The last time we checked in with Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R–IA) Twitter account, his message to his followers was “Barb made oatmeal.” That was in 2009, on the morning his Senate committee abandoned its attempt to reach bipartisan consensus on health care reform. Grassley operates in the Iowa tradition of laconic hicks who are secretly genius assholes, and he uses Twitter accordingly. Like Basho, his poetry is in what he does not say. It was therefore surprising to see him issue this long-winded rebus on Saturday:
Am they? Oh, wait—that’s “American people” who r not stupid.
The one who r not not stupid is [e]x prof[essor] [of] con[stitutional] law PresO, who presumably attacked the independence of the Supreme Court when he said it would be “judicial activism” to strike down the Affordable Care Act. The “activist judge” argument is as distasteful in his mouth* as it is in the collective rictus of the GOP. Judges using their positions to invalidate what they consider unjust laws are doing their jobs; they are different from activists in the same way your dogcatcher differs from Cruella De Vil. Of course, PresO did not say that the Supremes lack the authority to strike down Affordable Care. He implied they don’t have the grounds.
The American people are probably smart enough to distinguish that from an “attack on Supreme Court independence.” If they are, it’s not the only place where Grassley’s Tweet lowballs the national intelligence. The likelihood of constituents asking the Senator why he is not “outraged” over Obama’s remarks—just pestering him about it, really, the phone ringing off the hook, why aren’t you outraged?—seems low. More likely is that these constituents belong to the “many say” demographic—the anonymous people who advance ideas for Fox News journalists and other rhetorical types to riposte. In this context, Grassley’s assurance to his followers that they are not as stupid as the stupid professor President stands as an impressive act of cynicism.
As the old saying goes, fight underestimating populist appeals with underestimating populist appeals. The White House can’t just let some Congressman from Iowa call the President of the United States stupid on Twitter and get away with it. That would compromise centuries-old tradition with respect to the office of President and Twitter. The key is to issue a clever rejoinder—something light but also stinging. Ax?
I think we can pinpoint the exact place where that should have stopped. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side, which is the short-term practical goal of any road-crossing. Axelrod’s composition process is painfully clear, here. He’s got the six-year-old burn, which is lazy but effective, and then he asks the question that will ruin any joke: what if people don’t get it? So then he makes it clear, in case people don’t understand the ironic trope that Axelrod assumes a child is Tweeting on behalf of a Senator.
So Saturday was a banner day for underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Or maybe it wasn’t—maybe Grassley’s and Axelrod’s Tweets were perfectly pitched, and we just hear different frequencies from most people. That’s a depressing thought for two reasons. For one thing, it’s almost certainly true to an extent. Worse, though, can you imagine what would happen to your outlook if you embraced it? Now picture being a multi-term senator or a famous political operative. You spend your whole career simultaneously trying to estimate how the American people think and coming up with reasons why particular individuals must lead them. How, eventually, do you come to think of people in general?