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Bush taking on issues, Dems taking on Rush Limbaugh

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 9, 2002

Friday's sacking of two key members of the Bush economic team – Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and National Economic Council head Larry Lindsey – offers an opportunity to demonstrate that the administration is serious about domestic policy. If this opportunity is taken, it will send an unmistakable signal to the opposition party that it too must become serious about something.

While President Bush's foreign and defense policy team is well-known, containing such heavyweights as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, there is a conspicuous lack of corresponding "star power" among his domestic policymakers. To be sure, the president has paid more attention to domestic matters than his father did but he has by no means left his imprimatur on these issues to the same extent he has on the post-9/11 war against terrorism.

Even after the passage of the Bush tax cut over a year ago, the contours of Washington's economic debate remain largely unchanged from the 2000 presidential campaign: Republicans favor timidly crafted tax cuts designed to minimize fears about the budget deficit and largely justified with Keynesian arguments. Democrats oppose all such tax cuts as gifts to the "wealthiest 1 percent" and prefer some combination of government spending and "targeted" tax breaks that at best promote consumption and at worst are indistinguishable from government spending. (Case in point "refundable tax credits" to people without income-tax liabilities, which are essentially welfare payments.)

Paul O'Neill and Larry Lindsey
O'Neill and Lindsey

Perhaps new messengers can break this deadlock. Of course, the economy itself will be affected less by the administration's message than the substance of its policies. Lindsey for the most part influenced the administration to adopt pro-growth policies despite his inadequacies as their public pitchman; O'Neill was ineffective and erratic on both counts. New faces will count for little without constructive policy, but the administration has taken a step in the right direction. It seeks to claim public confidence on the economy the way it has thus far on national security.

By contrast, Democrats have yet to unite around a substantive policy agenda following the midterm elections and have instead focused on process and personalities. The only issue they appear to be working very hard to take away from Republicans is media bias.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle appeared to blame his party's losses on conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Much of his criticism, such as when he implied that Limbaugh's commentary resulted in threats against him and other politicians, was simply a rehash of the old angry-white-male/reckless-talk-radio theme with a comparison to Islamic fundamentalism thrown in for good measure. But former Vice President Al Gore refined it into a comprehensive critique of a right-wing "fifth column" within the American media that serves the objectives of the Republican Party.

Gore told the New York Observer that talk radio and the conservative press receive their talking points from the Republican National Committee, whereupon they broadcast these items, challenge other less conservative media outlets to do the same and end up with these talking points "woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist." This, presumably, is how Democrats lose elections.

This analysis suffers from several flaws. Notice how few actual outlets Gore was able to specifically name – Limbaugh, "FOX News" and the Washington Times. Surely, a handful of conservative voices cannot form an effective fifth column that would corrupt the entire media? Moreover, what makes these entities so noticeable is that the American media has fallen victim to a version of John O'Sullivan's dictum regarding organizations: Whatever is not explicitly right-wing will become left-wing over time. The success of conservative talk radio and "FOX News" is nothing more than a free-market response to the liberal bias of the rest of the media.

Consider the example of America's "newspaper of record," the New York Times – it has always been regarded as editorially liberal, and under the direction of Howell Raines it has become brazenly so. Its raw partisanship has made persistent critics out of such occasional Times contributors as Andrew Sullivan and its ideological conformity is so stultifying that two sports – not political- columnists, one a Pulitzer prize winner, were not allowed to deviate from the editorial line on whether Tiger Woods should boycott the Augusta National to protest the golf club's failure to admit women [A decision that has been since reversed - ed]. Unlike the conservative press, the New York Times doesn't wear its ideological label. As syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell has written, "Anyone listening to Rush Limbaugh knows that what he is saying is his own opinion. But people who listen to the news on ABC, CBS, or NBC may imagine that they are getting the facts, not just those facts which fit the ideology of the media, with the media's spin."

Now, it is true that news sources like the Washington Times and FOX have cultivated a better network of Republican contacts than many of their older liberal brethren. This leads to some recitation of Republican talking points, but also better coverage now that the GOP holds the White House and Congress. The conservative press' contributions to public discourse are not merely inflammatory, even on talk radio. Limbaugh once criticized one of my articles; obviously I didn't agree with his criticism, but he did bring up a defensible point and listeners of his who e-mailed me were not crazed fanatics, but rather politically engaged people interested in a reasoned dialog. (By the way, didn't liberals confidently predict that Limbaugh would become irrelevant if the Republicans were in power?)

The larger problem for the Democrats isn't whether Gore, Daschle and the rest are correct that GOP partisans have biased media coverage against them; it is that no one who they need to persuade to vote for them cares. Republicans have been complaining about liberal media bias at least as far back as Spiro Agnew. Their complaints have always fired up conservative true believers, but there is little evidence that they have won over swing voters. Similarly, Gore and Daschle may be serving up red meat to the Democratic base while irritating conservatives, but voters who don't identity with either group are uninterested. The Democrats today are in the same position the Republicans were in 1998 – defined by their single-minded opposition to the incumbent president and his party to the exclusion of issues with which they could build a majority.

Certainly, there is no shortage of things that could go wrong for President Bush between now and 2004. Recession, further terrorist attacks and the unpredictable nature of war all could take their toll on the public's confidence in his leadership. But right now, Americans can see him taking decisive action on a number of fronts where the Democrats are nowhere to be found.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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