THE BLOG
03/21/2014 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014

Putin Is the Prototypical Political Opponent for U.S. Lawmakers

With his bellicose rhetoric and aggressive actions in the Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is rapidly turning himself into the most hated Russian since Ivan Drago. His regime's sanctions against several White House officials and members of Congress were perhaps an attempt to counter penalties levied by the United States, but they should have potent benefits as well.

The right enemy can be extremely useful to a politician; after all, the nature of the game is to draw contrasts with an opponent. With an adversary as infamous as Putin, it's easy to reap the rewards. Some will use it as a fundraising appeal, and others, such as Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., will use it for comic relief.

In order to be a good enemy, a prospect must meet three key criteria:

Known: For politicos, the devil your constituents know is much better than the devil they don't. That's part of why the Democrats' attempts to demonize billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their political activities on behalf of the Republican Party have failed: not many Americans know who they are. As such, Democrats and their allies have to educate voters before unleashing their attacks. In politics, if you're explaining, you're losing.

Putin has worldwide name recognition, and within America his opponents have drowned out any positive spin his supporters could have generated.

Be Despised by Many Constituents: An effective enemy must engender dislike in voters. Aside from Russia Today staffers in the United States (and even that support isn't unanimous apparently), it would be hard to find a large number of Putin supporters in any one place in the United States. Members of Congress probably don't have very good odds of winning their support anyways. That makes it easy to castigate Putin as an enemy without fear of reprisal. It's the reason attacks on "crony capitalism" are successful and used by politicians all over the globe.

Be Admired by Few Constituents: The best political enemies have few friends amongst your potential supporters. When the friends and enemies you create are evenly balanced, as tends to be the case with most hot-button issues, your net benefit is small. You are better off having enemies with few admirers in your city, district, or state.

When I was in Congress, then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared me an "Enemy of New York" for leading the charge against funding for a program that he favored and was popular in New York City. As a politician from rural Minnesota, having the chief executive of America's largest city criticize me was a campaign trail blessing. It made for a great applause line and a fantastic contrast between my philosophy and Bloomberg's Big Apple big government approach. The divide between urban and rural communities is only getting deeper, making Bloomberg and me convenient mutual enemies.

Who makes a good political enemy is very dependent on your region. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W Va., exhibited this in one of his first Senate ads in 2010. Manchin took "dead aim" at his enemy, a pending cap and trade bill, while bolstering two of his allies, the National Rifle Association and the coal industry. At the time, the bill had passed the House of Representatives and its environmental activist allies were trying to get it taken up in the Senate as well. Manchin made it clear to his potential supporters that he would do everything possible to stop it. Manchin's strategy was predicated on the fact that environmentalists are the minority in West Virginia. Clearly they would not be good enemies in New York.

President Putin puts a big red check mark in each of these boxes for American politicians. He is the gold standard for political enemies.

So while Putin's actions could have severely negative consequences for the world, some lawmakers in the United States are undoubtedly asking, "Hey, Vlad, maybe you can include me on the list next time?"

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?