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Business, RNC lend hand to Bush blitz

Posted in the database on Monday, March 14th, 2005 @ 23:59:56 MST (1699 views)
by Mark Silva    Chicago Tribune  

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The White House, in concert with the Republican National Committee and well-financed business groups, has launched an unprecedented campaign for changes in Social Security, including essays in local newspapers, media interviews and supporters calling in to radio shows to back President Bush.

The drive, which includes mobilization of supporters to attend rallies for the president and town-hall meetings by members of Congress, closely tracks Bush's travels as he crisscrosses the nation on a 60-day tour touting Social Security revisions facing opposition in Congress.

The coordination among the president, Republican Party and privately financed organizations is the latest example of an aggressive, disciplined control of information flowing from the White House, which experts say dwarfs the communications efforts of previous administrations.

Many attribute the administration's successes in no small part to this painstaking control of information. These efforts have ranged from the innovative and aggressive to what the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has called the illegal production of video reports that appear to be the work of journalists.

Critics say the White House sometimes has gone too far, blurring the distinction between information and propaganda and disregarding the public's right to know. Indeed, the administration has been rebuked by federal auditors for distributing government-produced videotapes masquerading as news reports and has been embarrassed by revelations that agencies paid columnists to promote the Bush agenda. The legality of hiring columnists is under review of the GAO.

Others say the Bush White House is simply skilled at media management. The new campaign--coordinated through weekly meetings of representatives from the White House, the RNC, congressional leadership and private groups such as Progress for America--is an offshoot of the president's 2004 re-election campaign. Essentially, this organization is a permanent organization for the promotion of Bush's second-term agenda, focused for the moment on Social Security.

The "information-sharing" sessions "make sure we are all rowing in the same direction," said Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman, who managed Bush's re-election effort.

"We are working with a lot of the same tools we used in the '04 campaign--a research operation, a booking operation [for interviews] . . . the ability to place op-eds and a grass-roots organization," Mehlman said. "All of that is now happening with the goal of passing an agenda . . . not just on Social Security, but also going forward."

This message machinery--in combination with the extraordinary discipline of a largely leakproof White House--has convinced veterans of the news trade that Bush is raising the art of information management to new heights.

"It certainly appears that there is a well-oiled process at play within the Bush administration, that they are savvy, they are adept, they are determined," said Bob Steele, a media expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "They have created pipelines, and they have created vehicles, and they have built a system that seems to work well for the administration in many ways."

The U.S. comptroller general recently wrote a letter to administration officials urging them to avoid breaking the law again as they did in producing fake television reports, telling agency heads to heed "the boundaries between the government and the free press."

Much of the effort by Bush and his allies is aimed at reaching over a wall of an allegedly liberal Washington media and, as Progress for America states on its Web site, "forcing the media to report the facts about President Bush's common-sense conservative agenda."

Bush calls the strategy "going around the filter" of national media.

"The national media has the opportunity to ask the president questions very regularly," said White House Communications Director Nicolle Devenish.

The `local' strategy

"The local media strategy has its roots perhaps in the fact that the president, as a [former Texas] governor, understands that people get their news from the Dallas Morning News or Sacramento Bee or St. Petersburg Times. ... The current intensity of our outreach is a reflection of the president's eagerness to get his second-term agenda enacted by the Congress and embraced by the public."

But the "outreach" is more than just talking to local newspapers. It includes the coordinated campaign of a White House office headed by Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the Republican Party, and groups such as Progress for America (PFA) and the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security (CoMPASS).

Independent 527 committees, named for the section of the federal tax code under which they operate, were barred from coordinating with Bush's re-election campaign, but they now are free to work in lockstep with the White House in promoting issues such as Social Security change. Progress for America spent more than $35 million on its campaign for Bush's re-election, with donors such as the mortgage company Ameriquest giving $5 million and Amway donating $4 million. CoMPASS is a newer group financed by the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and others to support Bush's Social Security moves. It has a reported budget of about $20 million.

An internal Republican National Committee memo shows that during a recent congressional recess, when lawmakers returned home to test public sentiment on Bush's Social Security plans, the committee booked staff and "surrogates"--local speakers lined up to speak on the president's behalf--for national television interviews while party staffers participated in nearly 50 local and national radio interviews.

At the same time, the memo shows, Progress for America's troops made 7,098 contacts with constituents in targeted districts, participated in 38 radio shows, hired public relations professionals in 20 states with plans to expand to 25, and "generated" 18 published letters to the editor on Social Security.

CoMPASS forces made more than 250,000 telephone contacts in 11 targeted districts, the memo details, participated in 41 interviews with local media, placed 200 calls to talk radio shows, "mobilized" 3,100 advocates to attend town hall meetings with members of Congress, "drove attendance" at 50 town-hall meetings and placed opinion pieces in the newspapers of 10 "local markets."

"Social Security is a great American institution, but it was designed for a different--and distant--era," says the opinion piece signed by CoMPASS Executive Director Derrick Max. It ran in Florida's St. Augustine Record, New Jersey's Bergen County Record, Minnesota's Duluth News Tribune and central Utah's Daily Herald from Feb. 17 through 24.

"The story for most Americans, it's not about the national press," Max explained in an interview. "It's what they read in their local paper. It's not Dan Rather. It's Jim and Joe at 5."

The group placed an opinion piece supporting Bush's plan by J.C. Watts Jr., former congressman from Oklahoma and one-time star college football quarterback, in the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader.

"When I played football for the University of Oklahoma, our coaches always told us the same thing before big games: Let's leave it all out on the field," Watts wrote. "Watching the Social Security reform debate unfold, I have been reminded of my coaches' wisdom."

`Covert propaganda'

Democrats have strongly criticized the Republican tactics.

"We are seeing a steady stream of covert propaganda being churned out by the Bush administration," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (news, bio, voting record) (D-N.J.), who is seeking investigations of the administration's media techniques.. "You would think they would pull back their efforts, but they are moving ahead with outrageous propaganda tactics on Social Security."

As they take Bush's program to the field, supporters are savoring their freedom from the campaign restrictions on coordination between the White House and private groups.

Asked about his relations with the RNC and White House, CoMPASS's Max said, "There are no rules against coordination. It's not an election season. It's pure issue advocacy. We can coordinate with anyone we want."

The White House unit working with CoMPASS and other groups is the Office of Public Liaison, which is under the supervision of Rove, Bush's longtime chief political adviser. The White House says Rove isn't directing the campaign so much as relying on the work of supporters.

"It's more a true coalition versus what some might see as a top-down approach," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. " . . . It's up to the leaders of the individual groups to decide what activities they wish to engage in."

The RNC's efforts are considerable.

Another recent internal party memo details coordinated events surrounding visits of "POTUS"--president of the United States--to congressional districts. In Indiana and New Jersey, this included "driving supporters to POTUS events with signs."

In New York, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada, it meant distributing information countering Democratic Party attacks on the president's plan and using Hispanic surrogates to conduct Spanish-language radio interviews.

"It certainly is sophisticated," Mehlman said. "Certainly the level of interest by the party working with the White House and working with folks on the outside is the highest I can remember."

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