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How Democrats Should Talk

Washington liberals and Democrats have made many arguments about what they need to do as they try to recover from the low point of their support among the public during the Bush years in 2002 and 2003 and climb toward renewed dominance. Most of these arguments have centered on the big questions of ideology and vision—whether the times demand a calibrated centrism or a bolder liberalism of big plans and ideas. But other arguments, put forward in many a blog post, have ignored ideology and focused more on the question of tactics.

One can dismiss this as superficial if one wishes, but it’s demonstrably the case that the gulf between the two parties is frequently greatest in tactical matters. Considerably fewer than 50 percent of Americans are as conservative as George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney; yet somehow they got 52 percent of the voters to support the administration in 2004. That victory had many sources, but surely high on the list were the Bush campaign’s effective verbal assaults on John Kerry’s character—and not all of them, incidentally, calumnious; “flip-flopper,” alas, wasn’t really a false charge. Even so, the election was close enough that a smarter Kerry campaign would have won, whatever the Democrats’ long-running internal ideological divisions. So tactics matter.

Specifically, the tactical debate has been about the degree to which liberals ought to mimic the strategies that have succeeded in recent history for the right. Liberals (myself included) have often observed that conservatives and Republicans have done two things far more effectively than liberals and Democrats during the last thirty years. First, they have built an extensive idea-and-messaging network since the early 1970s, when they concluded that “the American economic system is under broad attack,” in the words of the Powell Memorandum of 1971, the founding document of the new conservative Republican strategy.1 Second, they have done a much better job of “packaging” both their ideas and, with a small number of obvious exceptions, such as Bob Dole, their candidates for high office. This has caused Democratic candidates to lose even when they appeared to be positioned for victory—Michael Dukakis and Al Gore, for example—and even when majorities expressed a repeated preference for or at least openness to liberal Democratic views.2 If “our side,” the argument has gone, could reproduce the communications networks of the conservative Republicans and duplicate their ruthless creativity in the marketing of policies and candidates, much that has ailed liberalism would be alleviated. The victories in last fall’s elections have lessened the panic that was evident after the 2004 elections but have by no means relieved it entirely; most observers agree that Democrats won last fall chiefly by default and not because of any great tactical brilliance on their part.

A Democratic effort to reproduce Republican campaign methods is, sort of, underway. A consortium of liberal multimillionaires founded in 2005, the Democracy Alliance, has pooled its money for the purpose of backing existing and new ventures that might collectively amount to something like a progressive message machine. Its members include around a hundred of the country’s richest donors, who each agree to spend at least $200,000 a year on Democratic and liberal organizations that have received the alliance’s endorsement. However, it has been wracked by internal divisions, both ideological and strategic, and has thus far proved a big disappointment.3 In its first two years, the alliance arranged for some $50 million to be distributed to a smattering of think tanks and organizations, including the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America, the media watchdog organization founded by ex-conservative David Brock. But the amount is a pittance in comparison to the financial resources of the group’s members and to the amount that the benefactors of the right invest in political action—about $300 million a year on think tanks, single-issue advocacy groups, press and television, training institutes, and the like, according to the estimate of Rob Stein, the man who founded the alliance but was pushed out of its leadership position in 2005 (although he still has a role in the alliance).4 It will be years before the alliance or some successor confederation is funneling that sort of money into progressive politics.

Duplicating conservative methods for marketing candidates could be achieved more quickly, but it is an even trickier matter, since it presents not only an organizational challenge but a moral one. During campaigns or while attempting to govern, should liberals and Democrats engage in the moral equivalent of Willie Horton ads and lies about an opponent’s war record and false claims about weapons of mass destruction? Most liberals would say “no,” but few choices in the world of politics are quite as stark as the above three examples. Most would also agree that Democrats, particularly in the last two presidential campaigns, have let themselves be bullied by conservative attacks and need to play a better game of hardball. This was most notable in Kerry’s failure to respond to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conscious decision made by his campaign in the belief that the group’s charges wouldn’t stick.5

By definition, though, a more aggressive game means a kind of politics that goes against liberal instincts and preferences. Democrats are certainly not above naked pandering or delivering the occasional cheap shot. For example, in 2004, some Democratic arguments against appropriating money for Iraq—arguments often made by legislators who voted for the war in the first place—were rooted in a simple-minded nativism (why are we spending $87 billion there when we have so many needs here?). But the fact is that for the most part, liberals would prefer that working- and middle-class Americans set aside “irrelevant” matters like the Swift-Boaters’ charges or the famous “Harry and Louise” ads, backed by the insurance industry in 1993, which were similarly deceitful and helped derail the Clinton health care plan. Instead they hope that voters will reason their way toward the conclusion that the Democrats better represent their interests. In recent years, this hasn’t worked out so well.

These days in Washington, when talk turns to the 2008 presidential campaign, it is the conservatives who tend to be morose and the liberals upbeat. Those states of mind could, and should, intensify in coming months, since things seem likely to get even worse for Republicans, both with regard to Iraq and the scandal involving the firings of the eight US attorneys, to name the two most embarrassing issues. But Democratic partisans have seen their leaders snatch defeat from the jaws of victory enough times in presidential elections to know that overconfidence is ill-advised. One question, then, is whether the Republicans’ modus operandi of smearing opponents and selling their own “product” with carefully tested and misleading rhetoric has exhausted itself along with the Bush administration. A second is whether Democrats have learned anything from the tactical errors they made in 2000 and 2004 and can present themselves in a way that answers conservative attacks, puts forth their own vision in more convincing ways, and accomplishes both of those without debasing political discourse even further.

