June 7, 2006
At dinner a few weeks ago, a well-placed Republican political operative was oozing confidence about GOP prospects in the November elections, not because the voters were enamored of George W. Bush but because the Democrats and liberals had done so little to improve their ability to reach the public with their message.
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 “Duke” Cunningham.
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 points.
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 more votes.
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 retreat.
“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 Alexander.
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 conservatives.
Yet, as the Busby defeat has again demonstrated, the national Democrats don’t seem to have any clue how to break this cycle.
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 defeat.
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 political spectrum.
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 operatives.
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 consultant class.
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 United States.
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.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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.'