After all those years of good soldiering, what did he have to show for it? Little support from Reagan, little interest from rank-and-file Republicans, and less than little respect from the media and the public. After all that selfless service -- and being a war hero to boot! -- they were running magazine covers with "The Wimp Factor" stamped across his forehead, and making him out to be some rich-kid boot-licking snob. 'Course, he was, but that's another story.
So, anyhow, HW starts off the campaign no less than seventeen points down against his opponent, the miraculously soon-to-be-even-more-hapless Michael Dukakis. And while many of the steps that Bush and Dukakis took in the ensuing months helped guarantee that the Vice President would overcome his deficit in the polls and trounce the Governor of Massachusetts, surely none was so powerful as the silver bullet which singlehandedly saved the Bush campaign, the Willie Horton ad.
Leave aside for the moment the moral repugnance of the spot, which clearly sought to erase any doubt in the minds racist Southerners and fearful suburbanites as to their preferred candidate. Lee Atwater, whose protege was a certain Karl Rove, and who apologized on his deathbed for what he had done (nice try Lee, but you still gotta spend eternity down there), ushered in the modern era of filthy Republican campaign tactics with this ad -- playing the race card, pandering to our worst angels, and degrading the quality of discourse in the public sphere -- all in one thirty second ad.
From a simple strategic point of view, though, it was the silver bullet which took the pathetic Dukakis down hard, never to recover, in what we would now describe as a classic example of swift-boating. (At least Dukakis had the excuse of being the first victim -- how could Kerry not have seen this coming sixteen years later?) When the smoke cleared, Bush won the race by a healthy eight percentage points and a monstrously healthier four-to-one Electoral College landslide, having captured forty states to the liberal guy's ten. If the new president had had a shred of gratitude within him, he would have pardoned Willie Horton as his first act in office and set the guy up as deputy attorney general for civil rights or something -- that's how much he owed to that ad, the silver bullet that turned a laughingstock into a president. (Whether Bush managed to revert back again by misreading his own lips or barfing on the Japanese prime minister's shoes is, again, another story.)
Today, the entire Democratic Party looks like nothing so much as a sad imitation of the sad visage of sad candidate Dukakis. Instead of governing the most powerful polity ever to exist on the planet, it now teaches grad seminars in public policy at this or that university in Massachusetts or Tennessee. Instead of making major policy decisions for America and the world, piteous Democrats take aim at giant PR bull's-eyes like Katrina or Alito -- or Bush -- but manage to hit only their own webbed feet with any consistency. Since Wellstone went down, it's hard to find a single gut between them, though high marks go to the odd happy mistake like Conyers or Kucinich.
As 2006 brings with it the prospect of yet another losing election cycle -- and, worse yet, against a GOP which in any normal universe would be facing extinction for any one, let alone the sum total, of its blunders and crimes -- Democrats desperately need a silver bullet.
The truth is, they're sitting on an entire ammo dump full of them, but they have shown themselves so far to be either too dumb, too frightened, or too uninterested in anything but their own corporate-sponsored careers to actually pick any of them up and use them. (With Ameriquest now sponsoring the Rolling Stones tour, can "Mr. Speaker, Wal-Mart Presents the Junior Senator from Arkansas" be far behind? Will he have to wear a yellow happy face mask while addressing the Senate? And, if so, where does that leave the poor senator from Jimmy Dean?)
Honorable mentions for runner-up killer donkey campaign themes for 2006 would certainly include Terri Schiavo-like invasions of personal and family privacy, illegal spying on Americans, an utterly out of control deficit, endless lies about the war, Hurricane Katrina mismanagement, and -- especially -- the prescription drug plan (Yo, Dems -- did your high-priced consultants ever share with you this little factoid?: seniors vote!). Good god, the list is as endless as it is doubly depressing. It hurts once, because we're stuck living with these criminal Bush-induced debacles, and then again because the nominal 'opposition' party supposed to protect us from such travesties is completely unable to land a punch on what would be the boxing world's equivalent of Helen Keller wrapped in duct tape. Grrrrrr. Can you imagine what the Republicans would do with one-tenth of this shit? Johnny Carson never had material half this good, and he paid a team of professionals to make it up, five nights a week!
Yet, without question, the hands-down, all-time winner of the Silver-Bullet-In-Waiting Award for 2006 (if not the entire century) goes to -- drum roll, please -- Body Armor.
Yeah, you got it. I'll put it plain and simple. If the Democrats want to destroy the GOP in 2006 -- I mean flatten those bastards -- they really need do just one thing: run a single commercial, over and over again. Well, okay, make that two things: Run it over and over again, and then never retreat, never explain, and never apologize.
That commercial's theme? Simple: It's been five years since the Bush team started planning the war in Iraq. It's been three years since they launched the invasion. And yet, today, American soldiers still do not have sufficient body armor to protect themselves.
That's it. That's really all the Democrats need to win in a landslide in 2006. Body armor is the Willie Horton of 2006.
