Media misrepresent Clyburn remarks to air attacks on Democrats

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

Several conservative commentators have misrepresented July 30 comments by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) in an effort to suggest that Democrats want "their country [to] lose a war because otherwise they might lose an election," as Fox News' John Gibson put it. In addition, some media outlets have uncritically reported Republican attacks on Clyburn without providing context. What Clyburn said, in fact, is that if Gen. David Petraeus were to report in September that the military effort in Iraq "is working very, very well at this point; we would be foolish to back away from it," it would cause "those 47 Blue Dogs ... to want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to remain united, as they have been, then it would be a problem for us." In other words, Clyburn did not say that good news from Iraq is bad news for Democrats in electoral terms, but rather that a recommendation from Petraeus against withdrawal would impede Democrats' efforts to garner support in Congress for legislation to begin withdrawal. Indeed, Clyburn added: "None of us want to see a bad result in Iraq. If we are going to get in position to yield a good result, I think Democrats want to see that."

From the July 30 "PostTalk" interview of Clyburn on washingtonpost.com, video of which is available at the website:

BALZ: What do Democrats do if General Petraeus comes in in September and says, "This is working very, very well at this point; we would be foolish to back away from it"?

CLYBURN: Well, that would be a real big problem for us, no question about that, simply because of those 47 Blue Dogs. I think there would be enough support in that group to want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to remain united, as they have been, then it would be a problem for us.

So I think we, by and large, would do wise -- be wise to wait on the report. None of us want to see a bad result in Iraq. If we are going to get in position to yield a good result, I think Democrats want to see that. We love this country. We're as patriotic as anybody else about this. And we have loved ones involved in this issue just like everybody else. I've got family and friends involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so I certainly want to see a good result. But I'm certainly not going to just roll over because the president said. It is only because we get good intelligence from those people like General Petraeus who can be trusted to give us good information.

In an August 1 post about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the washingtonpost.com blog The Trail, which the Post subsequently printed in its August 2 edition, Michael D. Shear noted attacks by Romney on Clyburn:

At each [campaign] stop, Romney also took the opportunity to slam South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who said Monday that a positive report from Gen. David Petraeus on progress in Iraq "would be a problem for us." Romney demanded clarification from Clyburn.

"Sometimes they say things they ought to withdraw," he told reporters.

Shear noted the attacks without presenting the context of Clyburn's remarks or indicating that he had given Clyburn a chance to respond. As Media Matters for America noted, an article in the August 2 edition of Roll Call also paraphrased Clyburn, rather than accurately quoting him, and left out the full context of his comments.

In an August 2 National Review Online op-ed headlined "Good News Is Bad News: At least it is for politicians who have bet on America's defeat," conservative columnist Clifford D. May asserted: "As House Majority Whip James Clyburn suggested this week, success in Iraq also would be awkward for those who have bet their political chips on American failure." May added: "To be precise, Clyburn said that it would be 'a real big problem for us' should General Petraeus return to Washington next month and present a positive report on progress in Iraq." May did not quote any of Clyburn's other comments.

In a July 31 entry on his U.S. News & World Report blog, conservative columnist Michael Barone noted that Clyburn said the "problem" was holding together the caucus in favor of changing course in Iraq but nevertheless asserted, "The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that increasing numbers of Americans will see progress in Iraq and will not want to accept defeat when they could have victory." Barone also pointed to the Post interview as evidence that Clyburn "is already having such a nightmare." He went on to assert that a "political party gets itself in a bad position when military success for the nation is a 'real big problem for us.' Voters generally want their politicians to root for the nation, not against it." He did not quote Clyburn's statement that he and other Democrats "certainly want to see a good result." From Barone's blog entry:

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that increasing numbers of Americans will see progress in Iraq and will not want to accept defeat when they could have victory. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, according to the Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, is already having such a nightmare. He said that a positive report by Gen. David Petraeus in September will be "a real big problem for us":

Clyburn noted that Petraeus carries significant weight among the 47 members of the Blue Dog caucus in the House, a group of moderate to conservative Democrats. Without their support, he said, Democratic leaders would find it virtually impossible to pass legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal.

The "us" in question is of course the House Democratic leadership. A political party gets itself in a bad position when military success for the nation is a "real big problem for us." Voters generally want their politicians to root for the nation, not against it. We're still a good distance from this nightmare scenario for congressional Democrats, and we may never get there. But it seems that Jim Clyburn, a highly competent politician and from everything I've seen a really nice man, is worried about it.

