Should Democrats get mad -- or get even?

The very mention of George W. Bush's name sends progressives into paroxysms of rage. But political veterans warn that anger has to be channeled into a winning campaign.

Published June 11, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Grassroots Democratic activists believe America is in desperate trouble. At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington, which brought together the core of the party's liberal wing and the politicians who wanted to win its support, there was a conviction that George Bush is more than simply a bad president, an heir to Reagan or Nixon. He is the worst president ever, a leader so destructive to all that progressives value that the damage from his reign may be irrevocable. For liberals, Bush is a national emergency.

Yet to the country at large, Bush appears to remain an affable fellow and resolute leader. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken last week shows that 67 percent of Americans believe the administration has not deliberately misled the public about Iraq's weapons, despite much reporting to the contrary. A recent Fox News poll indicates that most respondents said Bush's tax cuts won't help their families, but, astonishingly, the same poll shows that 47 percent think the cuts are a good idea, compared to 44 percent who think they're not. In the latest Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report Poll, the president's approval ratings were 61 percent.

"A friend of mine said he feels like Bob Dole in 1996, saying, Where's the outrage?" says Paul Begala, the Clinton strategist turned Crossfire host. Managing that outrage gap is going to be crucial for Democratic political aspirants who need to motivate their furious foot soldiers while winning over a blithe public.

There's a consensus among progressive Democrats that they lost the 2002 midterm elections because they were too soft on Bush. The overwhelming message of the Take Back America conference, organized by the Washington-based Campaign for America's Future, was that liberals should be aggressively unapologetic about their values and their anger, just as conservatives are. Meanwhile, John Podesta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff, will soon launch the American Majority Institute, a Democratic think tank with a $10 million annual budget designed to play offense against the right. The Hill, a Washington congressional newspaper, quoted former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart saying, "Certainly right now the conservative right does a much better job of feeding the media beast facts and arguments that make their case. This will be part of the push-back effort."

The question is whether Democrats can make their anger work for them and communicate it outside their own confabs. After all, rage is a tricky thing in politics. It fuels the shock troops of the right wing, but it also can blow up in their faces (see Bob Barr and Newt Gingrich). For Democrats, it could galvanize an untapped resentment of Bush -- or leave them marginalized by a media eager to parrot Republican attacks.

Hard-core Democrats are hungry to hear leaders speak to their disgust and fury with this president, and at Take Back America, speakers that obliged were rewarded with standing ovations. Bill Moyers, PBS journalist and former Lyndon B. Johnson press secretary, began a spellbinding keynote speech by quoting the Populist Platform of 1892, "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin." He spoke of the White House's "homicidal dream," and of its policies as "the most radical assault on the notion of one nation indivisible in over 100 years.

"In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether 'we, the people' is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality -- one nation, indivisible -- or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others," Moyers continued. "Let me make it clear that I don't harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy; I worked for Lyndon Johnson, remember? But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That difference can be the difference between democracy and oligarchy."

The speech held the crowd rapt and then brought them to their feet in delirious applause. Two days later, Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, echoed Moyers in plainer language: "I've been doing this for 44 years," he said. "This is the worst condition I have ever seen our country in."

For Democratic activists, such remarks, gloomy as they are, are a kind of balm, assuring them they're not alone in seeing that the emperor is naked. The bolder the attacks on the president are, the more they resonate. "For some true believers, the words 'George Bush' conjure up a kind of hate which is a type of rhetorical cement," says Gregory Payne, a professor at Emerson College and co-director of the Center for Ethics in Political and Health Communication. With Bush, he says, "there is a cockiness, a swagger, a very dogmatic, righteous perspective, that what he's doing is absolute and there shouldn't be any question about it. He speaks as if he is an evangelical who has seen the light. For a lot of Democrats, he can be the prince of darkness."

Yet no matter how self-evident the horror of the Bush administration seems to the president's opponents, "The sky is falling" isn't an effective campaign slogan. Even if the sky is, in fact, on the way down.

"I'm writing a book on George Bush. It's unbelievable how fucking extremist these people are. It's really scary," said Eric Alterman, who was signing copies of his book "What Liberal Media?" after a panel on "Reversing the Right's Hold on the Media." "I just got my doctorate in American history, and I can't remember a worse president. I feel a sense of genuine alarm, but I don't know how you convey that without sounding shrill."

It's especially difficult when the media has abandoned any oppositional role. "What's frightening is the lassitude of the public and the complicity of the mass media," says Benjamin Barber, a Maryland University professor of civil society and the author of "Jihad Vs. McWorld" and the forthcoming "Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy in an Age of Interdependence." "The media has become spokespersons for the establishment. Selling people on the idea that we live in a complex and nuanced world, especially with a media controlled by the right, is much harder than selling people on 'USA! USA!'"

At the Take Back America conference, many longed for a lefty version of the right-wing attack machine to eviscerate Bush. Moyers, like many others in attendance, paid his respects to the right-wing media. "As a citizen I don't like the consequences of this crusade, but you have to respect the conservatives for their successful strategy in gaining control of the national agenda," he said. "Their stated and open aim is to change how America is governed -- to strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors. They are quite candid about it, even acknowledging their mean spirit in accomplishing it."

