Five morning shows allowed Matalin to spin away without challenge

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

On April 20, Republican strategist Mary Matalin appeared alone on five network and cable morning shows with no one to rebut her false claims, pro-GOP spin, and attacks on the Democratic Party.

On April 20, Republican strategist Mary Matalin appeared alone on five network and cable morning shows with no one to rebut her false claims, pro-GOP spin, and attacks on the Democratic Party. On each show, the hosts conducted one-on-one interviews with Matalin about the recent reshuffling of Bush administration personnel. But in four of these five cases, the news outlets not only allowed her to appear unopposed, they neglected to subsequently discuss these issues with a Democratic or progressive commentator.

Less than a week after former White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten took the reins as President Bush's chief of staff, press secretary Scott McClellan announced his decision to step down. The administration also disclosed that White House senior adviser Karl Rove would be relinquishing his duties as manager of policy development in order to focus more on political strategy. This news came as a growing number of retired generals called for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation.

Matalin appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, and CNN to answer questions regarding these developments.

Good Morning America

On ABC's Good Morning America, host Charlie Gibson noted that Bush's second term has so far been marked by the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina as well as numerous stalled policy initiatives, including the White House's proposed overhaul of Social Security and, more recently, immigration reform. Matalin responded, "I'm just going to very respectfully but assertively disagree with that."

On the issue of the Gulf Coast recovery, Matalin claimed that Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) is "very happy with President Bush's policy on Katrina." She further asserted, "[T]hey're very happy with the president's man down there, Don Powell." But as recently as March 30, Blanco publicly expressed her displeasure with the Bush administration and Powell, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast recovery and rebuilding, on the issue of levee reconstruction. "This monumental miscalculation is an outrage," Blanco declared after the administration disclosed that the government is $6 billion short of the funding necessary to rebuild New Orleans' levees to federal standards. Shortly after Katrina, Bush had pledged to build the levees "higher and better." "This means that, just two months before hurricane season, the Corps of Engineers informs us they cannot ensure even the minimum safety of southeastern Louisiana," Blanco continued. "This is totally unacceptable."

Further, Matalin countered Gibson's statement that Bush's plan to reform Social Security "has gone nowhere" by claiming that he had "stepped up to the plate" and "put out a bipartisan proposal" on the issue. In fact, Bush's campaign to partially privatize Social Security ultimately failed in part because of its utter lack of support from Democrats. Indeed, congressional Democrats were very careful not to give the president's plan a "bipartisanship veneer," as Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan wrote in the May 2006 issue of the magazine:

[Senate Democratic Leader Harry] Reid and [House Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush's "risky" proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

Perhaps Matalin was referring to Bush's proposal to create a tiered system of benefits structured on income that was based upon a plan developed by Robert C. Pozen. But while Pozen is a Democrat, he also stated his opposition to the president's privatization plan in May 2005. Or possibly Matalin had in mind Bush's statement in his 2006 State of the Union Address that he intended to create a commission to "to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid ... and offer bipartisan solutions." But neither this effort, nor Bush's adoption of the Pozen plan, represents a "bipartisan proposal."

In response to a subsequent question about the Republicans' chances of losing their House or Senate majorities in the upcoming midterm elections, Matalin partly attributed the fact that it is a "tight election year" to "unfortuitous resignations and retirement in competitive districts." She went on to declare, "[W]e have policies, we have an agenda, we have plans, we have good candidates, we have good incumbents." But Matalin ignored -- and Gibson failed to mention -- that some of these "unfortuitous" resignations and retirements are the result of criminal investigations, as in the case of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA).

No Democratic or progressive guest appeared on Good Morning America to discuss these issues.

The Early Show

On CBS' The Early Show, co-host Harry Smith asked Matalin whether President Bush has a "message problem." Matalin answered by noting the "record low unemployment, record growth and record high productivity." When Smith reminded her of the "record high gas prices," she cited only external factors, saying, "Gas prices go up and down. And we have China and India coming on line. We have the seasonal switchovers. We have lots of things that affect gas prices. But it's seasonal, they go up and down."

