"If I were them [Democrats], I'd be scared to death about November's elections."
-- Mark Halperin, director of ABC News' political unit, June 22, 2006
My favorite article from the just-completed campaign season appeared in the October 9 issue of Time, in which Mike Allen and James Carney wrote a detailed piece about why Republicans were not worried about the upcoming elections. "The G.O.P.'s Secret Weapon," read the bold headline. "You think the Republicans are sure to lose big in November? They aren't. Here's why things don't look so bad to them," read the subhead.
The article went on and on about how an "eerie, Zen-like calm" had fallen over GOP operatives who, despite a mountain of public polling data, did not fear big election losses. In fact, they coolly insisted their own prospects were "getting better by the day." Why the tranquility? Lots of reasons, according to Time, including the party's "sophisticated, expensive and largely unnoticed" campaign to identify likely voters. Time also gave the GOP points for playing the expectations game better than Democrats and for having more resources. Time ended on this chipper note: "As long as they [Republicans] end up keeping control of both houses, they still come out the winner on Election Day."
Forget about reading the analysis post-election, with Democrats now busy installing new drapes. The article produced real-time cringes, mostly because of the context, which was virtually void of skepticism. There's nothing wrong with journalists checking in with Republicans and getting their side during the campaign season. But the tone of the Time piece -- the working assumption that Republicans would naturally find a way to outsmart Democrats -- was startling considering the circumstances. Meaning, Bush at the time stood as the most unpopular second-term president in modern history in part because the White House had spent the previous 18 months careening between a series of political debacles (Social Security, Katrina, immigration, port security, Iraq).
In other words, Bush's presidency was in shambles (think Jimmy Carter, circa 1979), yet Time eagerly passed along the transparent spin about how Republican chances were "getting better by the day." Those kinds of simplistic campaign talking points worked wonders with right-wing bloggers and radio talk show hosts who excitedly repeated them as a way to calm their nerves during the campaign homestretch. But Time?
Sure enough, its 1,500-word article did not quote a single Democratic or independent source. It was, in the most literal sense, transparent RNC spin (i.e., "House Republican officials contend that many of their Democratic challengers are so little known that they could be buried in an ad blitz").
Unfortunately, given the disastrous election results for Republicans, the GOP's-sitting-pretty angle became something of an obsession for Time's Allen, who came back to the storyline again and again with October efforts such as "Why The Democratic Wave Could Be A Washout" and "Why Some Top Republicans Think They May Still Have the Last Laugh." And then there was Allen's November 2 blog entry, "Upset in Michigan?" which hyped the Republican-friendly theory that its candidate there had a chance of knocking off incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. (He didn't; Stabenow won in a landslide.) The dispatch included no polling data to give readers any idea if the Republican even had a chance, and it included no quotes from any Democratic or independent observers. The entire Michigan item consisted of quotes from Republicans insisting their guy really, really had a shot.
Time's string of campaign misses all carried with them the undeniable imprint of Bush senior adviser Karl Rove. (It was fitting Rove gave his first, exclusive post-election interview to Time's Allen, who continued to treat his key White House source very gently.)
The Beltway press' gooey, ongoing crush on Rove has probably set some sort of record for longevity inside the Beltway as Rove's media stature seems to climb with each passing year, despite Bush's accumulating missteps -- missteps Rove helped choreograph (i.e., Terri Schiavo). Forget the fact that Bush needed the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the vote counting in order to secure a win in 2000, that Republicans in 2002 won congressional seats by promising a (phony) war of revenge against Iraq, or that in 2004 Bush, a wartime president who one year earlier boasted booming job approval rating, narrowly defeated a liberal from Massachusetts in the general election. The mainstream media echo chamber has been nearly unanimous; Rove was an organizational genius who had literally cracked the code to winning elections, while his Democratic counterparts wandered around in the electoral dark.
The media's Rove crush continued throughout the campaign season. Echoing the White House chatter, lots of reporters and pundits signed off on the phony premise that Sen. John Kerry's "botched joke" was hugely important and might doom Democratic chances. They also thought Rove's "vaunted" get-out-the-vote apparatus was going to bury Democrats at the polls. (It's "a stunning machine," crowed an editor from The Hill.)
Last month, the Los Angeles Times described Rove as "far from being discouraged" about Republicans' chances this fall and giving "a virtuoso performance designed to prevent the Democrats from taking control of the House and Senate." CBS' Harry Smith announced Rove was "cool as a cucumber" because the "Republicans have an amazing get-out-the-vote mechanism." And Vanity Fair published an usually soft 8,500-word profile of Rove -- soft, given the fact that Rove was a man on the verge of his political and professional collapse.
And then there's the new, endlessly worshipful book, The Way to Win, by ABC News' Mark Halperin and The Washington Post's John Harris. (Talk about a bad time for a Rove-is-a-genius book to hit stores.) The tome stresses again and again that Rove is much more than a mere hired political gun, he's a thoughtful policy wonk. (He reads policy books! He attends policy conferences!) Halperin and Harris do everything in their power to prop Rove up as a wise man obsessed with "ideas" and desperate to implement thoughtful policy. Unfortunately, that loving portrait completely contradicts previous reports from inside the West Wing about how the Bush White House is almost uniformly devoid of serious domestic policy debate. Instead, politics -- by Rove's demand -- rules all:
There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.
