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Mystery of the Democrats' New Spine

By Robert Parry
April 26, 2005

Across the nation’s capital, perplexed political pundits have been rubbing their chins wondering what has happened to the Democrats, who were supposed to quiver in fear of the victorious George W. Bush and his Republican congressional majority. Instead, the minority party has been picking – and even winning – some fights.

The Washington Post put the mystery on Page One with the headline, “Unexpectedly, Capitol Hill Democrats Stand Firm.” [April 25, 2005]

The Post story said, “Democrats were supposed to enter the 109th Congress meek and cowed, demoralized by November’s election losses and ready to cut deals with Republicans who threatened further campaigns against ‘obstructionists.’ But House and Senate Democrats have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”

The mystery is, how did this happen? How did the Democrats find their voice and gain the upper hand over Bush on a number of issues: Social Security, his right-wing judicial appointments, the Terri Schiavo case, Tom DeLay’s ethics mess and the John Bolton nomination? What has caused the Democrats to grow a new spine?

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Certainly part of the explanation is Republican miscalculation, starting with Bush’s post-election decision to make partial privatization of Social Security his major domestic policy initiative. Bush also brazenly named the undiplomatic Bolton to a sensitive diplomatic job as U.N. ambassador.

Congressional Republicans overplayed their hand, too. They changed the ethics process to protect House Majority Leader DeLay from more reprimands. They appeared to pander to the Christian Right by intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose feeding tube was removed. The Republicans even let the Schiavo debacle taint the battle over confirming right-wing judges.

But another part of the answer lies with the Democrats. They appear less defensive, more willing to make their arguments without so many equivocations. Though there are still flashbacks to the old Democrats – for instance, Sen. Joe Biden’s reference to Alberto Gonzales as “old buddy” at the Attorney General’s confirmation hearing – those examples are rarer.

One explanation for the Democrats’ turnabout is the rise of progressive media, most notably progressive AM talk radio which has expanded rapidly over the past several months. Finally, Democratic leaders can go on sympathetic radio shows and make their case directly to listeners.

Before, Democrats almost always would find themselves speaking in unfriendly territory. Sometimes they would appear on conservative media, such as Fox News, or they’d face mainstream pundits eager to prove they weren’t liberal by being tougher on Democrats than Republicans, the likes of NBC’s Tim Russert.

Faced with hostile questioning, national Democrats often sought a safe middle ground, which made them look weak or indecisive, opening them to attacks as “flip-floppers” or “lacking conviction.” On the other hand, Republicans could count on friendly receptions from conservative hosts and mostly deferential treatment on mainstream programs.

Limbaugh’s Value

For more than a decade now, conservative talk radio has had the Republicans’ back. Republicans could count on Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al to go out on the nation’s air waves and organize support for conservative positions. Whenever Republicans were in a tough spot, they knew they had defenders.

That, in turn, meant Republicans had more margin of error when making their case. An overstatement – or even an outright falsehood – wouldn’t be a political death knell. So, Bush could talk loosely about Democratic senators as “not interested in the security of the American people” or pretend that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had barred U.N. weapons inspectors before the war and expect little fallout. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality on the Ballot.”]

By contrast, Democrats could expect any clumsy remark to be turned into a huge controversy both by mainstream and conservative news outlets. In Campaign 2004, John Kerry got pummeled for saying that he had supported one version of an Iraq War appropriations bill but opposed another, when it was barely mentioned that Bush had opposed the first version and supported the second.

Four years earlier, Al Gore saw his words twisted beyond recognition to make him out to be a liar or delusional, a crucial factor in Election 2000. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”] During the run-up to war in Iraq, Gore was savaged again for his thoughtful critiques of Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

The liberals simply lacked a media that could defend Democrats when they took tough stands or when they made innocent mistakes. They were pretty much on their own, helping to explain their timidity.

