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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Gingrich Redux?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; 9:04 AM

Suddenly, it seems, Newt Gingrich is the Democrats' new role model.

More specifically, the Gingrich-led GOP's torpedoing of Hillarycare in '93 and '94 is being touted by some party strategists and liberal journalists as the obvious playbook on Social Security '05.

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Meaning: It's great politics to oppose the hell out of it. No matter what "it" is.

In the final year of their congressional majority a decade ago, Democrats were singing a very different tune. Why, the Gingrichites were nothing but mere obstructionists! With Bill Kristol as chief cheerleader, they had no interest in any semblance of compromise, which after all is how good government works. They much preferred no health care bill to one that might be palatable to their party. They would surely pay a price for thwarting the desire of the American people for improved health care.

Actually, it helped the GOP seize control of Capitol Hill.

And now? Some moderate Democrats have made noises in the past about supporting some kind of privatization scheme. They run the risk of being labeled obstructionists if they try to stop a reelected president who ran on the issue (with no uncomfortable benefit-cutting details, of course) from shoring up the retirement system. Can they really rally against Bush with no plan of their own?

What a difference a few years in the minority makes. The answer, apparently, is yes. A decade in the political wilderness has given the Dems the kind of unity they utterly lacked as a governing party. And the First Rule of Washington is that it's far easier to stop something than to get something passed -- especially when some in the Other Party are already having qualms about Bush's stock market plan.

As with health care in the early '90s, most retirees and near-retirees are happy with their Social Security, and not especially worried that the benefits system can't continue to pay out for decades without some reform.

This could mean that all the meetings, hearings and arguments in the months to come may simply be sound and fury if the Democrats are determined to keep the FDR program as it is and punt any financial fixes to future generations.

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza makes the historical connection:

"Where are Democrats looking for inspiration about how to stop Bush's plan? Several party strategists are studying the Republicans' drive to kill the Clinton health care bill in 1993 and 1994. 'The analogues are clearly there,' says a senior Democrat organizing opposition to the plan. 'And, just like military tacticians often study the last war, politicians think that way, too. They were very successful, and, in 1993, the environment was more conducive to pass health care than it is now for Social Security.' . . .

"If there is one lesson that leaps off the page when rereading the history of Hillarycare, it is that Clinton's foes were ruthless and systematic in their opposition to the president's plan. When Hillary Clinton tried to reach out to Senate Republicans in the spring of 1993, she found she could never schedule any meetings. It turned out that aides to Bob Dole had prohibited any Republican senator from sitting down with the first lady.

"A year later, when Democrats were trying to save the plan, Representative John Dingell reached out to a House Republican but was reportedly told, 'John, there's no way you're going to get a single vote on this side of the aisle. You will not only not get a vote here, but we've been instructed that if we participate in that undertaking at all, those of us who do will lose our seniority and will not be ranking minority members within the Republican Party.' "

Now that's hardball!

"Many Democrats today argue that their route back to power depends on transforming themselves into a party of reform. Some of these Democrats are scared that mere opposition -- and denying Bush's claim that Social Security faces a 'crisis' -- hampers their efforts. But Republicans faced the same challenge in the early '90s and found that the two goals were not mutually exclusive. They didn't just kill health care reform, they used its corpse as a platform to redefine themselves as a reform movement that swept away the Democratic majority."

New York magazine's new national columnist, John Heilemann, sees the same parallel:

"In early December, William Kristol went up to Cambridge to deliver the Theodore H. White Lecture at the Kennedy School of Government -- a stem-winder on, what else, 'The Meaning of the 2004 Election.' After an hour of talking mainly about the GOP, Kristol was asked in a Q&A to assess the Democrats' current predicament. In his dry, wry, mordant way, Kristol pointed out that the Republicans had been in similar, and arguably worse, straits in 1993 and 1994 -- until the epochal battle over the Clinton health-care plan catapulted the party into control of both houses of Congress. Then, quietly, Kristol added, 'If I were a Democrat today, I'd be looking at Social Security.'

"For Democrats, Kristol's remark should lend stark clarity to the nature and the stakes of the battle that now lies before them. On the eve of George W. Bush's second-term inaugural, it's easy to see, with some critical interpretation, that his crusade to partially privatize Social Security is an ideologically inverted incarnation of Bill Clinton's quest for universal health care: a big, bold, legacy-defining piece of social reengineering, entailing enormous political risks (and, maybe, benefits) both for him and his party."

Ted Kennedy has always been a favorite target of the right, but even more so as he steps up his antiwar role:

"Senator Edward M. Kennedy yesterday called on the Bush administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq shortly after national elections there Sunday, saying the presence of US troops is fueling an increasingly violent insurgency and exacerbating the security situation, not improving it," the Boston Globe reports.

"The Massachusetts Democrat said it has become clear that increasing troop levels in Iraq will not bring peace to the region because the troops are often targets of attacks, and he said the United Nations must fill the nation-building role that America is playing largely by itself. Thirteen months after Saddam Hussein was captured, the presence of 157,000 US troops in Iraq is contributing to a perception of a 'military occupation' in the country -- a situation that helps recruit terrorists and is a recipe for endless cycles of violence, he said."

