An “attack dog” in politics is a person, usually a politician or a political operative, who is designated to aggressively challenge and criticize the opposition.
This individual’s role is to act as a forceful advocate for their party or candidate, while simultaneously attempting to undermine the credibility, policies, or character of their political adversaries.
The “attack dog” is typically characterized by their tenacity and willingness to engage in confrontational discourse. It’s part of hardball politics.
They are often tasked with the responsibility of delivering negative messages or criticisms that a candidate or party leader may not want to deliver personally, in order to maintain a more positive public image.
This role can involve a variety of activities, from delivering fiery speeches and participating in heated debates, to making media appearances where they challenge the opposition’s viewpoints or actions.
Strategy of an “attack dog”
The use of an “attack dog” can be a strategic move in a political campaign.
By having a designated person to launch criticisms and attacks, the main candidate can distance themselves from negative campaigning, focusing instead on promoting their own policies and maintaining a more positive public persona.
This allows the campaign to engage in two lines of communication with the public: one that promotes their own platform, and another that criticizes the opposition.
A notable example is Sarah Palin, who continued to deliver biting criticisms even after her 2008 vice-presidential candidacy with John McCain.
More on “Attack Dog”
A politico who’s obviously willing to utter scathingly partisan things—a spokesman, insult comic, and source of blogosphere cacophony rolled into one. This figure can be a bit more mainstream than a bomb thrower, whose verbal volleys generally are more indiscriminate. Surrogates, for example, are more likely to serve as attack dogs.
The attack dog that relished the role more than anyone in recent memory was Sarah Palin. Even after her 2008 turn as John McCain’s running mate, she still delivers attack lines such as “How’s that ‘hopey-changey’ stuff working out for you?” with glee. But all vice presidential nominees, and vice presidents, play this role. (Witness Joe Biden’s campaign-trail sound-bite eruptions in both 2008 and 2012; one of the most heated moments of the latter was when he told a predominantly African American audience that Mitt Romney’s plan was to “put y’all back in chains.”)
So do the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees. And during the 2012 presidential campaign, the dogs often were governors with a potential interest in running someday for the White House, including Maryland Democrat Martin O’Malley and New Jersey Republican Chris Christie.
That kind of negativity turns off voters who don’t agree with their views. But people who can serve red meat to the base get noticed within party circles.
These days, one of the most prominent attackers is Republican representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who regularly appears on cable television to blast Obamacare and other topics. She called the administration’s response to the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, “probably more serious than Watergate.”
On the Democratic side is Alan Grayson of Florida, who sent a fundraising e-mail in 2013 likening the tea party to the Ku Klux Klan and who made this infamous comment on health care: “If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.” Grayson was beaten in 2010, but won back a seat in a redrawn district two years later.
From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes © 2014 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.
Use of “Attack Dog” in a sentence
- In the heat of the election campaign, the party leader chose to stay above the fray, leaving the role of the attack dog to his outspoken deputy who was more than willing to challenge the opposition’s policies.
- The media often portrayed her as the attack dog of the administration, always ready to defend their actions and criticize those who questioned their decisions.
- As the political landscape became more polarized, the role of the attack dog became increasingly prominent, leading to a climate of constant confrontation and heated rhetoric.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.