Friday, September 15, 2006

Behold the Republican playbook: Frightening voters and demonizing Dem leader Nancy Pelosi.

Piñata Strategy
Behold the Republican playbook: Frightening voters and demonizing Dem leader Nancy Pelosi.
By Howard Fineman

Sept. 13, 2006 - The Republican message for this fall’s election season turns Franklin Roosevelt’s famous statement on its head: fear is good, or at least it’s a strategy. They want the electorate to be afraid, very afraid—of the terrorists, of course, but also of an elegantly dressed woman from San Francisco.

Democratic operatives have been warning Rep. Nancy Pelosi for months that she needs to prepare for what Karl Rove and the GOP have in store: an all out, coast-to-coast assault.

As the Democratic leader in line to be speaker if her party wins control of the House, Republicans see Pelosi as the piñata of politics in 2006.

Six years into the Bush presidency, GOP operatives in essence are conceding the obvious: voters are angry about Iraq, the economy, immigration and incompetence.

Republicans worry about voters such as Eric Albino, a 29-year-old construction worker I met in New York the other day at the site of Ground Zero. He had been a Bush supporter, but turned against him because of the war in Iraq. “He’s doing what he can to the best of his ability,” Albino said sympathetically, “but he should have left Saddam alone.” We are less safe as a result, he said.

Rather than spend a lot of time and money defending their record to voters such as Albino, the Rovepublicans will try to scare him into sticking with them—or at least staying away from the polls altogether. The way to do that, they have decided, is to scare him silly about what the Democrats would do with control of Congress.

They want to use Pelosi to give their vision of nightmare a face and name and history.

It’s a page from an old GOP playbook. In 1984, the Democrats held their convention in San Francisco; Republicans renominated Ronald Reagan in Dallas. It was the dawn of the Red State-Blue State, cultural/political divide we see today. Democrats made history, nominating the first woman—Geraldine Ferraro—for vice president. “Independent” GOP groups swarmed into San Francisco, and onto the airwaves, to denounce the Democrats for their liberal stands on abortion, gay rights, taxes and so on. Reagan won 49 states.

The epithet “San Francisco Democrat” had power then, and for years thereafter. Does it still?

We’re about to find out. The product of a middle-class family, reared in Baltimore as the daughter of the city’s mayor, Pelosi by background is no flower child. But she does represent a capital of Blue State America. She has a liberal voting record and she is perhaps the most influential congressional critic of the Iraq war.

Pelosi's friend and ally, Rep. John Murtha, got all the ink, but it was Pelosi who gave him his platform in the caucus. Pelosi is personally wealthy; her husband, Paul Pelosi, is a successful Bay Area businessman.

The GOP has “tested” her image in focus groups and polls. She has become a favorite villain of conservative talk radio, which sometimes dwell on her attire and looks. Female Democratic strategists I know fret about this, even as they are outraged at what they see as the sexism of it. They admire her sense of style, but they do worry that she looks too sophisticated, too Nob Hill. “She dresses too ‘rich',” one said to me. No one would accuse Denny Hastert of that.

As for her stand on the issues, it is incontrovertibly true that she represents one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country. “That’s who she is,” said a top Democratic operative. “The problem with refuting that attack is that it’s true.”

Other insiders worry about gay-rights: the notion that the Democrats are too responsive to gay demands for equal treatment. That was GOP’s underlying message 22 years ago, when the term “San Francisco Democrat” first gained currency. It will be subtext—or the overt text—in the campaign this fall.

"They are going to try to turn Pelosi into the Newt Gingrich of our day," said Mark Penn, a leading Democratic pollster. "But I don't think it's going to work. First, she's not that well known. Second, it could work the other way. People want accountability. They want George Bush held to account. Pelosi isn't running for president, she's running for a Congress that will take on the president."

Will voters in, say, eastern Pennsylvania (where there are four House seats up for grabs) care about who Rep. Nancy Pelosi is in November, and what she might say and do as speaker? It seems unlikely, but it’s only mid-September.