And so it begins, as predictable as clockwork. Just hours after Sen.
John Edwards said he is setting up an exploratory committee as the likely start of a
presidential run, the right-wing attack machine was already in gear, grinding out a
caricature of the North Carolina Democrat, an early glimpse of what's to come not just for
Edwards but for all the Democratic hopefuls.
On CNNs Crossfire the day Edwards announced his plans, Republican consultant Ed
Rogers began "defining" Edwards. He was a "parasitic" trial lawyer, a
multimillionaire with no gravitas.
"When [Edwards] started this quest four years ago to buy himself a Senate seat and
get into the game, he thought there would be a market for a Clinton-lite or for a wannabe
wonder boy," Rogers said. "[Edwardss] background, his qualifications, make
it a farce that he would run for president of the United States." [Crossfire, Jan. 2,
On the same day, talk show host Rush Limbaugh clipped together an attack montage for
his radio audience belittling Edwardss desire to be a "champion for regular
people." Limbaugh devoted a chunk of his three-hour radio show to explain to his
millions of listeners that Edwards was really just using "code for youre a
helpless little ninny who cant do anything without me helping you."
The next day, the Republican National Committee published a
5,100-word, two-part report
on its Web site calling Edwards "an unaccomplished liberal" who is "not ready
for prime time" -- although Edwards has the same number of years experience
in government as Texas Gov. George W. Bush had when he ran for
president in 2000.
The immediate lambasting of Edwards like early attacks on Sen. John Kerry
is only the start of a coordinated campaign by the RNC and its
allies in the powerful right-wing media to tear down any Democrat who may
pose a threat to Bush.
Already the favored word choice for those in the Democratic field is
"wannabes," rather than candidates or contenders. It also should be dawning on
Democratic strategists by now that their wish for a "fresh face" as a
cure-all for the politics of destruction that confronted Bill Clinton and Al Gore
is a pipedream.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic field will not only have to overcome Bush and his
overwhelming advantage in campaign funds, but also take on a combination of the
well-financed right-wing attack machine, which has refined its skills over the past
decade, and a mainstream national news media that has demonstrated its proclivity to fall
in line with the conservatives. Since at least the 1980s, mainstream journalists have
found it very helpful to their careers to "prove" they're not liberal by joining
in trashing Democrats.
The Democrats had better expect a lot of mud and ridicule to be heaped on
their "fresh face" candidates.
A Future Guide
If the past is any guide, Democrats should expect that:
-- The attacks will be personal, not issue-based. Personality quirks or flaws will be
used to "define" the Democrats so these traits can be easily transformed into
laugh lines for the pundit programs and the late-night comedy shows.
-- The attacks will be thematic, rather than specific. For instance, the Democratic
challenger will be described as "Clintonian" -- or in Edwards's case an
"ambulance chasing trial lawyer" -- rather than someone who supported or opposed
a specific policy initiative.
-- The attack machine will be relentless. Every utterance by the eventual Democratic
nominee will be examined to see if it fits one of the thematic patterns that have been
chosen as effective attack lines.
-- Statements or issues that fit a "theme" will be repeated again and again
in every media venue, from Web sites to radio to TV pundit shows to newspaper columns.
Every right-wing pundit and many mainstream commentators will use nearly
identical language until the "theme" becomes "conventional wisdom."
-- The mainstream press will incorporate the attack lines into regular news stories by
using the objective-sounding criticism that the Democrat has failed to counter the attack
and committed the political sin of letting his enemy define him.
-- Most importantly, it will not matter who the Democratic nominee is. No one is
immune. The attack machine will find a thematic pattern for each potential nominee and
will pound the Democratic candidate into the ground with it.
Yet, amazingly, despite experiencing this Republican strategy at least since 1988 and
despite suffering devastating losses in the 2002 midterm elections, national Democratic
leaders remain unwilling or unable to address the fundamental messaging and media
disadvantages they face.
While there have been some public statements in recent months by party leaders about
the importance of developing a counterbalance to the right-wing attack machine, including
from Bill Clinton and Al Gore, so far nothing of substance has been created.
Instead, Democratic leaders are signaling their intent to continue working within the
existing national media framework. A key indication that the Democrats remain oblivious to
the impending political disaster is the advice that Democratic pollsters have continued to
deliver both before and after the midterm elections.
This advice is two-pronged: Focus on domestic issues, not foreign policy where George
W. Bush is deemed too strong, and avoid attacking Bush directly, restricting criticism to
the "Bush administration." In other words, finesse, don't fight.
