“Ah, there’s good news tonight!” was Gabriel Heatter’s signature radio phrase during the darkest days of World War II. Mr. Heatter (1) said he learned that listeners were buoyed by that upbeat phrase during some very bad periods in the war, so he continued it. His emphasis on the bright side of the news actually helped the country.
Except for a few voices from the past, like Paul Harvey’s, (2) there is nothing like that today. Most news reports – including news about the economy, business, the war, and even the weather – are spun to match the political proclivities of media people who, according to polls, vote 90% Democrat. When a Republican is president, it’s all bad news, all the time. (Statistics compiled by media watchdogs consistently bear this out.)
Currently powerless in both the executive and legislative branches, Democrats have become the party of “bad news tonight”. Even if the news isn’t truly bad, the media try to make it seem so. Disaster and ruin is now the stock-in-trade of FDR’s once confident and optimistic party.
Has unemployment risen? A page-1 story will trumpet it, along with pathetic stories of people out of work, lacking health insurance and losing their homes. (Mr. Bush will receive his customary drubbing.) Has unemployment actually fallen? A two-inch story which does not mention Mr. Bush is buried on page C-28. (No need to emphasize something that might help the GOP.)
The economy has often been an effective weapon for Democrats wishing to regain power. When the steel industry was idled by a four-month strike in 1959, the US economy fell into a mild recession because so many industries – including auto-makers – were hurt. John Kennedy rode the downturn to a razor-thin presidential victory in 1960.
After twelve years of booming economic growth under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the economy hit a brief plateau in 1992. Some of the lull stemmed from the 1990-’91 Gulf War. Another brake was the higher tax rates Mr. Bush accepted when he broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Running on “It’s the economy, stupid”, Bill Clinton denounced “the worst economy since the Great Depression”. (What about the Carter years?) He promised “change”. Third-party candidate Ross Perot drew 19% of the vote, letting Mr. Clinton slide in with just 43%. Post-election reports read, “Surprise! The economy isn’t as bad as we thought it was.”
Mr. Bush (41) later admitted that he never believed voters would buy the ridiculous Great Depression claim. Suffering from generation “gaposis”, he didn’t realize that most voters hadn’t lived through the depression. (Indeed, Mr. Clinton – born in 1946 – didn’t either.)
Today, as we approach the 2006 elections, the economy is growing 3% a year, with only 4% unemployment. Inflation is low. Millions of new jobs are being created annually. Wages are rising. People are spending. Yet we hear a steady bad-news/bad-news drumbeat from the media. Reporters say: yes, the numbers are good, but people are worried. They don’t feel good about where the country is heading. (Most view their own situation positively, however.) The media use this “feelings malaise” to paint the economic picture gray.
Numbers-oriented commentators and economists think gas and health care costs might be to blame for this fog. Maybe so. But I believe the key factor in our “unsettled” feeling is the war. Individuals and businesses are cautious about investing or building for the future because the war is still unresolved. My parents said World War II was a daily reality during that era. Whatever you did, there was the war. It wasn’t clear if we would win. Today, people forget about the war for days – even weeks – at a time. Yet it disturbs us at some level. It’s unfinished.
Mr. Bush and his advisors are tearing their hair over “getting no credit” for a strong economy. Perhaps they don’t realize how the war sours people’s outlook. Democrats evidently understand that war makes a booming economy seem lackluster and discouraging. Their bad-news drum, throbbing month after month, helps drown out the positive economic data.
The war, of course, is a fabulous bad news generator for Democrats. The nightly TV images of violence and death are ugly and disturbing. Sensing that they might win control of the Congress because the public is upset over the war, the Dems have cast off all pretense of “linking arms at the water’s edge” in the role of the loyal opposition. As the election nears, charges are flying:
The war is “a mess”, it’s unwinnable; it’s a civil war, it’s the wrong war, it’s Vietnam War II. We can’t catch Osama; it doesn’t matter if we catch him. Bush is an idiot; Rumsfeld is incompetent; they’re all liars. Cheney started the war and he wants to keep it going for Haliburton. The Jihadists have legitimate aims; we’re no better than they are; they’re everywhere; etc., etc.
The “blogosphere” abounds with hate-spewing web sites whose writers seem willing to lose the war just to harm George W. Bush and the Republicans.
The current rage is to charge Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with having made (gasp) “mistakes”. (Liberal historians say no previous official ever made a mistake in a war.) In an early August Senate hearing, Senator Hillary Clinton roasted Mr. Rumsfeld for errors in judgment and faulty predictions. She demanded his resignation, asking, “why should we believe anything you say?” Responding to Mrs. Clinton’s angry charges, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “Well, my goodness…”, before defending the Bush war policies, aims, achievements and predictions.
