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#1 Get an absentee ballot or find out if you can vote early in person.
#2 Volunteer to work in a swing state.
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#4 Take election day off. Travel or make phone calls to swing states.
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#6 Become a poll monitor to make sure that every vote counts.
#7 Make this your mantra, "If Democrats vote, Democrats win." Did I say work your butt off?

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Featured Article
November 2002
How the Republicans Got Their Groove Back

 

 

On election night, I was outside the restaurant where Jean Shaheen the New Hampshire Democratic candidate for the Senate had just given her concession speech. While standing there, I overheard a Democratic operative talking on his cell phone about the national election results. "It just doesn't make sense," he exclaimed, "It's like the sky opened up and they (the GOP) got everything."

While I would not have described it in such apocalyptic overtones, I too found it hard to fathom the election results. With seven Senate races that were deemed "too close to call" on the day before the election, it seemed almost uncanny that the Democrats lost all but one of them. And given these odds it was additionally hard to understand that of the six seats the Democrats lost, only the race in Missouri was a near tie, with the Republicans winning the other five races by three to 12 percentage points.

By now, every columnist worth their salt has offered their insight into why the Democrats lost. While individual writers have disagreed about whether the Democrats made mistakes by not going further to the left; whether they found fault with the Democratic leadership or with individual candidates; or to what extent they felt Bush's intense campaigning affected the results; the common thread of most of these commentaries was that the Democrats did so poorly because they failed to define their message.

Looking back, it's easy to see how the Democrat’s lack of focus developed. In the last two sessions of Congress rather than offering the strong voice of the loyal opposition, most (but not all) Democrats, seemed only capable of timidly mouthing the mildest criticism of the administration. And many (but not all) Democrats seemed easily placated by winning small concessions that once granted sometimes spurred them to be the champions of ideas they originally thought were very bad. But the results of the 2002 elections cannot be traced solely to the Democrat’s tendency to waffle on the issues or in their failure to take tough stands along strict party lines. The Republican’s triumphed because they focused on the Democrat’s weaknesses and succeeded in exploiting them.

Turn Your Strengths into Your Enemy’s Weaknesses

In the spring of 2002, the campaign notes of Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, were somehow misplaced and made their way into the news. In his notes, Rove emphasized that Republicans could triumph in the 2002 midterms by sticking to patriotic and military themes. Although some Democrats were taken aback by Rove's planned strategy to politicize patriotism; it's unlikely that most of the public took notice of this story since it never made front page news.

What did catch people's attention in the spring and summer of 2002 were the "leaked" intelligence reports about a potential war with Iraq that began to make front page news regularly. These reports usually offered little discussion about why we should invade Iraq, but instead focused on the details of how we should invade; how many casualties we should expect and what Hussein might do if he was attacked.

Early on, Bush went on record stating that Iraq was a major threat and proclaimed that he didn't need permission from Congress, the U.N. or any U.S. allies to preemptively attack any nation that threatened national security. Although outside of the U.S. most of the world thought Bush’s statements were outlandish and perhaps even immature, Bush stood his ground, at least for the first few months.

Because Bush stood tough initially, it was a surprise in late August, when he said he was open to advice from all sides before he made a decision. Then in early September, when Bush went before the U.N. to ask the security counsel to pass a resolution for continued Iraqi arms inspections, he took nearly everyone by surprise. No one was more surprised than the Democratic members of Congress who had all along been saying that it was unseemly and perhaps illegal for a President to launch an attack without first consulting them. Soon after his U.N. speech, Bush asked Congress to urgently consider his proposals and the tables were turned. Now Bush not only wanted the opinion of Congress, he wanted it in a hurry, before they recessed in less than three weeks.

Because there had been talk about invading Iraq for months, it's likely that many people had already become inured to the idea that war was inevitable. The people who still believed war could be avoided placed a lot of weight on influencing Congress's decision. Since Republicans were expected to vote unanimously with whatever Bush put forward, anti-war activists attempted to exert pressure on Democrats urging them to stand firm in opposing the invasion. On the grassroots level, within a matter of days, a tremendously successful effort was launched to get people to write Congress and sign petitions against the war. As a measure of this success, the petition launched by Moveon.org, for example, gathered nearly a quarter of a million signatures in a little more than a week. AS further signs of this success, most of the letters received by Congress about Iraq were overwhelmingly against the war; with Barbara Boxer, Senator from California; for example, noting that the ratio of letters she received was nearly 250 against the war to 1 in favor.

