Saturday, February 18, 2006

The politics of coincidence

In recent days, the people of Minnesota have been the targets of a potentially significant political experiment. A non-profit group called the Progress for America Voter Fund has been bombarding the airwaves with TV ads featuring Iraq war vets who view that conflict as the crucial front line in the global struggle against al Qaeda. Nothing illegal about that; all kinds of "independent" groups on all sides of the spectrum put their views on the air. Call it the right of free expression. But, at the same time, the PFA Voter Fund spokeman has been a tad disingenuous when he insists that the group takes no sides in politics, and that it merely has "a big desire to give greater voice to returning veterans in the debate over the war on terror."
Yeah, sure.
By law, the group does have to maintain a neutral stance in public; as a non-profit, it is barred from coordinating or affiliating with any political party or candidate. Having said that, however, here's the whole back story, and here's why it may have national importance down the road:
1. The original Progress for America group was founded in 2001 by Tony Feather, a political director for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. Its key figures have included Chris LaCivita (who advised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) and Ken Adleman (a former federal official who predicted that the Iraq war would be "a cakewalk"). PFA subsequently set up its Voter Fund, which later put $28 million into the 2004 Bush campaign.
2. President Bush is still getting hammered by a clear majority of Americans for his handling of the Iraq war, despite months of sustained speechifying. The new Pew poll, released this month, says that 38 percent of the public likes his performance, and 57 percent don't. Most Republican strategists openly acknowledge that the party's fortunes in the 2006 congressional elections may well hinge on how people feel about Bush and the war. Therefore, he and the GOP might need some early help trying to boost people's confidence in the mission. By sheer coincidence, the PFA Voter Fund is providing help.
3. One key battleground in these 2006 elections is Minnesota. There's an open Senate seat in November, because Democrat Mark Dayton has decided to leave. The Republicans would love to win this race; it's virtually impossible to see how the Democrats can win enough seats nationwide to take over the Senate if they can't manage to hang on to Minnesota. However, as political analyst Stuart Rothenberg contends, GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy "is likely to be hurt by national dynamics" this year. That's a reference to the Bush war baggage. Therefore - again, by sheer coincidence - the PFA Voter Fund has decided to target Minnesota for an ad campaign that reportedly might go nationwide at some later date.
4. It has been soberly noted in conservative circles - the subject came up at a conservative conference that I attended last week - that more than a dozen Iraq war vets are running for Congress this year as Democrats, and only one is running as a Republican. It's obviously smart politics for the GOP to find war vets who can talk up Bush and Iraq in TV ads at the earliest possible date, lest voters start to believe that Democrats can be macho too. Hence, a PFA Voter Fund spinoff group has even posted the ads online.
I'm not suggesting that this is something new and dastardly; non-profit liberal-leaning groups put hundreds of "independent" ads on the air in 2004, and will do so again this year. What's significant about Minnesota is that it demonstrates Bush allies' concern about the restive public mood, and the prospects for losing ground at the '06 ballot box.
Still, I can't resist one bit of fact-checking. Perhaps this is yet another sheer coincidence, but the ads have been promoting the same quasi-truth that turns up in every Bush war speech. One vet says, "Our enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda, the same terrorists who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11." That statement is true only in the sense that that there are al Qaeda fighters in Iraq today. But the ad implies (or, by its imprecision, allows TV viewers to believe) that al Qaeda was in Iraq when it plotted 9/11 (maybe the ad footage of the smoking World Trade Center towers might help make that connection).
But the connection is demonstrably specious. The non-partisan 9/11 Commission concluded long ago that there had been "no operational relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and, even today, the vast majority of the insurgents are native Iraqis with no ties to al Qaeda -- as Bush himself occasionally has acknowledged.