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Will Ferrell & ACT's Failed Logic

By Robert Parry
August 5, 2005

Two experiences midway through Campaign 2004 – one involving comedian Will Ferrell and the other billionaire George Soros – convinced me that the Democrats are doomed until they grasp how the Republicans have used media to change the rules of America’s political game.

Both moments related to the liberal political group, America Coming Together, which had spearheaded the notion that a massive voter-registration drive, combined with some targeted political ads, would pave the way for a Democratic victory. After spending almost $200 million and failing to win, ACT is now facing collapse.

While ACT can be viewed as just one more casualty of John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush, the group’s troubles also point to a deeper problem on the American Left, the reliance on “grassroots organizing” as a political cure-all while refusing to commit the resources to build a media infrastructure that can rival what the Right has created.

My Will Ferrell experience started in spring 2004 when I was shown a rough cut of the comedian reprising his “Saturday Night Live” imitation of a goofy but belligerent George W. Bush. It struck me that the skit had the makings of a devastating political commercial.

Ferrell portrayed Bush doing a manipulative campaign ad, as a crisply dressed rancher who feared horses and who used farm tools as clumsy props. Amid the stops and starts of filming the “ad,” Ferrell’s Bush would play video games, ramble on about “peace through bombs,” and snap at the off-screen director.

At one point, an exasperated “Bush” threatened the director to a fight: “What do you mean ‘cut’? Well, you can do it yourself, jackass. I’m going to fight you. Are we going to throw down right now?”

The Ferrell video was the creation of Los Angeles-based Balcony Films, which was doing work for America Coming Together (ACT). After watching the long-form version of Ferrell’s performance, I turned to the executive producer (and friend), Julie Bergman Sender, and told her that if the video were widely broadcast on American television, I couldn’t envision Bush winning.

In summer 2004, as Ferrell’s hit movie “Anchorman” was appearing in theaters, a version of the Ferrell “Bush” video was posted on the Internet and mentioned on some TV talk shows. But it was never cut into 30-second versions and was never made part of the ad buys by ACT’s sister group, the Media Fund.

Death by Consultants

A chief reason for this failure to make wider use of Ferrell’s “Bush” appeared to be that ACT and the Media Fund were dominated by traditional Democratic operatives, such as former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, Emily’s List founder Ellen Malcolm and Service Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern.

These operatives, in turn, relied on armies of consultants to vet the political commercials. The ones that survived this committee process – and then were aired mostly in battleground states – were widely criticized as safe and unimaginative.

In effect, ACT and the Media Fund were accepting the parameters of political respectability that had been shaped by the powerful conservative news media over the previous four years.

Any poking fun at Bush was deemed unpatriotic or a “hate-fest,” while ridicule of Kerry – for wind-surfing or “looking French” or supposedly lying about his Vietnam War record – was considered standard fare for political talk shows.

Soros’s Money

This failure to comprehend how the Right’s media machine had transformed American politics also was reflected in the other campaign moment that alerted me to the impending disaster for the Democrats in 2004.

That came in mid-campaign when investor George Soros said he didn’t need to spend more – beyond the $30 million or so he had already invested – because Bush’s defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Like many progressives, Soros didn’t seem to recognize how the conservative media – from newspapers to magazines to books to talk radio to television to the Internet – amounted to a powerful secret weapon for Bush.

While Soros may have considered his multi-million-dollar investment a big deal, it didn’t stack up against the tens of billions of dollars that conservatives had invested in a media infrastructure over the past three decades.

By the time, Soros realized how resilient the conservative media made Bush’s campaign – when the Hungarian-born investor toured heartland U.S. cities in October 2004 and got a personal taste of the anger that the Right can stir up – it was too late.

In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington on Oct. 28, 2004, Soros said he had embarked on the tour “because I was worried that the dramatic deterioration in Iraq did not produce the decisive lead for John Kerry that I had confidently expected.”

Even then, however, Soros had faith in ACT’s strategy – that registering more voters would still bring victory. “Although I believe that voter turnout is likely to give Kerry the victory, the race is too close for comfort,” Soros said in his speech.