Matalin went on to argue that the Republicans must retain control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections because, if they don't, "Democrats will do nothing but obstruct for the next three years." Rather than challenge Matalin's depiction of Democrats purely as obstructionists, Smith noted that the Democrats should not "pop the champagne corks" yet because "if Karl Rove goes back to working on elections, then they seriously have a problem." To which Matalin responded, "Well said."

No Democratic or progressive guest appeared elsewhere during the show to discuss these issues. To the contrary, immediately following Matalin's appearance, Smith interviewed Howard H. Baker Jr., former chief of staff to President Reagan. On the March 29 broadcast of The Early Show, Matalin was similarly allowed to spin without challenge Bolten's appointment as White House chief of staff, as Media Matters for America has noted.

Fox & Friends

On Fox News' Fox & Friends, in response to a question from co-host Steve Doocy about the shift in Rove's White House duties, Matalin again stressed the importance of the upcoming elections and declared, "It would be catastrophic for the country if the Democrats and their obstructionist, no-agenda party took over." After Doocy inquired about any impending policy changes, Matalin referred to the "astoundingly good economy" under Bush. She then downplayed the skyrocketing deficits during his tenure, claiming that they are "in line with historic norms."

Fox & Friends did not interview a Democratic or progressive guest on these issues.

American Morning

On CNN's American Morning, Matalin again repeated the claim that the Democrats have no agenda. Referring to the White House's lack of "an effective connection with the public," Matalin said, "When Democrats have put nothing on the table and people are looking favorably at that, there's a disconnect." Co-host Miles O'Brien subsequently brought up Bush's refusal to replace Rumsfeld. "The president has confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld," Matalin said, "as do the thousands, thousands of generals and other personnel in the military and in the Defense Department." Matalin's response echoed a memo recently released by the Department of Defense with talking points intended to rebut the calls for Rumsfeld's resignation from several retired U.S. generals. The memo reportedly sought "to put the criticism of the relatively small number of retired generals into context," noting that "there are more than 8,000 active-duty and retired general officers alive today," according to an April 16 New York Times article.

At no point in the show did American Morning host a Democratic or progressive guest to discuss these issues.

Today

On NBC's Today, co-host Katie Couric asked Matalin whether the "Whtie House is very worried about the upcoming midterm elections." Matalin responded that there are a number of competitive seats in the House and Senate but then advanced the oft-stated claim that Democrats have no plan. "They have not done a good job in preparing any sort of policies or an agenda," she said. "They don't have any vision."

When Couric later brought up the growing criticism directed at Rumsfeld, Matalin sung his praises. She asserted that he has "done an incredible job" and that the "president's continued confidence [in him] ... is premised on Rumsfeld's success." "You can quibble with the tactics," Matalin said. "What you can't quibble with is that we're safer today than we were four years ago."

By contrast to the other morning shows, Couric subsequently discussed the White House shake-up with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) -- albeit an hour and a half after her interview with Matalin. Couric further asked Kennedy to respond to Matalin's claim that the Democrats lack "vision." But Couric went on to essentially endorse this view, stating, "It seems to me the Democratic Party has done a miserable job of communicating its vision to the American people and offering any kind of alternative."

From the April 20 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

GIBSON: Nominally, Karl Rove relinquishes policy duties, though. And when you look at the policy initiatives of this president since he got re-elected: Social Security reform, it has gone nowhere. Immigration reform, it is stalled. Response to Hurricane Katrina, not very good to say the least. Is Karl Rove taking a hit for those failiures?

