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Showdown in Montana


After sitting on its story for a year and after consultation with the Bush Administration, The New York Times published its report on NSA warrantless spying, and in his December 19, 2005 press conference, President Bush denounced release of the report. “My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.”

Jump forward to June 2006 after the New York Times exposed the Bush Administration’s gathering of financial data. The Washington Post interviewed administration spokesmen who “expressed concern that public disclosure of the program could undermine their terror-tracking efforts.”

Following those bank-spying disclosures, Vice President Cheney told a Chicago audience, “[W}hat I find most disturbing about these stories is the fact that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people. That offends me.”

Other defenders of administration policy have joined this chorus to excoriate any who shine a light on Bush programs conducted in secret, claiming the revelations give aid and comfort to the enemy and put the nation in greater danger from terrorists.

By now these reactions are so predictable one might suspect that at least some so-called “shameful” disclosures have been orchestrated by the Bush Administration just so its spokespeople could then denounce the press and ring alarm bells to frighten Americans over the supposed increased prospect of attacks on the homeland. The strategy dates back to such remarks as Ari Fleischer’s infamous 2001 caution that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” especially when it comes to criticizing Bush Administration policy or exposing possible Republican malfeasance.

“Fear” is the most potent ally of Bush White House policy, whether it concerns the continued occupation of Iraq or hyped-up allegations showing future failure of the Social Security system. As the Senate was about to vote on amendments to begin military withdrawal from Iraq, Senators Santorum and Hoekstra waved a red flag to announce that many weapons of mass destruction had been discovered In Iraq. Close behind that disprovable “fact”, the Department of Justice arrested several young Florida men, claiming they are a terrorist cell linked to al Qaeda, although to date the supposed “cell’s” overt behavior seems comic and juvenile rather than truly dangerous.

Republican election-year strategy is clear: keep the populace in a state of anxiety, and heighten that anxiety as the November election draws near. Will September and October be filled with “surprises” such as a symbolic troop withdrawal from Iraq, the closure of Guantanamo’s notorious prison camp, the capture of Usama bin Laden, unconstitutional homeland spying that supposedly leads to more arrests of home-based terrorists groups, discovery of viable WMD in Iraq? Will Dick Cheney finally declare a state of national emergency and proclaim Republicans the permanent conservators of the United States?

At the local level, Republican candidates for House and Senate will continue to trot out the votes of Democrats who opposed doomed-to-fail amendments on flag burning, same-sex marriage, immigration, “cut and run” withdrawal from Iraq, the estate tax repeal and tax-welfare policies to benefit American’s wealthiest citizens.

As an early example of things to come, the current Montana race for U.S. Senate is a worthy harbinger. Out here in Big Sky Country, Democratic businessman-farmer Jon Tester is challenging the folksy Republican Senator Conrad Burns. For the first time, Burns is vulnerable, primarily because of his association with convicted felon Jack Abramoff. Any scandal attached to Burns has not seemed to diminish the cash flowing into his re-election coffers, but one suspects that deep pockets from outside Montana will give Tester a financial boost as the campaign heats up.

Already Republican tactics are clear: smear the opponent, no holds barred. The first anti-Tester television commercial for Burns is not officially sponsored by the Burns committee, but has been funded instead by the Republican Senatorial Committee. Thus Burns can angelically rise above politics and distance himself from its content at any convenient time, although such a prospect seems doubtful.

The spot shows a barber (portrayed by an actor) cutting a customer’s hair and claiming he also cut Tester’s hair. The barber/actor tells viewers Tester wants more taxes, supports flag burning, opposes traditional marriage and family values and is besides a lousy tipper. The dark underbelly of this spot suggests that the Democrat is weak on defense, is unpatriotic, is chummy with the gay community and is a skinflint: obviously not a man devoted to real Montana values.

The Montana Democrats countered the ad with one featuring Tester’s real barber and claiming that Tester is against raising taxes, against flag burning and for traditional marriage. Because Tester has advocated withdrawing from Iraq, it remains to be seen how ugly the attack on his patriotism will become as the race nears November.

On Sunday, June 26, Senator Burns and challenger Jon Tester held their first televised debate, sponsored by the Montana Press Association and carried nationally over C-SPAN. During the low-key affair, both men demonstrated flashes of wit. Tester, however, must have surprised many both in and out of state with his articulate and positive performance, proving he can so far hold his own when debating the savvy Burns.

Republicans could not have been pleased by Tester’s self-assurance as he confidently took on three-time U.S. Senator Burns, scarred by his Abnamoff connection. If Tester’s ratings shoot up in the polls, voters can surely expect the Rovian mow-em-down machine to rev its engines and go for Tester’s . . . jugular.

From now until November, remote Montana, whose scenery and lonesome spaces usually garner the most outside attention, will provide a wide-open stage where political junkies can get their kicks watching Republican strategists try to take a small-town country boy to the woodshed of history.

DOUG GIEBEL is a Montana writer and analyst who coincidentally happens to live in the same town that Democratic candidate Jon Tester calls home. Giebel is an independent observer with no ties to the Tester campaign. He welcomes comment at dougcatz@ttc-net




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