Last Stand for Bush’s “Stay the Course” Crowd?

Freedom’s Watch, a new group of former ambassadors and Bush pitchmen are targeting dozens of congressional representatives with $15 million worth of pro-war radio and television advertisements

It’s been a long time since the halcyon days of the 1980s when religious and secular right wing organizations would round up the troops, create a letterhead group, drop a boatload of direct mail fundraising letters, and successfully promote the domestic and foreign policy agenda of President Ronald Reagan. Before, and during the early months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, conservatives initiated a similar spate of activities aimed at organizing support for the invasion. Predicting immediate success, these groups not only promulgated their vision of a Middle East dominated by the U.S., they also demonized any and all opponents of the invasion.

Now, with the stench of a lame duck president permeating the White House, Freedom’s Watch, a new group of Bush administration former ambassadors and high-powered donors, has launched a multi-million dollar campaign to win back the public’s support for the war on Iraq. Is this the “stay the course” crowd’s last stand?

According to its website, Freedom’s Watch, a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit corporation, is “dedicated to fighting to protect the ideals and issues that keep America strong and prosperous.” It is “rallying together” to:

    * “Bring the focus back to the real threats to our nation.”
    * “Fight back against the policies that are corrupting America’s ability to protect our citizens, our economy, and our way of life.”
    * “Reprioritize our legislative agenda to protect America’s core values.”

Despite Andrew Card’s famous dictum about not introducing a marketing campaign in the dog days of August, Freedom Watch is up against the wall. In a press release issued by the group on August 22, it announced the “launch[ing] a nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at ensuring Congress continues to fully fund the troops with the ultimate goal of victory in the War on Terror.” It claimed that it will spend some $15 million on radio and television advertisements from now through mid-September, the time Gen. David Petraeus delivers his progress report on the situation in Iraq.

“The mission of Freedom’s Watch is to ensure a strong national defense and a powerful effort to confront and defeat global terror, especially in Iraq,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, the group’s president. “Those who want to quit while victory is possible have dominated the public debate about terror and Iraq since the 2004 election. Freedom’s Watch is going to change all that.”

The Politico‘s Mike Allen reported that “The opening ad, by Jamestown Associates of New Jersey, shows a military veteran saying:

Congress was right to vote to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. I re-enlisted after Sept. 11 because I don’t want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now everything I’ve given and the sacrifices will mean nothing. They attacked us and they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It’s no time to quit. It’s no time for politics.

Upon his viewing of a Freedom’s Watch’s ad the New Republic‘s Jason Zengerle pointed out that “On an emotional level, the ad’s bluntly honest — in that there’s no real way to question the sincerity of the double-amputee vet when he says ‘[I]f we pull out now, everything I’ve given and sacrificed will mean nothing.’ On an intellectual level, the ad’s bluntly dishonest — from its reference to the Congressional ‘vote to fight terrorism in Iraq’ to its implication that the people we’re now fighting in Iraq are the people who attacked us on 9/11. But, because it’s a wounded vet making the case, I’d imagine the ad’s emotional punch will carry the day.”

Freedom’s Watch’s advertisements, which will be broadcast in more than 20 states and dozens of congressional districts, and feature a toll-free phone number for the public to call their representatives, is unambiguous: “urge” your representative not to “surrender to terror.”

Blakeman added that Freedom’s Watch “will spare no effort” to “protect our country.” “Our goal is to make clear that when America goes to war, victory is the only outcome. That’s what the troops are saying in these advertisements and what Freedom’s Watch believes. We do not agree with those groups pressuring our lawmakers to abandon victory.”

A former member of President George W. Bush’s Senior Staff as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Appointments and Scheduling before joining Park Strategies LLC as a lobbyist in 2006, Blakeman is also the Senior Advisor for Gordon C. James Public Relations, and is a former vice president of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.

Congresspedia, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media & Democracy, pointed out that Freedom’s Watch was “Using a propaganda tactic similar to that currently being employed by the pro-war in Iraq Republican front group Vets for Freedom … [by] us[ing] ads featuring ‘Iraq war veterans and parents of veterans who lost family members in the war’ to urge both Republican and Democratic members of Congress ‘who have supported the war not to switch their vote.’ The ‘central message’ will be that ‘the war in Iraq can be won and Congress must not surrender.'”