But Soros’s expected outcome didn’t come to pass. Despite record voter registrations, Bush kept the White House and Republicans tightened their grip on both houses of Congress. With Bush’s nomination of John Roberts, the Right now is in position to lock down control of the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

ACT’s Fall

Despite these reversals, wealthy progressives still resist the conclusion that they must commit to a long-term project of building media as a necessary step to restore balance in the U.S. political system. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]

However, progressive funders apparently have begun to see the shortcomings of the Left’s long-standing reliance on “grassroots organizing.” Reflecting that change, Soros and other liberal benefactors have pulled back from continued funding of ACT, which is now closing its state offices and laying off nearly its entire staff.

“The news represented a long fall for ACT and its sister group, the Media Fund,” the Washington Post reported on Aug. 3. For the 2004 election, ACT and the Media Fund had raised $196.4 million, including $38.5 million from Soros and his associate, Progressive Corp. Chairman Peter Lewis. [Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2005]

ACT’s logic that had made registering voters the centerpiece of its efforts rested on the historical fact that large turnouts have tended to favor Democratic candidates. So, ACT thought, a lot of new voters should translate into a John Kerry victory.

But that logic ignored the impact of the modern conservative media that has hammered away with its political message day-in-day-out for years, not just during election cycles. So, when new voters looked around for information about the election, they were likely to hear that Kerry was a lying coward and Bush a stalwart hero.

To the chagrin of Democratic operatives, the Right’s pervasive political message persuaded many traditional Democratic voters, such as blue-collar men and suburban women, to switch allegiances. The conservative media acted like a tide that lifted all Republican boats, including many that broke loose from old Democratic moorings.

Media Crisis

Some post-election analyses noted that although both Republicans and Democrats raised about the same amount of cash – slightly more than $1 billion – the Right’s message dominance gave Bush much more bang for his bucks. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “It’s the Media, Stupid!”]

Most memorably, the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth neutralized Kerry’s Vietnam War medals with attacks on his honesty and patriotism, accusations that have since been debunked but which then resonated through the vast conservative media infrastructure and into mainstream news outlets, like CNN. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bushes Play the Traitor Card” and “Reality on the Ballot.”]

Washington Post reporters Thomas B. Edsall and James V. Grimaldi cited the first anti-Kerry Swift boat ad in August 2004, which cost only $546,000, as one of the best bargains of Campaign 2004.

“The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost effective: most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media and talk radio,” Edsall and Grimaldi wrote. [Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2004]

In August 2004, American progressives lacked a quick-response media capability that might have countered the Swift Boat attacks. Short on money and worried about giving the accusations even more exposure, the Kerry campaign held back and hoped that ACT and the Media Fund would step in.

But federal law barred coordination between campaigns and these so-called 527 organizations, ostensibly independent political groups named after a section of the Internal Revenue Service code that allowed for their creation. Plus, the Media Fund relied on 30-second ads that took too long to produce and weren’t suitable for contesting narrowly argued critiques of Kerry’s credibility.

So the lack of a progressive media that could match the conservative media in reaching the American population proved a crushing disadvantage for the Democrats.

Air America Takes Flight

In the nine months since the 2004 electoral debacle, major liberal funders have continued to drag their heels on committing to media investments. Nevertheless, the Left has been buoyed by the emergence of “progressive talk radio,” which first surfaced in spring 2004 with the launch of Air America Radio, though it barely managed to stay afloat in those first few months because of financial difficulties.

Struggling to survive and aired in only a few U.S. cities, “progressive talk radio” had little impact on the presidential election in 2004. But since then, liberal talkers have begun to show up on radio stations in scores of cities across America.

Ironically, Republican-leaning Clear Channel has done more to put these progressive voices on the air than the Left’s funding community. Putting profits before politics, Clear Channel has revamped the formats of about two dozen under-performing stations to air the likes of Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller.

Over the past several months, many of these stations have shown strong growth in listeners. Perhaps even more important, the sound of unapologetic liberal voices has relieved the sense of isolation that has weighed upon American progressives for years.

Liberals now find they can to tune in talk radio without being assaulted by endless rhetoric about how evil and un-American they are.

Plus, these progressive talkers have no qualms about making jokes at George W. Bush’s expense.

If these radio outlets had been around a year ago, Will Ferrell’s skit might have fit seamlessly into Campaign 2004 – and American history might have gone in a different direction.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new 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.'

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