If you live in Peoria, Illinois, and you’re a conservative business guy, you pick up the Wall Street Journal and you read the editorial page and you get your stem cell or your Social Security or your ‘tort reform’ message. If you are a pickup truck-driving, beer-drinking, 27-year-old, you flip on Rush Limbaugh on the radio. If you’re a soccer mum, you watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox. An evangelical listens to Pat Robertson. So every single one of George Bush’s voters in Peoria, every segment on any given day can watch, read, or listen to their daily message.
Rob Stein, cofounder, Democracy Alliance
When the athletes of professional sports teams are playing their best at sporting events, few spectators know or care about the level of preparation it took to get to that level the network of ‘farm teams,’ the coaching, the training, the strategising, and the selection and care of their equipment.
Politics is no different. Few people, for instance, see the massive machinery that the Right has built, or how it produces the cadre of ideologically steeped, tactically sound candidates and operatives, or what it took to create a noise machine that permeates to the far corners of the country, including Peoria.
At least US$300 million is spent annually on the coaching, the training, and the selection of message and the development of tactics. And that estimate includes just their expansive network of supposedly ‘nonpartisan’ nonprofit organisations, and doesn’t include its partisan organisations like Political Action Committees, 527s (political organisations that can raise unregulated ‘soft’ dollars), and issue advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association. On top of this, conservatives also have an equally expansive media machine to cheerlead and promote their efforts.
So when it’s show time, be it an election or floor debate in a legislative chamber, Republicans can bring their ‘A’ game trained, well armed, self-confident, and effective.
Now let’s torture the heck out of this sports analogy and look at the Democrats. Let’s call them the ‘Bad News Bears.’ Coaches and training? There is no co-ordinated leadership pipeline to train our young stars. Instead, they take advice shouted by their own fans in the stands (the constituency groups). Ideas, tactics and message? There are almost no partisan think tanks to incubate, develop, and provide those crucial elements.
So Democrats stumble out onto the playing field wholly unprepared against their Republican opponents. And they get routed.
Never has one of those dreaded PowerPoint presentations brought more notoriety to a man than Rob Stein’s did, mainly because it was the first time anyone had quantified and mapped the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) and graphically shown the enormity of the challenge before the progressive movement.
Stein was a former Chief of Staff under Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in the Clinton Administration and later a venture capitalist. His eye-opening 40-slide presentation, titled ‘The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix,’ was culled from various reports put out by People for the American Way and similar groups as well as from Stein’s own sleuthing. And over the past few years, he has shown it to most of the progressive leadership.
Matt Bai, writing in the 25 July 2004, issue of the New York Times Magazine , described it well:
The presentation essentially makes the case that a handful of families Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors and others laid the foundation for a $300 million network of policy centres, advocacy groups and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. The network, as Stein diagrams it, includes scores of powerful organisations most of them with bland names like the State Policy Network and the Leadership Institute that he says train young leaders and lawmakers and promote policy ideas on the national and local level. These groups are, in turn, linked to a massive message apparatus, into which Stein lumps everything from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club . And all of this, he contends, is underwritten by some 200 ‘anchor donors.’
When we talked with Stein at his Arlington, Virginia, office, he elaborated on that point. ‘Conservatives have invested in people who have clarity about ideas, helped create networks with one another, and have literally populated a movement of people who think reasonably coherently about a whole wide range of issues and a set of values,’ Stein said.
Movement conservatives, including big donors, had been organising since 1964, when Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater lost by a landslide to Lyndon B Johnson. For many, it had been the defining moment of their political lives. Goldwater personified conservative resentment at the Republican establishment’s obsession with being ‘Democrat-lite,’ and he rode that frustration and anger to the 1964 Republican nomination. Two years later, Goldwater clones started getting elected to office all over the country, at all levels of government, pushing their conservative ideas. The spark was lit, and a quiet revolution was underway.
While the true believers organised at campuses, PTA groups, school boards, state legislatures, and Congress, the big-money conservatives started dumping hundreds of millions to create their infrastructure. Think tanks sprung up like weeds. By the time the Scaife-funded Heritage Foundation launched in 1973, it was their eighth think tank focused on economic and foreign policy ideas.
Through the 1970s, more such groups were set up, including the American Legislative Exchange Council in 1973 and the libertarian-leaning CATO institute in 1977. By the time Ronald Reagan came on the national scene to run for President against Jimmy Carter in 1980, the conservative movement had about 15 think tanks pumping out ideas and refining the message. When Reagan won, Heritage gave him a 1077-page document titled Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration , which Reagan promptly handed out to every Cabinet member at their first meeting.
The anti-government and pro-privatisation document was so detailed that it didn’t just promote offshore oil drilling, but specified particular lots that should be exploited. It provided a step-by-step guide on how to transform conservative principles into government policy. It may have been mind numbingly
boring to read, but the paperback version was not only a bestseller inside Washington DC, but also tangible evidence of the Right’s new sophistication one that had a detailed core set of ideas and policies. Amazingly, Heritage boasts that ‘nearly two-thirds of the 2000 recommendations contained in Mandate were adopted by the Reagan Administration.’