On August 22, Tom Matzzie, Washington Director of MoveOn.org Political Action/Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, pointed out on AMERICAblog that nearly $6 million was going to be spent between August 22 and September 23, targeting mostly Republican members of Congress:

    * Heather Wilson (R) and Pete Domenici (R), New Mexico, ad buy $254,190
    * Susan Collins (R) and Olympia Snowe (R), Maine, ad buys $105,995 and $158,780
    * Chuck Grassley (R) and Tom Latham (R), Iowa, ad buys $118,165, $200,520, and $56,925
    * Vernon Ehlers (R), Michigan, ad buy $177,435
    * Arlen Specter (R), Todd Platts (R), Jim Gerlach (R), Tim Murphy (R), Charlie Dent (R), Mike Castle (R), Chris Smith (R), and Mike Ferguson (R), Pennsylvania, ad buys $226,265, $922,325, and $251,290
    * Norm Coleman (R), Jim Ramstad (R), and Michele Bachmann (R), Minnesota, ad buy $220,750
    * Jon Porter (R) and Dean Heller (R), Nevada, ad buys $63,900 and $138,210
    * George Voinovich (R) and Steven LaTourette (R), Ohio, ad buy $32,935
    * Jim Walsh (R) and Randy Kuhl (R), New York, ad buys $144,955 and $187,235
    * John Warner (R) and Tom Davis (R), Virginia, ad buy $473,570
    * Gordon Smith (R), Oregon, ad buys $66,285 and $83,710
    * Mark Pryor (D), Arkansas, ad buy $248,190
    * Wayne Gilchrest (R), Maryland, ad buy $145,925
    * Elizabeth Dole (R) and Bob Inglis (R), North Carolina, ad buy $108,470
    * Mitch McConnell (R), Kentucky, ad buys $126,635 and $134,140
    * Chuck Hagel (R), Nebraska, ad buy $80,395
    * Richard Lugar (R) and Brad Ellsworth (D), Indiana, ad buys $351,420 and $137,870
    * Saxby Chambliss (R) and John Barrow (D), Georgia, ad buys $82,100 and $56,000
    * Ric Keller (R), Florida, ad buy $296,255
    * Lamar Alexander (R), Tennessee, ad buy $188,575
    * John Thune (R) and Stephanie Herseth (D), South Dakota, ad buy $16,545

Freedom’s Watch has brought Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, on board as its spokesman. He is also a founding board member. Fleischer, who has been out of the news lately, recently received some media attention when he was hired by the Don’t Take My Bat Away Coalition (website), an organization opposed to a ban on the use of aluminum baseball bats.

In addition to Bateman and Fleischer, key players include Mel Sembler, the controversial Florida multi-millionaire, former U.S. Ambassador and longtime Republican donor, William P. Weidner, president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp, and Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

In a post dated August 22, The Politico‘s Mike Allen identified the following Freedom’s Watch donors: Sembler; Anthony Gioia, a longtime Republican Party donor who served as U.S. Ambassador to Malta until 2004; Kevin Moley, who served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva from September 2001 to April 2006; Howard Leach, a big-time GOP donor who served as Ambassador to France until 2005; Dr. John Templeton, Jr., the son of mutual-funds pioneer Sir John Templeton and chairman and president of the John Templeton Foundation; Edward Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, the huge Philadelphia sports and entertainment firm; Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and ranked by Forbes magazine as the third wealthiest American; Gary Erlbaum, Vice Chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Chairman of the Federation’s Israel Emergency Campaign and the Executive Vice President of the Jewish Publishing Group which publishes the Jewish Exponent and Inside magazine; Richard Fox, chairman of the Jewish Policy Center and Pennsylvania State Chairman of the Reagan/Bush campaign in 1980.

SourceWatch noted that “in November 2005 it was reported that Sembler and Leach both donated to the legal defense fund of I. Lewis Scooter Libby, the now-convicted former Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.”

Freedom’s Watch’s “strategy is nearly identical to the one that the swift boat group implemented in 2004 against John Kerry. Get experienced DC-based political operatives, and parade soldiers in front of the camera to tout whatever message across. It’s quite effective, in that it will probably cause at least a few Republicans to buckle,” The Blue State Blog commented August 22.

“And because soldiers are the ones saying it, the lines that these PR people are feeding them can go farther than the most right-wing lawmakers. They tell us that we will get hit again if we pull out. Kind of like what Cheney said in 2004 about what would happen if Kerry got elected,” Blue State noted.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

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  1. Mulga Mumblebrain said on August 29th, 2007 at 4:59am #

    Interesting that Mr Berkowitz did not need to make the point explicitly, the roll call of membership of this malign organisation speaking for itself, but this is yet another Jewish dominated campaign to increase the death toll of Arab men, women and children. One wonders when, if ever, this Old Testament bloodlust will be quenched?