April 15, 2002

Democratic Leadership Still Struggling to Get its Message Out

Scared to Counter Bush Patriotism Frenzy, Dems Can't Seem to Get Any Respect

By Warren Pease

Like most writers on the left, I've been calling for Bush's head since shortly after his conception. Not that much good would come of it. If he's ever autopsied, medical examiners will pry open his cranial cavity and find nothing but a form letter that reads, "This Space Left Intentionally Blank."

That and a couple of voice synthesizer chips, manufactured to rigorous milspec standards, that will repeat "evil-doers -- terra -- make no mistake -- NUKE-u-lur -- evil-doersŠ" on continuous loop for the next ten thousand years. Oh, and "You really look fabulous in those Speedos, K-K-Kenny Boy." A mote of dust on the wafer during final fab, maybe.

In any case, Bush is a known quantity: Brains of a sea cucumber; morals of a pedophile; cunning of a cornered ferret. (With sincere apologies to honest and decent sea cucumbers and ferrets everywhere.)

But what's with the all-too-loyal opposition? We on the left spend a fair amount of time bitching that the Dems can't get a fair hearing because print and electronic mainstream media have become adjuncts of the White House PR department and cheerleaders for the official story, liberal media mythology notwithstanding. And that's certainly one huge reason why contrarian voices are rare.

But the other main reason is that they don't seem have much to say that's worth hearing. Consider the content of standard post-Sept. 11 political repartee:

Blowhard GOP Congressional wingnut bloviates for three solid minutes on the need to further enrich every single defense contractor and energy supplier nationwide by poking more and more holes in what's left of the social contract. Earnest Dem colleague says, "Right on, Tom." Or, "What Dick said." Or, "You go, Trent."

What they actually say is some version of, "I want to preface my comments by saying that Democrats in Congress, along with all patriotic Americans, support the president fully in his efforts to bring these cowardly terrorists to justice. When America is attacked, there can be no rest until the perpetrators are bombed into gooey glops of bean curd and their widows and children left paddling aimlessly in a sea of blood-stained tears. Their dogs, too." At which point everybody's eyes glaze over and they turn to the Home Gardening Channel for a little excitement.

For every Dennis Kucinich or Henry Waxman, there are more than enough Bush suck-ups sitting on their hands in the House. For every John Kerry or Ted Kennedy (what's this thing with Massachusetts?), there are far too many go-along/get-along Democrats sitting on their hands in the Senate. Sure, they usually vote party line -- Zell Miller notwithstanding -- but they're a little too apologetic about it.

Not that they're completely toothless. Every so often, a Democrat gets gutsy enough to speak his or her mind. Like when Fritz Hollings called Bush Inc. a bought and paid for subsidiary of Enron. Or when Cynthia McKinney actually asked the forbidden question: Why has there been no serious investigation of the events of 9-11, and why did Bush and Cheney successfully lobby Daschle to severely limit any Senate probes?

So outrageous was her transgression in the Romancing the Bush era that it sent designated lefty Paul Begala right under the table on CNN's Crossfire in an effort to distance himself from what Ari is now calling The Grassy Knoll Society. When Begala emerged, conservative twit Tucker Carlson's shoes were noticeably shinier and Begala's tongue noticeably darker -- along with his soul.

Dems also get the occasional parliamentary victory. ANWR is safe from oil speculators for the moment. Pickering isn't sitting on a Federal bench. The latest Bush scam to pay back his campaign contributors under cover of "economic stimulus" seems dead. In fact, they win just often enough to provide some of us with hope for a great awakening, only to see it dashed yet again in another outpouring of Congressional Bush-lust.

Enron what? Ken who? An Afghan pipeline? Where's Guantanamo? What war crimes? Israel's doing what? But isn't Iraq on the evil meanie list? The poor want what? Could you pass the Ecstasy, please?

What the hell is it with these people? We keep hoping for some breakthrough, some charisma, some actual leadership. We go nuts over the smallest crumbs: a slip of the tongue on CNN; the appearance of actual leftists on late-night TV talk shows; Mike Malloy ripping Bush (just as our streaming media connection cuts out for the thousandth time, something that never happens to Limbaugh's AM audience); Michael Moore and David Brock outselling Pat Buchanan's latest screed and Bernard Goldberg's expose of -- gasp -- the liberal media. Meanwhile, Bill Bennett's latest prissy little morality treatise languishes in the remaindered stacks.

