consortiumnews.com

Bush’s Iraqi Albatross

By Sam Parry
June 25, 2003

Political adviser Karl Rove may have envisioned George W. Bush in his Top Gun costume as a killer 30-second TV spot for Campaign 2004. But the image of a swaggering Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln is turning quickly into a political albatross as U.S. troops continue to die in what’s becoming a nasty guerrilla war in Iraq.

Bush’s flight-suit scene could become a reminder of Bush’s reckless over-confidence in declaring "Mission Accomplished," much as the image of Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank came to represent the Democratic nominee’s woeful 1988 presidential campaign. If the Iraqi violence continues at its recent pace, sometime later this year the number of American soldiers killed since May 1, when Bush donned the flight suit, will exceed the 138 soldiers who died during the so-called major combat. As of Friday, the Pentagon put the number of post-May 1 dead at 55.

Having recognized this political danger, the White House pushed Bush out on Saturday in a preemptive strike, laying the groundwork for accusing anyone who questions the open-ended occupation of Iraq as defeatist or unwilling to stand with "the men and women of our military." Former Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond warned that criticism from Democrats would reveal "the huge disconnect between the liberals who control the Democratic Party and the rest of America." [NYT, June 22, 2003]

But the mounting death toll in Iraq is only part of a troubling picture about Bush's leadership that could come back to haunt Republicans in next year's elections. The growing frustrations voiced by exhausted U.S. troops sweltering in Iraq, the crumbling security situation in Afghanistan and the grumbling of the Sept. 11 families over Bush’s cover-up of that intelligence failure may turn Bush’s expected strong suit – the war on terror – into a very weak hand.

Combined with the loss of nearly three million jobs and record budget deficits – after President Bill Clinton’s 22 million new jobs and record surpluses – Bush might reasonably be seen as a very vulnerable incumbent.

Pro-Bush Media

Nevertheless, the prevailing conventional wisdom still holds that Bush is pretty much a shoo-in for a second term, a judgment that is more a testament to conservative domination of the U.S. news media than Bush’s record. The pro-Bush side either exercises direct control over important media outlets – such as Fox News, AM talk radio, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the Weekly Standard and the Washington Times – or can intimidate mainstream journalists who fear career consequences from criticizing Bush.

So, for months now, the public has been conditioned to believe in Bush’s invincibility. MSNBC pundit Christopher Matthews pronounced any 2004 Democratic nominee to be "a sacrificial lamb." [The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Nov. 14, 2002] "The Dems are doomed to lose the 2004 presidential election," declared David Frum. [National Review Online, Jan. 14, 2003]

In recent weeks, the cable news networks have framed the central campaign debate with the headline: "Bush – Is He Unbeatable?" They have shied away from asking: "Bush – Does He Deserve a Second Term?"

Largely because of his media advantage, Bush maintains his carefully crafted image as a straight talker – although there's arguably less truth-telling at this White House than there was when Bill Clinton lied about his sex life. Rather than level with the American people about the reasons for going to war with Iraq, Bush exaggerated claims about the imminent threat that was posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Now, as Bush’s pre-war assertions about weapons of mass destruction are failing to match the reality that the U.S. troops are finding on the ground, Bush and his top aides have lashed out at critics for engaging in "historical revisionism." Increasingly, Bush is looking like a politician who just won’t accept responsibility for his actions and will say or do anything to stay in office. [For details about the Iraq exaggerations, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Bush & the End of Reason."]

On domestic policy, Bush has left a lengthening trail of broken campaign promises. For instance, he had vowed to pay off the national debt while still affording tax cuts and claiming to set aside $1 trillion of the surplus for unforeseen calamities.

Now, Bush’s $3 trillion in tax cuts and the struggling economy are pushing the federal government deeper and deeper into the red. This year’s budget is expected to run a record deficit of between $400 billion and $500 billion, with future deficits soaring to $600 billion. Rather than paying off the nation’s debt, Bush is passing on a vault of IOUs to future generations. In the next decade, Americans may be faced with the painful choice of savaging Social Security or accepting status as a kind of super banana republic.

Yet the national press corps continues to give Bush a remarkably easy ride.

"Nobody is paying any attention to the budget deficit," Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., complained in an Op-Ed article. "Last month, the House Budget Committee’s Democrats forecast a deficit of nearly $500 billion, and the [Washington] Post reported the story on Page A4. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit would balloon to a record $400 billion-plus, and the Post again buried the story on A4. Spending trust funds, such as Social Security, is what keeps the estimate at $400 billion. The actual deficit will be approximately $600 billion."