As guides to conservative cleverness in packaging candidates, few are more useful, in their very different ways, than Frank Rich and Frank Luntz. Rich’s weekly columns in the Sunday New York Times provide the best glimpse we have into how, to paraphrase Bismarck, the sausages of modern conservatism are made. His ear for the self-incriminating quote, his Didionesque command of detail, and the controlled anger of his prose make reading the news you thought you knew (he mostly comments on the biggest story of the previous week) into a fresh and even startling experience.

So it is a compliment to say that The Greatest Story Ever Sold reads like one long, blistering Rich column. As the subtitle suggests, the book is a history, fully documented and footnoted, of the Bush administration’s lies and diversions, chiefly about Iraq, but covering as well the bungling of Hurricane Katrina, the Enron debacle, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the smearing of her husband, Joe Wilson, among other matters. As he does in his columns, Rich catches the small but telling piece of information that escaped the notice of the average or even of the obsessive reader—for example, the fact that, to build the $200,000 stage set for General Tommy Franks in Qatar from which he would brief the media on the Iraq war, the Pentagon hired the illusionist David Blaine.

Rich, a former theater critic, is particularly good, in fact, on the question of sets and backdrops, which in its early days the Bush administration used to such Napoleonic effect to lead television viewers toward the desired conclusion. Rich documents the ways that Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer who worked for the Republican propaganda machine, created many of the backdrops against which Bush delivered key speeches. It took a special sort of chutzpah in the summer of 2002, during the Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and other scandals—many of them compounded by Republican-inspired legislation to limit shareholder lawsuits or by lax enforcement by Bush’s Securities and Exchange Commission—to shove Bush in front of a backdrop for a speech that said, over and over, “Corporate Responsibility,” or one, at an economic forum in Waco, Texas, that repeated the phrase “Strengthening Our Economy.”

For Bush’s speech on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Sforza and his team settled on Ellis Island, positioning cameras so that the Statue of Liberty would loom in the background. Rich describes how Sforza rented “three barges’ worth of giant Musco lights, like those used to bathe sports stadiums in a twinkling glow for prime-time television, and put them at the base of the statue, pointed upward to illuminate its entire height.” It is no surprise that Sforza visited the USS Abraham Lincoln, scene of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, days before Bush landed on the carrier in his pilot’s jumpsuit. Sforza looked over the deck to find the most favorable camera angles.

Rich’s book is really a story of two cultures that fed symbiotically on each other to produce the illusion of leadership. The first culture, of course, is that of the Bush administration itself, for whom symbolism means practically everything. During Bush’s reelection campaign, when hellish images from Iraq were appearing with increasing frequency, Rich took note of Karl Rove’s reflections on the Lincoln stunt:

Through the cruel accident of timing,…troubling images from Iraq were in turn cross-cut on television with a retread of Bush standing under the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner of a year earlier. “I wish the banner was not up there,” Karl Rove told a newspaper editorial board in the swing state of Ohio. Not “I wish that we had planned for the dangers of post-Saddam Iraq before recklessly throwing underprepared and underprotected Americans into harm’s way.” No, Rove had his eye on the big picture: better political image management through better set design…. If only that [banner] on the USS Lincoln had said STRENGTHENING IRAQ, everything would be hunky-dory now.

  1. 1

    The memorandum was written in 1971 by Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer, just two months before he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. Powell had been asked by the head of the US Chamber of Commerce how corporate America should respond to liberal and radi-cal assaults that, as business saw it, threatened the very existence of the free-enterprise system. Powell’s six thousand-word response advised that corporate America should invest heavily in politics. Its recommendations—among them underwriting scholars, creating media watchdog organizations, and fighting liberal influence in the academy and the courts—have been put into effect with uncanny precision. Googling “Powell Memorandum” or “Powell Memo” will yield several sites on which one can read the text and various assessments of its influence.

  2. 2

    For example, a much-discussed Pew survey from March 22 shows that the percentage of Americans agreeing with the statement “government should take care of people who can’t care for them-selves” has been above 60 percent, and climbing, since 1999; the same goes for the statement that government should “guarantee food and shelter for all.” See people-press.org/reports/pdf/312 .pdf.

  3. 3

    See Ari Berman, “Big $$ for Progressive Politics,” The Nation, September 28, 2006, at www.thenation.com/doc- 20061016/berman, for a devastating dissection of the group’s confusion and infighting.

  4. 4

    In 2003, Stein produced a PowerPoint presentation called “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix,” in which he documented the major conservative groups, the “bankers” who dictated where money should go, and the ways in which the message machine had altered political debate. It became a sort of Rosetta Stone for liberals. He showed it to me over lunch in the summer of 2004.

  5. 5

    In his book Politics Lost (Doubleday, 2006), Joe Klein reports that Bob Shrum, Kerry’s media adviser, feared that “the Republicans were trying to get them to chase another rabbit,” and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill thought “an aggressive response would only balloon the story.” Shrum also didn’t want to spend money on television ads in August, when the Swift Boat group began its campaign.

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