It wasn’t easy for Barack Obama to persuade David Axelrod to take him on as a client. It took years, actually. But there was a reason Obama wanted Axelrod to run his campaigns. Axelrod knew how to get black candidates elected by white voters. In fact, he had a whole theory about it.
In a 2008 profile of Axelrod in the New Republic, Jason Zengerle quoted Ken Snyder, a Democratic consultant and Axelrod protege, on his mentor’s approach. “David felt there almost had to be a permission structure set up for certain white voters to consider a black candidate.” The “permission structure” relied heavily on “third-party authentication“ — endorsements from respected figures or institutions that the targeted voters admired.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
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If you think back to the 2008 campaign, Axelrod was slowly building this permission structure around Obama. Right before Super Tuesday, Axelrod rolled out the endorsements of Ted and Caroline Kennedy. Right before the election, he rolled out Colin Powell. The timing and nature of the endorsements were meant to make an African American candidate with an international upbringing and the name Barack Hussein Obama into someone that Ohio steelworkers could feel comfortable voting for. If Ted Kennedy and Colin Powell can back this guy, so can you.
But permission structures aren’t just for elections. Over the past two years, the Republican Party has slowly been building a permission structure for the five Republicans on the Supreme Court to feel comfortable doing something nobody thought they could do: Violate the existing understanding of the commerce clause and, in perhaps the most significant moment of judicial activism since the New Deal, overturn either all or part of the Affordable Care Act.
The first step was perhaps the hardest: The Republican Party had to take an official and unanimous stand against the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Typically, it’s not that difficult for the opposition party to oppose the least popular element in the majority party’s signature initiative. But the individual mandate was a policy idea Republicans had thought of in the late 1980s and supported for two decades. They had to, in effect, persuade every Republican to say that the policy they had been supporting was an unconstitutional assault on liberty.
They succeeded. In December 2009, every Senate Republican voted to call the individual mandate unconstitutional. They did this even though a number of them had their names on bills that included an individual mandate.
The unity among Senate Republicans reflected a unity among all the institutions associated with the Republican Party. Fox News and right-wing talk radio pushed the idea that the mandate was unconstitutional. Republican attorneys general began pushing the idea that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Conservative think tanks — including the Heritage Foundation, which arguably brought the mandate to Washington and the Republican Party in 1989 — began releasing a steady stream of material arguing that the mandate was unconstitutional. Conservative legal scholars began developing arguments showing that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Within a matter of months, the fact that the individual mandate was unconstitutional was as much a part of Republican Party dogma as “no new taxes.”