Make Your Enemies Seem Unprincipled

Some Democrats cried foul when Bush demanded such rapid action on Iraq. Not only was the proposal to authorize force against Iraq an extremely complicated issue, rushing it through before Congress’s recess would curtail all other pending legislation on the very brink of an election. Some Democrats accused Bush of politicizing national security and trying to make the issue of Iraq a black and white choice of patriotism versus partisanship. But whether they spoke out about this or not, I think most Democrats knew that they had already been had; they sensed that Bush had already succeeded in politicizing the war on terror and in linking it with an invasion of Iraq. Most Democrats probably knew that they were in a no win situation: if they voted the way their constituents had been urging them, they risked appearing unpatriotic and if they voted the way they perceived the majority of Americans felt (the majority that don’t write letters) they risked alienating their base.

Bush's initial request for war powers was so broadly worded that it never would have passed the Senate. Not only did he want a blank check to invade Iraq that would not require any additional congressional oversight; in addition he wanted their approval to attack any other country that was deemed a threat. For this reason the majority of the Senate debate focused on making Bush’s request more specific to Iraq and requiring that an invasion include at least some Congressional oversight. Unfortunately the discussion as to why we should invade Iraq in the first place was for the most part lost in the process.

All along, Democrats may have correctly sensed that an invasion would be mounted with or without their approval and that they would risk appearing unpatriotic if they voted against it. So after they succeeded in toning down Bush's wish list to be more specific to Iraq, they may have felt a little more easy about voting in favor of possible military action after giving Hussein one more chance at inspections. At the roll call for the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq...", slightly more than half of the Democrats joined all of the Republicans by voting in it's favor. It seems clear that the politics of the upcoming elections played a significant, since all of the Democratic Senators in tight bids for reelection, except Paul Wellstone, voted to pass the bill.

The fact that so many Democrats "defected" from standing tough against Bush's invasion plans, literally broke the spirit of many grassroots Democratic and antiwar activists. Some activists lamented that "democracy was dead" and then became apathetic, while others launched campaigns to defeat Democratic Senators who voted in favor of the bill. Other activists pointed out that despite how disappointing some Democrats were, it would be worse for Bush to control the Senate and suggested that voters hold their noses and vote Democratic anyway. Of course none of these developments provided good rallying cries to get people to the polls or much less motivate them to volunteer for campaigns.

Follow a Master Plan

Think about it for a moment. In the spring of 2002, why should we be have been discussing the invasion of Iraq in the first place? Would the invasion of Iraq really help us win the "war on terror"? Although there were suspicions in the beginning, no one had been able to link the events of September 11th with Iraq, except by errantly citing reports that Muhammad Atta met in April of 2001 with a member of the Iraqi consulate in Prague; a report that has since been denied even by the CIA. Not satisfied with the CIA's overall intelligence on Iraq, the Pentagon launched it's own investigation into an Iraq/Al Queda connection and even though they were looking specifically for such an implication, they too came up empty.

Every red blooded American knows that Saddam Hussein is an evil madman, but why invade now? In promoting Bush's invasion plans, the administration repeatedly alleged that Hussein was working with Al Queda, but offered absolutely no new evidence. It was also alleged that Hussein had been developing nuclear weapons, yet no evidence of this allegation was offered either. In fact, members of Congress who sat on the National Security Committee, who are privy to top secret information, concluded that there was no compelling evidence to show that Iraq was currently any more of a threat to the U.S. than it was 10 years ago. So why invade now?

The answer to this question can be most readily found within the Bush administration itself. Even before Bush took office there was a predisposition to invade Iraq by many individuals who would later become key figures in Bush’s administration. In September of 2000, a report called "Rebuilding America's Defense: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century," was prepared for Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others who would later take jobs with Bush’s administration. In their preface, the authors of this report acknowledge the influence of a 1992 Defense Department report drafted by Wolfowitz when he was Defense Undersecretary for Policy and when Cheney was the Secretary of Defense.

The September 2000 report itself lays out a plan for permanent U.S. military and economic domination of every region on the globe. On the subject of Iraq it notes that "The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." To paraphrase this finding: the failure to remove Hussein during the Gulf War could be used as the justification for an invasion of Iraq, but the real purpose of an invasion would be the more pragmatic goal of creating more U.S. military bases in the region. In other words, the fact that Hussein remained in office by itself was enough of an excuse for military action.

