Column No. 123 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - SEPTEMBER 28, 2006

Here’s a multiple choice question for you.  The key to winning elections in the United States is: a) money, b) incumbency, c) issues, d) personality, e) control of the agenda, f) all of the above.

Yes, it is “all of the above.”  But in my view, so many Democratic candidates, indeed many too many Democratic candidates, lose sight of “e.”  For the contemporary Republican Party it is an absolutely essential arrow in their quiver.  Although the understanding of the importance of controlling the agenda began with Lee “Willie Horton” Atwater, the art has been developed to its highest level under his primary acolyte, Karl Rove.  He couldn’t do it without the Democrats falling into the trap every time, but he weren’t setting the traps, the Democrats couldn’t fall into them.

On the macro level consider 2000.  When the focus should have been on the vast differences a Bush Presidency would bring to our country, Rove was able to make it “Bush is not Clinton and Gore is.”  In 2002 the Bush Presidency is already failing on many fronts but the Iraq “menace” is “rolled out” (as Andrew Card so eloquently put it) and that was that.  In 2004 Bush is reeling from one failure to the next: in Iraq, in foreign policy in general, in the destruction of so many domestic functions of the Federal government that are mandated by the Preamble to the Constitution, in the fact that corruption is already apparent as well as rampant, in the fact that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the rest of us, and so one and so forth.  And so, with the cooperation of the Democrats, Rove manages to make homophobia, terror, and Kerry’s Vietnam War record the major agenda items.  For 2006, they haven’t fixed firmly on their desired agenda items yet, although “fighting terror” is certainly the item of the month, but they are focusing on doing so.

Once again, what is Rove’s number one tactic (other than outright electoral theft, of which, according to some, he is an expert practitioner)?  Taking control of the agenda.  So, Karl, what to do now?  It is not simply a matter of making up stories about Bush and his “greatness.”  After all, now we’ve got the Iraq cesspool, Katrina, the apparent failure of Israeli foreign policy, global warming caused by human activity as a reality accepted not only by virtually all scientists but by an increasing number of citizens, Afghanistan, Korea.  But the master of agenda control is on the job.

Let’s consider a recent master stroke on the micro level: the ABC 9/11 “docu” drama.  In an editorial on September 9, 2006, our sister publication BuzzFlash noted that: “Lost in the uproar over ABC subcontracting 9/11 over to right wing extremists is the smoking gun conclusion of a Republican/Democratic Senate report that says Saddam had no connection to al-Qaeda -- and that, indeed, he went to great lengths to keep them out of Iraq. That means Bush and Cheney are responsible for opening up Iraq to al-Qaeda -- and that they lied and lied again.”  On the same day, BuzzFlash also observed: “Who Does the Writer/Producer of the Infamous ABC ‘Path to 9/11’ Fiction Mini-Series Give His Major Interview to? Radical Wing nut David Horowitz's Publication, That's who. In it, the Writer/Director Heaps Praise on Bush, Scorns Clinton, Praises the Patriot Act, scurrilously attacks the film ‘Syriana,’ and so on.” (See also Eric Alterman’s “Lying About 9/11? Easy as ABC,” The Nation, Oct. 2, 2006 for details on the right-wing cabal behind the piece.)  Hmm.  Trouble for Bush, no?  Well, no.

Quite some time ago, possibly while he was cooling his heels in Patrick Fitzgerald’s office waiting to make the deal he surely made to stay off the hook until after the election Bush can pardon Libby and have done with that matter, Karl was saying to himself, “come Fall, old fellow, to what we should we change the agenda?  With 9/11 coming, let’s focus on Bush’s best moment, no?  Even though it was a great moment only in Bush-fiction, his devoted followers think it was real and right now, with his poll numbers in the pits, that’s all that counts.” (Note that Bush’s poll numbers were going up ion the third week of Sept.)  So the first thought would be “let’s do a re-run of Bush and 9/11 and all will be well in the land of the Georgites.”

But hold on.  There are problems there too.  The media are getting a bit frisky.  9/11 occurred on Bush’s watch.  Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, warned Condi Rice that al-Qaeda was the number one security threat faced by the United States.  Rice ignored him.  Richard Clarke tried to warn Bush of the al-Qaeda menace on his first day in office and Bush ignored him.  The August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief, the myriad FBI warnings about students at flight schools interested only in flying, not in either how you get up in the air in a plane or back down on the ground with it in one piece, the Dept. of Defense mess-ups on 9/11, what the 9/11 Truth Movement continues to find out about what really happened in the run-up to the tragedy and on the day itself.  And so on and so forth.

Thus, for this Fifth Anniversary and on the day itself, another Bush posturing effort might just not do the trick.  The agenda of Bush-as-hero, Bush-in-command, Bush saving-the-nation, Bush-keeping-it-safe, the-war-on-Iraq-is-just-the-ticket, just might not work.  And so what to do?  One thing that might work, Rove likely thought some time ago, would be to shift the focus to the Clintons, and then count on them to come back with their traditional defensiveness rather than immediately going over on the offensive, which of course they never do.  By golly, that would be good for now and good for 2008 too.

And so Rove did it, timed perfectly for 9/11. Just think abut it for a moment.  What was so much of the uproar, on our side of the verbal battles as well as theirs, about?  Was it about Bush and the Georgites and what they did and did not do?  Was it about the mounting, horrible failure of Iraq, which Bush sold on the basis of 9/11?  Was it about that smoking gun of a (Republican mind you) Senate Intelligence Committee report? Was it about those Bush failures leading up to 9/11?  Was it about the subsequent failure of the Georgites to implement many of the key provisions of the 9/11 Commission Report?  Was it about the disaster that is the Department of Homeland Security that Bush set up in supposed response to 9/11?  Why no. None of the above.

It was about Clinton and the Clintonites and what they did and did not do. (That virtually all of the latter material was totally fictional was irrelevant.)  With the uproar about the Disney fiction about the role of the Clintonites being first on the list, the truth of the Georgite crimes just gets lost.  Another winner for Rove.  He changed the agenda once again, from Georgite incompetence-to-criminality to "let's blame it all on the Clintons."  And then with the Clintons’ collective “you’re- lying-we-did-we-didn’t” and etc. response the whole political argument gets away from the multiple disasters that have occurred on Bush's watch onto "yes-you-did, no-I-didn't, yes-you-did,” about the Clintonites.  The man is brilliant.

Just for fun, what might an effective Democratic response consist of?  I’ve gone over this before in this space and others, but it would include: “you ignored multiple warnings, 9/11 occurred on your watch no one else’s, you failed in Afghanistan, the principle outcomes of the War in Iraq you lied us into are: producing terrorists at an alarming rate, not eliminating them, turning much of the Muslim world against us, isolating us from our allies, gradually taking the hart out of what was once the world’s great military force.”  And so on and so forth.

Unless the wheels completely fall off the Georgite juggernaut due to the arrival of some deus ex machina or the discovery of an incontrovertible smoking Iraq-gun in the hands of Bush and the Georgites, if the Democrats don’t learn the lesson of agenda control, they will never win another election, including the upcoming one.


Note:  This column is based in part on a column that was published on on Sept. 11, 2006.