During the "My Word" segment on the July 31 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson, Gibson, like Barone, noted that Clyburn was talking about keeping the Democratic caucus together. Gibson stated: "Representative Jim Clyburn, a Democrat of South Carolina, is quoted by The Washington Post as saying that a positive report on the surge from General Petraeus in September is going to cause, quote, 'unity problems for Democrats in the House of Representatives.' Translation: 'If we're winning, some conservative-minded Democrats won't want to quit Iraq as quickly as [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-NV] would like. Those Democrats will think, "If we're winning, why should we surrender?" ' " However, later in the same segment, Gibson distorted Clyburn's comments, asserting that they showed that some politicians' "nightly prayers are evidently that their country lose a war because otherwise they might lose an election":

GIBSON: So, something like winning, such as a good surge report, is simply bad news from the war front for some Democrats. If we can believe Clyburn, some Blue Dog Democrats -- the more conservative ones than others -- don't carry their disdain for Bush to the extreme that they need their country to lose a war. For that, they should be commended. But what about the others who are not that sensible? What should we say about politicians who actually fear a good report on the surge, whose nightly prayers are evidently that their country lose a war because otherwise they might lose an election. Oh, the panic. Oh, the terror. Win the war?

Believe it or not, there are Americans for whom that is very, very bad news. You wonder how they sleep, unless it's upside down in a cave. Vampires don't have trouble sleeping.

A July 31 editorial in Investor's Business Daily, headlined "The Wrong Party," similarly misrepresented Clyburn, asserting that he "envisioned it being 'a real big problem for us' if the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, presents Congress with a positive report of progress in September, which seems increasingly likely as sectarian violence drops." The editorial appeared to briefly distinguish an electoral political problem from an issue of caucus unity, asserting that "House Democrats could be fractured, making it harder to mandate a pullout, Clyburn repined." But in the very next line, the editorial again appeared to blur that distinction: "When your country's winning a war is 'a real big problem' for you, it's time to take stock of exactly what your party stands for." The editorial did not note Clyburn's statement that "[n]one of us want to see a bad result in Iraq. If we are going to get in position to yield a good result, I think Democrats want to see that."

A column by Kevin O'Brien in the Cleveland Plain Dealer also misrepresented Clyburn's remarks:

As House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, admitted to the Washington Post the other day, a positive report from the general would be "a real big problem for us."

No kidding.

If the Democrats have a strategy that goes beyond defeat and retreat in Iraq, they're keeping it to themselves. But the U.S. defeat has to happen before President Bush leaves office, so it can still be all his fault, and so any Democratic successor will not be forced to admit that all of that let's-bring-them-home-right-now stuff was partisan hot air.

The column later quoted Republican presidential candidate John McCain asserting, "I think the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism" before asserting, "He's right, so why should good news for our side in that struggle be bad news for the Democrats? At least, that's what the Democrats say."

From the July 31 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

GIBSON: Now, to "My Word." A bit of Iraq news, now. It appears that the surge may not only be causing trouble for insurgents in Iraq but also causing trouble for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Representative Jim Clyburn, a Democrat of South Carolina, is quoted by The Washington Post as saying that a positive report on the surge from General Petraeus in September is going to cause, quote, "unity problems for Democrats in the House of Representatives." Translation: "If we're winning, some conservative-minded Democrats won't want to quit Iraq as quickly as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would like. Those Democrats will think, 'If we're winning, why should we surrender?' "

Would it be too much to suggest that certain other Democrats like Pelosi, Reid, [Rep. John] Murtha [D-PA], [Sen. Russ] Feingold [D-WI] have way too much invested in losing this war? The idea we could win the war cuts the ground from under them. Some Democrats need us to lose for their own political purposes. They've already told the country we're losing. They need to blame Bush and Cheney for losing.

So, something like winning, such as a good surge report, is simply bad news from the war front for some Democrats. If we can believe Clyburn, some Blue Dog Democrats -- the more conservative ones than others -- don't carry their disdain for Bush to the extreme that they need their country to lose a war. For that, they should be commended. But what about the others who are not that sensible? What should we say about politicians who actually fear a good report on the surge, whose nightly prayers are evidently that their country lose a war because otherwise they might lose an election. Oh, the panic. Oh, the terror. Win the war?

Believe it or not, there are Americans for whom that is very, very bad news. You wonder how they sleep, unless it's upside down in a cave. Vampires don't have trouble sleeping.

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