As ethics concerns surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) have mounted over the previous month, Republicans are pursuing an aggressive strategy to neutralize DeLay's critics by linking them to financier, philanthropist and political activist George Soros. Initiated by DeLay and other House Republicans and rapidly repeated by conservative commentators, references to Soros have become a common tactic for dismissing critics of DeLay and have now found their way into daily media coverage of the controversy, often with no indication of their GOP origins. This tactic creates the false perception that only liberal organizations are raising ethical questions about DeLay and that Soros' funding impugns the motives of watchdog groups or indicates a "liberal conspiracy" to get DeLay.
DeLay's defenders' invocation of Soros -- and the media's complicity in their efforts to taint both Soros and the progressive causes with which he is associated -- mirror a similar conservative strategy from the 2004 presidential campaign. Apparently thinking that voters would be swayed by associating Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry with Soros -- who Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley called "a Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust" -- media conservatives repeatedly assailed Soros, doctoring quotes, distorting positions, and, in at least one instance, accusing him of attempting to take control of the Democratic Party.
It is noteworthy that neither DeLay's defenders nor the news outlets that repeat their comments about Soros typically explain in detail what groups Soros has funded; what that means in the context of the large and diverse group of DeLay critics, or why, exactly, it would be wrong or controversial for an organization to receive funding from Soros.
Republican leadership attempts to dismiss any questions about DeLay with references to liberal conspiracy led by Soros
DeLay himself was apparently the first to invoke Soros, claiming that the current ethics allegations were part of a Soros-funded coordinated attack to "defeat the conservative movement." Speaking at a conference organized by the conservative Family Research Council on March 17, DeLay stated:
The point is the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement. And that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges and link that up with all of these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then get the national media on their side.
Following DeLay's speech, The Hill published a report on March 23 about an aggressive effort by Republicans to take "the offensive in the burgeoning ethics war on Capitol Hill" by detailing links between Soros and independent watchdog groups examining DeLay's record. Media Matters for America has previously identified how The Hill created a misleading perception that the Congressional Ethics Coalition, an umbrella group that has raised ethical questions about DeLay, consists exclusively of liberal groups by excluding references to coalition members Judicial Watch, which is funded by foundations controlled by right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, and the Republican-led Campaign Legal Center. Instead, The Hill focused on a single group that had received funding from Soros, Democracy 21, to highlight connections between Soros and the coalition.
The article relied upon "GOP research" to connect Soros to groups questioning DeLay's ethics record:
House Republicans are taking the offensive in the burgeoning ethics war on Capitol Hill by circulating research that details links among Democrats, George Soros and government watchdog groups that have criticized Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the House ethics process. ... The emergence of the detailed research follows talking points that the Republican National Committee (RNC) distributed last week labeling four government watchdog groups as liberal and having "close ties to left wing leaders like George Soros."
Since March 23, DeLay and his spokesman, Dan Allen, have repeatedly referenced Soros in claiming that the ethics allegations are a left-wing conspiracy against House Republicans. On March 29, Allen responded to an ad by the Campaign for America's Future: "These groups are funded by Democratic heavy hitters like George Soros. They have clear ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi [D-CA]. This proves that there is a carefully coordinated campaign and well-organized attack against House Republicans because House Democrats have no ideas, no agenda and no solutions."
The statement was carried by the Knight Ridder news service, The Washington Times, USA Today, the Austin American-Statesman, CQ Weekly, and the Houston Chronicle. But none of these publications reported that "these groups" include the conservative Judicial Watch, which has received more than $7 million in funding from the right-wing Scaife foundations; and the Campaign Legal Center, whose president, Trevor Potter, is a Republican who served in President George H.W. Bush's administration. Campaign Legal Center's staff also includes director of academic affairs and deputy general counsel Kirk Jowers, who counseled the Bush-Cheney '00 campaign; and board member Charles Kolb, who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.
Allen again blamed liberal, Soros-funded groups in an April 10 Associated Press story:
Allen added that DeLay's "effective leadership has helped to build and maintain the Republican majority in the House and that's exactly why liberal groups funded by George Soros have set their sights on him."
According to the April 14 edition of the Chicago Tribune, DeLay himself used a similar line of attack: "DeLay told Senate Republicans during a closed-door session that his problems were the result of a Democratic conspiracy led by liberal billionaire George Soros and the grass-roots organization MoveOn.org." And in an April 13 interview with The Washington Times, DeLay accused major media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the AP, of actively coordinating with Soros-backed groups to sabotage him:
Somebody ought to look at the organizations and ask The New York Times, The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Time, Newsweek, AP why they're spending all these resources they are, who they talked to ... are they collaborating with all these organizations that are funded by George Soros and his heavy hitters, and do these organizations ever talk to each other? Of course they do, they have people that are on the same boards. I mean, different boards but same people.
Other Republicans have echoed DeLay's allegations about Soros in recent weeks, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who issued a press release on April 12 stating that "radical liberals, such as George Soros" are leading a "desperate smear campaign" against DeLay. Barbara Comstock, former Bush Justice Department spokesperson and a current consultant in the DeLay defense effort, stated on CNN's Crossfire that "Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] have gone up because they have no ideas ... they don't want anyone in the ethics committee to address it because you will lose your entire campaign plans and all your George Soros money."
