< Captain Candidate


Friday, March 03, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's barely March in this mid-term election year, but the media already are pawing the frozen ground for a juicy political narrative. Every campaign season these narratives supply reporters with a handy theme around which they can organize their coverage, for example, "Democrats in disarray" or "Republicans mired in scandal." But those seem a little tired. So the media were quick to pounce on a fresh narrative about an expanding field of veterans running for Congress as Democrats. There have been heaps of newspaper stories, even a few on TV, about the more than 50 vets, at least 10 from the current war, who have united under the rubric "Band of Brothers." That's the name of the political action committee formed by Democratic strategist and veteran Michael Lyon to support their campaigns.

MICHAEL LYON: In past cycles, we've been struggling to have a voice on national security and homeland events and the war in Iraq. These men and women have served in the military. They come into these 2006 elections with built-in credibility.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So much credibility, says Lyon, that a Republican group called Progress for America has already launched an ad campaign to counter it, featuring returned vets and families of the fallen. No one at Progress for America returned our calls about their Midwest Heroes ad, but the message does seem to be our vets are better than your vets. [MIDWEST HEROES CLIP]:

MAN: I fought in Iraq with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing.

MAN: I was in Iraq for 18 months with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment.

MAN: I was in Iraq for 12 months with the Third Corps Support Command.

MAN: The media only reports the bad news. But American troops are making real progress, securing free elections and defending our country from radical al Qaeda terrorists who want to destroy America, starting in Iraq. [END MIDWEST HEROES CLIP]

MICHAEL LYON: I thought it was a very irresponsible ad, of course.


MICHAEL LYON: I mean, they've enlisted the help of a woman who lost her son in the war in Iraq, and they have her going through a series of Republican talking points that have been summarily dismissed by both sides - weapons of mass destruction, the nuclear program, things of that nature. So yeah, it was a little alarming to see an ad like this in February.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this new narrative that seeks to end Republican ownership of the national security issue is already under threat. But Lyon seems undaunted, even when faced with the recent history of iconic vets John McCain, Max Cleland and John Kerry knocked flat by the GOP political machine.

MICHAEL LYON: Well, that's three. We have 55 men and women that they're going to have to do that to this time, and I think there's strength in numbers here. Every time they try that, if we have 55 men and women that are ready to stand up and say "no more," we can push this stuff back forever.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is, if they can make it through the primaries. So far, the Democratic leadership has thrown its weight behind just one Band of Brothers candidate - former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs and the use of an arm in Iraq. Now, the Illinois Democrat is a media darling and a political star, even as she's upended the campaign of the Democrat already slated to run there. But the rest of the vets, running mostly in solid Republican districts, have no assurance the Democratic party will ever show them the money. Consider the case of Marine Corps Major Paul Hackett, widely regarded as the inspiration for the group, who ran in a red Ohio district last summer in a special election and lost by just a hair.

MARKOS MOULITSAS: He ran - Iraq war veteran - and ran very strongly in a very conservative House district, and the party ignored him. They didn't care.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Markos Moulitsas runs the Daily Kos, a very influential liberal website.

MARKOS MOULITSAS: But what happened is that he inspired a lot of other veterans, who were just now coming back from Iraq or had served in previous wars. He got dozens of e-mails from people saying I want to do what you did. How do I do it?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How indeed? The Democratic leadership last month ordered Hackett to drop his Senate bid in favor of a seven-term Akron Democrat, and he did, albeit kicking and screaming. Meanwhile, as the Band of Brothers awaits the nod of their own party, it earns no more than a yawn from the Republicans.

CARL FORTE: Well look, I mean each of these people are throwing an individual race in an individual district, and in the majority of these districts, the voters prefer someone with an R behind their name, not a D.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carl Forte is director of communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He says these Democratic veterans would have to win in order to wrest national security from the GOP, and they won't.

CARL FORTE: And if there was a real groundswell of support, then they would have raised more than the 40,000 dollars they've raised so far. I think it'll be very clear, once primary season occurs, that half of these candidates will be gone, and by the time we get into September, there'll only be one or two, or three at most, that even have a potential of a long-shot chance of winning.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the case of the Band of Brothers, says Forte, it's not a case of too little, too late, but too little, too soon.

CARL FORTE: My contention is that voters don't pay attention to House races until after Labor Day of the election year, and anything you do before that kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

BILL POWERS: I think it's the narrative of late winter, basically.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers writes for the National Journal, and he keeps a close eye on election-year narratives and the media that love them. And he doesn't think the Band of Brothers has leg, at least, not long ones.

BILL POWERS: I think it has tiny legs. It has some legs. It's walking on those legs now pretty nicely because it catches you off guard. I mean, it is a completely valid trend story. It's surprising. You know, no one expected all these vets to be running because vets haven't been running for office much in the last generation. And nobody expected them to be almost entirely Democrats.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Powers says that if they can get some ad money, this is a story that will play better in commercials than in free media because, ironically, the better organized they get, the less appealing they'll be to campaign reporters, who will come to see the Band of Brothers' narrative not as the grass roots effort it is but as a manufactured political product.

BILL POWERS: You know, I can see some meta pieces coming on this, which have not yet happened, sort of the meta narrative, which is, "oh, sophisticated reader, let me tell you about how these Band of Brothers people in the back room are trying to pull the wool over the media's eyes on this group."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, the Tammy Duckworth story has been written so many times, it's nearly played out. Besides, he says, there's a far more versatile narrative for the media to latch onto, a gift that will keep on giving straight through 2008.

BILL POWERS: I think the narrative is Bush.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does he know?

BILL POWERS: Oh, gosh, it's in every story. I mean, every story on Bush's disastrous poll numbers mentions the mid-term election, and every story that's about the mid-term election talks about the President's poll numbers. He is the elephant in the room, you know, literally and figuratively [LAUGHS] in this case. It's all about does he have any mojo left for the rest of his term?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as these campaigning veterans, none of them veteran campaigners, struggle to maintain their own mojo, their biggest supporters take the long view. It may not happen in 2006, what with all those immovable Republican incumbents, and it may not happen much in 2008.

MARKOS MOULITSIS: But hopefully within the next 10 years, some of these guys are going to be in office.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Markos Moulitsis of the Daily Kos says he'll keep their message afloat on his website and anywhere else he finds an opening in the media, because, quite frankly, there's no other way.

MARKOS MOULITSIS: I've been arguing for a while now that things such as protest marches are obsolete, that they're useless, because what really matters now is how do you reach people and how do you influence people. And you do that by using media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media is the battlefield; the political narrative, the big gun; and the future, a long, hard slog with many casualties. But Moulitsis, a veteran himself, seems to be saying, as the President, in fact, did in one of his speeches, that he will settle for nothing less than complete victory, to which the Band of Brothers might add, if you ask them, that real soldiers don't cut and run. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]