On The Situation Room, Bill Bennett defended Sen. John McCain against criticism he has received from radio host Laura Ingraham and other conservatives. But Bennett and host Wolf Blitzer both failed to disclose that Bennett has given more than $2,000 to McCain's presidential campaign.
On the February 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, radio talk show host and CNN contributor Bill Bennett defended Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) against criticism he has received from radio host Laura Ingraham and other conservatives, noting that McCain "argued for the surge" of additional U.S. troops in Iraq and received a rating of 82 from the American Conservative Union. However, at no point during the discussion did Bennett or host Wolf Blitzer disclose that Bennett has given more than $2,000 to McCain's presidential campaign.
Blitzer began the segment by airing a video clip of Ingraham stating, "I think the question is what have you been doing for conservatism lately," and then asked Bennett to respond to Ingraham's remark, which Blitzer called "an obvious swipe at John McCain." Bennett replied, "There's a direct answer to that question, Laura, with all due respect. John McCain argued for the surge. If John McCain had not argued so strongly for the surge, we might not have had the surge. We might not have the situation that we have in Iraq today and we wouldn't have the politics that we have regarding Iraq." Bennett later added: "I've been talking to these young people here and I have to tell you, some of them, it seems to me, Wolf, are showing more maturity than some of their elders. They're saying, 'Well, I was for [Mitt] Romney, but, you know, if it's going to be McCain, then we'll get behind him.' ... [I]f he's going to be the nominee, you know, doing this 'what have you done for me lately?' John McCain's rating from the American Conservative Union is 82." Bennett was presumably referring to McCain's lifetime rating from the ACU.
On January 24, Talking Points Memo blogger and media critic Greg Sargent wrote, "I've just learned that CNN has told top Dem strategists James Carville, Paul Begala, and Robert Zimmerman -- who are CNN mainstays but are all Hillary supporters -- that they will not be doing any more political analysis on the network until the Democratic primary has reached a conclusion." Since then, Carville has appeared opposite Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and both have been identified as supporting their respective candidates. Indeed, in the same edition of The Situation Room, Blitzer noted Carville's and Simmons' support: "Two top Democratic strategists joining us James Carville, who supports Hillary Clinton, and Jamal Simmons, who supports Barack Obama."
As Media Matters for America noted, CNN host and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, citing a February 2 report in The Huffington Post, said on the February 3 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources: "It's hardly surprising that obvious partisans would give to candidates, but they should disclose that on the air and let viewers make up their minds." The Huffington Post reported that Bennett had given $2,300 in December 2007 to McCain's campaign without disclosing that he had done so, and questioned "whether Bennett can act as a neutral analyst in a race that still includes [former Arkansas] Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul [TX]." The Huffington Post further reported: "Informed of the donations, a CNN official said that Bennett also gave an unspecified amount to [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney's campaign in January 2008, which would not show up on the latest campaign filings." Romney announced his campaign's suspension prior to Bennett's February 7 appearance on The Situation Room.
From the February 2 Huffington Post article:
Last December, conservative author and CNN election analyst William J. Bennett gave over two thousand dollars to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, a fact that Bennett has not mentioned during any of his appearances on the network, according to a review of transcripts by the Huffington Post.
Moreover, after giving the donation, Bennett claimed on-air that he was neutral in the GOP race, even as he repeatedly dispensed advice to McCain on how he could win over doubtful conservatives.
Following Wednesday's GOP debate in Los Angeles, Bennett exclaimed on CNN that he "had three hours of calls this morning of people angry at me because I was defending John McCain."
"I don't have a candidate," he protested. "I haven't endorsed anybody."
In fact, on December 31, 2007, Bennett contributed the maximum primary amount, $2300, to McCain's campaign. [See Bennett's fundraising details on Huffington Post's FundRace.]
Informed of the donations, a CNN official said that Bennett also gave an unspecified amount to Mitt Romney's campaign in January 2008, which would not show up on the latest campaign filings.
Last month, Talking Points Memo reported that, for the duration of the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton backers James Carville and Paul Begala would no longer be appearing on CNN unless they were paired with a supporter of Barack Obama. The CNN official said Bennett's situation was different since he had given to more than one candidate.