As further evidence of the predisposition against Iraq, perhaps a little known fact is that immediately after the attacks of September 11th, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld asked for battle plans to be drawn up on Iraq. When Rumsfeld was later told that Iraq was not to blame for the attacks, he told his people to keep drawing up the plans anyway. When the Anthrax killer found his first victim, the initial hunch of the administration was that Iraq was somehow responsible. When tests on the Anthrax contained in the letters revealed that it was not of a variety known in Iraq, but instead a strain used in U.S. research and it became clear that the Anthrax killer was probably an American researcher, the investigation stopped short. But despite the facts, the suspicions about Iraq remained.

To summarize: within the Bush administration, even before their first days in power, there had always been both the motive and the rationale to invade Iraq. The events of 9/11 worked to add a sense of urgency to this predisposition by offering both a window of opportunity and a stronger motive to make this confrontation seemingly inevitable. Yet there was a more compelling reason to talk about invading Iraq in the summer of 2002 than can be explained by these predilections alone. And sadly this had more to do with political strategy than it did with national security.

Stay on Message

It was an extremely calculated move, when in his 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "Axis of Evil". If the justification for this title was, as he said, that these countries exported terrorism, Bush's speechwriter's could have been more accurate if they instead mentioned Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan. Of course these countries were not named, not only because it would have had adverse consequences on important economic and diplomatic ties, but moreover such a statement would have thoroughly confused most of the American people. By naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three countries with which the U.S. had unfinished business, Bush created an immediate connection in people's minds which could be corroborated by the personal experience of at least three generations.

If you wished to offer a symbol that could be used both to focus American's attention on what is wrong with the rest of the world and on what is right about America, of the three countries that Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address, Iraq is the most compelling choice. The conflicts that took place in Iran and North Korea took place too long ago to remain poignant in most people's memories and new evidence would have to have been introduced to make either of them compelling targets for military action. But Iraq was different. Not only was the previous conflict very recent in memory, more importantly the American people had already been trained to believe that Hussein was an evil mad man that should have been removed from office "dead or alive" during Bush Sr.’s Gulf War. Since the media did such a good job of demonizing Hussein the first time around, the fact that he was still in power, was enough reason for many people to desire the confrontation.

Karl Rove's strategy to campaign on military issues, leaked reports about a possible invasion of Iraq from military sources, Bush's State of the Union speech citing an "axis of evil" and Bush's initial tough stand on Iraq before relenting and asking for Congressional consent on the brink of the midterm elections; are all dots that can be connected to show how impressive the forethought and planning of the Republican party's midterm campaign strategy actually was. There are several ways to look at this conclusion.

If a pattern of direct collusion could be proven, and it could be shown that Karl Rove had a direct hand in orchestrating all or most of these events, one could conclude that a scandalous conspiracy was perpetrated against the American people. If you choose to make a less ambitious deduction, you might conclude with what is pretty much obvious anyway: that the Bush administration is simply very good at having one hand wash the other. In other words, the intelligence leaks about Iraq may not have all been planned ahead, but once in the public view, the implications were neatly worked into the administration's rhetoric. The growing urgency about Iraq may not have been part of a larger plan but happened to work well at distracting the public from a worsening economy. Bush's "axis of evil" comment may have been made simply to offer a similar distraction from the fact that Osama bin Laden was still at large and yet the implication of Iraq played perfectly into the events that followed.

My own take on these turns of events, short of citing an absolute conspiracy, is to believe that they were more by plan than by accident. Yet even if you take the milder conclusion that I have suggested, you would still have to say that the proposed war on Iraq during 2002 was one of the greatest triumphs by an opportunistic public relations campaign in recent history. Whichever explanation you prefer, it’s clear that Karl Rove deserves a lot of the credit.

Learn to Spin the Future

Going into the 2002 election cycle, no one would have thought that a war with Iraq would come to dominate the political dialogue. And yet the efforts of the Bush administration combined with media coverage worked to push this issue to the forefront. In retrospect, the Iraq issue serves as a clear example of how past history, unfolding current events and the effect of the media can be manipulated to create false issues that can be calculated to have a particular political effect.