Now, you could certainly also make the thing even more compelling with the addition of a few powerful grace notes. To wit:
secret Pentagon report showing that 80 percent of the Marines killed from upper body wounds in Iraq would have survived if George Bush had supplied them with proper armor.
film of small-town American communities holding bake sales to outfit their troops in Iraq with armor, perhaps juxtaposed with shots of Tom DeLay golfing in Scotland.
with returned soldiers describing how our troops have to jury-rig cobbled-together armor for themselves and their vehicles.
of corruption and incompetence in armor contracting, alongside reports of vast corruption in the Coalition Provisional Authority's procurement and accounting practices, to the tune of $8 billion utterly vanished. How many entire armies could be outfitted in 24 carat gold armor for eight billion dollars?
of wounded American soldiers struggling to recover their lives. Clips of families of the fallen angrily lamenting their unnecessary loss of loved ones.
The impact of such a campaign should be obvious, but there are also good strategic reasons why body armor is the Willie Horton of 2006.
First, because it is indelible and unconscionable. Republicans have been successful in recent years in part because they have picked issues which they can reduce to simple and emotionally powerful tropes that are especially effective with busy, frightened and ill-informed voters. (Moreover, the GOP works hard not only to exploit such voters, but to create them beforehand by overworking them, frightening them, and lying to them). So Democrats, trying to explain the fourth-order nuances of highly nuanced issues look like flip-flopping nothing-burgers who voted for it before they voted against it (whatever it was), or wimpy bleeding hearts who would try to stop terrorists by stretching a General Assembly resolution in front of them, printed on the finest parchment.
Complicated, effete, or insipid story arcs don't work, regardless of how complex the issue truly is. For example, just because Iraqis are Muslims doesn't mean that they're the same crowd that attacked us on 9/11. But how many Americans could make that distinction, especially after the Bush propaganda machine got done with them? Actually, we can answer that question with some precision. In July of 2003, 69 percent of Americans thought Saddam was behind 9/11. If that statistic alone doesn't make you want to jump off a cliff in despair, you definitely have a great drug connection.
Meanwhile, though, body armor is just exactly one of those sort of issues -- direct, tribal and emotionally resonant -- only this time it can be turned against the right. And legitimately so. There's no nuance here, and anyone who tries to explain this away can easily be made to look even worse yet. We all know that George Bush gets most everything he wants. The only reason our soldiers in Iraq don't have armor is because Bush hasn't cared enough to want it for them. It's really just that simple. Imagine how fast it would have been delivered, no-bid Halliburton contract and all, if this president had shown a tenth of a percent of the compulsion he displayed getting an army to Iraq in getting it properly armored first?
Second, this issue will assist the Democrats in neutralizing the GOP's perennial best weapon against them, national security. Without this advantage -- indeed without 9/11 alone -- it's difficult to imagine the Republicans having had much electoral success at all these last years. They know that, and Karl Rove has just announced, once again, that security will be the core of their electoral strategy in 2006. (Announced! Talk about arrogance! Talk about hubris! Talk about Democrats being so non-threatening that the other guy taunts them in advance with the weapon of their mass destruction!) Anyhow, what a surprise, eh? Polls show that Democrats are preferred by the public on every other issue, why wouldn't Rove go right back to the security well? Democrats have completely ceded that domain to the right, who use it with all the subtlety of a pile driver attached to a bunker buster. But the body armor issue could put Democrats right back on that turf, and in a manner which is highly poignant and simple to grasp -- and therefore a winner.
Which also means, third, use of this issue prevents the GOP from continuing to hide behind the troops. In fact, trying to do so in the future would make them appear instead as just what they are: hypocritical opportunists who use the troops for photo-ops, but don't actually give a damn about them. (Democrats, of course, will need to deliver for the troops to avoid this same charge. But running competent government programs is one of the two things Dems can mostly be counted on actually doing, so probably they would.) The body armor issue thus has the potential to become a profound exercise in political jujitsu, using the very strength of one's opponent against him.
Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about this issue is that the much-vaunted Karl Rove has allowed this open sore GOP vulnerability to exist for three long years. Partly this is because Rove is infinitely less the strategic master he's managed to get people to believe he is. To take only the most obvious example, imagine what a cakewalk blow-out he could have produced in 2004 if he hadn't had his guy spend the first term governing from the extreme and arrogant right? After 9/11, a moderately conservative and humble Bush could have sailed into a second term with enough political capital to buy a third term after that. But as it was, the Boy Genius damn near lost him the election, and actually probably did if voting scams in Ohio and Florida hadn't been set-up to seal the deal. Some strategic guru that is.
Probably the other reason Rove never worries enough about body armor to get this massive liability patched up is that he knows that the closest Democrats ever get to courage these days is in a movie theater. Why bother actually fighting the Dark Side when you can eat popcorn and watch Luke Skywalker do it from the comfort of stadium seating? What, you say, that's not reality!? It's just a movie!?
Whether Rove's complacence turns out to be an exercise in hubris or prescience depends entirely on the willingness of the Democratic Party to employ one of the best gifts ever given to any party in opposition.
As amazing an opportunity as it is, don't bet the ranch (or even the lower forty) that they'll use it. That's because the second thing that Democrats can almost always be counted on to do is to disappoint anyone who cares about the party or about progressive politics in America. E. coli takes down more Republicans than these clowns ever did. And has more of a spine, to boot.
Ugh. What's your dealer's number?
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. His last commentary that appeared in the Monitor was, "The War For The UN"
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March 11, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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