Media declare port issue over, ignore Democrats' longtime focus on port security

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Following Dubai Ports World's announcement that it would divest its leases to terminals at six U.S. ports, news outlets and media figures depicted Republicans as having neutralized the issue of port security. In other cases, they portrayed the Democratic opposition to the state-owned Arab firm's acquisition of the ports as purely political. But such characterizations take a narrow view of the political issues involved in the controversy, entirely ignoring differences between the two parties' broader records on this issue.

Following Dubai Ports World's (DPW) March 9 announcement that it would divest its leases to terminals at six U.S. ports, news outlets and media figures depicted Republicans as having neutralized the issue of port security. In other cases, they portrayed the Democratic opposition to the state-owned Arab firm's acquisition of the ports as purely political. But such characterizations take a narrow view of the political issues involved in the controversy, entirely ignoring differences between the two parties' broader records on this issue. Indeed, congressional Democrats have in recent years repeatedly stressed the need for greater port security and have urged Congress and the administration to act on the issue, as Media Matters for America has noted. By contrast, Republicans have regularly resisted Democratic efforts to secure U.S. ports

Since the Bush administration's approval of the DPW deal became public on February 11 and both parties declared their opposition, the media have often cast Democrats as "Johnny-come-lately's" to the issue of port security. The characterization ignores congressional Democrats' substantial track record of promoting port security. Lawmakers such as Sens. Charles Schumer (NY), Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), Bill Nelson (FL), Patty Murray (WA), Robert Byrd (WV), Ernest Hollings (SC), Rep. Jane Harman (CA) and Gov. Jon Corzine (NJ) have all put forward legislation to bolster port security.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have regularly defeated these efforts to secure U.S. ports, as the Senate Democratic Policy Committee documented. In fact, many of the Senate Republicans who opposed the DPW port deal -- including Sens. Rick Santorum (PA), George Allen (VA), Susan Collins (ME), Norm Coleman (MN) and Lindsey Graham (SC), among others -- have continually voted against previous Democratic attempts to strengthen port security.

Despite this stark contrast in the two parties' records on port security, several news outlets responded to DPW's March 9 announcement by asserting that Republicans, in their opposition to the deal, appeared to have neutralized any benefit the Democrats might have stood to receive from the controversy. For example, in a March 10 article on how the port controversy exacerbated the divide between President Bush and the GOP-led Congress, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker wrote that it was doubtful the Democrats would be able to reap any political benefit from "that issue," given that Republicans were "every bit as vocal as their opponents in standing against the port deal":

The port deal has provided ammunition to Democrats who have begun making the case more broadly that Bush is in over his head. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) yesterday called the port situation a "case study in the administration's incompetence," and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said the administration "was clearly asleep at the switch" and "bungled the oversight of this deal."

But it's not clear whether Democrats will be able to turn that issue to their benefit in the fall. Republicans on Capitol Hill were every bit as vocal as their opponents in standing against the port deal, making it harder to draw a clear distinction come campaign time. By turning against Bush, some GOP strategists believe Republican leaders may have saved themselves a worse fate.

Viewed narrowly, Baker might be right that congressional Republicans were as vociferous on the DPW issue as Democrats. But viewed more broadly, the issue of port security -- the central issue raised by critics of the DPW deal -- is one in which Democrats and Republicans have vastly different records. Baker's article entirely ignored these differences.

Appearing on the March 10 edition of NBC's Today, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert similarly depicted Republicans as having disposed of the port deal as an issue for this year's congressional election:

KATIE COURIC (co-host): But eight months is a long time, Tim. Can the Democrats really continue to use this as a hot button issue? Do you think this really has legs?

RUSSERT: They will use it as a metaphor for incompetence. And what the Republicans and the Democrats say to me is that when they go out in the field and -- and poll and say, "What do you think of your congressman?" -- when they ask about a Republican congressman, they say three things: Iraq, corruption, and the ports. They have now taken care of the port deal. Corruption -- they may fine tune some legislation. Iraq is out of their control. Those three issues are front and center confronting this president and this Republican Congress.

Other news outlets singled out specific Democrats' opposition to the deal as motivated by political opportunism. A March 10 New York Post editorial questioned whether Schumer and Clinton would "show the same concern" over the broader issue of port security:

Those who worked so feverishly to block the Dubai ports deal have won.

Now let's see whether those same pols who were fulminating over foreign ownership -- Chuck Schumer? Hillary Clinton? -- show the same concern over the reality of what passes for port security.

But as noted above, both Schumer and Clinton have previously supported efforts to strengthen port security. In 2005, Clinton co-sponsored a successful amendment that provided $150 million for port security grants. She also co-sponsored a 2005 amendment to provide an additional $450 million for such grants. In 2004, Schumer proposed an amendment to provide $70 million for research and development to stop nuclear materials from entering U.S. ports.

Nonetheless, a March 10 Washington Times editorial characterized Schumer as a "new supposed convert to national security":

As a vignette, this episode nicely captures what we've come to observe about Mr. Schumer. In a Congress where lawmakers regularly do just about anything to get attention, he stands out for his singular capacity for self-promotion.

This new supposed convert to national security is an embarrassment. His actions discredit people who see genuine security problems with handing ports-management contracts over to a government-owned company from Dubai.

Further, on the March 9 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, co-host Sean Hannity asserted that Schumer and Clinton's opposition to the port deal "was never about homeland security or national security," but rather "about scoring some political advantage":

HANNITY: But it's interesting -- if you listen to, for example, Harry Reid and Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and the rest of them, they are still -- even though it's gone away as an issue -- well, they're still demanding a vote. Does that not prove that, for them, this was never about homeland security or national security; this was about, and always continues to be about, scoring some political advantage?

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