MATALIN: Well now Charlie, I'm just going to very respectfully but assertively disagree with that. If you talk to Governor Blanco and the Louisianans, they are very happy with the president's policy on Katrina. And you can ask them about it. And they're very happy with the president's man down there, Don Powell. In the case of immigration, by their own admission, the Democrats stopped, thwarted -- we thought there was a deal in the morning, by the afternoon the Democrats had stopped it. On Social Security, this president -- first president to touch that third rail -- has that debate on the table. That it couldn't get through Congress, is not, is not -- is something that the president wants to get done. But, he touched that third rail, he put out a bold proposal; he put out a bipartisan proposal. And we can't turn back the clock here. There will be Social Security reform, and it will be remembered that this president stepped up to the plate to reform, not only this, but Medicare. And we also have a good economy; we're making progress on the global war on terror. So these are -- this is a big, heavy load that the president is presiding over, and he's putting in place and will keep adjusting the team that's in place to be the most effective president that he can be.

GIBSON: Let me go back to something you said earlier -- Rove focuses now on politics. Is there real fear in the White House and up on Capitol Hill now that the Republicans could very well lose the House and a number of seats in the Senate?

MATALIN: I would say that there's a recognition that this is a very polarized country, and it's a very tight election year, and due to a number of forces -- not least unfortuitious resignations and retirement in competitive districts -- there are a lot of seats in play. And we have to be vigilant and do everything we can in every one of those seats. But we have policies, we have an agenda, we have plans, we have good candidates, we have good incumbents. So there's a concomitant confidence in the ability to maintain both chambers. But you cannot do that without vigilance and paying attention to it.

From the April 20 edition of NBC's Today:

COURIC: And this shift, Mary, can people conclude from this shift that the White House is very worried about the upcoming midterm elections and about the Republicans losing control?

MATALIN: Well, the White House and the Hill is conscious of the reality. This is a very polarized country right now. There are a number of seats that are unfortuitously competitive because of retirements. There's -- the Democrats have done a good job in recruiting. They have not done a good job in preparing any sort of policies or an agenda -- they don't have any vision. So what this comes down to in the fall, as in all elections, are a choice. And we have to make the choice of voting for us very clear -- and the catastrophic consequences of voting for Democrats. That's what campaigns are about.

[...]

COURIC: Meanwhile, I know you have other interviews to do and I'm almost out of time, Mary, so I have to ask you about Donald Rumsfeld. I know that Mr. Bush -- apparently, [NBC Washington bureau chief] Tim Russert said a person close to the president said Mr. Bush couldn't get rid of Rumsfeld because, quote, "it would be the equivalent of firing himself." But at what point, Mary, in your view, does the president's loyalty become just too big a political liability?

MATALIN: The president's continued confidence in the secretary of defense is not premised solely on loyalty. Although, loyalty is a very good characteristic to have in any person. It's premised in Rumsfeld's success. You can quibble with some of the tactics and there has been contentions -- but this is all new policy. What you can't quibble with is that we are safer today than we were four years ago and we will be safer tomorrow. And 20 years looking backward, Don Rumsfeld will have implemented the president's policy and re-trajectoring a foreign policy that was heretofore not effective.

COURIC: So he is here to stay, right?

MATALIN: Yes, he is here to stay. The president has made that clear. And for good reason. The secretary's done an incredible job.

From the April 20 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

MATALIN: The Democrats have been able to obstruct immigration reform, Social Security reform. You know, we have to have a more effective working relationship with the Congress to be able to push back the Democrats on these important proposals that need to be passed.

SMITH: So do you think this is a message problem? Do you think the president is, sort of, not getting his message across?

MATALIN: I think there is some sort of cognitive dissonance when we have record low unemployment, record growth, and record high productivity and housing starts and people are saying --

SMITH: And record high gas prices and, you know --

MATALIN: Well, you know, gas prices go up and down. And we have China and India coming on line. We have the seasonal switchovers. We have lots of things that affect gas prices. But it's seasonal, they go up and down. But no, I 'm not saying it's a communication problem. What I'm saying is we don't have the luxury of having three more years in office to be anything other but effective. And we will lose our -- we will not be able to be effective if we don't hang on to particularly the House because the Democrats will do nothing but obstruct for the next three years.

