Friday, July 14, 2006

"We're shocked, SHOCKED, that line-crossing is going on in here!"

It's always amusing to watch mud-slingers accuse each other of fighting dirty.

Exhibit A this week has been the orchestrated flap over a 60-second Democratic online video that includes a two-second clip of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. Seeking to advance its latest campaign message ("America Needs a New Direction"), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is helming the party's bid to take over the House in November, recently posted a web ad depicting all the bad things that Democrats are seeking to blame on President Bush and the GOP. One bad thing, the web ad alleges, is the war in Iraq. Hence, the quick shot of the coffins.

Hence, the Republicans have gone berserk. I just spent part of my workday reading and deleting the many expressions of their well-orchestrated outrage. It is "despicable," they say, that the Democrats should stoop so low as to show images of the fallen. Various Republican congressmen have come forth to say that the ad "turned my stomach," and that it is "tasteless", and that it "crossed the line."

Let us walk that "line" for a moment:

In the GOP's definition of ethical campaigning, it apparently "crosses the line" to show the coffins of dead U.S. soldiers (94.5 percent of whom have been killed subsequent to Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended") -- but it doesn't cross the line to put the face of a convicted black rapist on the TV screen (1988) and suggest that if the purported crime softy Michael Dukakis becomes president, your wives and daughters will be endangered. Under GOP rules, it crosses the line to show a quick visual depiction of America's overriding issue, but it doesn't cross the line to put Osama bin Laden's face on the TV screen (2002) and suggest that if Vietnam war hero Max Cleland is reelected to his Democratic Senate seat in Georgia, it would be good news for Osama bin Laden.

Some top conservative bloggers don't buy the GOP's argument. Tom Bevan at RealClearPolitics writes, "The outrage seems misplaced, if not a bit phony and hypocritical...The war in Iraq is the defining issue of our time, and the Democratic party is vehemently opposed to it. Soldiers are, in fact, dying in Iraq on a daily basis. So why can't the Democrats show a split-second visual depiction of that reality? What are they supposed to do, show a graph of the U.S. casualty rate to depict the sacrifices we're making in Iraq? Not mention them at all?"

Another conservative blogger, at Captain's Quarters, writes that "we should be careful with our moral outrage. The Democrats have every right to campaign on a belief that the Iraq war has failed, all evidence to the contrary." And another, Ryan Sager, calls the Democratic imagery "a perfectly legitimate piece of political message-making," just as it was legitimate in 2004 when a Bush ad used a brief visual of a flag-draped coffin being carried from the rubble on 9/11.

And here's the capper. Mark McKinnon, President Bush's longtime ad man, says of the coffin visual, "This is one where I respectfully disagree with my colleagues: I think it is an appropriate image."

It's hard to imagine that rough and tumble Republican politicos are really and truly in a swivet over such a tactic. This is really just an exercise in hardball gamesmanship, a savvy attempt by the GOP to sow dissent within the Democratic ranks over what should be deemed the proper boundaries of political debate in 2006. After all, Democrats are known to be far less adept than their counterparts at maintaining unity and message discipline.

And here's a news flash: The GOP umbrage effort has already worked.

The Republicans sent word to their candidates in the field, asking that they put the squeeze on all Democratic opponents, demanding (in their framing of the issue) that the Democrats either side with the DCCC or with the brave American soldiers who are fighting and dying for freedom. Sure enough, three Democrats -- congressman John Spratt in South Carolina, congressman Chet Edwards in Texas, and candidate Bruce Braley in Iowa -- have broken ranks and asked the DCCC to pull the video.

There are no plans for a party mea culpa, and the GOP wouldn't expect that. This is merely about keeping the other team off balance, getting the opposition to perhaps pull its punches when the game is on the line later this year. Manufactured outrage can be a tool in making that happen.

As for conservative blogger Jim Geraghty at the National Review, he seems to feel that the GOP shouldn't waste its time taking umbrage at imagery, when in fact it has a stronger case on the merits: "I don't think it's inherently offensive to show images suggesting the fallen and contending, 'This is too high a price to pay.' Of course, the ad says jack squat about what Democratic legislators would do differently in Iraq, probably because they couldn't get a consensus in their caucus if their political lives depended on it."

No argument there.