Left Side

But that dynamic has begun to change as more U.S. cities get “progressive talk radio” stations, which now number more than 50. Though still far fewer than the hundreds of conservative talk radio outlets, this “left side of the dial” is reaching critical mass, altering the political psyche both of rank-and-file Democrats and their leaders.

With humor and without deference, the progressive hosts give voice to the outrage that many American liberals feel over what they regard as years of conservative highhandedness – a stolen election in 2000, a deceptive case for war in Iraq in 2002-03, and the smearing of Kerry’s war record in 2004.

After more than a decade of the Right’s near monopoly of AM talk radio, listeners on the Left are taking pleasure in hearing the conservatives get a taste of their own medicine. Hosts – such as Stephanie Miller, Randi Rhodes, Al Franken and Ed Schultz – dish out a mixture of satire, ridicule and information.

Leading Democratic politicians from the House and Senate are lining up as guests, but now they are addressing an audience that expects tough talk about the Republicans, not mushy rhetoric designed not to offend.

In effect, a political market is emerging that rewards courageous Democrats and punishes wimpy ones. That is why references to Sen. Joe Lieberman bring derisive laughter on progressive talk radio shows because he is viewed as an archetype of the Democrat who seeks acceptance from the Brit Humes and Tim Russerts.

Liberalism also has gained media traction through the emergence of irreverent Internet sites, distribution of progressive documentaries on DVDs, and the satire of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which pokes fun at both the Bush administration and the national news media.

Anti-Bush Cool

For the first time in memory, many Americans are hearing coherent and consistent arguments from progressives. It’s suddenly cool to stand up to Bush and to recognize the phoniness of the mainstream media.

The lesson for progressive leaders would seem to be that media holds a huge potential for energizing liberals, challenging the Bush administration and reaching out to moderate Americans who are growing more alarmed over right-wing radicalism. Yet, despite this opportunity, many leading figures on the Left remain resistant to expanding the progressive media effort.

This attitude is not new. A year ago, most major funders on the Left disparaged plans for “progressive talk radio” and predicted it would fail, a position that almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hampered by a shortage of capital, Air America Radio struggled to achieve liftoff, preventing it from having much effect on Campaign 2004.

But Air America scored strong ratings in the few markets where its programming was on the air, giving the “progressive talk radio” movement an important boost in early 2005.

Yet, today, many of the same figures in the “progressive establishment” still spurn media initiatives. These funders seem stuck in the Left’s old rhetoric, which valued slogans such as “think globally, act locally” and “all politics is local.”

So, rather than invest in media that has the potential to build a national movement, the “progressive establishment” continues to sink its resources into grassroots “local” organizing, a strategy that has dominated the Left’s approach to politics over the past quarter century.

Right’s Plan

During that same time, the Right has relied heavily on media to gain political dominance, especially in the nation’s heartland and increasingly with working-class Americans, even though their financial interests tend to suffer under conservative policies.

One of the seldom-acknowledged explanations for that political trend is the fact that the Right’s media clout in Middle America is even more pronounced than in urban centers on the East and West coasts. For years, all these Middle Americans heard on their car radios was how evil liberals were and how Democrats weren’t “real Americans.”

Not surprisingly, this nearly unchallenged bombardment influenced how Americans thought and voted. To survive, Democratic politicians distanced themselves from liberal positions although that often was not enough to spare them from defeat. [For more on the conservative media strategy, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Now, the media tide is showing signs of shifting. Progressives on talk radio are defending liberal values and criticizing conservative hypocrisy. Emboldened, Democratic politicians are starting to find their voice, too, and the Republicans have begun to stumble.

Progressives, who have long puzzled over how to get the Democrats to fight back, are discovering that relatively minor investments in media can bring major returns in convincing Democrats that there is a future in standing up to Republicans.

Ironically, however, the “progressive establishment” may ultimately save the conservatives’ hide by balking at plans for more media expansion and by refusing to learn lessons from the Mystery of the Democrats’ New Spine.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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