By contrast, he described to me a highly
sophisticated Republican system for pouncing on Democratic “bad votes”
and verbal gaffes and distributing the information instantaneously to a
network of pro-Republican media outlets that now operates down to the
state, district and local levels.
This huge conservative media advantage has now
contributed to dooming Democratic hopes for snaring the vulnerable
suburban San Diego seat of imprisoned Republican congressman Randy
In the June 6 special election, Republicans
reported a last-minute surge of support after conservative media outlets
trumpeted a verbal blunder by Democrat Francine Busby, propelling
Republican lobbyist Brian Bilbray to victory by about four percentage
Near the end of a lackluster campaign in which
Busby followed the advice of national Democratic consultants to avoid
controversial positions, the candidate blurted out to a mostly Latino
audience that “you don’t need papers for voting” before she clarified
her meaning to say “you don’t need to be a registered voter to help.”
But conservative radio and TV talk show hosts
across southern California seized on Busby’s verbal slip and began
accusing her of urging illegal immigrants to vote. Busby then spent the
last several days of the campaign apologizing and backtracking.
[Washington Post, June 7, 2006]
In explaining Busby’s defeat in this bellwether
special election, national Democratic consultants will likely point to
failures of Busby as a candidate or the fact that the Republican
Congressional Committee pumped more than $4.5 million into the district.
But the one point the Democratic consultants almost
never mention is the giant media advantage that Republicans have created
from years of investing in media outlets – from newspapers, magazines
and books to cable television, talk radio and the Internet.
Yet, it is this conservative messaging capability –
in coordination with the Republican national political operation – that
has proved decisive in election after election, even in disputed
contests such as Florida in Election 2000 when the conservative media
quickly portrayed Bush as the legitimate winner even though Al Gore got
One of the reasons that the Democratic consultant
class neglects this glaring problem is that the consultants don’t profit
from building media infrastructure or from other nitty-gritty aspects of
prevailing in the national “war of ideas.” Even in losing, there is
money from consulting contracts and ad buys.
Obviously, during election cycles, Democratic
consultants encourage wealthy liberals and progressives to funnel money
into campaigns or into allied groups where Democratic insiders also get
a cut of the ad buys. Then, in off years, the Democratic “consultariat”
directs the money into “think tanks” where other friends and insiders
hold down high-paying jobs but don’t really do very much.
Then, when elections roll around, the Democratic
consultants are there to help pick the candidates and counsel them in
expressing safe “themes” that have been tested before focus groups
arranged by other consultants. Next, the tightly managed candidates are
guided through campaigns designed less to inspire than not to offend.
Inevitably, however, the over-coached, tongue-tied
candidate blurts out some stupid remark – even a polished candidate like
John Kerry made a clunky ill-timed comment about Dick Cheney’s gay
daughter – and the Republicans immediately go for the throat.
The Busby defeat was a kind of microcosm for this
pattern of Democratic failure.
Given the conservatives’ huge media advantage at
both national and local levels, the Republicans demonstrated how easily
they can still set the defining issues of a race, despite the country’s
general dismay over Bush’s presidency.
In the Busby-Bilbray race, the Republicans made
immigration the hot-button issue and Busby’s clumsy remark soon was
reverberating through the giant echo chamber of right-wing talk shows,
right-wing blogs and right-wing columnists.
Lacking the media artillery to fire back and having
had her fighting spirit leeched out of her by the consultants, Busby
chose not to go on the offensive and accuse the Republicans of using
their old tactics of division, racism and smear. Instead, she followed
another favorite piece of Democratic consultant advice: apologize and
“This is a classic case of how the Democratic
consultariat class loses an election,” said Brent Budowsky, a political
analyst and a former aide to Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Rep. Bill
Budowsky said the Busby race again revealed the
national Democrats’ failure to match up with the Republicans across the
board, from their campaign spending to “their aggressive commitment to
every aspect of the election machinery and a convincing message
necessary to win.”
“I hope this creates an uprising of Democrats all
over the country demanding a party that will take a courageous case to
the country and will fight the fight worthy of the crisis that America
faces,” Budowsky said. [For more on Budowsky’s thinking, see “Vote
2006: For Whom the Bell Tolls.”]
Sometimes, when I talk to or e-mail with Americans
around the country, they are perplexed as to why Democratic candidates
always seem to turn to the same national consultants who lead the party
to defeat time and again.
