Mar 1 1988

Election Myths ’88

As the presidential campaign marches on, certain media themes have become as stale and repetitious as the candidates’ stump speeches. Extra! looks at some of the more familiar frames, examining what reporters choose to highlight and what they ignore.

Democratic Party ‘Captured by Special Interests’

Michael Dukakis (cc photo: Hal O'Brien)

Michael Dukakis, 1988 (cc photo: Hal O’Brien)

In traditional political parlance, the term “special interests” referred to private economic interests that relied on dollars instead of numbers of supporters to exercise undue power over politics or government. In recent years, the media have turned the phrase upside clown, applying it almost exclusively to one party (the Democrats) and only to groups representing millions of voters (blacks,  Latinos, women, labor, gays). Media pundits wonder whether a candidate can win if perceived to be beholden to these special interests.

The pejorative “special interests” label is rarely affixed to the big business elites that dominate both political parties. The Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), the clique of right tilting Democratic officeholders whose views carry big weight with political writers, has worked long and hard to hang the “special interests” stigma on the mass constituencies that comprise the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The media have paid little attention to the real special interests bankrolling the DLC: Boeing, Dow Chemical, Textron, TRW, the Tobacco Institute, American Cyanamid and other business groups. Or to the special interests bankrolling George Bush or, for that matter, Michael Dukakis and Albert Gore.

When President Reagan selected his secretaries of State and Defense from the top management of the Bechtel Corporation, there was little outcry in the mainstream press about how the Republicans were captive of a special interest–the military/industrial complex.

Donors Anonymous

It’s a media cliche that money makes or breaks a political campaign. But reporters focus on how much each candidate has raised, rather than from whom. Which interests are behind each candidate–arguably the most important information a voter should know–is rarely covered in the mainstream media. The fundraising issue is depoliticized by reporters who treat it as just another factor in their analysis of “who’s winning the horse race.”

Dick Gephardt

Dick Gephardt

One of the few times a candidate was embarrassed by information about his funders, the expose came not from diligent reporters but from an opposing campaign. The Dukakis camp used Federal Election Commission filings to show that “populist” Dick Gephardt was supported by corporate giants such as ARCO, GE, McDonnell/Douglas and financial service films such as Merrill Lynch.

Although big corporations mask their contributions (and circumvent donor limits) by “bundling” large numbers of small donations, serious research in FEC files and elsewhere could pinpoint which special interests are bankrolling which candidate. This would be far more instructive than endlessly chasing after a candidate’s staged events and photo opportunities. (Some reporters have done some digging; Jeff Gerth of the New York Times–12/24/87–exposed Sen. Bob Dole’s links to the insurance industry.)

‘Too Liberal to Win’

Jesse Jackson (photo: US News & World Report)

Jesse Jackson (photo: US News & World Report)

A recurrent theme in political reporting holds that the Democratic Party has drifted to the left of American public opinion and must “return to the mainstream” in order to win (Christian Science Monitor, 6/24/87; This Week With David Brinkley, 2/7/88). Journalists and columnists constantly ask whether Jesse Jackson or Michael Dukakis are too liberal or too left to win a national election. The evidence, however, suggests quite the opposite.

Political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers analyzed years of polling data as part of a study debunking the canard that Democratic Party positions are to the left of public attitudes. In Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (Hill & Wang, 1986), they reported the continuing trend toward greater liberalism on virtually every major issue: government regulation of business; social programs for the poor and elderly; the “social issues’’ of religion, feminism, civil liberties and race relations; limits on military expenditures; fear of military intervention and the nuclear arms race.

Ferguson and Rogers’ findings received an unlikely endorsement from David Stockman, formerly Reagan’s budget director, who stated that much of the domestic budget was off-limits to cost-cutters because the electorate supports “moderate social democracy.”

But reporters seem oblivious to opinion polls. The same week a New York Times article suggested that Paul Simon’s platform of new federal jobs programs was “too liberal” for the electorate, the Times (12/1/87) also summarized its own poll: “By 71 percent to 26 percent, Americans say the federal government should see to it ‘that everyone who wants a job has a job.’” Other poll results: 78 percent versus 19 percent believe “the government should guarantee medical care to everyone” : 62 percent versus 35 percent favor “federally sponsored daycare programs”; 60 percent versus 33 percent “reject cuts in social programs to balance the budget”; 38 percent favor reducing military spending while 13 percent favor an increase.

George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush

During the last decade, public opinion has stayed fairly constant on these issues, while Republican candidates have veered steadily rightward. 1980 candidate Reagan was to the right of 1976 candidate Ford; the 1984 Republican platform was further right than the 1980 platform. Aside from George Bush, who’s running as a Reagan clone, all the Republican presidential candidates of 1988 positioned themselves to the right of Reagan on various issues. Even during the three-year period of Reagan’s popularity (from Grenada to Iran/Contra), polls continually found that many who liked Reagan disliked parts of his right-wing agenda. Yet Republican candidates–except for Pat Robertson–have rarely been taunted with the question, “Are your views to far right to win?”

Who’s Funding Whom?

Any citizen can get the data from Federal Election Commission files, but few journalists bother. Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer looked at FEC filings as of February 29, 1988.

Michael Dukakis: Refuses PAC money and recently denounced buyout artists and other speculators, but receives big money from realtors and Wall Streeters–including buyout artist Henry Kravis (who hedges his bet by serving as Bush’s New York finance chair) . Many donations also came from Greek-Americans.

Al Gore: PAC funders include GE, Warner Communications, Fox PAC, Grumman, Gulf Power, Lockheed, Alabama Power, National Coalition for a Free Cuba and a few unions.

Jesse Jackson: Labor PACs and various individuals, from Burger King franchisees to ministers, teachers and local officials.

George Bush: Over 90 percent of Fortune 500 chief executive officers want a Republican victory in 1988. PAC donors include ARCO, AT&T, BankAmerica, Citicorp, Disney, J.P. Stevens, Monsanto, Rockwell.