by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
November 21, 2005
HOW THE LEFT CAN RISE AGAIN
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 21, 2005 -- Arnold Schwarzenegger still doesn't know what hit him, and apparently the rest of the media hasn't quite figured it out either. Arnold got Limbaughed. Hannitized. O'Reilly'd. Give it any name you want, it represents the first time that the techniques perfected by talk-radio and used by the "Right wing noise machine" have been turned around and used effectively against their own side.
The result was that Arnold went zero for four in his "reform" slate of ballot initiatives on the Nov., 2005 special election. For the California residents who have been watching this show for the past year, it is clear that the election was a repudiation of Schwarzenegger himself.
If you really look at what happened to Arnold, it couldn't be more clear. For most of the time Schwarzenegger has been in office, union sponsored television spots have been gnawing away at his popularity and his credibility. Perhaps you have to be a California resident to have experienced the process in all its malign beauty. Month after month, we were treated to paid tv spots that show teachers or firemen or police officers speaking directly to the camera, and the message has always been the same: Schwarzenegger broke his word. Schwarzenegger is the tool of the special interests. Schwarzenegger is hurting education.
The irony is priceless: Over the past few months, one side attacked the other in a way that was relentless, opportunistic, personally destructive and not entirely accurate. Sounds like a perfect description of right-wing talk radio, doesn't it? But in this case, it was the battle for California waged by the unions. The teachers and nurses put it to Gov. Schwarzenegger in a way that did honor to the style and standards pioneered by talk radio.
It is an approach that doesn't concern itself about honor or honesty. Accuracy is not a requirement. It doesn't matter that you quote out of context. Just go for the jugular.
There is one critical element that the unions mastered: you beat the subject to death by repetition. The talk-show meisters had already established the pattern. Talk radio hosts argue the same subjects endlessly. Some have been hitting on the same topics for five and ten years now.
Except for the use of radio, the public employee unions managed to distill the essence of talk radio and feed it to the public by the gallon. They got the repetition part right and they made use of all the other aspects of modern political character assassination.
They figured out one thing right from the start: You seize the moral high ground. All this takes is the right tone of voice and the effective use of facial expression. The school teachers showed a rare mastery of this. In one television spot, we see what looks like a classroom, and the camera moves in on a woman who is introduced by a text message as "the teacher of the year" (It doesn't matter which school district or year - most of us didn't notice - but it gives her credibility). She looks right at the camera and starts talking about the governor. She addresses him directly as she inserts the knife: "Governor Schwarzenegger, you broke your promise ..."
By itself, this ad isn't all that wonderful. Sure, it argues that the macho straight-shooter now governing us isn't all that trustworthy, but so what? Candor wasn't exactly President Bush's main virtue, and he did well enough in his last campaign.
What made the union ad effective was sheer weight of repetition. I personally saw it dozens of times (and by contemporary standards, I don't watch all that much tv). The surface message was about education funding - something about money taken from the education budget the year before. It's hard to imagine a duller, less politically charged subject than this.
But try saying it on tv a few hundred times. In the real world, the nearly endless repetition communicated two additional messages to the viewers. The first is you can't trust this man. Repeated over and over again, the message became, in effect, this is not the man you thought you were voting for.
This wasn't the only anti-Schwarzenegger tv spot. There were others, but they all communicated the same simple theme: Schwarzenegger can't be trusted.
The voters responded. When Schwarzenegger first won the recall election against Gov. Gray Davis, he enjoyed approval ratings in the 70 percent range. By the time of the November 2005 special election, those numbers were down in the 30s.
The union campaign communicated another message, perhaps a bit more subtle, but equally important: This guy can be taken. It's the oldest story in modern politics: When the opposition deluged the public with ads and Schwarzenegger failed to respond with his own deluge, he was showing political weakness. Maybe the guy can still bench-press his own weight, but he isn't responding to a bunch of school teachers and nurses. What a wimp. Allow this to go on for six months and then a year, and it is hard to overcome.