The answer, I think, is that it makes the
candidates, especially novices, feel less susceptible to ridicule when
they put themselves in the hands of a big-name Democratic consultant.
The thinking seems to be that these guys must know best and at least the
chance of a total fiasco will be minimized.
In other words, the Democratic candidates end up
competing less to win than to avoid being embarrassed.
But after the Democrats have done all their careful
polling and tested how to “frame” issues with focus groups, the overall
impression left behind by their consultant-managed candidates is that
these people don’t really believe in much of anything and inevitably
they still get beaten up. By election day, the Democratic base is
usually demoralized and the Republicans are energized.
A similar pattern applies to the dwindling number
of Democrats who manage to win and go to Washington. Given the clout and
cruelty of the conservative news media – and the me-too conformity of
the mainstream press – many Democratic officeholders feel that to be
“taken seriously,” they must hedge or “triangulate” their views even
between elections. That’s how they get onto the Sunday talk shows and
are treated with “respect.”
On the other hand, Republicans harbor no similar
fears and indeed seem to relish taking the fight to even mildly
skeptical mainstream talk show hosts, who, in turn, must fear for their
careers if they are targeted as “liberal” by angry and well-organized
Yet, as the Busby defeat has again demonstrated,
the national Democrats don’t seem to have any clue how to break this
The conservatives keep building up their media
infrastructure; the Republicans exploit this advantage with an
instantaneous message machine that keeps them plugged into their backers
and the broader electorate; the GOP then puts into play a powerful wedge
issue in the weeks before the election; the missteps of the Democrats –
no matter how minor – are blared out to voters.
Conversely, the liberals/progressives continue to
shun any major funding for media content and outlets; the Democratic
consultants spend the bulk of available money on devising strategies to
finesse the conservative dominance, mostly by filtering campaign
“themes” through focus groups; Democrats then deploy ads that leave even
their core supporters uninspired; and the candidates usually stumble to
Breaking the Cycle
Another question I’m often asked is how can
Americans, who are alarmed by the drift of their country, change this
dynamic. Not surprisingly, my answer is usually about the need to build
an honest media infrastructure that will engage the American people with
well-reported information on issues that are vital to the country.
But given the current media imbalance to the Right,
there is also a desperate need to level the playing field by having more
media outlets that present views more from the Left side of the
Liberals and progressives simply cannot count on
the mainstream news media to act as a counterweight to conservative news
outlets. That is not in the job description of mainstream journalists,
who understand that their careers will be better served if they tilt
Right and avoid getting stuck with the “liberal” label.
Since 2004, the Left has benefited somewhat from
the creation of Air America Radio and the emergence of progressive talk
stations around the country. But those cash-strapped start-ups never had
the strong backing of wealthy liberals and thus have been forced to
skimp on advertising and production of original news content.
In the book, The Road to Air America,
Sheldon Drobny, one of the liberal radio network’s founders, described
the resistance he encountered from “limousine liberals” in California
and elsewhere while trying to raise money for the project. “It was too
risky an investment for most people’s taste,” Drobny wrote.
Another problem was that wealthy liberals were
listening to the same Democratic consultant class that had led the party
to lose control of the entire U.S. government – from the White House to
Congress to the courts. Like political candidates, wealthy liberals felt
safer giving money to operations run by “credentialed” Democratic
This “consultariat” mostly disparaged investments
in media and directed money instead to “think tanks” where the
consultants and many of their friends were kept in high-paying jobs.
They apparently are awaiting a Republican crackup like the one in 1992
when Ross Perot siphoned enough votes away from George H.W. Bush for
Bill Clinton to slip into the White House.
So, instead of investing in promising Internet
sites or improving the “progressive” content on radio and TV, liberal
money flowed overwhelmingly into the hands of the same ol’ Democratic
Perhaps, the Busby defeat finally will serve as a
wake-up call to the Democratic Party to throw off the consultariat’s
cold hand of failure and turn to candidates who are not afraid to
address the pressing issues of war and democracy now confronting the
Perhaps, money will be redirected to groups and
institutions that are leading these fights – and away from the “think
tanks” and consulting firms that have a vested interest in maintaining
the Democratic Party as little more than a junior partner in a
Republican one-party state.
Perhaps it is still not too late for Election 2006
to be a meaningful referendum on where George W. Bush’s authoritarian
form of government is leading America.