If there was a high point of liberal energy and activity in recent years, it would have to be the period running roughly from 2004 until 2008. New organizations like the Center for American Progress were founded, the netroots came into its own, and whenever a group of liberals got together, you just got the feeling you were at the start of something big. Years hence, it seemed, people would look back on what was going on that moment and say, "This is when it started." Only time would tell what "it" would turn out to be.
What actually came of all that and how we should judge it will have to be a topic for another day. But why then? The answer seems pretty plain to me: George W. Bush. I've argued before that when he came along, Barack Obama seemed to embody everything liberals wanted to be and therefore what they wanted in a president. He was young, from a big city, multiracial, erudite, cosmopolitan, cool, and seemingly unafraid of Republicans. These surface features made lots of liberals misjudge his ideology (also a topic for another day). In the same way, if you had constructed a fictional president guaranteed to make liberals mad, you could barely have done better than Bush. Inarticulate, anti-intellectual, simultaneously belligerent and bumbling, his glide path to the top accelerated by unearned privilege, a lover of big belt buckles and simplistic ideas, Bush was the most infuriating president most liberals had ever known.
And it was their exasperation, their frustration, and yes, in some cases even their hatred of him that enabled them to claw their way back from the political wilderness. For in politics, villains are invaluable. Not that political hatred can't be your own undoing, but without someone to be mad at, it's awfully hard to get people motivated. Just like Bill Clinton enabled the explosion of conservative talk radio and Barack Obama produced the Tea Party, George W. Bush gave birth to liberal renaissance.
But now, of course, liberals are without a real villain, at least one big and powerful enough to make people care. There's only so mad you can get at John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. So the people whose job it is to get liberals riled up will take their villains wherever they can find them. Dave Weigel has this interesting tidbit from the world of political fundraising:
When the Senate returns this week, we'll learn whether Harry Reid will continue his epic assault on Charles and David Koch. As far as the party's concerned, it's been working—it's gotten the press to cover their attacks, cover the Kochs, even look more closely at whether the Kochs are profiting from this or that Republican-backed deal. Republicans, in response, have been defending the patriotism and good faith of America's most political billionaires—another effect Democrats were going for.
And here's another reason that the Democrats will keep battering the Kochs. I've seen some numbers from fundraising e-mails from one campaign that were sent from roughly mid-January to mid-March, pretty bad news cycles for the party. Nineteen e-mails didn't mention the Kochs. They raised, in total, $48,146.30, for an average of $2,534.02 per message.
But five e-mails mentioned, in at least some way, the Koch brothers. Those asks raised $32,668.72, an average of $6,533.74 per e-mail. The Democratic base, which has been hearing about and fearing the Kochs for nearly four years, responds to this stuff.
I've been a bit skeptical about whether the Democrats will be able to turn the Koch brothers into a source of significant numbers of votes (I don't think it can't happen, just that it will be hard). But the activist liberal base could be another story. They already know who the Kochs are, and they believe the brothers are dangerous and evil. Now all they need to be convinced of is that their own actions (and money!) could make a real difference fighting them. If you're looking for a villain, until there's another Republican president to despise, you could do worse.