the divisive tactic this past week, when a top Obama adviser took to CNN to mock stay-at-home mothers such as Ann Romney. And just to be clear, Hilary Rosen didn’t “misspeak” — her comments were driven by the top Chicago campaign strategists, who, as soon as she said them, quickly distanced themselves (as planned).
This is how the Obama campaign works, and it always has been how the Obama campaign works. Dirty politics is the rule, not the exception. In 2004, one month before the Illinois Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, The One was losing badly to securities trader Blair Hull. But lo, the Chicago Tribune (where top Obama adviser David Axelrod was once a reporter) published claims that Mr. Hull’s ex-wife had sought a protective order against him. Mr. Obama cruised to victory.
In the statewide election that November, The One faced the dashing Jack Ryan, a graduate of Harvard’s law and business schools and another powerful financial figure. He, too, was divorced, and lo — out came a charge that Mr. Ryan had once taken his Hollywood starlet wife to sex clubs. Mr. Ryan bailed, and Mr. Obama became a senator.
The same thing happened this election cycle, to one-time front-runner Herman Cain. The Obama campaign was deathly afraid of the well-spoken black man because he threatened to moot Mr. Obama’s plan to divide the nation by race (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”). And lo, more sealed records were suddenly unsealed, and a woman who claimed Mr. Cain sexually harassed her lived in — get this — not just Chicago, but Mr. Axelrod’s apartment building there.
Team Obama blusters and bloviates about the weaknesses of Mitt Romney, but make no mistake: They are terrified of him. They know they can’t run the same covert operations to bring him down — the former governor has been married to his childhood sweetheart for 43 years, so there are no sealed divorce records to steal. He doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke — he doesn’t even wake up with a cup of coffee!
So, the top brains have been sitting around in Chicago thinking of how to hammer him, and they came up with the brilliant plan of going after his wife. It’s the simplest of plans, like a criminal prosecutor asking a defendant: “Isn’t it true that you went there that night with the intention of killing her?!” Of course the defense will object and the judge will sustain, directing the jury to disregard the question. But it’s out there, planted in the jurors’ minds.
There are few mistakes in politics. Most often, what appears to be a blunder is, in fact, a devious and delicate plan to plant something into the voters’ minds. Did Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, really mean to say that the “unelected” Supreme Court would be taking “unprecedented and extraordinary” action if it overturned his health care law? Of course he did: Toss it out, let it float a day, then clarify — but the idea has been planted.
Same with the tragic Trayvon Martin case. A president, any president, could have simply said, “I’m really not familiar with the case” — he would be kind of busy, after all. And Mr. Obama, half black and half white, could have sought to diffuse the explosive situation by saying: “Listen, everyone needs to step back here. We don’t know the facts of the case, so we should find out. But first and foremost, we need to slow down, let the wheels of justice turn.”
Perhaps that’s why Mr. Obama seems so at home in what was once a fetid swamp.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.