TCS Daily

The Medium and the Message

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week a news story in The New York Times discussed the distress of various national Democrats over their supposed lack of a media presence. The Democrats are currently a quest to find "a liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh," a punditry equivalent of The Holy Grail that is supposed to help Democrats win what the Times calls "the propaganda wars."

Unfortunately, the Democrats' view of their ability to succeed in media trench warfare is divorced from reality.

For starters, it is strange to hear that Democrats feel somehow out-gunned in the media wars. Democratic and liberal viewpoints are evident in the media-take, for example, the Times editorial board, which takes predominantly liberal views on a variety of subjects (editor-in-chief Howell Raines once said that he felt "oppressed" by the Reagan years). CBS News has long been anchored by Dan Rather. When President Bill Clinton congratulated him for his television pairing with co-anchor Connie Chung, Rather famously gushed to Clinton:

"Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you. Thank you. Mr. President. If we [indicating Rather and Chung] could be one-one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been together in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners."

PBS has a news program hosted by Bill Moyers, the former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, who, in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 midterm elections, wrote a hysterical and overwrought column that included the following outlandish statement:

. . . for the first time in the memory of anyone alive, the entire federal government - the Congress, the Executive, the Judiciary - is united behind a right-wing agenda for which George W. Bush believes he now has a mandate.

That mandate includes the power of the state to force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives.

It includes using the taxing power to transfer wealth from working people to the rich.
It includes giving corporations a free hand to eviscerate the environment and control the regulatory agencies meant to hold them accountable.

And it includes secrecy on a scale you cannot imagine. Above all, it means judges with a political agenda appointed for life. If you liked the Supreme Court that put George W. Bush in the White House, you will swoon over what's coming.

And if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture. These folks don't even mind you referring to the GOP as the party of God. Why else would the new House Majority Leader say that the Almighty is using him to promote "a Biblical worldview" in American politics?

With no shortage of partisan comments like Moyers's-at taxpayer expense, no less-it's difficult believing that Democrats somehow lack the media outlets and resources to get their views across.

The Democrats misdiagnose their problem. They face a more fundamental malady than being able to find the right messenger. They have struggled in finding the right message with which a messenger could win hearts and minds among the electorate.

Consider their response to President Bush after September 11th, which was plagued by doubts and inconsistencies. At first petrified of trying to draw any distinctions between themselves and the President (especially on the issue of national security), the Democrats demanded that the President request a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq prior to any military activity. When President Bush acceded to this demand, and then requested that the issue be addressed prior to Congress leaving Washington in order to campaign for reelection, the Democrats found themselves cut off at the knees.

The claim by some Democrats that the Bush administration was somehow abandoning the war on terrorism by focusing on Iraq was undermined when Democratic leaders Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, and other Democrats supported the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force.

The Democrats' call for a Homeland Security Department was also co-opted by the Bush administration and became a favorable (and favorite) campaign issue for Republicans in the fall of 2002.

Claims by some Democratic leaders that the war on terrorism was somehow failing because the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar have not been confirmed have not gained traction among the public, which seems to have agreed with the administration's argument that it is more important to dismantle the terrorist organization than it is to kill individual leaders (the fact that Osama bin Laden is widely believed by many to be dead, may have further hurt the Democratic argument).

And despite a general opposition to the Bush administration's enactment of tax cuts in 2001, and an argument by Democratic leaders that the Bush tax cut has hurt the economy, Democratic leaders are by and large unwilling to take the next logical step demanded by their argument and call for a repeal of the administration's tax cuts.

Although the Democrats complain about the lack of a media presence, or the lack of a "liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh," their major problem lies in the fact that they lack a message that resonates with the American people. It is well and good to demand a powerful microphone with which to transmit one's message to the public. But before the microphone is afforded, one has to know what to say.

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