Blowing (it) in the Wind

It was only a few minutes ago, it seems, that the Democratic Party displayed the swagger of someone who’s bet on a sure thing. The wager was that voters in 2006 would finally realize what an incompetent (Katrina), deceitful (WMDs), corrupt (Abramoff), ideological (Alito) and dangerous (eavesdropping) president George W. Bush really is. That realization would lead to big Democratic gains in the House and Senate, enough to take back one or both houses of Congress.

The other day, I heard columnist Tom Oliphant on Al Franken’s radio show declare that 2005 was “the worst fifth year of a presidency since Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.” (Digression: Wasn’t 1973 Nixon’s fifth year? The year of the Saturday Night Massacre, the first OPEC oil embargo and a surge of inflation? And didn’t he also almost die of pneumonia and phlebitis in ’73?) Oliphant’s point was that a bad fifth year leads to out-party gains in the sixth.

The Year Six pattern certainly held true in 1950, ’58, ’66, ’74, and ’86. (I’m counting Roosevelt-Truman and Kennedy-Johnson as two-term presidencies.) Those were bad years in Congressional elections for the party not in the White House. That Bill Clinton broke this pattern in 1998 is a fluke due to Republicans overplaying the Monica Lewinsky issue.

Bush and the Republicans certainly deserve a good electoral spanking, as well as a curb on their excesses. The GOP has monopolized governing and lawmaking since 2002. But the way things are going, I don’t think the Democratic party is going to be handed the paddle. This article by CBS commentator Dick Meyer provides an even-handed diagnosis of the party’s political and operational blundering. Here are a few bytes, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: money. Everyone said Howard Dean would have trouble raising money as the party chair and everyone was right. The Democratic National Committee enters 2006 with $7.3 million in the bank, the RNC with $31.9 million (figures from the Center for Responsive Politics). That’s a problem.

(snip)

War chests matter less than zeitgeist. But if the Democrats have the wind of history at their back this year, the wind is not being funneled into anything visible to mere mortals. The Republicans don’t have that problem of clarity and simplicity of message: witness Mr. Rove’s address .

The 2006 GOP/Rove platform can easily be put on an index card, if not a Post-it note. It reads something like this: we are at war against foreign terrorists who want to kill you and your society and we’ll do what it takes to stop it and the Democrats won’t; we will cut your taxes and give you money and Democrats won’t. Every Republican candidate in the country can spit that one out.

The controversy over domestic surveillance without warrants illustrates the efficient, black and white clarity of the Rovian message. Rove said, “Let me be as clear as I can: President Bush believes if al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they’re calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.”

Please draft a two sentence response that will work in a TV ad; my guess is it will sound as convoluted as John Kerry explaining why his vote for war was a vote against war.

Meanwhile, Democrats, particularly some popular Web soapboxers, are obsessing over a bizarre issue — not the Abramoff scandal itself, but how the mainstream media is defining it. Various news reporters have described the Abramoff scandal as “bipartisan,” because the uber-lobbyist directed a share of his clients’ money to Democratic candidates — about 34 percent.

This fact appears to undermine a Democratic talking point that, as Sen. Barack Obama has said, “those are Republican sins and Republican sins alone.” The basis for Obama’s talking point is the undisputed fact that all of Abramoff’s personal contributions went to Republicans.

So, you could reasonably argue the point either way. If you’re trying to be fair, you would cite Abramoff’s one-sided personal giving to the GOP, but also report that because lobbyists get their power largely through the contributions they can “bundle” from clients, Abramoff held sway over some Democrats, too. In the real world, lobbyists who’ve garnered a gang of contributions tend to put their brand name somewhere prominently on the packet of checks. The beneficiaries of both parties surely knew who brokered their donations.

News outlets are supposed to be fair, so it is to be expected they would tell the whole story. But the liberal blogs and their communities of commenters are furious at the outlets that tell the story this way. The Washington Post’s ombudswoman’s website was the target of a mass attack of hostile comments, which caused the Post to shut down its comment feature — all because she referenced the scandal as “bipartisan.”

Now Tim Russert and NBC News are in the firing line. This sample from Think Progress is representative:

Yesterday, Today show anchor Katie Couric falsely claimed that “Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff.” Challenged on her facts, Couric said she “would look into that and clarify that for our viewers.”

Returning to the topic this morning, NBC’s Matt Lauer and Tim Russert both reiterated the right-wing talking point that the Abramoff scandal is bipartisan.

It’s either a fact or it isn’t. For news reporters, it should not be relevant if it’s a right wing or a left wing talking point. This public woodshedding of news outlets is chillingly presumptuous; as if to say, “you’re only supposed to use our talking points, not theirs‘.”

Meanwhile, other liberal blogs, including Talking Points Memo, obsess over photos of Bush with Abramoff, and when the White House is going to release them. This typical post — about author Josh Marshall’s search for a Bush/Abramoff snapshot through a photography bureau — feels a little nutty to me:

Here’s another little detail about Reflections Photography and those scrubbed Bush/Abramoff photographs.

We only know about one Bush/Abramoff photograph at the Reflections photo library. That is, until this morning.

When I was speaking with Reflections President Joanne Amos, our conversation started with my pressing her about the disappearance of the single photograph. After she admitted the archive had been scrubbed, the conversation shifted gear. And from that point I continued to ask why this had happened, who had instructed her to do it, and so forth.

But as we got into that second part of the conversation I noticed that Amos spoke repeatedly not of removing a photograph but of removing photographs — i.e., in the plural. So it seems like more than one picture of Bush and Abramoff swirled down the memory hole.

We get it. Democrats want a photo they can campaign with, and Republicans are playing keep-away. When the scandal was about the Lincoln Bedroom a few years ago, the Clinton White House tried to limit the photographic evidence — and the GOP seemed to go whacko whenever they couldn’t quite get the goods on Bill. A lot of good it did them. But Democrats haven’t learned that lesson.

What would a photograph add to the story? Even if you acknowledge the “bipartisan” nature of the Abramoff scandal, it’s still mostly a Republican problem, as even the party’s leaders grant. If the photo is ever released, it will only prove what we already know: Bush met Abramoff.

Maybe it’s just me. I think Democrats surrender whatever political advantage that could be gained from the scandal by harassing the media for not swallowing their precise talking points, and by fixating on getting their hands on negative campaign material as if the republic’s future was at stake. Why does it hurt the party? Because they don’t look serious at a time when serious things are happening, like a war and a terrorist threat.

Back to CBS’ Dick Meyer:

Democrats thought the domestic surveillance revelations were a boon; if that were the case, why would the administration be devoting this week to a public campaign to trumpet the issue? Simple: because they think they have the gut punch: we’ll protect you, they won’t.

Top that with some Jack Abramoff shtick, I dare you. Give me a ‘heck of a job, Brownie’ gag line that will trump that. Go ahead, make my day and rehash the WMD-lies arguments of Campaign 2004.

The Republican soundbite hasn’t changed since September, 2001; the Democrats have a new mantra with every news cycle. The Republicans have more dollars than the Democrats. Those are facts. My advice to Democrats is simple: face the facts.

Yeah. And come up with some specific ideas for how you’d protect the country through this dangerous period better than Bush’s gang. Somewhere, underneath all this tactical obsessiveness, there’s got to be a governing rationale in there. Somewhere. That’s what people want to hear. That’s what they want to vote for.

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