Webb, Tester, McCaskill: fighting the disconnect
Josh Marshall and Greg Sargent point to this atrocious example of media bias and ineptitude from CNN's Kyra Phillips and it raises a profound question for everyone involved in Democratic strategy in 2007:
How can Democrats overcome the disconnect between the mainstream media's indulgence in GOP slurs of Democratic leaders and the results of the 2006 elections?
Whether it is the slanted coverage of Nancy Pelosi's bi-partisan trip to Syria, Harry Reid's recent assessment of the war in Iraq, John Edwards' hair (for god's sakes) or Barack Obama's middle name: political coverage in 2007 is replete with examples of blatant media bias against leading Democrats. This bias runs directly counter to the results of the 2006 elections and represents a disconnect in which, despite those elections, mainstream media outlets regularly spout talking points seemingly spoon-fed to them by Karl Rove and Mat
Cable news "reporters" like Kyra Phillips are annoying and, to be frank, for political junkies like those of us who read the blogs, too easily dismissed. The very vacuousness of someone like Phillips makes her hard to take seriously. That's a problem. Pseudo-journalists spouting GOP talking points, however vacuous and annoying, are quite effectively erasing the 2006 elections and subverting the clearly expressed will of the American electorate in the process.
Let's review the 2006 election results in Montana, Missouri and Virginia, and in particular how they relate to Iraq and the 2004 presidential election, for just one second. It's worth a look.
The Democratic Party started the morning of November 7th, 2006 with a 201 seat minority in the House of Representatives and a 44 seat minority in the United States Senate. When all the votes were counted and the election results certified, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives stood at 233 members and Democrats in the Senate had defeated no fewer than 6 incumbent Republicans to win a surprise 51 member majority in the United States Senate (with the two caucusing independents included in the total.)
To say that these election results represent a historic turning point is a commonplace. However, the U.S. media have by and large continued to cover domestic politics as if the elections of 2006 never happened. That erasure, if allowed to stand, threatens everything the Democratic party is attempting to accomplish in 2007 and forward.
To elaborate on this point, let's hone in on those U.S. Senate results for one second.
In 2004 the voters of Montana gave George W. Bush 59% of their votes. George Bush won 266,00 votes in Montana; that represented a crushing 90,000+ vote margin of victory in a state where there were fewer than 450,000 total presidential votes cast. In the 2006 contest between Jon Tester and Conrad Burns, on the other hand, Jon Tester prevailed by just under 3000 votes. Jon Tester won 198,000 out of the just under 400,000 votes cast for U.S. Senator in Montana for a 49% to 48% victory.
That slim margin is real, but focusing on the closeness of the result also hides the profound significance of that vote. Jon Tester, in a non-presidential year, beat John Kerry's vote total in Montana. (Conrad Burns, in contrast, lost 70,000 Bush supporters in his effort.) Something enormous changed in Montana politics in the two years leading up to Jon Tester's election to the United States Senate as a Democrat in a 59% Bush state. For the record here is the text of Jon Tester's position on Iraq from his website (emphasis mine):
Jon Tester supports our troops in Iraq who have fought bravely and made us proud, but unfortunately their leaders in Washington have let them down. This administration is conducting the war in Iraq with no plan and no end in sight and has failed to give our troops the armor and equipment they need to be safe and successful. Montanans deserve a senator who'll demand the President present a clear plan to give the Iraqi military control of their own country and bring our troops home. As your senator, Tester will never waver in keeping America safe and strong. Jon will keep the commitment we have made to our soldiers and veterans and will ask the tough questions to ensure that our troops have a clear mission and all the resources they need.
In other words, Jon Tester won his Senate seat in Montana explicitly using language calling for "a clear plan to give the Iraqi military control of their own country" and to "bring our troops home." There is a media black out of this reality. That media black out erases the will of Montana's voters.
