The Washington Post put the mystery on Page One
with the headline, “Unexpectedly, Capitol Hill Democrats Stand Firm.”
[April 25, 2005]
The Post story said, “Democrats were supposed to
enter the 109th Congress meek and cowed, demoralized by
November’s election losses and ready to cut deals with Republicans who
threatened further campaigns against ‘obstructionists.’ But House and
Senate Democrats have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”
The mystery is, how did this happen? How did the
Democrats find their voice and gain the upper hand over Bush on a number
of issues: Social Security, his right-wing judicial appointments, the
Terri Schiavo case, Tom DeLay’s ethics mess and the John Bolton
nomination? What has caused the Democrats to grow a new spine?
Certainly part of the explanation is Republican
miscalculation, starting with Bush’s post-election decision to make
partial privatization of Social Security his major domestic policy
initiative. Bush also brazenly named the undiplomatic Bolton to a
sensitive diplomatic job as U.N. ambassador.
Congressional Republicans overplayed their hand,
too. They changed the ethics process to protect House Majority Leader
DeLay from more reprimands. They appeared to pander to the Christian
Right by intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman
whose feeding tube was removed. The Republicans even let the Schiavo
debacle taint the battle over confirming right-wing judges.
But another part of the answer lies with the
Democrats. They appear less defensive, more willing to make their
arguments without so many equivocations. Though there are still
flashbacks to the old Democrats – for instance, Sen. Joe Biden’s
reference to Alberto Gonzales as “old buddy” at the Attorney General’s
confirmation hearing – those examples are rarer.
One explanation for the Democrats’ turnabout is the
rise of progressive media, most notably progressive AM talk radio which
has expanded rapidly over the past several months. Finally, Democratic
leaders can go on sympathetic radio shows and make their case directly
Before, Democrats almost always would find
themselves speaking in unfriendly territory. Sometimes they would appear
on conservative media, such as Fox News, or they’d face mainstream
pundits eager to prove they weren’t liberal by being tougher on
Democrats than Republicans, the likes of NBC’s Tim Russert.
Faced with hostile questioning, national Democrats
often sought a safe middle ground, which made them look weak or
indecisive, opening them to attacks as “flip-floppers” or “lacking
conviction.” On the other hand, Republicans could count on friendly
receptions from conservative hosts and mostly deferential treatment on
For more than a decade now, conservative talk radio
has had the Republicans’ back. Republicans could count on Rush Limbaugh,
Sean Hannity, et al to go out on the nation’s air waves and
organize support for conservative positions. Whenever Republicans were
in a tough spot, they knew they had defenders.
That, in turn, meant Republicans had more margin of
error when making their case. An overstatement – or even an outright
falsehood – wouldn’t be a political death knell. So, Bush could talk
loosely about Democratic senators as “not interested in the security of
the American people” or pretend that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had barred
U.N. weapons inspectors before the war and expect little fallout. [See
on the Ballot.”]
By contrast, Democrats could expect any clumsy
remark to be turned into a huge controversy both by mainstream and
conservative news outlets. In Campaign 2004, John Kerry got pummeled for
saying that he had supported one version of an Iraq War appropriations
bill but opposed another, when it was barely mentioned that Bush had
opposed the first version and supported the second.
Four years earlier, Al Gore saw his words twisted
beyond recognition to make him out to be a liar or delusional, a crucial
factor in Election 2000. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media.”] During the run-up to war in Iraq, Gore was
savaged again for his thoughtful critiques of Bush’s unilateralist
foreign policy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics
The liberals simply lacked a media that could
defend Democrats when they took tough stands or when they made innocent
mistakes. They were pretty much on their own, helping to explain their
But that dynamic has begun to change as more U.S.
cities get “progressive talk radio” stations, which now number more than
50. Though still far fewer than the hundreds of conservative talk radio
outlets, this “left side of the dial” is reaching critical mass,
altering the political psyche both of rank-and-file Democrats and their
With humor and without deference, the progressive
hosts give voice to the outrage that many American liberals feel over
what they regard as years of conservative highhandedness – a stolen
election in 2000, a deceptive case for war in Iraq in 2002-03, and the
smearing of Kerry’s war record in 2004.
After more than a decade of the Right’s near
monopoly of AM talk radio, listeners on the Left are taking pleasure in
hearing the conservatives get a taste of their own medicine. Hosts –
such as Stephanie Miller, Randi Rhodes, Al Franken and Ed Schultz – dish
out a mixture of satire, ridicule and information.
Leading Democratic politicians from the House and
Senate are lining up as guests, but now they are addressing an audience
that expects tough talk about the Republicans, not mushy rhetoric
designed not to offend.
In effect, a political market is emerging that
rewards courageous Democrats and punishes wimpy ones. That is why
references to Sen. Joe Lieberman bring derisive laughter on progressive
talk radio shows because he is viewed as an archetype of the Democrat
who seeks acceptance from the Brit Humes and Tim Russerts.
Liberalism also has gained media traction through
the emergence of irreverent Internet sites, distribution of progressive
documentaries on DVDs, and the satire of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,”
which pokes fun at both the Bush administration and the national news
For the first time in memory, many Americans are
hearing coherent and consistent arguments from progressives. It’s
suddenly cool to stand up to Bush and to recognize the phoniness of the
The lesson for progressive leaders would seem to be
that media holds a huge potential for energizing liberals, challenging
the Bush administration and reaching out to moderate Americans who are
growing more alarmed over right-wing radicalism. Yet, despite this
opportunity, many leading figures on the Left remain resistant to
expanding the progressive media effort.
This attitude is not new. A year ago, most major
funders on the Left disparaged plans for “progressive talk radio” and
predicted it would fail, a position that almost became a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Hampered by a shortage of capital, Air America Radio struggled
to achieve liftoff, preventing it from having much effect on Campaign
But Air America scored strong ratings in the few
markets where its programming was on the air, giving the “progressive
talk radio” movement an important boost in early 2005.
Yet, today, many of the same figures in the
“progressive establishment” still spurn media initiatives. These funders
seem stuck in the Left’s old rhetoric, which valued slogans such as
“think globally, act locally” and “all politics is local.”
So, rather than invest in media that has the
potential to build a national movement, the “progressive establishment”
continues to sink its resources into grassroots “local” organizing, a
strategy that has dominated the Left’s approach to politics over the
past quarter century.
During that same time, the Right has relied heavily
on media to gain political dominance, especially in the nation’s
heartland and increasingly with working-class Americans, even though
their financial interests tend to suffer under conservative policies.
One of the seldom-acknowledged explanations for
that political trend is the fact that the Right’s media clout in Middle
America is even more pronounced than in urban centers on the East and
West coasts. For years, all these Middle Americans heard on their car
radios was how evil liberals were and how Democrats weren’t “real
Not surprisingly, this nearly unchallenged
bombardment influenced how Americans thought and voted. To survive,
Democratic politicians distanced themselves from liberal positions
although that often was not enough to spare them from defeat. [For more
on the conservative media strategy, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Now, the media tide is showing signs of shifting.
Progressives on talk radio are defending liberal values and criticizing
conservative hypocrisy. Emboldened, Democratic politicians are starting
to find their voice, too, and the Republicans have begun to stumble.
Progressives, who have long puzzled over how to get
the Democrats to fight back, are discovering that relatively minor
investments in media can bring major returns in convincing Democrats
that there is a future in standing up to Republicans.
Ironically, however, the “progressive
establishment” may ultimately save the conservatives’ hide by balking at
plans for more media expansion and by refusing to learn lessons from the
Mystery of the Democrats’ New Spine.