02/01/2006 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hey PFAW, NARAL, and Alliance for Justice: This is How a Real Alito Campaign Should've Gone

The Context

Some people think that winning on Alito was always a longshot. I don't think so. Two stats suggest the magnitude of our failure. One, the country thinks that Roe v Wade should be protected. Two, the country wanted Sam Alito confirmed by the Senate. The only way to reconcile these conflicting sentiments is that we failed to explain that Sam Alito seeks to overturn Roe versus Wade.

And though we have only 44 Senators, the political environment is very unfavorable for Bush. He is at historically low approval ratings, and compares favorably only with the corrupt Republican Congress whose responsibility was handling the confirmation process.

Yet, with this context ripe with opportunity for a win, freeper Sam Alito is now a sitting Supreme Court Justice. I can't help but conclude that we could have stopped him, but we did not.

If you want to know how a real campaign on Alito would've looked, here's one version of what you might have seen.

The Message

Bush and his court nominee wants to make abortion illegal.

The Political Operation

There would have been real intraparty communication, beginning immediately after Bush's reelection. This operation would have identified key legislative staffers, officials, unions, groups, progressive journalists, funders, and online partisans, and set up regular networking sessions so people knew who was on the team. Formal and informal meetings, conferences, and money would have been dedicated to fleshing out arguments and connecting these stakeholders to one another. Not all stakeholders would buy in, but enough would be given the opportunity so the group would have cohesion, legitimacy, and a sense of momentum. Surrogates would have been identified, networked, and at appropriate times, they would have been briefed. Necessary legal organizations would have been formed to channel advertising money, and donors would have been educated on these channels. One blog with a successful paid blogger tied into this political operation would have been picked to track the politics, media, and arguments around the Supreme Court. The goal would be to get enough stakeholders to align their interests with each other, but not an inflexible group designed around inaction and false consensus. Developing a sense of teamwork, and not lockstep strict agreement, would be the goal.

Branding and Advertising

As soon as Bush nominated Alito, new ad hoc unbranded groups would have broadcast ads around the country with pictures of a coathanger hanging on a rusty nail, saying that Bush wants to make abortion illegal and take us back to the time when women died in back alleys and doctors were sent to jail for providing medical care. There would have been a media firestorm over liberal extremists, which would generate free media. The next ad would have been harder hitting, showing sleazy used car salesman offering abortion services. TV networks would have refused to run these ads, generating more free media. These groups would then leak direct mail pieces that are even harder hitting, with pictures of women barefoot and pregnant. The advertising would have included the recent mining accident, and blamed Bush for it. All of these tactics would have been used to generate a climate of fear around crossing the pro-choice movement. Protests, live-site events, and cultural products would be sold around this campaign.

A Research Operation

Groups would have assembled research on every single Senator, group, and journalist involved in the process. Alito wouldn't just be the focus on research; every single right-wing group, speaker, commenter, and pundit would have a dossier that showed that their interests leaned towards making abortion illegal. A secondary line of attack on so-called-moderate pro-choice Republicans might have been corruption in service of Bush's agenda. Every single day of the hearings, every single witness would be the target of mockery and derision. There would be new polls twice a week showing support for abortion rights.

Surrogate and Media Operations

The list of surrogates having been created, surrogates would be briefed with talking points and research, and monitored. They would be harshly criticized in the blogs if they screwed up, and media booking assets would have been removed from them. A media critique focusing on key journalists would have been launched via the blogosphere. This critique would weld together the institutional revulsion at the coathanger ads, bad journalism, and used boycotts and savvy opposition research to attack the purvayers of conventional wisdom. With the political space thus created, Senators would be free to preen and lecture us about maintaining a civil bipartisan tone around not killing women in back alleys.

Online Operation

Lists of Senators and positions would be prominently displayed online, with contact information. Waverers would be mocked mercilessly, and vicious flash cartoons would be deployed aggressively to show Bush's hatred of women's rights and preference for back-alley deaths over legalized abortion. Oppo research would be deployed online against right-wing groups, and Senators would be confronted with a wave of constituent email. This email would be collected and used to put Senators on the record on their positions.


PACs and bloggers would threaten to run primary challengers against Democratic Senators, and strong races against Republican ones. Vicious direct mail pieces would go out, and would be sent to political consultants with the clear message that this is a political issue that candidates will run on in 2006 should their Senator clients vote the wrong way. Meanwhile, a few key figures would have lined up support from funders to enforce discipline on wayward groups.


None of these pieces are that hard to put together, once momentum gets going. It happened with Social Security. The message was simple. Bush wants to cut your benefits. There is no crisis. Simple. There were enforcement mechanisms, there was a political operation behind the whole campaign. There was a clear political operation. Pundits got destroyed for their bad framing. USA Next was plastered. The netroots were engaged, and Josh Marshall laid out the arguments.

We could have done this on Alito. We could have won. We did not.