Conservative commentators and organizations repeat DeLay attacks on Soros
Since Republicans launched their new attack on Soros, a number of conservative media figures and right-wing organizations have echoed these claims -- in many cases increasing the stridency and scope of the charges.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol said on the April 7 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume that this was a "George Soros-financed attack on Tom DeLay":
KRISTOL: It's not the public payroll, exactly. There's a George Soros-financed attack on Tom DeLay. They're taping his -- he goes to give a speech to the Family Research Council. And they smuggle someone in who tapes it, a speech for a private organization. He gives a speech in the Sunday school, a church and they sneak somebody in to tape it.
Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, wrote in the April 12 Washington Examiner:
It has become increasingly clear in recent days that the hysterical Democratic attacks on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are part of a coordinated effort to strike down conservative leaders in and out of Congress. The left's campaign also is designed to whip up the liberal base and raise funds for the same "outside" organizations that attacked President Bush and Republican candidates last year. Many of these groups are lavishly funded by international financier George Soros.
Richard Poe, contributing editor for the right-wing NewsMax Magazine used an April 12 article on the right-wing website FrontPageMag.com to allege a Soros plot to take over the Democratic Party, renewing charges that he and FrontPage editor-in-chief David Horowitz had made during the 2004 election:
The pattern of the attack suggests that DeLay may be confronting a political machine far wealthier, more ruthless and better skilled at media manipulation than the Democratic Party itself. When the hysteria subsides and the facts are examined, we may learn that DeLay's foe all along has been the Shadow Party -- a murky and inscrutable entity controlled by leftwing billionaire George Soros.
The right-wing Eagle Forum issued an action alert on April 12, stating:
Multi-billionaire George Soros, who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat President Bush in the last Presidenial [sic] election, is bankrolling this attack on Tom DeLay!
And the conservative "church lobby" group Traditional Values Coalition posted an article to its website on April 14:
Atheist billionaire George Soros is funding a number of the organizations that are attacking DeLay. Soros is a one-world socialist who hates Christians and seeks a one-world government and legalized drugs.
Major media outlets begin incorporating attacks on Soros into coverage of DeLay
A March 31 Rocky Mountain News editorial repeated two of the central claims in the right-wing attack -- that a coalition of liberal groups is challenging DeLay and that the campaign is being funded by George Soros:
The Big Ugly in Congress right now is the fight brewing over embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. On one side are Democrats and assorted liberal groups, who smell blood as DeLay's rap sheet of transgressions grows seemingly longer every day. Their allies include members of the Congressional Ethics Coalition, including Public Campaign Action Fund and Common Cause, which are launching a high-profile campaign to persuade Republican House members to withdraw their support of DeLay. The campaign, according to some reports, may be bankrolled by George Soros' Open Society Institute.
On the other side are House GOP stalwarts and a host of conservative leaders representing such groups as the American Conservative Union, Family Research Council and Heritage Foundation. They plan to launch their own counter-campaign defending DeLay.
On March 30, Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson echoed the links to Soros on Special Report with Brit Hume, stating, "The Campaign for America's Future is also supported by liberal Democratic activist billionaire George Soros."
Juan Williams reported Republicans' claims that Soros was coordinating the anti-DeLay effort in an April 8 report on National Public Radio:
The Republicans feel there's a concerted effort, the gossip being that they believe that George Soros, the multibillionaire who has been supportive of so many Democratic causes, is one of the people who's in charge of a concerted effort to unseat a very effective and powerful Republican leader.
And on April 12, staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock wrote in The Christian Science Monitor:
In recent weeks, Democrats and activists who helped fund the 2004 presidential campaign have created their own "good government" coalitions to target DeLay. Billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute has contributed some $ 2.5 million to ethics coalition groups.
Not one of these reports mentioned the participation of Judicial Watch or Campaign Legal Center in the Congressional Ethics Coalition that has continued to criticize Republican efforts to shield DeLay from ethics questions. Nor did any of these articles offer an explanation of the relevance of Soros' financial backing to the allegations against DeLay.
The latest Soros smears echo attacks of the 2004 election
The conservative assault against Soros taps into a much larger campaign to discredit the philanthropist that emerged during the 2004 election. The Republican National Committee repeatedly assailed Soros during the 2003-2004 election cycle, releasing a briefing in November 2003 titled "THE LORD OF THE DEMOCRATS? Out Of Touch, Left-Wing Radical Pushing Extremist Agenda On America." In June 2004, the RNC launched a full media campaign against him.
Conservatives in the media also attacked Soros during the campaign. On the June 1, 2004, edition of Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly, host Bill O'Reilly doctored a quote from a 1995 profile of Soros in The New Yorker to suggest he wished his own father would die. Blankley of The Washington Times described Soros on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes on June 4, 2004, as "a Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust." And in an August 30, 2004, appearance on Hannity & Colmes, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stated that Soros "wants to spend $75 million defeating [President] George W. Bush because Soros wants to legalize heroin." Poe attempted to discredit Soros in a May 2004 NewsMax Magazine article. And Poe published a series titled "The Shadow Party" on FrontPageMag.com claiming Soros was using his money to take control of the Democratic Party.