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.