Hollings noted that when the Republican-controlled Congress raised the deficit ceiling another $1 trillion "so the president could borrow more money to pay for tax cuts," the story slid even deeper into the Post’s inside pages, to A8.

"How huge must the deficit grow for this A4 story to make the front page, and for the public to scream for relief?" Hollings wrote. "Across the country, teachers are being laid off, there are more kids per classroom, the school year is shorter, and tuition is up at state colleges. Bus service is being cut off, volunteers are running park systems, prisoners are being released, and subsidies for the working poor are being slashed." [See Hollings’s "Delusional on the Deficit," Washington Post, June 19, 2003]

Cuts Likely

The ocean of red ink, which now stretches as far as the eye can see, also means the U.S. government won’t have the resources to extend health benefits to the uninsured, fund education programs or pursue other popular policies such as fighting crime and protecting the environment. More likely, the swelling deficits will force deep cuts in existing programs, which has been a stated goal of conservative activists since the Reagan administration and the 1994 Gingrich Revolution.

Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist admitted the strategy when he said, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Norquist says his goal is to cut federal programs in half within the next generation.

With the impending retirement of the Baby Boom generation, there is no mention of how the federal government can withstand such cuts while meeting its Social Security and Medicare obligations, not to mention funding discretionary programs like defense, education, transportation, cleaning up the environment and investing in new technologies to help the economy.

In spite of these obvious contradictions, Bush and his right wing supporters are not called to task for their empty promises. With little or no challenge from the news media, Bush is allowed to continue his rhetorical games of voicing support for unattainable goals. He stands in front of backdrops printed with popular slogans about jobs, health care and the environment, or he signs legislation with impressive titles like the No Child Left Behind Act.

Bush’s words rarely fit with the reality on the ground, especially given cutbacks forced on the states by the economy and Bush’s refusal to provide more than token federal assistance. Many educators, for instance, say that without proper funding, the federal requirements in Bush’s education law make teaching harder, not easier, with more and more time focused on preparing students for tests, rather than covering the normal educational material.

On the environmental front, Bush’s "Clear Skies" initiative is pushing a proposal Bush calls the "new Clean Air Act of the 21st Century." Environmental groups, however, say the plan weakens existing standards by delaying deadlines for meeting public health standards and allowing power plants to emit even more pollution over the next decade.

Politics was at the forefront, too, when the White House deleted from an environmental report a section that dealt with global warming. Despite the consensus of the scientific community about the threat, global warming doesn’t fit with Bush’s political spin.

Though the news media mentions many of these facts in passing, the disclosures don't get anything like the traction that criticism of Bill Clinton or Al Gore did. That’s because Bush’s greatest asset may be the continuation of the same news media dynamic that dominated the late 1990s and the 2000 campaign.

Dedicated media conservatives relentlessly push their themes, often in coordination with the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, mainstream journalists tread carefully around critical stories about Bush out of fear of getting the career-threatening label of "liberal journalist" or having their loyalty questioned for challenging the president in the midst of the war on terror.

By contrast, both the conservative and mainstream elements of the national media can safely poke fun at the Democratic candidates – much as was done to Gore in 2000. In the emerging media script for Campaign 2004, the Democrats are portrayed as grasping wannabees while Bush is a decisive national leader who looks "unbeatable." No national-level journalist will suffer any career punishment by following those themes.

Goring Gore

A study of Election 2000 showed that one of the most effective themes used to undermine Gore's standing with the voters was the media drumbeat about "Lyin’ Al" as a serial exaggerator. The survey by pollster Stan Greenberg found that the biggest reason people decided not to vote for Gore was his "exaggerations and untruthfulness." [See the Greenberg survey.]

Though the Lyin' Al attack line was largely based on the media’s own lying and exaggeration – Gore never said he "invented" the Internet nor did he claim to have "started" the Love Canal clean-up – conservative and mainstream journalists worked in tandem to denigrate Gore. Meanwhile, lies and distortions from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were virtually ignored. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Protecting Bush-Cheney" and "Al Gore v. the Media."]

It's finally beginning to dawn on Democrats, liberals and progressives that the lies told about Gore in both the mainstream and conservative media – from the New York Times to the Washington Times – allowed history to veer off in its current direction. To a great extent, this development is the liberals' own fault, for failing to invest significant resources in media while conservatives poured billions of dollars into building their own media and in financing pressure groups to attack mainstream reporters. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Democrats’ Dilemma."]

Only recently has this recognition of a media imbalance sparked talk by liberal activists about building media outlets. To this date, however, little has been accomplished.