That was John DiIulio describing the White House to Ron Suskind, writing for Esquire. DiIulio served as the first head of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. (DiIulio's unflattering assessment -- senior Bush aides who didn't know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid -- went on for seven pages in a letter he wrote to Suskind.)
The Rove hero worship was evident all summer long, like when pundits and reporters -- echoing Rove -- suggested Iraq was going to hurt Democrats at the polls and that Ned Lamont's primary win over Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut would cripple Democrats nationwide by tarring them with an anti-war image. (An image, it turned out, that actually propelled Democrats to victory last week.)
In June, just before the Senate debated setting a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, Rove signaled his intention to tar Democrats as "cut and run" defeatists who didn't have the stomach to "[f]ight, beat 'em, win." And apparently when Rove signs off on a political strategy (hit the Dems hard over Iraq), the press assumes it's a masterful stroke and shows little interest in dwelling on the pertinent questions, such as: Weren't Republicans running an obvious risk by making the hugely unpopular war in Iraq the centerpiece for their 2006 campaign? Instead, too many journalists at the time purposefully ignored clear polling data that obliterated the narrative that the Republicans had the winning hand in the Iraq troop debate.
To cite just one of many examples, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey at the time specifically asked people if they would be more likely or less likely to support a candidate who "[f]avors pulling all American troops out of Iraq within the next twelve months." By a margin of 54-32, Americans said they were more likely to vote for a candidate (read: a Democrat) who wants to pull troops out of Iraq by next summer.
Yet amidst the Iraq debate last June, ABC's Halperin warned Democrats, "If I were them, I'd be scared to death about November's elections," while Newsweek announced "Democrats lost the week in the war over the war" and that "the GOP was clearly on the rebound." ABC's The Note, issued by the network's Halperin-led political unit, declared that Democrats were "on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party."
Meanwhile, framing the debate on Today, NBC's Matt Lauer wondered, "Are the Democrats losing the political battle over the war in Iraq?" Asked about the troops debate, ABC's Liz Marlantes announced "Republicans are strutting right now," while The Washington Post reported Democrats were "scrambling" to find a winning position on Iraq.
The narrative had no basis in reality -- virtually every published poll at the time suggested the war was going to be a deadly anchor around the necks of Republicans come November -- but Rove was spinning his illogical tale, so lots of journalists played along, too timid to call it out for the obvious miscalculation that it was.
It was left to MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, of all people -- the former Republican Revolution congressman -- to correctly identify the Rove strategy of embracing the war for what it was. Said Scarborough last June: "This sounds like a complete loser for Republicans come this fall."
And it was.
Just two months later, the press took the same phony pratfall when anti-war candidate Lamont defeated Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary. Beltway-based pundits (many of whom supported the doomed Iraq invasion) sounded noisy alarms. ABC's Cokie Roberts claimed a Lamont win would mean "a disaster for the Democratic Party." Time's Mike Allen (have you spotted the trend here?) was quick to declare that the Lamont win doubled as a Republican victory because it would allow the GOP to "portray the opposition as the party of weakness and isolation on national security and liberal leanings on domestic policy." Allen also went on an on, without any proof, about how "doleful" Democrats were "on the defensive," about Lamont's upset, "bemoaning" their predicament.
It was the replay of the June debate. The Beltway's simplistic (i.e., Rovian) argument was built around the phony premise that by voting for an anti-war candidate, Connecticut voters would taint the party nationally by advertising Democrats as being soft on national security. That spin, though, was demolished by the facts on the ground -- namely, that a majority of Americans supported Lamont's position on national security and Iraq.
Finally, after the "thumpin' " Republicans took, Rove's tactics have come under closer press scrutiny, particularly his late campaign predictions that proved to be embarrassingly naïve. But even there, the coverage has been artificially restrained with the starting point for many of the media post-mortems being, how could a strategist as brilliant as Karl Rove misread the looming election returns?
The press also continues to look away from Rove's string of colossal miscues that led to the Republican losses. For instance, Republicans themselves are furious that Bush waited until the day after the elections to fire beleaguered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I think the timing was exactly backwards," complained Newt Gingrich, who said Bush's clumsy maneuver likely cost Republican candidates between 10 and 15 seats in the House. For now Bush is getting the blame. But does anybody really think that Rove did not play a significant role in the misguided decision to keep Rummy on through the elections? After all, it was Rove who insisted all year that Iraq could be a winning issue for Republicans and that candidates would get credit for sticking close to the president. That turned out to be a costly blunder, and so did Bush's refusal to can Rumsfeld.
Rove's fingerprints are all over both miscalculations, but the press, still not over its Rove crush, shies away from the tough questions.