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Democrats: Don’t Avoid Fox News. Embrace It

“Fish where the fish are.” “Go hunting where the ducks are.” Pretty basic advice, especially when it comes to politics, right? Well, not according to some advisers to Congressional Democrats.

At last February’s biannual retreat of House Democrats, the party’s message guru du jour, George Lakoff, confirmed the inclinations of most in attendance when he advised that they continue to stay off Fox News Channel.

But this is terrible strategic advice to leaders of a political party that for a decade consistently has been receiving 48 percent of the vote in both presidential elections and House races across the country. Since about 80 percent of Fox News Network viewers supported President Bush, according to Kerry for President polls, and since the network dominates cable news viewership, where better to find the other 3 percent of the vote that Democrats need to win?

Furthermore, what difference does it make if Fox is biased in favor of the Republicans? Much of Fox’s political coverage consists of interviews with representatives of each party’s point of view. The network’s producers keep a file of Democrats willing to appear and call them regularly. Unfortunately, most capable Democratic officeholders, strategists and spokespersons refuse to appear on Fox because they consider it to be hostile territory. And Lakoff’s advice has reinforced their reluctance.

There is another factor that makes Fox News Channel an attractive venue for Democrats today: Fox obviously harps on the Republican message, and the Republican message in 2005 stinks. In the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, conducted June 10-15, 61 percent of America’s voters did not think that Bush “has the same priorities for the country as you have.” Only 35 percent thought Bush shared their priorities.

The Congressional numbers in the Times/CBS Poll were even better for Democrats — 71 percent thought Congress did not share their priorities for the country. The latest Washington Post poll, completed June 5, found that 61 percent of the voters thought “Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress” were not making good progress on solving the nation’s problems.

Here is the Democratic opening. The obvious Democratic message should be that Republicans have mired the nation in their own ideological morass and are not addressing the painfully real problems America faces at home and abroad. And Fox is the perfect foil for a Democrat to communicate this message, because you can count on both the topic for the interview and the Republican guest to be true to a Republican agenda that most Americans think is irrelevant to their priorities.

Last year, Fox News clearly played a significant role in the re-election of Bush by constantly repeating the Republican charge that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is weak on national security, and by giving continued credibility to the charges of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Today, the same Fox broadcast philosophy that helped defeat Kerry is hurting the Republicans just as badly.

I appear on Fox frequently, and the interview or debate this year has almost always been about Social Security private accounts, judges or Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. Now it’s all about the John Roberts’ Supreme Court nomination and Karl Rove. As much as possible, I try to point out that the while trying to ramrod their own ideological agenda, the Republicans are ignoring the nation’s problems — no growth in wages, more people lacking health insurance, record gasoline prices, the quagmire in Iraq, and a federal budget deficit that will consume the entire budget long before Social Security will become insolvent.

The same polling that indicates that Republicans are not addressing the voters’ priorities also indicates that voters want an alternative from the Democrats. And the Fox anchors and Republican guests (of course) constantly accuse the Democrats of being obstructionists and having no agenda of their own.

This one is easy, too. When asked to provide a Democratic alternative, it’s not that hard to give a strong response. Negotiate and pass trade agreements that are fair to workers in all countries involved. Set a realistic national goal for independence from foreign oil and make the necessary investments to implement that goal. Repeal the tax cut for the top 2 percent in income, and use the money to reduce the deficit and provide tax incentives for small businesses to provide access to affordable health insurance for their employees. And Democrats and Republicans should start working together, along with our NATO allies, to figure out a successful exit strategy in Iraq.

That can all be said in the amount of time allotted to a guest in a Fox News interview. Stay calm, don’t take the bait, deflect the Republican partisanship and present a reasoned alternative. It’s that simple. And it can all happen while the Republicans are playing to the base, circling the wagons around Rove, talking about the absolute necessity to pass private Social Security accounts, trying to polarize the electorate on the Iraq war — which isn’t working anymore — and defending everything Bush and the Republican leadership are trying to do.

Believe me, it’s fun for a Democrat to appear on Fox these days. As a party, we are missing a huge opportunity by not doing so.

Steve Murphy, a Democratic media consultant, managed then-Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) 2004 presidential campaign.