Over the last 30 years, conservative Republicans have become the masters of this strategy. Since the days of Nixon, right wing foundations have spent millions in promoting right wing and conservative agendas. As a tactical means, much of this effort has focused on manipulating mainstream as a means to influence popular opinion. Not only have conservative causes been successful in influencing the media, they have in some cases been able to make a lot of money in the process. For example, the Fox News Corporation has become the envy of all of the other news networks, with even CNN increasingly trying to emulate Fox’s particular style of "info-tainment". Although Fox News claims to be "fair and balanced", this statement is put forward only to cover up the fact that in both it’s spin and in it’s choice of coverage, Fox News is overall the clear champion of right wing and conservative causes.

Over the years, the infiltration of the media by right wing voices has been tremendously successful. While on the surface, most news sources might seem "middle of the road"; at the same time it is extremely easy to point out the popularity of conservative and right wing pundits. On the other hand, the liberal point of view (except in the op-ed pages of some newspapers) seems to be almost non-existent. The fact that the myth of the "liberal media" still remains a popular misconception only serves to reinforce this disparity and influences most of the media to actually shy away from the liberal point of view entirely.

The effect of the 9/11 attacks on America served to accentuate the media’s drift toward a conservative hegemony. Soon after the attacks, the media was put on notice by Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and others, that it must censor itself or be guilty of aiding the enemy in wartime. Quickly, all dissent went from being labeled as simply partisan to being labeled as un-patriotic, un-American and perhaps even treasonous. In the process, the media has been increasingly relegated to towing the Republican Party line. To paraphrase Dan Rather’s recent comments: ‘reporters, don’t report the news anymore, but instead they have become the stenographers of the government’. In the process of the media’s self-censoring, the American public is no longer exposed to the whole truth and thus they are not given enough information to make informed decisions.

Major Daily Campaign Headline: Bush vs. All the Democrats

Although the issue of Iraq co-opted nearly every other campaign issue in 2002, there were other factors that led to the Republican’s success. For one thing, no other administration in history had been more involved in a midterm election. This high level of involvement ran the gambit and included unprecedented influence by the administration in Republican primaries for the purpose of running candidates hand-picked by Rove. As another unprecedented move, all cabinet level officials were urged to take time off from their official duties to stump for fellow Republicans as well as to stage newsworthy announcements and their related photo/ops in the presence of Republican contenders as often as possible.

Bush himself made more campaign stops and covered more territory during this midterm election than any other American president. At each stop Bush spoke briefly and optimistically about the future of the American economy before launching into the body of his speech about homeland security. Bush warned his audiences that without the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the safety of all Americans remained compromised and he laid the blame for squarely at the door of Senate Democrats. By concluding that the only way he could protect America was to have a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, Bush succeeded in making the issue of Homeland Security into a compelling national campaign issue.

The Democrats on the other hand failed to find a unified campaign theme. While they hoped the sagging economy might help propel them to victory, they didn’t offer any proposals to counter those of the administration. On the economy, they were already severely divided since some Democrats faulted Bush’s tax cut as being bad for the economy while others had voted for it. On the issue of making prescription drugs affordable to senior citizens, they failed to differentiate their proposals from those of the Republicans.

Perhaps the closest the Democrats came to a unifying theme was in their opposition to the privatization of Social Security. But their unified stance on this issue did nothing to help them, since all of the Republican candidates effectively wiggled out of ever having supported privatization. And they were even more effective in going on the offensive in accusing Democrats of using to scare tactics to get senior citizen’s votes.

That Republicans were unified on the issue of the military and national security, while the Democrats remained divided on most issues, was perhaps the strongest selling point in voter’s minds when they went to the polls. On the issue of the war on terrorism and homeland security, the issue where Republicans had the most strength, the most Democrats could put forward was that they supported the President on the war on terror voted for military sanctions against Iraq. At the very least, it was extremely convenient for the Republican’s that the possible invasion of Iraq came to dominate towards the end of the campaign. A yes vote on this issue seemed to work only in the favor of Republicans, while it may have had a damning effect on many Democrats.

The wisdom of Karl Rove was indeed quite wise. Even if the issue of national security was not in the forefront of people’s minds at the beginning of the campaign, it succeeded at dominating toward the end. At the very least, this gave the Republican Party bragging rights as being the party that at least stood for something, while it was unclear what the Democrats actually stood for.

Lesson Plan for 2004

The Iraq issue was not the only factor in determining voter motivation in this election, but it did help create a situation where the Republicans appeared strong and the Democrats looked weak. Although the lack of a unified message has plagued the Democratic party for many years, during this election cycle with the help of the Iraq issue, their message became so muddled that it probably caused as many voters to stay home as it did to motivate them to vote Democratic.