In short, the center-Left noise machine did to Schwarzenegger what the Right's noise machine did to Clinton, Kerry, Tom Daschle, John McCain and others.
By making the subject personal, the unions made the special election in effect a referendum on Schwarzenegger himself. That's how they managed to get so many people to vote a straight "No" ticket on all the statewide ballot issues. In this way, they defeated the initiative that most endangered their own political power, a measure which would have made it harder for them to use union dues on political campaigns.
The damage to Schwarzenegger's reputation allowed for other campaigns to fight the rest of the initiatives effectively. In an election that became a referendum on the incumbent governor, it was enough for the opposition to say, "If he's for it, then you should be against it." Eventually, the anti-Schwarzenegger side didn't even have to mention the governor directly. Anything he was for became automatically suspect, and could be attacked with impunity.
Let's consider one example of how far the process went. In this case, it's an ad campaign that was clearly the most disingenuous of all. It was directed against the one initiative that, at another time, in another election, might have had broad nonpartisan support.
Proposition 77 would have reformed California's current process of redistricting. Practically everyone except the incumbents loathes the current system. Redistricting is done by act of the state legislature and requires the governor's signature. The process has been described as "incumbency protection," because that is the usual result.
The ballot initiative (strongly supported by Schwarzenegger) had one little eccentricity that the opponents worked to make into a debility: It called for a panel of three retired judges to design electoral district maps. The opposition television campaign took this relatively innocuous aspect and turned it into a horror-flick.
To do this, it dressed three actors up as judges and had them start by looking properly judicial, but then had them snicker menacingly in front of the camera. They smiled like villains and managed to look and act like creeps. In one early version of the ad, they cut up the map of California into jigsaw pieces and then reassembled them into the shape of Texas.
It is a tribute to the acting ability of the three "judges" that they managed to look almost real but simultaneously a little nasty. What started as a legitimate political reform attempt in the form of Prop 77 morphed into an attack by political opponents on the as yet imaginary retired judges who might someday be appointed.
There is of course no intellectual content to such advertising images, but they made their point nevertheless: Three judges are still three people, and what's worse, they might actually be Republicans cut in the Tom DeLay mold, out to do to California districts what DeLay did to Texas. Or they might be like cartoon villains.
Once again, the governor's political opponents took a page right out of the Right book and made it work. Prop 77 was defeated by almost two to one, losing by over a million votes.
As for the governor's response to the whole barrage, it was a matter of too little and too late. His television ads whined about the opposition campaign. Respected newspaper writers were quoted, referring to the blatant dishonesty of the union-sponsored ads. These response ads actually had a legitimate point. The argument over education funding is complicated, and there are several arguable sides to it. Education funding is going up, not down, even if the teachers' lobby thinks it needs to go higher still. This response wasn't able to turn the tide.
What the public employee unions have shown here in California is that under the appropriate circumstances, it is possible for the center-Left to beat the Right at its own game. The same techniques of repetition and personal attack worked for the Left in this election, just as they have worked for the right under other circumstances.
The practical difficulty for the Left is that unlike the Right, it has to pay for its own propaganda. The Left doesn't have fleets of radio stations with hundreds of Right talk shows. The California unions had to raise money by the boatload to fight their battles.
But they did fight, and they did win.
This should be a lesson to liberals and Democrats and every other group of people who resent what the Right has done to our political discourse. The effective response, it would appear, is to fight fire with fire, dirt with dirt, attack with attack.
This creates a moral quandary to some extent, but at the strategic level the lesson is clear. By spending enough money starting right now and continuing through the next election, by attacking relentlessly without worrying about the ethical niceties, the Democrats can improve their lot markedly next year.
If it cost a hundred million dollars to fight in California, perhaps it will take five or 10 times that amount to fight a similar fight in 20 or 30 states. The lessons from the 2004 election about internet fundraising tell us that this number is attainable if enough people are motivated. It would be difficult, but not impossible.