While Reagan ran as an anti-government Republican in 1980, the conservative machine worked hard through the 1980s and 1990s to create a new agenda for the country, ready for the day that it took over Congress. It was prepared to make the transition from an opposition party providing a bulwark against liberal ruling orthodoxy, to a governing Party.
‘When Reagan and Bush won in the 1980s, they did not have an affirmative agenda for America,’ notes Stein:
Their agenda was to lower taxes and dismantle the liberal establishment, the structure of government. Get rid of the Office of Economic Opportuni
ty, all these poverty programs, all these Legal Services get rid of that shit. It was a deconstruction of liberal institutional capacity. There wasn’t an affirmative agenda, a conservative Right-wing agenda for America until the Contract with America.
Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America was predicated, not on the dismantling of government, but on creating a government that promoted and instituted conservative principles. ‘He aggregated all of the work that the infrastructure had been working on Gingrich didn’t come up with a single one of those ideas,’ Stein said. ‘Those planks are all work products of the Heritage think tank. That was what they were doing in the 1980s and early 1990s, they were working on these ideas.’ And not just in DC, but all around the country, at the State and local levels.
So by the time Gingrich pulled it all together in the 10 planks of the Contract with America it had been tried and tested through their system. And when Gingrich rode the Contract to a sweeping victory in the House of Representatives, it was the maturation of the Grand Old Party (or Republicans) from opposition to governing power. For the first time in six decades, Democrats were shut out of Congress.
Gingrich, and later, George W Bush and his frighteningly effective brains trust, drew heavily from Marvin Olasky, a product of the Bradley Foundation and author of the 1992 tome Tragedy of American Compassion . The anti-government thesis of Olasky argued that only the faith community, private individuals, and charity organisations could tackle poverty. He dubbed his thesis ‘compassionate conservatism.’
Eight years later, ‘Bush used that term œcompassionate conservatism, got elected, and then that affirmative agenda that they had worked on for 15 years is now everything you see,’ Stein said. ‘It’s Social Security reform, œtort reform, pre-emption as a military policy, No Child Left Behind, œClear Skies, school vouchers, it’s the entire agenda.’
And if you want any proof that those investments in think tanks and research foundations by the big money conservative donors paid off, simply check out the Heritage Foundation website, where you will find this blurb from Karl Rove: ‘Heritage is the intellectual centerpiece in Washington for conservative ideas We stole from every publication we could; we stole several key staff persons; we want to steal more of your ideas.’
There is nothing shady about this VRWC, there is nothing illegal about the network of conservative organisations promoting and co-ordinating their efforts. In fact, what conservatives have built over the past 30 years is nothing short of brilliant. We can admire it the way we would admire the precision engineering, and craftsmanship of a stealth fighter.
That no one even compiled the data on the VRWC, and got the information to the right people until Stein did it in 2003 is an indictment of its own.
That the Democratic establishment didn’t react to the rise of the VRWC was virtually criminal.
So we lack a vast left-wing conspiracy (VLWC). Not that it has prevented the wingnuts from fabricating one. One of the most hilarious political books of 2005 was conservative writer Byron York’s The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy , with the ominous subtitle, The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President . By, um, trying to defeat him in a democratic election.
The book jacket background helpfully lists the cogs of this VLWC, and it’s a pathetic exercise in padding. For example, it lists the Center for American Progress, John Podesta (who runs CAP), David Sirota (who worked at CAP), and the Progress Report (an email newsletter from CAP) all as separate components of this so-called conspiracy.
In similar fashion, the author lists MoveOn, Wes Boyd (co-founder of MoveOn), Joan Blades (the other co-founder of MoveOn), and Eli Pariser (head of MoveOn PAC). Poor York couldn’t find enough players in our so-called VLWC to fill his book’s cover without turning it into an employee directory for the measly few organisations we’ve got on the ground.
Clearly, we need a real VLWC, one that would allow hacks like York to write a book with some substance in it.
Stein’s presentation also generated one of the big paradoxes of the 2004 Presidential election. The prospects of a disastrous second term for Bush (now proven true) generated hundreds of millions of dollars for John Kerry and Democrats up and down the ballot. Yet many who saw Stein’s presentation knew that regardless of the November results the progressive movement had a huge, expensive, and difficult task ahead. A Kerry victory wouldn’t erase the massive infrastructure advantage the Right enjoyed or the need for the Left to build one of its own. It would be easier for progressives to begin to build that infrastructure if Kerry lost.
As Anne Bartley, a philanthropist and board member of the big-dollar-donor group Democracy Alliance, which was formed after the 2004 elections, told the Boston Globe in June 2005, ‘Frankly, if Kerry had won, there might not even have been a Democracy Alliance.’
The Alliance, which Stein helped create with Simon Rosenberg and others, will act as a financial clearinghouse; it will solicit multi-year commitments from major donors and allocate the money to create and fund a progressive infrastructure of think tanks, media entities, and advocacy groups. By late 2005, the Alliance had tens of millions of dollars in commitments for the next few years. When a history of this movement is written in a generation or two, the big irony will be that while Republicans celebrated their 2004 victories, that election actually marked the start of the end of Republican dominance.
This is an edited extract from Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas ZÃºniga, Crashing the Gate: How American Politics Is About to Change (Pluto Press Australia) RRP: $29.95
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