This just in: It doesn't matter. The Bush Inc. steamroller rumbles on, flattening anything in its path with about the same level of compassion and concern the rest of us reserve for destroying a nest of roaches.

Clearly, something's not working, and increasingly that "something" is the effectiveness of the opposition. Maybe it's time Congressional Democrats were judged by the same harsh standards we apply to the muggers and thieves on the other side of the aisle. Are they stupid, complicit, complacent, scared or bought?

Maybe it's time to dig a little deeper into who's funding their campaigns and what they have to lose by opposing Bush too forcefully. Maybe they're all running scared after the anthrax assassination attempts on Daschle and Leahy. Maybe it's time to run a few progressive firebrands against the terminally bland DLC neo-cons in the primaries just to see what happens.

Maybe it's time to replace the sincere but obviously outgunned Senate Majority Leader with someone who has a detectable pulse. He seems a decent man who apparently labors under the delusion that there's still such a thing as fair play in American politics, to the detriment of his party and his country. Or perhaps he's under an even more ludicrous delusion: That he's a viable candidate for president in 2004 and such toadying behavior will improve his chances.

And let's not rehash Richard Gephardt's fawning "response" to the State of the Union address. There weren't enough airline-approved barf bags in existence to contain the visceral outpourings of progressives around the world after that sorry performance. He's been mercifully quiet since then, but it's a little late. Then again, reports are that he's eyeing the White House, too, and you can't be too bold when currying favor.

So screw seniority. Get some people in there who can handle these jobs, or at least who seem to want them.

One thing seems certain: Complex scandals like Enron won't bring this administration down. The American public has been trained by "on-air talent" masquerading as journalists that if it doesn't fit on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt, it's got no business cluttering up their heads.

Maybe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will finally make Bush's inadequacy obvious to even the most thickheaded voter. Personally, I'm not quite enough of a ghoul -- at least not yet -- to wish for continued murder and madness simply to demonstrate Bush's utter incompetence.

On the other hand, developing a national Democratic lexicon comprised of hard-hitting sound bites and repeating them until viewers and listeners internalize them seems a sensible way to go. It worked for Gingrich and his GOPAC-trained acolytes in 1994. I've yet to see convincing evidence that the American electorate has wised up sufficiently since then that they're now impervious to such tactics. On the contrary, Bush's poll numbers -- distorted or not -- suggest that we're still the same old malleable bunch of gullible nitwits.

So why reinvent the wheel? Use what works. Attack, attack, attack. Never, ever apologize. Accuse, accuse, accuse. Don't give them time to catch their breath. Get them on the defensive and keep them there. God knows, there's enough GOP dirt out there just waiting to be mixed with a little water and turned into mud -- suitable for slinging and guaranteed to stick, even to Teflon.

Are progressives too pure to use such measures? Then we're too pure to run this country in this century and we might just as well admit it and save ourselves a ton of frustration and misery.

On a recent episode of "The West Wing" -- a well-timed rerun -- the hard-ass campaign consultant cuts directly to the chase. During a contentious strategy session in which Toby and the crew advocate running a campaign based on truth and light, the consultant says:

"You all need some therapy, because somebody came along and said liberal means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on communism, soft on defense and we're going to tax you back to the stone age because people shouldn't have to go to work if they don't want to.

"And instead of saying 'Well excuse me you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave it to Beaver trip back to the fifties,' we cowered in the corner and said, 'Please, don't hurt me.' "

Why are all the best lines on TV and why is it impossible to imagine anyone among today's Democratic Party leadership saying such a thing? And yet, if they did I have a feeling that ear-splitting roars of sheer joy from Hilo to Hilton Head would drown out even the irritating yammer of the Empty Brainpan-in-Chief's voice synthesizers endlessly intoning "evil-doers, evil-doers, evil-doersŠ"

There's a reason "The West Wing" pulls the ratings it does, and it's not CJ's legs or Toby's perfect hair. Get a clue and a spine, Daschle, and act like a leader for a change. What could you possibly have to lose?

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