Later, Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, said, "When I'm driving around the country and I hear these talk shows with the right-wing drunks calling in, I say to myself, 'Where are our drunks?'"

Yet Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., says the last thing Democrats need to do is stoop to Rush Limbaugh's level. "The purpose of politics is not to give people emotional satisfaction," he says. "If we were to do to Bush what [Republicans] did to Clinton, Bush would win the election and the Republicans would pick up seats," just as the Democrats did in the post-impeachment election. Says Begala about right-wing rage, "I don't think it does any good. Rush, Ann [Coulter], they make a lot of money, but 53 percent voted for Gore or Nader in the last election."

Of course, there's a difference between emulating right-wing infrastructure and emulating right-wing tactics. Creating a lefty version of the Heritage Foundation, as Podesta aims to do, is not the same as unleashing the kind of destructive scandal machine that characterized the Clinton years. "The fact is that there was an awful lot of what you'd consider dirty politics that went on in the '90s, but there are also a lot of things that conservatives do that are just effective and superior communications," says David Brock, the repentant former right-wing attack journalist who played a major role in fomenting anti-Clinton conspiracy theories.

When the left talks about needing its own version of the conservative infrastructure, he says, "it doesn't mean an imitation of the sleazier aspects of what the right did. It does mean delivering your message more clearly, defending it, and building some organizations independent of the party to do that. It would be a megaphone for the truth. No one is saying we need lies and propaganda."

But plenty of people are saying Democrats need a much more aggressive, confrontational political rhetoric. At Take Back America, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said, "Everywhere I go, everywhere every Democrat goes, we hear, Where are the Democrats?" Much of Howard Dean's support comes from people exhilarated by his fearlessness in challenging Bush. At the conference, he roared, "Mr. President, where are the weapons you told us about?" a question many in attendance want their party to pursue with the same vigor as right-wingers chasing rumors concerning Bill Clinton's sex life.

Yet when Republican politicians went after Clinton, they did so with the support of a vast network of think tanks, magazines, newspapers and cable TV pundits ready to buttress and amplify them. Democrats don't have that backup. A sustained political attack on Bush, says Brock, "probably does require some of this infrastructure building. It's too much for elected politicians to handle." Schakowsky made a similar point, exhorting the crowd, "Become part of a progressive echo chamber. When the Republicans go after Tom Daschle or Nancy Pelosi for being unpatriotic when they criticize the president, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh begin spinning the same line. We need to push back, writing letters to the editor, calling talk shows, e-mailing Congress, e-mailing Sean Hannity and telling him he's out of line, calling them un-American for stifling dissent."

In other words, fury at George Bush won't do any good unless it's organized and channeled into political institution building. "There are two things you can do with anger," says Barber. "One thing is just to vent it. The other, better thing is to sublimate that rage and anger into a higher purpose. That secures your base and turns on the rest of the country."

That means instead of ranting against Bush, progressives need to calmly and forcefully expose the effects his policies will have on real people -- while building institutions to support better ones. "Our task over the next 18 months is not to ridicule George Bush, but to get the George Bush story to the American voters over and over again," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "There has to be a patient investment of capital," says Brock. "The right worked on school vouchers for 19 years. What if an independent think tank had been working on healthcare for years before Bill Clinton was elected? Perhaps the political culture would be more receptive."

While Brock says it takes time to change the political culture, he believes efforts like Podesta's "are going to have a pretty huge effect rather quickly, because they're filling a void. I think that's why there's so much excitement."

Perhaps they're overly optimistic, but many progressives believe that Bush's popularity may be reaching a tipping point -- and that all they need to do is nudge people along. Bush's continued support, says Begala, rests on two things. "His principal claim is that there's a national security crisis, which there is. His second claim is that he's basically an honest man. If he loses that, it's over for him. The problem is that he doesn't tell the truth."

So far, he's gotten away with it -- which further stokes liberal antipathy. To understand why people continue to believe him, says Begala, it's important to understand cognitive dissonance. "There have been a lot of studies on how people deal with cognitive dissonance. The first reaction is to say, No! Bullshit! The second is to attack the source [of the information], which is why it's risky for Democrats to attack Bush. But if you can persuade people, they will reevaluate their beliefs and look for a way that they don't have to feel stupid." Only at that point, he says, will they really get mad at Bush for deceiving them.

In the meantime, many at the conference said it's counterproductive to attack the Democrats for not being as mean as the Republicans. "We've got to put our passion into whoever is going to beat George Bush," says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. In the next election, he says, "You will see a unified Democratic Party. George Bush has unified them. When you have a threat like George Bush, it makes everybody pragmatic."

Yet cold pragmatism can be as self-defeating as unchecked hate. "Passion drives politics," Borosage says. "No broader campaign is going to win without a clear and angry exposé of where Bush is trying to take this country."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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