How the issue of Iraq played out during the midterm elections should by itself alert the Democrats to the extent that they are vulnerable to being victimized by the more robust public relations machine of the GOP. On Iraq, as on so many other issues, the Democrats were never able to put themselves into a position to do more than play defense. This predicament was not merely due to Democrats failure to control the spin, but moreover because they were unable to develop and follow a master plan, to vote based on party unity rather than on individual concerns and to take tough stands on issues rather than limit themselves to offering compromises to the Republican's unified party line.

To apply this lesson: for starters the Democrats must be willing to risk taking tough unified stands. To make this position viable, the Democratic Senators who most often vote with the Republicans somehow need to be put on notice that they must begin to align themselves more directly with the Democratic party as a whole and that to do less only allows the Republicans to make further gains on important issues.

Democrats need to more completely grasp that the media is not fair and is not balanced and in general will usually work against them. While conservatives have spent many millions of dollars to influence the media, there has been no comparable effort by liberals to counter this. Due to this disparity, the Democrats need to get smarter about getting their message out and need to make their message more pertinent and compelling. Moreover, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for someone to start floating a business plan involving the creation of a liberal leaning news network to fill in the gap of coverage that is left by conservative dominance in the mass media. Such a venture could even turn out to be quite profitable.

Democrats need to firmly grasp the fact that they have the potential to take the lead on a vast array of issues that are extremely important to the majority of Americans. And fortunately these are the same issues are also extremely important to their political base. For example: on the issues of the environment, women’s rights, civil rights, civil liberties, corporate responsibility, health care and even on gun control; the Democrats have been shown in polls to be more trusted than the Republicans. In this vein, Democrats need to learn to gain greater control over the political agenda by championing issues that are of the greatest interest to the majority of Americans.

Even if some of these proposals are radical departures from the past, if the Democrats can make compelling arguments, find effective delivery systems for their message and stand united as a party; at the very least they will get people’s attention. And even if these initiatives fail, the Democrats will at least be setting their own agenda rather than simply reacting to the agenda put forward by the opposition.

It’s too bad that the Democrats didn’t decide to go after Bush during the midterms and even a bit sad that some of them seemed to have thought that by saying they supported Bush on Iraq and on the tax cut it would somehow propel them to victory.

If Democrats had allied themselves in opposition to Bush’s record in 2002, the midterms might have turned out differently. Although it might have seemed suicidal to criticize an extremely popular president; by creating a message that highlighted Bush’s extreme environmental and diplomatic blind spots, Democrats could have collectively made enough chinks in Bush’s armor to make the case for voting Democratic as a way to insure that one party did not control all branches of government.

Because of Democratic losses in the midterms, it will be harder to challenge Bush going into the 2004 election cycle. But challenging Bush is the only thing that this coming election can really be about. By putting forward candidates that primarily agree with Bush and cannot differentiate themselves on the issues, the Democrats will make even more absurd the same nonsense that took place during the midterms. To drive this point home, imagine the absurdity of a Democratic Presidential candidate whose main campaign strategy is to tell the American people how much he likes Bush, and how much he respects his policies.

The first step of challenging Bush on the issues will be to show whom most clearly benefits and whom most clearly loses from his policies. Clearly the majority of Bush’s policies have been the greatest benefit to tax-sheltered corporations, flagrant polluters, de-regulated corporate book cookers, price gouging drug manufacturers, international treaty breakers and unilateralist diplomacy wreckers. The people who lose the most from Bush’s policies are the middle and lower classes, anyone who has to breathe the air or drink the water, anyone who needs prescription drugs and anyone with the desire for world peace and cooperation; or in other words, most of the rest of us. Although it may seem obvious who Bush allies himself with and to what extent he is willing to reward his supporters, this message has never been brought to the American people in a compelling way that would make these facts both poignant and motivational. If it could be made clear where Bush stands on the issues, it would be hard for the majority of people to continue to support him.

In 2004, Bush himself will be the most difficult issue that the Democrats will have to define. It will take a lot of work to win against such a popular President whose capable staff is in possession of such a big and powerful bag of tricks. And two years is a very short time to rise to such a momentous challenge. Yet if the Democrats can learn from the mistakes they made during the 2002 midterms and begin to create a master plan in the coming months, it is possible and even likely that they can succeed. It’s just too bad that they couldn’t agree to start working together on this earlier.

- Dean Heagle ©2004

 

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