SMITH: Yeah, because if the Democrats, if they're ready to pop the champagne corks, they're making a mistake because if Karl Rove goes back to working on elections then they seriously have a problem. Here's the thing though --

MATALIN: Well said.

SMITH: Here's the architect -- the architect, as he is called by the president -- is in charge of policy for the last couple of years, and they don't really have anything to show for it, per se. Do they?

MATALIN: No, Karl has always been at the nexus of policy and politics because for this president policy is politics. And you, just because some of things were not completely accomplished they are now on the table and there is no looking back, starting with Social Security. There will be Social Security reform. Prior to this president, that wasn't even on the table. So, look, Karl is the architect. He has always been a key adviser. He is the most valuable player. And he can play any position, but he needs to be on the pitching mound.

SMITH: Here's the question, though. Is Josh Bolten now the man?

MATALIN: Well, Josh Bolten is obviously the man -- with a mandate.

From the April 20 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

DOOCY: Also, Karl Rove surrendered the policy management duties. What -- you know, he's a busy guy, and it must have been hard for the vision guy to also be the guy who has to do a bunch of paper details and stuff like that.

MATALIN: That's exactly right. It's hard to see the forest when you're steeped in the trees. And Karl's gonna reprioritize. He's not ever gonna be out of policy. Policy and politics is the nexus of this White House, and he's at it and he's the president's trusted MVP there and will remain so.

But this is a critical midterm election. There is nothing so much -- other than the president's decisions -- that affect his effectiveness going forward than controlling -- keeping control of this Congress. It would be catastrophic for the country if the Democrats and their obstructionist, no-agenda party took over. And Karl's going to do what he's done in the last three elections, which is make history.

DOOCY: So it has nothing to -- he's not being demoted and it has nothing to do with the CIA leak investigation.

MATALIN: Oh no, not, not at all.

[...]

DOOCY: So we're going to see some new faces in some new places. But essentially the same policies?

MATALIN: Well, of course the same policies. You know, that they are hard or that they take time to come to fruition, that they are bold, they are big. If -- they are Bush. And they will -- he will stick on those policies because they've resulted in an astoundingly good economy. We are making progress on the global war on terror -- we can't backtrack on that. We have Medicare reform. We have tort reform. Our deficits are in line with historic norms. So he's made a lot of progress. I know that's not how it's reported day in and day out. But the president takes the long view and this is a presidency that will be measured by history -- and favorably.

From the April 20 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: If the president's numbers, though, were not in the 30s, we wouldn't be seeing these changes, would we?

MATALIN: You know, I don't know. I mean, change is -- change is good. Those are tough jobs. And there was a lot of change. There's a lot of change always in the White Hosue and in Washington in general. But yes, there is obviously a recognition that when we're in a robust economy and four out of five people say they're better off today than they were four years ago, yet 50 percent think we're in a recession, there's a disconnect. When 80 percent of the Iraqis feel optimistic about their future and 50 percent of Americans don't, there's a disconnect. When Democrats have put nothing on the table and people are looking favorably at that, there's a disconnect. So the objective here is to have an effective connection with the public to continue to pursue the big policy and the strategic trajectory that the president has put in place. We've got three years here.

O'BRIEN: All right. Mary, the dissatisfaction with the war, though, is now in the 60 percentile and the one person who seems not to be losing his job for sure is the defense secretary. That, to me, seems like a bit of a disconnect.

MATALIN: Well, that's not a disconnect. This is a brand new kind of war. It's an unconventional war, asymmetrical. These terrorists don't fight by the rules such as it were. This is a problem that wasn't addressed for the 20 years preceding this administration, preceding 9-11. And Secretary Rumsfeld is not only at the helm of overseeing that, he's also overseeing a transformation for the 21st century for the military.

So, yes, there's going to be a lot of dissension, a lot of contention. The president has confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld, as do the thousands, thousands of generals and other personnel in the military and in the Defense Department. He's been an incredible secretary of defense and he's going to stay.

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