Why Democrats Lose
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. He is the editor of The Consortium for Independent Journalism , from which this article is excerpted.
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 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 for GOP lobbyist Brian Bilbray after conservative media outlets trumpeted a verbal blunder by Democratic challenger Francine Busby. 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.” She quickly clarified her meaning, saying, “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.
National Democratic consultants will likely point to Busby’s failure as a candidate or the fact that the Republican Congressional Committee pumped more than $4.5 million into the district. Democratic consultants almost never mention 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.
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.
As conservatives keep building up their media infrastructure, 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, and the missteps of the Democrats—no matter how minor—are blared out to voters.
Conversely, liberals and 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.
Given the current media imbalance to the right, there is 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.
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.