Obviously I jest about previous American war leaders making no mistakes. Our wars – mostly run by Democrats – have abounded with mistakes. Some were disastrous. War is often compared to football. It’s a good metaphor, but as a tennis player I realize how much my sport resembles war. Even the greatest players make many mistakes – often at key moments in a match. If they got as upset over hitting a ball into the net as I sometimes do, they couldn’t continue. You try to make fewer errors than your opponent, retain composure, and keep hitting.
War is so much like that. Mistake after mistake results from inadequate intelligence or faulty reading of it, or misjudgment of the enemy’s strength, resolve, and intentions. People fail at all levels. Plans can be poorly made or improperly executed. Equipment might be inadequate. Any experienced soldier will agree that snafus and bungling are inevitable in war. Yet after myriad errors, a winner emerges who persevered despite his mistakes.
Part of me worries that Americans are too inexperienced with waging protracted war to know that wartime mistakes are common. But another part of me believes that we are smarter than this. Hopefully, many of us understand that winning is a matter of overcoming mistakes.
The mistakes, the deaths and injuries, the instability of Iraq, the widening engagement of Jihadist forces, the pusillanimity of Europe – all these are part of the almost deafening bad-news drumbeat on the war. We shall see if it stampedes voters into throwing out the GOP and quitting Iraq.
Closer to home, the weather was also a great bad-news opportunity – especially in 2005. Katrina flooded and destroyed New Orleans. The local response to the disaster was grossly mismanaged. Some city police fled in their patrol cars. They were stopped as far away as Florida by state cops who assumed the cruisers were stolen. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco waited for days to declare the state a “disaster area”, delaying the entry of federal aid. And Mayor Ray Nagin – who deliberately did not provision the Superdome so people wouldn’t linger there – denounced Mr. Bush in salty language because the president flew over the flooded region instead of making a cameo appearance with Mr. Nagin and city officials. (Mr. Nagin wanted that “shirtsleeves” photo-op with Mr. Bush.)
Agreeing by consensus that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had “massively failed” during the unprecedented disaster, the media mercilessly flailed the agency and its director, Michael Brown, for weeks. Under pressure by association, Mr. Bush removed Mr. Brown. But the media’s tom-tomming over federal “incompetence” continued into 2006.
Mr. Bush was even “blamed” for the storm because he had rejected the Koyoto climate treaty. Advocates say Koyoto will stop global warming by reducing carbon emissions. Environmentalists claim the warming causes more hurricanes of greater intensity. (Many scientists differ with both claims.) Katrina was the most politicized hurricane in history.
The current season, which has produced no catastrophic storms, has been a great disappointment to Democrats – so much so that a great “celebration” of the 1-year anniversary of Katrina was contrived to try to renew the outrage at the president and his government for their “failures”. But the anniversary events flopped in that respect. “Why couldn’t Katrina have happened in 2006?” some Democrats plaintively ask. (Grandma always said you can’t depend on the weather.)
Will the bad news strategy work for Democrats? Maybe. Most people don’t get excited about economic news unless they are out of work or lose big in the stock market. Currently gas prices are plunging, producing long Democratic faces. A gigantic new oil strike in the Gulf of Mexico has just been announced, producing even longer faces. And time has faded the Katrina shock. Reports criticizing Mr. Bush have dwindled as more information emerges about local officials’ bungling of the crisis. Lurid atrocity stories – such as murders and rapes at the Superdome – were found to be false. But pictures of hundreds of school buses sitting unused until they were flooded and ruined are an enduring symbol of municipal disarray during the storm. FEMA may have had its problems, but Michael Brown didn’t let those buses sit there.
The final verdict on the “bad news” comes in November. Mr. Bush isn’t running, so the question is whether 535 districts and seventeen states will elect representatives and senators who will put Democrats in charge and pull us out of Iraq. Call it wishful thinking, but I doubt it. Campaigning on bad news and hoping your opponent’s government will fail – indeed, trying to make it fail – are not long-term winning strategies for a party. What Democrats offer is: “I’m sick of the war, the economy stinks, and George Bush is an idiot.” Some vision. Hopefully, voters dumb enough to resonate with it won’t get around to voting.
Millions of voters will step into voting booths. In that brief, quiet moment many will ask themselves, “Do I really want to vote for a party that will raise my taxes, keep gas expensive, trash my personal values (including marriage), protect terrorists’ rights, and bail on Iraq before the job is done there?” Americans are smart people. I’m confident about how they will answer.
(1) See a brief sketch of Gabriel Heatter’s life and career at http://www.otr.com/heatter.html
(2) Paul Harvey News and Comment has been carried by ABC since 1951, and The Rest of the Story since 1946. Mr. Harvey turned 88 on September 4.