Thursday, December 14, 2006

A history of Tim Johnson, the Bush team's '02 test target

I’m following up on Tim Johnson, the Democratic senator who is currently listed in critical condition after “successful” brain surgery – and whose illness could imperil the fragile ’07 Democratic Senate majority, as I wrote here late yesterday.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people are reacting to this story by asking, “Who’s Tim Johnson?” So while everyone is scrambling to understand the laws and precedents relating to senatorial incapacity, let’s also focus a bit on Johnson – and the important role that he played in national politics, back in 2002.

Early that year, Tim Johnson of South Dakota was the canary in the coal mine. He was arguably the first Democratic senator to be targeted for electoral defeat by the Bush administration on the charge that he was insufficiently patriotic.

I know this well, because I spent a week in South Dakota, in February of 2002. Actually, what I remember most was that you could drive in South Dakota for two straight hours without seeing a tree. What I next remember is that Johnson, a freshman Democrat, was slated to be up for re-election in November – and yet, even at the start of the year, the White House was already trying to take him apart.

Bush, at this particular time, was at the apogee of his popularity. The 9/11 attacks had just happened only a few months earlier, the retaliatory war in Afghanistan was front and center, and the Iraq sales job had barely begun. Moreover, Bush in the 2000 election had won South Dakota by 22 percentage points. Hence, the early decision to go after Johnson, assailing him as a weak obstructionist of the unassailable commander-in-chief. That winter, the White House knew that if they could eject Johnson from his job, the Democrats would lose their one-seat Senate majority (sound familiar?).

So the Bush strategists dispatched Bush emissaries to South Dakota, to deify the Decider; I recall being at a banquet where Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans said of his Texas buddy, “This is a man who has a great mind, a big heart, an extraordinary leader, judgment you can trust.” And the Bush strategists followed up by running a slew of TV ads, sponsored by the national GOP, depicting Johnson as a national security softy whose judgment should not be trusted. (Locals told me that they had never seen such an early barrage of ads, nine months before an election.)

Johnson was a bit of a challenge for the Bush strategists, because he did have a son in the military; in fact, the kid was stationed with the 101st Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan. And Johnson himself was an Army vet. But these trifling details didn’t deter the strategists (just as they were not deterred later that year, when they questioned the patriotism of Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee war vet).

Nor were they deterred by the fact that so many South Dakotans seemed to be ignoring the ads. People complained that the ads were a big waste of money, and that folks were more fixated on their local worries, such as the fact that pine beetles were chewing up the mountain forests on the western border, and prairie dogs were ravaging the land. One rancher named Bill Hutchinson told me, "Maybe if you could believe the ads, you'd pay attention. But you know there's always a shady area, or some exaggeration, or something left out. These [candidates] are good men, but the people writing those ads? I wouldn't want them working for me, because they're not honest."

No matter. South Dakota was a test market for the TV messages that would ultimately help Bush recapture the Senate that November, and Tim Johnson was a test target. Most vividly, there was this TV ad: “Al Qaeda terrorists, Saddam Hussein, enemies of America, working to obtain nuclear weapons. Now, more than ever, our nation must have a missile defense system to shoot down missiles fired at America. Yet Tim Johnson has voted against a missile defense system 29 different times.”

Note the facile linking of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; we would hear a lot more of that during the prelude to war in Iraq. More importantly, the ad attacked Johnson for voting against a system that America didn’t have, that America probably won’t have, and that would have been ineffective against the 9/11 attacks anyway. But this was probably a smart ad to run in South Dakota, where the Cold War missile silos had been emptied only a decade earlier.

Nevertheless, Tim Johnson survived on election night – by 524 votes. Yet another squeaker in this era of squeakers. Republicans cried foul, charging fraud at the polls; the Republican state attorney general dismissed the outcry, calling it “shoddy and irresponsible and sensationalistic and garbage.”

So here we are today, fixed again on South Dakota. Will the ’07 Senate stay in Democratic hands, even if an ailing Johnson remains horizontal for the foreseeable future? Quite possibly, because the rules do not require that convalescent senators give up their jobs – which is why Strom Thurmond was able to hang onto his, despite the fact that he was virtually bedridden in his final years.

And we also have the case of Clair Engel, a California senator who was rendered mute by a brain tumor – yet stayed in his seat, and showed up to vote for the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since he could not speak, he indicated “aye” by pointing to his eye.

He died a month and a half later, with no attendant political speculation about his seat. This was, after all, the era of strong Democratic majorities.