Yet by accepting the conventional wisdom of Bush's invulnerability on foreign affairs,
Democratic professionals have left themselves no choice but to pretend that the American
people aren't interested in the gathering dangers confronting the nation around the world.
They also have ducked a responsibility to the public to explain how Bush's bellicose style
is arguably deepening, not lessening, those dangers, making the world less safe, not more.
"Why is a voter in Carbondale, Ill., going to hire or fire their congressperson
based on homeland security?" top Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asked rhetorically
less than four months before the mid-term elections. "They don't expect to be a
target. They've never met a terrorist. But they have lost 40 percent of their 401(k)s,
they may have lost their job, they may have lost healthcare benefits." [Christian
Science Monitor, July 18, 2002.]
Following this sort of advice, House and Senate Democratic leaders, in what was widely
regarded as a cynical ploy to get the Iraq debate behind them before the elections,
granted Bush sweeping authority to launch preemptive military action against Iraq.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich summed up the Democratic political gambit.
"That Democratic leaders added so little to the discussion is attributed to their
intimidation by the president's poll numbers, their fear of being branded unpatriotic and
their eagerness to clear the decks (whatever the price) to return to the economy, stupid,
before Election Day," Rich wrote. [NYT, Oct. 12, 2002]
Getting Rid of Gore
Since their defeat in November, Democratic strategists have shown they are still eager
to finesse, not fight.
Democratic consultants responded to the losses by continuing to put not-so-subtle
pressure on Al Gore not to run again in 2004. Despite Gores wide lead in polls among
core Democratic constituencies and his groundbreaking speeches challenging Bushs
policies, Democratic insiders were convinced that Gore was damaged goods. With a
"fresh face," they thought they could slip their way past their strategic
The pressure ultimately proved successful as Gore pulled out of the race shortly before
the Christmas holidays. Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 540,000 votes
and apparently would have won Florida had five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court not
stopped hand recounts, echoed the argument of the insiders when he said he feared too much
attention would have been given to the divisive Election 2000. [See Consortiumnews.com's
"Gore & the Need for a Counter-Media."]
Though pitching Gore over the side may have pleased many Democratic strategists, it
also ceded important political ground to the Republicans. Gore's departure removes a
powerful reminder to the fact that Bush seized the White House only after stopping the
counting of American votes, an unprecedented act in U.S. history.
While rehashing those arguments might have distracted from discussing a political
agenda for the future, not rehashing those arguments trivializes the importance of honest
elections and acquiesces to the Republican argument that Bush "won"
rather than stole Election 2000.
A Gore candidacy also would have forced the mainstream journalists to make a choice
either continue what even some of them now acknowledge was a biased treatment of
Gore or admit they had violated their professional principles of objectivity and fairness
in Campaign 2000, shortchanging the American political process. A necessary debate about
the true nature of the American press corps could have been joined. [See
Consortiumnews.com's "Price of the 'Liberal Media'
The "fresh face" argument for jettisoning Gore also inexplicably misses the
point that no matter whom the Democrats nominate, the existing media structure will
highlight and exaggerate the candidate's flaws, as the Edwards example makes clear.
Indeed, Republican strategists and their right-wing media allies have already outlined
negative themes against other leading Democratic hopefuls.
South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, for example, has been pilloried as an obstructionist,
even a traitor, for his role as Senate majority leader. The assault on Daschle, who served
as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command from 1969 to 1972,
was based primarily on the legislative battle over the Homeland Security Department, which
ironically was first proposed by Democrats. The bill was introduced by Senator Joe
Lieberman of Connecticut, supported by Daschle from the outset, and initially opposed by
After Bush flip-flopped and backed a Homeland Security Department, the right-wing media
spearheaded an attack on Daschle and other Democrats who were accused of trying to block
Bush from protecting the American homeland. Bush himself exploited the issue in his
campaign stump speeches. At one stop, he accused Democrats of not being "interested
in the security of the American people." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Politics of Preemption" and "Richard Milhous W. Bush".]
With few exceptions, the national news media didn't call Bush on his ploy, meaning that
millions of Americans went to the polls not realizing that Bush had pick-pocketed the
Democrats and made off with their proposal. Bush used Homeland Security to rally his base
to the polls throughout the country, sealing the fate of attractive Democratic candidates
in Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Colorado.
Pundits also have begun painting a bull's eye on the back of Sen. Kerry of
Massachusetts. A decorated Vietnam veteran with three terms in the U.S. Senate, Kerry has
amassed a record of taking on issues as challenging as the Reagan administration's illegal
support for the Nicaraguan contras, international drug trafficking and the Bank of Credit
and Commerce International money-laundering scandal.