A liberal-oriented talk radio network remains in the planning stages and a cable-TV concept pushed by Gore has been slow in taking shape. Currently, Free Speech TV, which broadcasts programming on the Echostar satellite system, including Pacifica’s "Democracy Now" with Amy Goodman, is the most advanced project though its audience is tiny compared to those reached by conservative radio and TV.

Bush Weakness

While the media issue is slowly addressed by liberals, the immediate threat to Democrats is that the "theme" of Bush’s invincibility may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with voters taking a Bush victory as a foregone conclusion and tuning out whatever the Democratic candidates say.

If, however, the Democrats can get their act together, they may be encouraged by some signs that the American people still aren’t thrilled with Bush’s leadership. While Bush’s favorable poll ratings are in the low 60s, his re-elect numbers have consistently held in the low to mid-40s, considered vulnerable poll territory for an incumbent. It’s also hard to calculate how much of Bush’s approval ratings derive from the lingering trauma of Sept. 11 and the nation’s desire to show a united front against foreign enemies.

When Americans have a chance for the Bush off-ramp in November 2004, will they take it? Will they judge that Bush is incapable of keeping problems under control, that he’s better at smashing things, like Iraq’s outmatched military and the budget surplus he inherited, than he is at doing the slow, frustrating work of building coalitions and improving the quality of life?

At the top of the list of issues for the 2004 election will be security and the economy. Yet to beat Bush, Democrats will have to come up with a larger vision that competes thematically with the Republican mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and strong defense. For Democrats, the challenge will be to define in simple terms what the role of government should be, what it can do, what are its limitations and how that relates to the American people.

Clinton’s construct of opportunity for all, responsibility from all and a community of all captured a vision for the American society in a way that no one has since matched. The Democratic candidate will have to sell a similar framework to win in 2004.

The other good news for the Democrats is that Americans largely agree that government must provide essential services, from maintaining Social Security to providing adequate resources for education, health care, job training, unemployment insurance and environmental protection. By contrast, polls show that Bush's tax cuts are viewed as primarily helping the rich, with limited appeal to the average voter.

Congressional Balance

While the Democrats may still have a real shot at beating Bush, their prospects appear much dimmer in Congress with both the House and Senate likely out of the Democrats' reach.

The Democrats must defend more seats than the Republicans in the Senate, with 19 Democratic seats up against 15 for the Republicans. On top of that, 10 of those seats are in states – Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Indiana – Bush won in the 2000 campaign. In Georgia and possibly Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, Democratic incumbents may not run for another term leaving open seats in hard-to-win states for Democrats.

By contrast, there are only two vulnerable Republican seats. In Illinois where the incumbent Peter Fitzgerald has decided not to seek reelection, the Democrats have perhaps the best chance of any Senate race to pick up a seat. In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to fill her father’s seat after he won the governor’s race, will have to run on her own for the first time against a likely challenger, Tony Knowles, who is a popular former governor in an otherwise solidly Republican state.

Other than these two seats, the pickings appear slim for Democratic challengers. Barring any surprises between now and election day, the only seats that are even worth mentioning are Kit Bond’s seat in Missouri (though the Democrats are having a terrible time finding a candidate), Jim Bunning’s seat in Kentucky (where Democratic Gov. Paul Patton’s sex scandal appears to have spared Bunning a serious reelection fight), and Arlen Spector’s seat in Pennsylvania (only worth mentioning because of a primary challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey).

As for the House, it is too early to say where the national electorate will be. But redistricting has made all but a handful of seats safe for one party or the other, leaving only between 25 to 50 seats up for grabs depending on what the national campaign looks like. The Democrats may have a chance of gaining seats, though likely not enough to take back the House.

Beyond the 2004 campaign, Democrats face expensive and time-consuming challenges as they seek to compete with Republicans. Democrats not only face huge campaign financing disadvantages, but they will have to begin matching the Republican media investments to compete nationally. Democrats cannot continue to rely on the "balance" of the mainstream media, which are cowed in the face of pro-Republican outlets on the right. The Democrats have nothing to compare with Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Clear Channel, the Washington Times and dozens of other pro-Republican outlets and publications.

The existence of a national conservative news media permits Republicans to coordinate messages unchallenged across all media levels, which helps feed grassroots efforts to recruit and rally their activist base. The lack of a competing media structure leaves many Democrats feeling isolated and demoralized.

As America begins its quadrennial march toward a national campaign, the troubling direction of the world's preeminent power as it operates consistently on slanted information proves the accuracy of an insight from British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970.

"Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of disinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power," Russell said.

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