Will that become the Democratic Party position -- especially if Sunday's election solves nothing?

Bush seems to have left himself a bit of an out as he finally grants an interview to the New York Times:

"President Bush said in an interview on Thursday that he would withdraw American forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected on Sunday asked him to do so, but that he expected Iraq's first democratically elected leaders would want the troops to remain as helpers, not as occupiers.

" 'I've, you know, heard the voices of the people that presumably will be in a position of responsibility after these elections, although you never know,' Mr. Bush said. 'But it seems like most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until Iraqis are able to fight.'

"He did not say who he expected would emerge victorious. But asked if, as a matter of principle, the United States would pull out of Iraq at the request of a new government, he said: 'Absolutely. This is a sovereign government. They're on their feet.' "

The situation in Iraq gives new meaning to the phrase tense election, according to this Philadelphia Inquirer report:

"Ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election, Iraqis in Baghdad yesterday stockpiled food and evacuated homes near polling places for fear that insurgents would make good on threats to disrupt the vote with violence.

"At least 15 Iraqis and a U.S. Marine were killed in attacks yesterday aimed at frightening Iraqis away from participating in the election. Insurgents blew up six polling places, detonated car bombs in at least three cities, triggered at least three roadside bombs, and gunned down an Iraqi policemen, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities.

"Iraqis who support the election and those who oppose it agreed on one thing: They expect such attacks to grow worse."

The prison abuse story, meanwhile, just doesn't seem to go away:

"Female interrogators tried to break Muslim detainees at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay by sexual touching, wearing a miniskirt and thong underwear and in one case smearing a Saudi man's face with fake menstrual blood, according to an insider's written account," the AP reports.

"A draft manuscript obtained by The Associated Press is classified as secret pending a Pentagon review for a planned book that details ways the U.S. military used women as part of tougher physical and psychological interrogation tactics to get terrorist suspects to talk."

A victory of sorts for those who oppose further media concentration, as described by the Wall Street Journal:

"The Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Solicitor General have decided not to ask for Supreme Court review of an appeals court's rejection last year of the FCC's controversial media-ownership rules, people familiar with the matter said.

"An FCC that was divided along party lines in June 2003 enacted rules easing local and national media-ownership rules. The changes included repeal of a ban on cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in most markets, sought by Tribune Co. and Gannett Co. The rule makes it difficult for a company to own both a TV station and a newspaper in the same market."

In other words, the administration is walking away from Michael Powell's signature crusade as he walks out the door.

I've been sadly remiss in ignoring the crucially important Buster controversy. Dan Kennedy is on the case:

"Over the next two years, opportunities for the White House and the Republican Congress to make blithering idiots of themselves will be endless. Democrats can take advantage of these opportunities -- but only if they demonstrate courage rather than a craven willingness to suck up to people who will never vote for them anyway.

"One such opportunity may be over just-installed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's outrageous, offensive criticism of the new PBS kids' show Postcards from Buster. Spellings has herself twisted into a knot because, in one of the episodes, Buster -- a cartoon rabbit -- visits a family in Vermont that's headed by a lesbian couple. . . .

"PBS has backed off from distributing the show, which is pretty much what the network always does when confronted with controversy."

In the New Republic, Andrew Sullivan has a startling lead:

"Hillary Rodham Clinton is absolutely right. I've waited many years to write that sentence, but, hey, if you live long enough. . . . I'm referring to her superb speech earlier this week on the politics and morality of abortion. There were two very simple premises to Clinton's argument: a) the right to legal abortion should remain, and b) abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy. It seems to me that if we are to reduce abortions to an absolute minimum (and who, exactly, opposes that objective?), then Clinton's formula is the most practical. . . .

"Clinton did one other thing as well. She paid respect to her opponents. She acknowledged the genuine religious convictions of those who oppose all abortion."

Bonus: No obligatory mention of '08!

Slate's Jack Shafer, fresh from a Harvard blogging conference, suggests that his online brethren take a deep breath:

"Maybe because I've been writing and editing on the Web for so long and reading, to my great edification, the blogs of such writers as Josh Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, James Wolcott, Eugene Volokh, Glenn Reynolds, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Edward Jay Epstein, as well as Reason's Hit & Run and the essential Romenesko, to name a few, the alleged divide between the old media and this new whippersnapper media of blogs has never seemed real to me.

"With the exception of the 'metro' section reporter covering a 12-car pile-up on the freeway, I think most practicing journalists today are as Webby as any blogger you care to name. Journalists have had access to broadband connections for longer than most civilians, and nearly every story they tackle begins with a Web dump of essential information from Google or a proprietary database such as Nexis or Factiva. They conduct interviews via e-mail, download official documents from .gov sites, check facts, and monitor the competition -- including blogs -- the whole while. A few even store as a 'favorite' the URL from Technorati that takes them directly to what the blogs are saying about them, and talk back. When every story starts on the Web, and every story can be stripped to its digital bits and pumped through wires and over the air, we're all Web journalists.

"The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven't paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the 'special edition,' but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn't adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass media that I can think of is the movie house newsreel."

Or sometimes Old Media just buy up New Media (as Shafer noted), since The Washington Post now owns Slate.


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