Both moments related to the liberal political
group, America Coming Together, which had spearheaded the notion that a
massive voter-registration drive, combined with some targeted political
ads, would pave the way for a Democratic victory. After spending almost
$200 million and failing to win, ACT is now facing collapse.
While ACT can be viewed as just one more casualty
of John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush, the group’s troubles also point
to a deeper problem on the American Left, the reliance on “grassroots
organizing” as a political cure-all while refusing to commit the
resources to build a media infrastructure that can rival what the Right
My Will Ferrell experience started in spring 2004
when I was shown a rough cut of the comedian reprising his “Saturday
Night Live” imitation of a goofy but belligerent George W. Bush. It
struck me that the skit had the makings of a devastating political
Ferrell portrayed Bush doing a manipulative
campaign ad, as a crisply dressed rancher who feared horses and who used
farm tools as clumsy props. Amid the stops and starts of filming the
“ad,” Ferrell’s Bush would play video games, ramble on about “peace
through bombs,” and snap at the off-screen director.
At one point, an exasperated “Bush” threatened the
director to a fight: “What do you mean ‘cut’? Well, you can do it
yourself, jackass. I’m going to fight you. Are we going to throw down
The Ferrell video was the creation of Los
Angeles-based Balcony Films, which was doing work for America Coming
Together (ACT). After watching the long-form version of Ferrell’s
performance, I turned to the executive producer (and friend), Julie
Bergman Sender, and told her that if the video were widely broadcast on
American television, I couldn’t envision Bush winning.
In summer 2004, as Ferrell’s hit movie “Anchorman”
was appearing in theaters, a version of
the Ferrell “Bush” video was posted on the Internet and mentioned on
some TV talk shows. But it was never cut into 30-second versions and was
never made part of the ad buys by ACT’s sister group, the Media Fund.
Death by Consultants
A chief reason for this failure to make wider use
of Ferrell’s “Bush” appeared to be that ACT and the Media Fund were
dominated by traditional Democratic operatives, such as former Clinton
aide Harold Ickes, Emily’s List founder Ellen Malcolm and Service
Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern.
These operatives, in turn, relied on armies of
consultants to vet the political commercials. The ones that survived
this committee process – and then were aired mostly in battleground
states – were widely criticized as safe and unimaginative.
In effect, ACT and the Media Fund were accepting
the parameters of political respectability that had been shaped by the
powerful conservative news media over the previous four years.
Any poking fun at Bush was deemed unpatriotic or a
“hate-fest,” while ridicule of Kerry – for wind-surfing or “looking
French” or supposedly lying about his Vietnam War record – was
considered standard fare for political talk shows.
This failure to comprehend how the Right’s media
machine had transformed American politics also was reflected in the
other campaign moment that alerted me to the impending disaster for the
Democrats in 2004.
That came in mid-campaign when investor George
Soros said he didn’t need to spend more – beyond the $30 million or so
he had already invested – because Bush’s defeat was a foregone
Like many progressives, Soros didn’t seem to
recognize how the conservative media – from newspapers to magazines to
books to talk radio to television to the Internet – amounted to a
powerful secret weapon for Bush.
While Soros may have considered his
multi-million-dollar investment a big deal, it didn’t stack up against
the tens of billions of dollars that conservatives had invested in a
media infrastructure over the past three decades.
By the time, Soros realized how resilient the
conservative media made Bush’s campaign – when the Hungarian-born
investor toured heartland U.S. cities in October 2004 and got a personal
taste of the anger that the Right can stir up – it was too late.
In a speech to the National Press Club in
Washington on Oct. 28, 2004, Soros said he had embarked on the tour
“because I was worried that the dramatic deterioration in Iraq did not
produce the decisive lead for John Kerry that I had confidently
Even then, however, Soros had faith in ACT’s
strategy – that registering more voters would still bring victory.
“Although I believe that voter turnout is likely to give Kerry the
victory, the race is too close for comfort,” Soros said in
But Soros’s expected outcome didn’t come to pass.
Despite record voter registrations, Bush kept the White House and
Republicans tightened their grip on both houses of Congress. With Bush’s
nomination of John Roberts, the Right now is in position to lock down
control of the U.S. Supreme Court as well.
