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 whats becoming a nasty
guerrilla war in Iraq.
Bushs flight-suit scene could become a
reminder of Bushs reckless over-confidence in declaring "Mission
Accomplished," much as the image of Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank came to
represent the Democratic nominees 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,
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 Bushs
cover-up of that intelligence failure may turn Bushs 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 Clintons 22 million new jobs and record surpluses Bush
might reasonably be seen as a very vulnerable incumbent.
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 Bushs record. The pro-Bush side either exercises direct
control over important media outlets such as Fox News, AM talk radio, the Wall
Street Journals editorial page, the Weekly Standard and the Washington Times
or can intimidate mainstream journalists who fear career consequences from criticizing
So, for months now, the public has been conditioned to believe in Bushs
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 Bushs 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 wont accept responsibility
for his actions and will say or do anything to stay in office. [For details about the Iraq
exaggerations, see Consortiumnews.coms "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, Bushs $3 trillion in tax cuts and the struggling economy are pushing the
federal government deeper and deeper into the red. This years 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 nations 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
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
Committees 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 Posts 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 Hollingss "Delusional on the Deficit," Washington
Post, June 19, 2003]
The ocean of red ink, which now stretches as far as the eye can see, also means the
U.S. government wont 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.
Bushs words rarely fit with the reality on the ground, especially given cutbacks
forced on the states by the economy and Bushs refusal to provide more than token
federal assistance. Many educators, for instance, say that without proper funding, the
federal requirements in Bushs 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, Bushs "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
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 doesnt fit with Bushs political
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. Thats
because Bushs 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.
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
Though the Lyin' Al attack line was largely based on the medias 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
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.coms "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
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 Pacificas
"Democracy Now" with Amy Goodman, is the most advanced project though its
audience is tiny compared to those reached by conservative radio and TV.
While the media issue is slowly addressed by liberals, the immediate threat to
Democrats is that the "theme" of Bushs 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 arent thrilled with Bushs leadership.
While Bushs 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. Its also hard to calculate how much of Bushs approval ratings
derive from the lingering trauma of Sept. 11 and the nations 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 hes
better at smashing things, like Iraqs 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.
Clintons 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.
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 fathers seat after he won the governors 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 Bonds seat in Missouri (though the Democrats are having a
terrible time finding a candidate), Jim Bunnings seat in Kentucky (where Democratic
Gov. Paul Pattons sex scandal appears to have spared Bunning a serious reelection
fight), and Arlen Spectors 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.