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Democrats Need Route From Political Trap
News Analysis

By Sam Parry
January 6, 2003

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 CNN’s 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. "[Edwards’s] background, his qualifications, make it a farce that he would run for president of the United States." [Crossfire, Jan. 2, 2003]

On the same day, talk show host Rush Limbaugh clipped together an attack montage for his radio audience belittling Edwards’s 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 you’re a helpless little ninny who can’t 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.

Oblivious Democrats

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 Gore’s wide lead in polls among core Democratic constituencies and his groundbreaking speeches challenging Bush’s policies, Democratic insiders were convinced that Gore was damaged goods. With a "fresh face," they thought they could slip their way past their strategic disadvantages.

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' Myth."]

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.

Getting Muddy

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 Bush.

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."

Personal Diary

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 Gore’s running mate, Time magazine published an excerpt from Graham’s 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 Crossfire’s 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 career-endangering label.

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 Interest."]

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."]

Double Standard

While obsessed with supposed character flaws of Democrats, the national news media has done little to demand answers to questions about Bush’s business and personal background.

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 Iraq’s 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 election.

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 party’s 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.

Democratic Hope

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 media.

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.

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