Think fast: Which politicians from the other side do you merely dislike, and which do you absolutely despise? Can you say why?
I was thinking about this because of Harry Reid, who really, really gets on conservatives' nerves, and seems to be constantly trying to figure out new ways to make them mad. Unlike Nancy Pelosi, who generates contempt from the right mostly for who she is (a San Francisco liberal, a woman with power), with Reid it's about what he does, specifically his propensity for saying things about conservatives that are over the top. Most liberals look at Reid and see him as an extremely skilled legislative leader, even if they cringe a bit when his statements go too far. For instance, it's possible to criticize the Koch brothers without saying they "are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine"; things like that seem designed to just drive Republicans nuts. As Simon Malloy says, "Harry Reid is a troll. He's an effective majority leader and he knows how to work within the sticky labyrinth of official DC to get things done, but he's also a troll. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a trait that lends itself to excess."
After hearing him make a few of those extreme statements and unsubstantiated charges, it has gotten to the point where conservatives see Reid and just boil with rage. Which is exactly what a troll is trying to accomplish. At this point, it's safe to say folks on the right hate Reid more than Pelosi, which wasn't the case a few years ago.
And what about liberals? I don't know any who despise John Boehner, because he's mostly a pathetic figure, constantly besieged by people in his own party whom he doesn't have the courage to stand up to. Mitch McConnell doesn't generate much hate either. He may be bad for America, but you have to acknowledge that he's probably the most politically shrewd Republican in Washington, and there isn't anything about his manner or habits that are particularly grating.
So there has to be something unusual about a figure on the other side to produce the real emotional reaction. Take Sarah Palin. Democrats find her exasperating not just because she's a blithering fool who nearly came a heartbeat away from the presidency, but because she luxuriates in her nincompoopery. And importantly, she expresses her own limitless contempt at liberals—not only them as people, but the places they live and the things they do. It's hard not to hate somebody who so clearly hates you. And she's important enough (or at least was) to care about; no liberal can muster up hatred for an inconsequential buffoon like Louie Gohmert, no matter what crazy things he says.
And then there's Hillary Clinton. For some reason, back in 1992 conservatives decided that she and her husband were the living embodiment of their antagonists in the 1960s culture war, even though at the time she was about as far from being a hippie as you could get. Here's something I wrote during the 2008 campaign, when conservatives were warning about her socialist agenda:
Hillary Clinton wasn't at Woodstock. Clinton arrived at Wellesley in 1965 as a "Goldwater girl," and though her politics grew more progressive during her time there, then as now she was a creature of the establishment, seeking change within the system and warning against advocating radical ideas. Not one for experimenting with drugs or sex, she charted a sensible and serious course through the Sixties.
This personal history could barely be less relevant, of course. As far as many on the right are concerned, Clinton might as well be campaigning in a tie-dye peasant blouse and leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of "The Internationale" before every speech.
If Clinton is a proxy for that decades-old conflict and you were one of the ones looking with a combination of anger and jealousy at those kids who were taking drugs and having sex—in other words, having all the fun—then the reaction you have against her is so deep-seated and beyond rationality that nothing she does or doesn't do will ever change it. We haven't heard too much of those echoes of the 1960s lately, though I suspect it would be too optimistic to say we've left that endless conflict between the squares and the cool kids behind. But for conservatives and Clinton, the dislike is still about who she is and not what she does.
That's a much more powerful feeling than the kind of hate conservatives now feel for Reid, because just like with liberals and Palin, it's not only about her, it's also about them. It reaches down to where identity lies.
So take a look at the potential GOP candidates for 2016. Which ones have the potential to really make you crazy with loathing? The only one who comes across as really sinister is Scott Walker, and that's because of things he did. Rick Perry hits the anti-intellectualism that raises liberal hackles. Ted Cruz is acknowledged by pretty much everyone he's ever encountered to be a smarmy jerk. Something tells me Bobby Jindal has some appalling behavior in him, but that's just a guess. The idea of Rand Paul as president may be alarming, but he doesn't push the emotional buttons. Rick Santorum? He's got the extremism, but he's kind of a joke. Jeb Bush? Please. Chris Christie? Now hold on—there's a guy you could grow to hate.