If Montana seems like it might be an anomaly, let's take a look at Missouri. George Bush won 53% of the vote in Missouri in 2004. In no uncertain terms, Bush whupped John Kerry in the show-me state. In 2006 Claire McCaskill defeated GOP incumbent Senator Jim Talent with a 50% majority and a 46,000 vote margin of victory out of the roughly 2.1 million votes cast in Missouri. For the record, here is the text of Senator McCaskill's position on the war in Iraq (again emphasis mine):
Claire believes any solution must be a political one and must come from within Iraq, not from outside. We cannot impose democracy. Democracy only flourishes when people take responsibility for their own freedom and welfare. Iraqi leaders must take responsibility for their country and their people. The presence of U.S. troops may actually be slowing democratic growth by serving as a crutch to Iraq's interim leaders. Claire knows we cannot occupy Iraq indefinitely. We cannot train Iraqi police and military forces indefinitely. And we must tell the Iraqi leaders it is not our intent to remain indefinitely.
America must set the agenda for peace and stability in Iraq. In order to do so, Claire believes we must engage our traditional allies as well as the neighboring countries in the region who have an interest in a stable Iraq and an end to the conflict. Moving forward we must have a responsible strategy that is not "cut and run" or "stay the course." Changing the course is essential so that our national security cannot be held hostage to Iraq's inability to make the difficult political choices and compromises necessary to form a credible government.
We must establish benchmarks for the formation of a government. During the next two years, we need to transition to a multinational security force and redeploy our troops to best protect our long term national security interest. Such action should give the Iraqis the time to create a stable country.
In other words, voters in Missouri where George Bush won convincingly in 2004 chose a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate who explicitly talked about "changing course" in Iraq, about "benchmarks," about a "two year" transition to an Iraqi and multi-national security force and a "redeployment" of our troops. Again, McCaskill's victory, like Tester's was a narrow one; that narrowness belies, once again, a profound shift in the opinion of Missouri's voters. You will not hear anything in the mainstream US media about this, however. They are apparently too busy monitering the child custody battles of celebrities.
Finally, let's examine Virginia. George Bush won Virginia in 2004 with 54% of the vote from a pool of 3.1 million Virginian voters. Democrat Jim Webb turned out popular incumbent GOP Senator George Allen by winning 50% of the vote from a pool of 2.35 million Virginian voters...a razor thin 9000 vote margin of victory in a year with a sizable reduction in turn out. Jim Webb's victory, however, came in the face of a huge GOP expenditures in Virginia and a concerted effort to knock him out of the race. Despite that, something, clearly, had changed in Virginia in the two years between 2004 and 2006. Virginians endorsed a Democrat with a clear position in opposition to George Bush's policy in Iraq (from a Sept. 17th debate with George Allen on Meet the Press):
We made a strategic error in going into Iraq, but we have a responsibility to, to reduce our presence in Iraq in a way that will stabilize the region. What I've been saying for two years is we need a commitment from this administration that we, the United States, do not want to be in Iraq as a permanent presence and a long-term presence. But secondly, that we have to get these other countries involved, the other countries tangential to Iraq, the countries that have cultural and historical interests in Iraq, involved in an overt way to move toward a diplomatic process.
I know what it's like to be on the ground. I know what it's like to fight a war like this. And there's--there are limits to what the military can do. Eventually, this is going to have to move into a diplomatic environment. Now, that's where this administration seems to have blinders. They're not talking to Syria, they're not talking to Iran. And there are ways that we can do this, move this forward.
If you look at what we did after Afghanistan, in the invasion of Afghanistan, we actually brought the countries around Afghanistan to the table--including Iran, by the way. Iran was cooperating at that time, before President Bush made his "axis of evil" speech and they stopped cooperating. The eventual way out of this--and it can be done soon, with the right leadership--is for us to get something similar to what we had with the, the Madrid conference in 1991 after Gulf War I, get these countries to the table, and have them work out a formula. Sooner or later, we're going to leave. And when we leave, the countries that are tangential to Iraq are going to be players. We should overtly push that now.
Webb's pre-election position on Iraq was somewhat less specific than Tester's and McCaskill's, but Webb the candidate was crystal clear in his opposition to Bush policy in theory and in practice: "we have a responsibility to reduce our presence in Iraq in a way that will stabilize the region." For Webb, that means emphasizing a regional diplomatic effort and a reduction of U.S. troop levels. After his election, in a rebuttal to the President's SOTU, Webb made his stance (and an implicit timeline for action taking "our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities...in short order") even more clear:
The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.