Despite these reversals, wealthy progressives still
resist the conclusion that they must commit to a long-term project of
building media as a necessary step to restore balance in the U.S.
political system. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
However, progressive funders apparently have begun
to see the shortcomings of the Left’s long-standing reliance on
“grassroots organizing.” Reflecting that change, Soros and other liberal
benefactors have pulled back from continued funding of ACT, which is now
closing its state offices and laying off nearly its entire staff.
“The news represented a long fall for ACT and its
sister group, the Media Fund,” the Washington Post reported on Aug. 3.
For the 2004 election, ACT and the Media Fund had raised $196.4 million,
including $38.5 million from Soros and his associate, Progressive Corp.
Chairman Peter Lewis. [Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2005]
ACT’s logic that had made registering voters the
centerpiece of its efforts rested on the historical fact that large
turnouts have tended to favor Democratic candidates. So, ACT thought, a
lot of new voters should translate into a John Kerry victory.
But that logic ignored the impact of the modern
conservative media that has hammered away with its political message
day-in-day-out for years, not just during election cycles. So, when new
voters looked around for information about the election, they were
likely to hear that Kerry was a lying coward and Bush a stalwart hero.
To the chagrin of Democratic operatives, the
Right’s pervasive political message persuaded many traditional
Democratic voters, such as blue-collar men and suburban women, to switch
allegiances. The conservative media acted like a tide that lifted all
Republican boats, including many that broke loose from old Democratic
Some post-election analyses noted that although
both Republicans and Democrats raised about the same amount of cash –
slightly more than $1 billion – the Right’s message dominance gave Bush
much more bang for his bucks. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “It’s
the Media, Stupid!”]
Most memorably, the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans
for Truth neutralized Kerry’s Vietnam War medals with attacks on his
honesty and patriotism, accusations that have since been debunked but
which then resonated through the vast conservative media infrastructure
and into mainstream news outlets, like CNN. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bushes
Play the Traitor Card” and “Reality
on the Ballot.”]
Washington Post reporters Thomas B. Edsall and
James V. Grimaldi cited the first anti-Kerry Swift boat ad in August
2004, which cost only $546,000, as one of the best bargains of Campaign
“The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and
spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost effective:
most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media
and talk radio,” Edsall and Grimaldi wrote. [Washington Post, Dec. 30,
In August 2004, American progressives lacked a
quick-response media capability that might have countered the Swift Boat
attacks. Short on money and worried about giving the accusations even
more exposure, the Kerry campaign held back and hoped that ACT and the
Media Fund would step in.
But federal law barred coordination between
campaigns and these so-called 527 organizations, ostensibly independent
political groups named after a section of the Internal Revenue Service
code that allowed for their creation. Plus, the Media Fund relied on
30-second ads that took too long to produce and weren’t suitable for
contesting narrowly argued critiques of Kerry’s credibility.
So the lack of a progressive media that could match
the conservative media in reaching the American population proved a
crushing disadvantage for the Democrats.
Air America Takes Flight
In the nine months since the 2004 electoral
debacle, major liberal funders have continued to drag their heels on
committing to media investments. Nevertheless, the Left has been buoyed
by the emergence of “progressive talk radio,” which first surfaced in
spring 2004 with the launch of Air America Radio, though it barely
managed to stay afloat in those first few months because of financial
Struggling to survive and aired in only a few U.S.
cities, “progressive talk radio” had little impact on the presidential
election in 2004. But since then, liberal talkers have begun to show up
on radio stations in scores of cities across America.
Ironically, Republican-leaning Clear Channel has
done more to put these progressive voices on the air than the Left’s
funding community. Putting profits before politics, Clear Channel has
revamped the formats of about two dozen under-performing stations to air
the likes of Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller.
Over the past several months, many of these
stations have shown strong growth in listeners. Perhaps even more
important, the sound of unapologetic liberal voices has relieved the
sense of isolation that has weighed upon American progressives for
Liberals now find they can to tune in talk radio
without being assaulted by endless rhetoric about how evil and
un-American they are.
Plus, these progressive talkers have no qualms
about making jokes at George W. Bush’s expense.
If these radio outlets had been around a year ago,
Will Ferrell’s skit might have fit seamlessly into Campaign 2004 – and
American history might have gone in a different direction.