By Bill Boyarsky
It’s comforting for liberals to view the conservative world through the MSNBC bubble and mitigated by the opinions of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. The cable network prime-time stars portray the right-wing Republicans as kooks, more laughable than dangerous.
This reflects the game plan of MSNBC, a news operation that has, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted, offered itself as “a liberal counterpart to Fox.”
But it’s not the real world. I only hope Democrats aren’t sitting on their couches scoffing along with the MSNBC hosts while the right wing runs away with the election.
That narrative was reinforced last week by Christine O’Donnell’s tea party-driven victory in the Delaware Republican primary. Friday, after the election, Maddow turned her attention to both the candidate and to the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., where O’Donnell was given a triumphant welcome.
Maddow featured remarks by one summit-goer, an Alabama politician in cowboy attire urging the audience to “get rid of Barry or Barack or whatever” his name is. She also showed veteran ultra-conservative Gary Bauer telling the audience that the United States is at war with Islam and “the cause of the violence is an Islamic culture that keeps hundreds of millions of people on the edge of murder and mayhem 24 hours a day.” O’Donnell was another of the motley group of speakers.
The images might have seemed laughable, but actually they were not.
The rants weren’t just random screaming. Together, they constituted rhetoric putting American voters on a poisonous path and further damaging Democratic chances in the November election and for President Obama in 2012. As Matt Bai wrote in a perceptive New York Times column last week:
“With every new swipe at President Obama’s exotic background or cultural influences, a contingent of Republican leaders is signaling that they believe the coming elections are more than just a referendum on the administration economic policies. Rather, to a degree that is striking, conservatives are also trying to make the fall campaign about the president himself. … If Ronald Reagan was the party’s Great Communicator, then Republicans seem to be hoping that Mr. Obama is its Great Galvanizer. … The clear implication that he is neither suitably Christian nor American in his values adds a sinister subtext against his economic agenda.”
Yet the Democrats appear paralyzed, unable to put together a counterattack. That was evident on a recent weekend when I visited a party for the opening of a Democratic Party headquarters in Los Angeles’ suburban San Fernando Valley. The crowd was much smaller than at a similar event in 2008. The Obama-inspired fire was gone.
“The progressives want to help the Democrats, but they are not enthusiastic,” said Democratic volunteer Mike Goldman. But he was enthusiastic enough to be finishing up some organizational paperwork for a board meeting before the program began.
Goldman, a CPA, is the kind of volunteer the Democrats need in this difficult year. Opposition to the Iraq War, after considerable thought, brought him into politics. Much of his reflection was done during a 10-month motor home trip around the country in 2003. “I started really educating myself,” he said. “I tried to find a way to get involved. It was really hard.”
That, by the way, echoes the complaint of many newcomers trying to find a meaningful place in the volunteer ranks. Goldman started with MoveOn.org during the 2008 primaries and then shifted to Obama for America during the general election.
Goldman seemed ready for the battle, to engage in the get-out-the vote campaign the Democrats need to win this election. But many more Goldmans are needed. “It (victory) depends on what we do in the trenches,” said Bob Blumenfield, a state assemblyman.
In his appearance on CNBC Monday, Obama conceded he has a tough sell. He said he knows the economy hasn’t grown “fast enough. I know how frustrated people are. I know, in some cases, how desperate people are. But I also know an economy that was shrinking is now growing. We have finally tackled tough challenges like health care that we have been putting off for decades. …”
He’s the only one who can sell the message across the country, and that’s what he’s going to have to do with great intensity. Only Obama can stimulate Democrats to join Goldman and the other activists now in the field.
The Democrats will get breaks, as they did when Bill Maher reprised an O’Donnell appearance on his old “Politically Incorrect” show in which the tea-party favorite said, “I dabbled in witchcraft. I never joined a coven. I hung around people who were doing these things.”
That’s amusing, but it’s not enough to beat someone like O’Donnell in an election when the country is going through such hard times.
AP / Rob Carr
Christine O’Donnell smiles at supporters after winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Delaware earlier this month.