So, here are three of the six Democratic Senators who won victories against GOP incumbents in 2006. These are "last three" members who make up the Democratic majority in the Senate. All three of them won close races in states where George Bush won decisively in 2004. All three of these Senators explicitly opposed George Bush's policy in Iraq as a part of their campaigns. Understanding that clear stance on Iraq, the voters of the states of Montana, Missouri and Virginia nevertheless sent Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb to the United States Senate and unseated their better-funded, decidely-ensconced Republican opponents.
In April of 2007, from the point of view of the US media, that reality has evaporated. There is a disconnect. I linked to those election results and quotes above to combat that fact. One has to wonder if the "media elites" who serve up biased pseudo-reporters like Kyra Phillips to front their coverage of Iraq begin to understand that the voters who put Harry Reid into his current status as Senate Majority leader are folks in places like Missouri, Montana and Virginia who had full access to the views of Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb all along? One asks oneself, does the 2006 election mean anything to the media elites in this country at all?
Clearly, whether it is the House or the Senate, there is a disconnect between the clearly expressed will of the voters and the way the media is covering our national debate about policy in Iraq.
To start a discussion of the way forward I have one piece of strategic advice to offer the Democratic party: combatting this media black out of the election of Senators Jim Webb, Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill and the rest of the "Class of 06", we cannot afford, as a party, to indulge our own black out of the generation of 2006 and, most importantly, the voters and the States they represent.
Senator Webb's rebuttal of the State of the Union Address quoted above was a good start. Since that time, however, Congressional Democrats have lost their way. We are currently losing the media battle in a kind of "death by a thousand cuts" that any veteran observer of the media and domestic politics is well familiar with. This has to end.
The entire Republican strategy, and it's really their only effective ploy at this point, is to mischaracterize the meaning of the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. If the GOP can separate the voters from their representatives, they can disconnect those representatives from the very tasks they were sent to Washington to fulfill.
To do this, however, the GOP must ruthlessly change the terms of the debate by focusing on critical weak points in the Democratic leadership that confirm longstanding and media-enforced misperceptions about the Democratic party: a misstatement by John Kerry, a hair cut for John Edwards, implicit misstrust of Barack Obama's background, mischaracterizations of Speaker Pelosi's diplomatic travels, feigned outrage at Senator Reid's analysis. As in the Kyra Phillips segment cited above, we all know that the mainstream media, by and large, has gone along with these tactics for years.
At every point, the GOP's goal is to drive a wedge in public perception between our leadership and the very voters, in particular those from swing districts and states, who sent them to Washington.
To combat this, every Democratic effort in 2007 must ruthlessly and relentlessly focus on the legacy of the 2006 election, the new faces that the voters across this nation sent to Washington, and what these Democratic majorities mean for the future of our country. In particular, we must ruthlessly convey the policy missions these Senators and Representatives were entrusted with by the voters at home. Those new faces, and the agenda they carry with them to DC, is our one effective antidote to these poisonous and effective attacks on our leadership in this media climate.
Quite rightly, the GOP has seized on the core weak point in public perception of the new Democratic majorities: ie. that this is simply a chance for "the same old crowd of Democrats to have their day in the sun in Washington."
To combat this we have to hammer this home:
Claire McCaskill is the junior Senator representing the people of Missouri. Jon Tester is the junior Senator representing the people of Montana. Jim Webb is the junior Senator representing the people of Virginia. All three happen to be Democrats. All three were sent to Washington explicitly with a charge, among other great tasks, to change the course of US policy in Iraq.
We need to see their faces and hear them talk about their home states. Over and over again. We must not allow the GOP and a complacent media to separate our representatives from the voters who sent them to Washington. These new Representatives and Senators represent ALL of the people in their home states and districts. We need to make this patently clear.
I cannot believe that we have a Senator from Montana and we aren't hard at work making him a folk hero. I cannot believe we have a woman Senator from Missouri and we aren't putting her front and center. We should make sure that everybody in this country knows that Jim Webb is the Democratic Senator from Virginia. (I wonder how many would realize that, if polled?)
We are failing. We have a disconnect. Kyra Phillips is merely emblematic, a poisonous symptom of what is happening when GOP spin meets a compliant corporate media.
It's got to stop.