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Why Democrats Lose

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By contrast, he described to me a highly sophisticated Republican system for pouncing on Democratic "bad votes" and verbal gaffes and distributing the information instantaneously to a network of pro-Republican media outlets that now operates down to the state, district and local levels.

This huge conservative media advantage has now contributed to dooming Democratic hopes for snaring the vulnerable suburban San Diego seat of imprisoned Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

In the June 6 special election, Republicans reported a last-minute surge of support after conservative media outlets trumpeted a verbal blunder by Democrat Francine Busby, propelling Republican lobbyist Brian Bilbray to victory by about four percentage points.

Near the end of a lackluster campaign in which Busby followed the advice of national Democratic consultants to avoid controversial positions, the candidate blurted out to a mostly Latino audience that "you don't need papers for voting" before she clarified her meaning to say "you don't need to be a registered voter to help."

But conservative radio and TV talk show hosts across southern California seized on Busby's verbal slip and began accusing her of urging illegal immigrants to vote. Busby then spent the last several days of the campaign apologizing and backtracking. [Washington Post, June 7, 2006]

In explaining Busby's defeat in this bellwether special election, national Democratic consultants will likely point to failures of Busby as a candidate or the fact that the Republican Congressional Committee pumped more than $4.5 million into the district.

But the one point the Democratic consultants almost never mention is the giant media advantage that Republicans have created from years of investing in media outlets - from newspapers, magazines and books to cable television, talk radio and the Internet.

Yet, it is this conservative messaging capability - in coordination with the Republican national political operation - that has proved decisive in election after election, even in disputed contests such as Florida in Election 2000 when the conservative media quickly portrayed Bush as the legitimate winner even though Al Gore got more votes.

Funneling Money
One of the reasons that the Democratic consultant class neglects this glaring problem is that the consultants don't profit from building media infrastructure or from other nitty-gritty aspects of prevailing in the national "war of ideas." Even in losing, there is money from consulting contracts and ad buys.

Obviously, during election cycles, Democratic consultants encourage wealthy liberals and progressives to funnel money into campaigns or into allied groups where Democratic insiders also get a cut of the ad buys. Then, in off years, the Democratic "consultariat" directs the money into "think tanks" where other friends and insiders hold down high-paying jobs but don't really do very much.

Then, when elections roll around, the Democratic consultants are there to help pick the candidates and counsel them in expressing safe "themes" that have been tested before focus groups arranged by other consultants. Next, the tightly managed candidates are guided through campaigns designed less to inspire than not to offend.

Inevitably, however, the over-coached, tongue-tied candidate blurts out some stupid remark - even a polished candidate like John Kerry made a clunky ill-timed comment about Dick Cheney's gay daughter - and the Republicans immediately go for the throat.

The Busby defeat was a kind of microcosm for this pattern of Democratic failure.

Given the conservatives' huge media advantage at both national and local levels, the Republicans demonstrated how easily they can still set the defining issues of a race, despite the country's general dismay over Bush's presidency.

In the Busby-Bilbray race, the Republicans made immigration the hot-button issue and Busby's clumsy remark soon was reverberating through the giant echo chamber of right-wing talk shows, right-wing blogs and right-wing columnists.

Lacking the media artillery to fire back and having had her fighting spirit leeched out of her by the consultants, Busby chose not to go on the offensive and accuse the Republicans of using their old tactics of division, racism and smear. Instead, she followed another favorite piece of Democratic consultant advice: apologize and retreat.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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