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The 527 Media's Predicament

By Jed Babbin

Like the sorcerer's apprentice, some in the media are desperately trying to control the destruction wrought by the product of their labors. The 527 Media - those politically-activist media who present campaign ads as news -- worked long and hard to convince the nation that the Democrats weren't wild-eyed liberals. The Democratic congressional candidates including their leaders were, according to the media script, trustworthy moderates. But the Dems have read too much into the election results and while they've hit the ground running, their media pals are icing their path hoping to slow them down (and in the case of Jack Murtha, stumble). How could it have gone so wrong? It didn't: the predicament was predictable.

Only nine days out, it's hard to reach many conclusions about the election that will withstand history's analysis. But we have to admit the possibility the president was right: it was a close-run thing. It's important to separate that thought from Republican rationalizations about losing by small margins which matter not at all when the votes will be taken on the House and Senate floors. But losing small in the battle of ideas - if that's what happened - is enormously important from now through 2008.

In 2006, important issues abounded but Democrats were able to avoid committing to any positions, campaign on the theme, "vote for us because we're not them." Issues were usually debated in terms of Republican-created problems and the 527 Media never demanded that Democrats say what they'd do to solve them. Republicans let this happen. But the result poses a big problem for the Dems: if you win on that basis you have no mandate from the voters to do anything specific. And if you want to maintain the power you've won, you have to reward the people and special interests who got you there. For the Democratic Class of 2006 that means the media. How much the media are owed - really, how much they can control the Dems - is being measured this week on Jack Murtha and his stance on Iraq.

If the 2006 vote on Iraq was like the 1974 vote against American involvement in Vietnam, wouldn't Ned Lamont have won? But Lamont - losing by two-to-one among Connecticut Democrats - couldn't even carry his home town of Greenwich against war supporter Joe Lieberman. And Lieberman, as liberal as can be, won about seventy percent of the Republican vote. In "blue" Connecticut, even Republican Chris Shays (who said he was prepared to lose for his support for Iraq) won by three points.

Exit polls said the Iraq war was a very important issue to a large majority of voters. Though the Democrats nationalized this issue it's clear that the voters didn't give the Dems a mandate on any Iraq policy. A solid majority, according to Pew Research, don't like what's going on but do not support sudden withdrawal. Except for the Lamontocrats, Democrats insisted they weren't the "cut and run" party. Their suggestions ranged widely from Sen. Biden's plan for a regional peace conference with Iraq's neighbors (Syria and Iran) to Cong. Murtha's plan to redeploy from Iraq to Okinawa. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi's strong support of Murtha's candidacy for House Majority Leader has the media in damage control mode.

The Washington Post, having achieved the defeats of George Allen and Michael Steele, endorsed on Tuesday long-time Maryland Cong. Steny Hoyer for the majority leader's post. In its endorsement, it voiced opinions about Hoyer's opponent, Jack Murtha, that were startling for their vehemence: "Mr. Murtha's candidacy is troubling for several reasons, beginning with his position on the war in Iraq...his descriptions of the stakes there have been completely unrealistic, and his solutions irresponsible." The Post's editorial comes soon after Sen. Carl Levin, incoming Armed Services Committee Chairman, said that Democrats wanted to pressure the White House into beginning to withdraw American troops in four to six months. The Post condemnation of Murtha is a sign of media panic. They know that if the Democrats unite around the Murtha policy of cutting and running, they may damage themselves significantly for the 2008 presidential race. If Hoyer wins, the media win. The campaign to elect "moderate" Hillary Clinton to the presidency will have survived its first challenge. If Murtha wins, the media will make him disappear in favor of more moderate Senate Democrats.

Democrats, lacking a mandate and promises to fulfill, will begin - as they always do - by determining which policies to pursue by satisfying the special interests that helped them achieve victory.

First among these special interests is the 527 Media who toiled diligently but never faced a Republican response (until - too late for the election - Lynn Cheney body-slammed Wolf Blitzer, asking repeatedly why CNN was broadcasting terrorist propaganda films.) Now the Democrats have to reward their media enablers, which means openly taking on the Bush policies that the media has found most objectionable. The war in Iraq and the legal but politically-hot programs such as the PATRIOT Act and the NSA terrorist surveillance program are at the top of the list. Sen. Feingold, in the Huffington Post, recently called the bill to legislate (redundantly) the president's Constitutional authority to run the NSA program the worst thing the lame duck Congress might do. In January there will be a Democratic Congress, performing a parody of its Constitutional duty of oversight of the Executive.

The media campaigned against the Republican congress on corruption, on the overriding theme that Congress gave the Bush administration a free ride on oversight. The idea of a "rubber-stamp Congress" surely rankled the many Dems who, for over forty years before 1994, had become used to oversight hearings that were political campaigns in miniature. John Dingell's anti-business rant after the November returns came in was the angry roar of a frustrated man freed from the Bastille of Republican control. Dingell, about to retake the Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship, and Henry Waxman, John Conyers and others have a lot of experience in maximizing the political damage by manufacturing media moments.

They'll go after everything from auditing expenses in Iraq to Vice President Cheney's energy task force. The goal in those hearings will not be to get answers that provide a foundation for legislation, but to score sound bites for the evening news broadcasts and photos for the next day's front pages. The 527 Media will be rewarded for their unstinting support just as the Associated Press was last summer. It contrived the "Rumsfeld refuses to testify" story and was rewarded with an exclusive interview with Hillary in which she called for Rumsfeld's resignation. In 2007, the 527 Media and the Democratic oversight committees will be working together, manufacturing television spots for 2008 and pretending they are news. Great political theater, not governance, is what they will deliver. But there is reason to hope. Some of the big media players may soon be held to account. Stay tuned.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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