Still, the emerging anti-Kerry media themes are that he's a boring, humorless, aloof
elitist, a Massachusetts liberal who gets expensive hair cuts and lets his fingernails
grow longer on one hand for playing the guitar. To boot, he's a phony who fancies himself
another John F. Kennedy
Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri is being defined as an insider politician in the
pocket of big labor bosses and a guy whose light-colored hair leaves the impression that
he lacks eyebrows. The Rev. Al Sharpton already is a favorite punch line for conservative
commentators belittling the entire Democratic field of "wannabes."
Finally, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida presents an intriguing example of how negative
themes work. As soon as he announced his interest in a possible run for president, his
habit of taking meticulous notes on his daily life became a subject of ridicule.
During Campaign 2000 when Graham emerged as one of the finalists for Al Gores
running mate, Time magazine published an excerpt from Grahams diary, which detailed
the events of a September day in 1994. The entry included such trivial entries as
rewinding a video and what Graham wore that day.
On Dec. 23, 2002, the day Graham announced that he was considering a run for president,
CNN Crossfires Tucker Carlson flashed a portion of the diary entry on the screen and
joked, "Now, those are actual entries in Sen. Graham's diary. My question to you is,
'Don't you think running for the president, meeting all those people, going all those
places would just blow his circuits completely'?"
The common denominator in all these cases is that the right-wing attack machine can
exploit personality quirks or character flaws of anyone, not just Bill Clinton and Al
Gore. The wish of many Democratic strategists that a "fresh face" will emerge
and somehow be immune to these assaults suggests a stunning political naivete.
The Media Gap
It should be obvious by now to even casual political observers that the U.S. political
process is driven disproportionately by the strident content at conservative press outlets
and talk shows, from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News to the Washington Times to the Wall Street
Journal's editorial page.
As much as conservatives continue to complain about a "liberal" bias in
mainstream newspapers and television networks, the reality is that the Democrats have
nothing comparable in ideological commitment or tone to what the Republicans have at the
conservative news outlets built up over the past quarter century. Indeed, the prevailing
dynamic among mainstream journalists is to bend over backwards to avoid offending
conservatives and keep from being tagged a "liberal journalist," a
The supposedly "liberal" news outlets, for instance, marched in lockstep with
the conservative media in pushing the trivial Whitewater investigation of Clinton's failed
real-estate investment, an eight-year "press riot" that paved the way to
Clinton's impeachment. Almost no attention was given to the behind-the-scenes reality of
the "scandal" used as a "dirty trick" promoted by the first Bush
administration as a scheme to destroy Clinton's candidacy in 1992. [For details, see
Consortiumnews.com's "Bush Family's Whitewater
The New York Times and the Washington Post the alleged center of the
"liberal media conspiracy" also were the outlets that published some of
the most vitriolic and inaccurate attacks on Gore's honesty, including the false quote
portraying Gore as claiming credit for starting the Love Canal toxic waste cleanup. The
two newspapers quoted Gore as saying "I was the one that started it all," when
he was actually referring to a Tennessee waste dump and said "That was the one that
started it all." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Al Gore v. the Media" or review the archives at
Bob Somerby's Daily Howler.]
The supposed "liberal" media outlets failed to give timely attention to
allegations that Gov. Jeb Bush's political operation in Florida had used inaccurate felon
lists to scrub thousands of black voters off the voter rolls. The major news organizations
also downplayed the fact that their own unofficial ballot recount in Florida showed that
if all legally cast ballots had been counted Gore would have won the state and thus the
presidency regardless of what kind of chad standard was used, dimpled, perforated
or fully pushed through. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "So Bush Did Steal the White House."]
While obsessed with supposed character flaws of Democrats, the national news media has
done little to demand answers to questions about Bushs business and personal
These questions include whether Bush went AWOL from the Alabama Air National Guard for
18 months during the Vietnam War, a significant point for a politician who sees himself as
the sole judge of when American troops should be sent to war. Reacting to a reporter's
recent question about going to war, Bush snapped, "You said we're headed to war in
Iraq. I don't know why you say that. I'm the person who gets to decide, not you."
