In April 2006, with the approval ratings of President George W. Bush plummeting, his senior political advisor, Karl Rove, began discussing a plan to turn things around.
His strategy: attack progressive organizations that were registering low-income people to vote and helping them fight corporate power — and claim it was about voter fraud.
The main White House target, newly released records show, was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). By the end of 2006, Rove would oversee the removal of eight U.S. attorneys, including two who refused to press bogus charges against ACORN in New Mexico and Missouri, and a third under similar suspicions in Washington state.
ACORN made a convenient target for Rove and his gang — and the well-orchestrated attacks on that group, which have exploded into the headlines this year, provide a compelling case study in how the right wing operates in this country.
Although it was the GOP that removed tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters from the rolls in the 2000 and 2004, the Republicans and their allies were able to make the issue of voter fraud all about ACORN, using a handful of isolated problems to undercut an organization focused on giving a voice to poor people.
Founded in Little Rock, Ark. at the end of the 1960s, ACORN has grown into the nation's top community-organizer group, thanks to success in improving poor people's housing, wages, and educational access. By the eve of the 2008 presidential election, ACORN had helped register more than 1.3 million voters — mostly young, low-income minorities — in 21 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.
As The Nation put it, these successes made ACORN "something of a right-wing bogeyman."
And while the recent furor over a conservative videographer secretly taping ACORN employees saying dumb things has somehow become one of the big political stories of the year, the major media have mostly ignored how this attack is part of a larger conservative strategy.
In August, hundreds of pages of e-mails and transcripts related to the 2006 U.S. attorney-firing scandal were released to the press and public — but few news outlets mentioned that Rove was focused on attacking ACORN's voter registration efforts, even though ACORN and voter fraud are repeatedly mentioned in these documents.
"This is about a campaign that goes back a decade to big business and that people who don't like what ACORN does and is effective at — namely, helping groups to organize and put pressure on banks around sub[prime] mortgage loans to stop racial discrimination," Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, told us.
It wasn't really about voter fraud. As former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, a Republican from New Mexico, recently stated on The Rachel Maddow Show: "They were looking at numbers [and] didn't like the demographic tidal wave that was coming their way so they wanted to engage the machinery of the Justice Department to stop that wave."
After two years of investigating ACORN and other supposed perpetrators of left-wing voter fraud, Igelias said, "I couldn't find one case I could prosecute."
But for the right-wing attack machine, it didn't matter — the damage was done.
THEIR MASTERS' VOICE
White House communications strategist Anita Dunn created a stir in mid-October when she told CNN host Howie Kurtz that Fox News "is really more of a wing of the Republican Party. ... Let's not pretend they're a news network like everybody else is."