An unholy alliance has emerged between Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh. The Fox News Channel is probably involved, too.
O.K., so they didn’t all sit down at a conference table and hash out some kind of a formal agreement (at least I don’t think they did), but watching this past weekend’s Western Hemisphere summit in Trinidad and absorbing the response to it back home, it seemed that each of the above-named principals was simply playing a role prescribed long ago. And by playing their parts, they each got something valuable from the deal.
The play they performed went something like this: Mr. Chavez showed up at the conference full of his usual hectoring, anti-American bluster, provoking the usual outraged coverage from the American press—and creating suspense over how Mr. Obama would treat him. Then Mr. Obama, in fulfillment of his campaign pledge to interact with hostile world leaders, arrived and exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Chavez. In response, Mr. Drudge, Mr. Limbaugh and the Fox News crowd let loose with all of their usual hysteria about Mr. Obama’s reckless naivete—prompting Mr. Obama to defend himself by pointing out that his critics favor the same approach employed by the loathed Bush administration.
And what did they all get? Well, Mr. Obama drew attention to his foreign-policy style, which clashes dramatically with the “we won’t talk to them if they don’t first do X” approach of the Bush years—a philosophy that was widely rejected in last year’s election. With Mr. Drudge and his ilk hyperventilating, most Americans probably felt a sense of déjà vu: Wasn’t this the same debate we were having last year? And didn’t we decide Mr. Obama was right?
At the same time, a small but passionate segment of the electorate—the 25 percent or so who still approved of George W. Bush’s job performance last year—remains palpably resentful of Mr. Obama and of who, and what, they perceive him to represent. Mr. Obama has no reason to worry about them, though; it’s not like they’re going to change their minds (every president faces a hard-core base of opposition accounting for a quarter of the electorate—at least), and they’re sufficiently relegated to the fringes, so they pose no real electoral threat.
But from the standpoint of a media figure or a media outlet, 25 percent of the electorate is a huge number—especially when that 25 percent is so cohesive in its emotional revulsion toward a single figure. Just as it’s in Mr. Obama’s interest to ignore them, it’s brilliant business for Mr. Drudge, Mr. Limbaugh and Fox News to cater to these voters—to frame every Obama move as a clear and present threat to capitalism, freedom and democracy.
Working together, then, Mr. Obama and the Drudge/Limbaugh/Fox News troika are all in position to help each other, something they all took advantage of over the weekend.
Mr. Obama learned long ago that, in the wake of the Bush era, Americans are broadly supportive of a radical tonal shift in U.S. foreign policy—that Mr. Bush, more than any other single factor, had taken the air out of the rhetorical scare tactics that the G.O.P. profited from during the Cold War and immediately after 9/11. If being “tough” got us this, the public seemed to conclude, what do we really have to lose in trying a new approach?
Way back in the summer of 2007, when he was still a hopeless long shot up against the mighty Clinton machine, Mr. Obama grasped this, announcing at a Democratic debate that, as president, he would meet without preconditions with leaders like Mr. Chavez. Hillary Clinton criticized him and the media initially greeted Mr. Obama’s pronouncement as a gaffe. But he refused to back down and his party’s voters stood with him. John McCain recycled Mrs. Clinton’s cries of “naivete” last fall—and again they fell on deaf ears.
So when he ventured to Trinidad, Mr. Obama knew he was on safe domestic political turf in shaking Mr. Chavez’s hand. He also knew that he was giving the Drudge crew a gift—a powerful image that would provide them with an easy target that would exercise their readers and viewers. As of Monday afternoon, Mr. Drudge’s home page was touting two prominent pictures of Mr. Chavez (with a headline that read: “Obama in deep talk with Chavez”), and Fox News’ home page was asking whether the handshake had “hand[ed] the Venezuelan leader a propaganda coup”
The only loser in all of this is the Republican Party itself, which, unlike Fox, cannot succeed by catering only to the hard-core Obama haters. But with the right’s dominant media voices whipping their audience into a frenzy over the Chavez handshake, Republican politicians had no choice but to play along. So Senator Jon Ensign dutifully ripped Mr. Obama for being “irresponsible” and Newt Gingrich likened the president to Jimmy Carter. To the G.O.P. base, this sounds terrific. To everyone else, it’s stale.
For Mr. Obama, this dynamic is perfectly fine.
For the out-of-power Republicans waiting for America to turn on him? Not so great.