Similarly, the news media has shown only spotty interest in Vice President Dick
Cheney's role at Halliburton Co., the oil-services company that signed $73 million worth
of oil-equipment contracts with Iraqs dictator Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s when
Cheney was Halliburton's chairman and chief executive officer. [For details on the
imbalanced coverage of Campaign 2000, see Consortiumnews.com "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]
While it's true that editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post have
criticized some of Bush's policies, particularly on the environment and the budget, both
newspapers have praised Bush as well and have pro-Bush columnists contributing regular
op-ed columns. In particular, the Post's op-ed page is dominated by conservatives and
neoconservatives, such as George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer and Michael
Kelly, who are far more vituperative in their attacks on Democrats than the few
center-left pundits, such as E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen, are on Republicans.
Besides confronting a predominantly critical-to-hostile media, Democrats face daunting
disadvantages in campaign financing.
In the 2002 midterm election cycle, Republicans out-raised Democrats $511 million to
$327 million. Making the situation even graver for Democrats, 61 percent of their funds
came from so-called "soft money" contributions, which would be banned under the
McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform standards. By comparison, only 43 percent of the
funds raised by Republicans were from "soft money" contributions. [See Open
Secrets, http://www.opensecrets.org ]
That means it will be harder for Democrats to compete with Republicans to get their
message out in paid media, such as campaign ads. Also, with a wide-open field of
candidates, Democratic campaign money will be spent during the primaries as the contenders
battle each other. Meanwhile, Bush will be able to save his vast war chest for the general
The Democrats face other daunting political problems in 2004. Beyond the difficult
battle for the White House, they are looking at an uphill fight even to maintain their
current 51-48 deficit in the Senate (with one Independent). Nineteen of the 34 Senate seats up
for grabs in 2004 are currently held by Democrats, eight of which were won with less than
60 percent of the vote six years ago. Of the 15 seats now held by Republicans up in 2004,
only four were won with less than 60 percent of the vote six years ago.
This means that Democrats will have to spread their more limited campaign resources
among more battleground races, creating a parallel situation to the race for the
Democratic nomination where resources will be shared by a half dozen or more contenders.
The race for the House will likely be heavily influenced by which partys base
turns out in the national election, with Republicans expecting Bush's coattails to be
important. With national security certain to be a major issue, Bush has already shown that
he is adept at manipulating the nation's fears about terrorism for political gain.
But best of all for Republicans, they will again have a highly organized and finely
tuned right-wing media attack machine at their disposal.
These obstacles present Democrats with a difficult road toward Election 2004. Having
ignored the growing media imbalance for a generation, liberals would need to mount a crash
program to build a "counter-media," even to have a modest infrastructure in
place by next year.
Therefore, in the short term, a Democratic challenger may find the only feasible route
to victory is a high-risk populist campaign that takes on both Bush and the national
Democrats will have no choice but to challenge Bush head on. To start, the American
people will have to be engaged in a sophisticated but vital discussion about
"national security." Instead of acquiescing to Bush's unilateralist and
belligerent foreign policy, Democrats will have to explain how that policy is making the
world less safe for Americans.
Bush's bellicose talk may appeal to the angry white male voter, but Democrats will have
to make the case to the broader American public that the tough rhetoric is depleting
goodwill toward America, a dangerous development in an increasingly interdependent world.
"Negative opinions of the U.S. have increased in most of the nations where trend
benchmarks are available," reported the Pew Research Center for The People & The
Press in a recent study. Even worse is the deterioration of U.S. standing in areas near
the front lines of the war on terror.
"Public opinion about the United States in the Middle East/Conflict Area is
overwhelmingly negative," the Pew study found. "Even in countries whose
governments have close ties with the United States, such as Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan,
substantial majorities have an unfavorable view of the United States." [For details,
go to www.people-press.org]
Instead of creating more friends and fewer terrorists, Bush's policies are creating
more terrorists and fewer friends. The test for Democrats will be to show how Bush has
come to personify what many in the world dislike about the U.S. government that it
is too often arrogant, ill-informed and trigger-happy.
Also, the Democrats will have to stop cowering before sneering media pundits. Instead
the Democrats will have to challenge the media to stop fawning over Bush and his policies.
Rather than cozying up to the likes of NBC's Tim Russert, the Democrats will have to paint
Russert and his cohorts as part of the problem.
As the Republicans have learned, it's much easier to deal with the national news media
when your allies have their own media infrastructure to help set the agenda and soften up
the press. But lacking that, the Democrats will have to figure out some creative ways to
neutralize the media's pro-Bush tendencies.
In short, Democrats will have to learn in the next few months some critical lessons
that have escaped them since the rise of the right-wing media machine a generation ago.
Whether they like it or not, against this well-financed and aggressive operation, the
Democrats will find they have little left to finesse.