Looking back at the fall campaign, it's yet another cycle in which the Republican political brain trust sidestepped the issue of America's growing concern for indecency oozing out of almost every perfumed pore of Hollywood. This time, it may have been the fatal mistake.
The number one issue of importance coming out of the '04 elections was "moral values," thus presenting the GOP with the opportunity to pounce on the indecency issue during the '06 campaign. I visited with one Republican incumbent running for re-election and suggested that this would be an ideal theme for his campaign. He responded that in all his years in the Senate, he'd never received as much constituency mail as what landed in his mailbox, his email and his voicemail following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl striptease. But he also left me with the clear impression, validated later by his campaign performance, that he'd do nothing on this front.
Republican strategists pull muscles just thinking about Dan Quayle scorning the "Murphy Brown" single-mom plot in 1992.
Here and there were exceptions. In TV ads in Pennsylvania, family-values stalwart Sen. Rick Santorum told voters, "I'm even working with Hillary Clinton to limit inappropriate material in children's video games, because it makes more sense to wrestle with America's problems than with each other." I'm sure a few other candidates had throwaway lines in their stump speeches. But there was nothing of substance, nothing serious coming out of this crowd.
And it was a lost opportunity in another way. The biggest rap against the GOP from its conservative base has been its do-nothing approach to governance, yet on the issue of decency the Republicans could point to a smashing legislative accomplishment. Still, no one could seem to locate the fact that on June 15, President Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased tenfold the potential of FCC fines to those who continue to violate the public trust by pouring garbage on the public airwaves. The House version of the bill passed in June by a 379-35 margin, and the Senate passed it by unanimous consent -- no roll call vote. It was a smashing success, exactly in line with the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans.
So why the campaign silence? Maybe it's because, as with so many other "values" issues, the Republican leadership was never enthusiastic. It's important to note that it took the Republicans in the Senate two and a half years after the Janet Jackson breast-baring to pass their version of the bill -- and they did so only after massive constituency pressure.
And there's the rub. The problem is that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., face two constituencies with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm.
On the outside are the American people. Across the ideological spectrum, they are fed up with Hollywood's assault on their values, using the public airwaves they own. On the inside are the lobbyists for the entertainment industry giants, plying members of Congress with satchels of campaign cash and demanding only ... inaction. Which has a greater effect in politics today?
Take the idea of cable choice, which would allow viewers to choose their cable channels a la carte and, more importantly, not have to pay for networks they don't watch or, more emphatically, find personally offensive. It's a slam-duck idea, one conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike, could endorse.
In June, Sen. John McCain offered an amendment to a Senate telecommunications bill that would have offered regulatory incentives to cable operators to offer cable choice to their subscribers. But it was defeated in committee by a vote of 20 to 2. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike -- they all fled. Only Sen. Olympia Snowe joined McCain in support.
One big reason? Common Cause reports that between 1991 and 2006, major cable industry interests and their trade groups spent more than $105 million on campaign contributions to federal candidates and on lobbying in Washington. Since 2003, major cable companies have ramped up "government affairs" spending and donating to keep Congress and regulatory agencies from asking tough questions about cable mergers and cable price increases, and to suffocate cable choice in the crib.
Will a strengthened Democratic presence in Washington prove to be any different in the indecency debate? In the Senate particularly, there are members of that party -- Joe Lieberman, Jay Rockefeller, Byron Dorgan, Mark Pryor, Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Clinton come to mind -- with proven records. A move in this direction could bring waves of conservative Democrats, once disaffected with their party, and now disdainful of their adopted GOP, back into the fold.
But would these Democratic leaders be willing to buck the lobbyists as well as their Hollywood benefactors? What of the Republicans? Will time in the wilderness allow them to rediscover their roots? It's a wide-open question, with a wide-open field, and a continuing political opportunity. Time will tell who grabs it.