Still, the donations raise serious questions about whether Bennett can act as a neutral analyst in a race that still includes Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul. Following protests of Carville and Begala's role on CNN, the network's political director Sam Feist said, "As we got closer to the voting, we made a decision to make sure that all the analysts that are on are non-aligned."
Also during the Situation Room segment, Blitzer yet again referred to McCain as a "maverick," while ignoring McCain's recent reversals on high-profile issues such as immigration and taxes, resulting in positions more in line with those of the base of his party. Blitzer stated: "There are plenty of conservatives out there who still have very strong doubts about John McCain's maverick stance." Indeed, Blitzer did not mention McCain's reversal on his previous support for comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the creation of a guest-worker program, a path to citizenship, and border security, when he said: "Well, we did hear sporadic little boos when he raised the issue of illegal immigration ... given his stance with [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-MA]... on that matter."
From the February 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: Conservative radio talkers are already laying blame for a Republican presidential loss.
RUSH LIMBAUGH (radio host) [video clip]: You establishment Republicans are going to be responsible for the election of a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama. It will not be us who are responsible. It will not be talk radio. It will be you.
BLITZER: Is the conservative base crumbling, or will it rally around John McCain in the end? We're going to talk about that and more with our own contributor, the radio talk-show host Bill Bennett.
BLITZER: There are plenty of conservatives out there who still have very strong doubts about John McCain's maverick stance. Some radio talk-show hosts have openly scorned him. Listen to this.
INGRAHAM [video clip]: I don't think it's enough to say that, you know, you were a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution. I think the question is, what have you been doing for conservatism lately?
BLITZER: Joining us now, our CNN contributor and Claremont Institute fellow, the radio talk-show host himself, Bill Bennett. That was Laura Ingraham speaking at that CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] crowd, where you are right now, the Conservative Political Action Conference. And she got a pretty good ovation for that line, which was an obvious swipe at John McCain.
BENNETT: Well, he got a pretty good reception, though, too. He got very strong ovations.
Laura Ingraham used to work for me. We were foot soldiers in the Reagan administration. I was secretary of education; she was one of my speechwriters. There's a direct answer to that question, Laura, with all due respect. John McCain argued for the surge. If John McCain had not argued so strongly for the surge, we might not have had the surge. We might not have the situation that we have in Iraq today, and we wouldn't have the politics that we have regarding Iraq: much quieter. There's much less Democratic heat on the president because of that success. That's what he's done lately.
I guess I just don't understand. This is hard for me, Wolf, you know? I mean, these are some of my best friends, my colleagues. But some of the talk -- almost admitting defeat, saying, you know, because McCain is the nominee, people who support him will be responsible for this loss in November. I just don't know --
BLITZER: You know --
BENNETT: -- why people would throw in the towel.
BLITZER: You know, Bill, some of these critics, in addition to Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, we've got a list -- Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Hugh Hewitt, Mark Levin. These are all well-known radio talk-show hosts and conservatives. And some of the arguments you hear is better -- just don't even vote, 'cause you shouldn't for McCain. Or, some of them are even saying, like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, go vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; it's better in the long run to have them in the White House than what they would regard a liberal like John McCain.
BENNETT: Well, that's the cutting point. I have not heard Rush say that. I corresponded with Rush and he said if I were to decide, you know, that I couldn't support McCain, then I -- you know, I'd rather have the harm be held on the account of a Democrat than a Republican. But some have gone that far. You're absolutely right about that, Wolf.
Hugh Hewitt said this morning, wrote this morning on his blog -- I'm tracking this pretty closely -- look, if it's McCain, we will get behind him and start the process. And I think that's what John McCain did today. I was frankly surprised and very relieved to see, Wolf, how well-received he was by this crowd. It was an amazing day. You all covered it very well, by the way, with Dana [Bash, CNN congressional correspondent], -- the Romney announcement that he's stepping down.
But the important thing is for John McCain, I think, to realize this is the first step. I think he did a very good job in his speech, but he needs to do more. And what he says and does has to be reciprocated by people in this audience and people -- other conservatives.
Let me say about this group -- I'm here, I don't want to say it too loud -- this isn't just a conservative group; this is the right wing of the conservative group. So it's a very conservative bunch. I think they're proud of that.
BLITZER: Well, we did hear sporadic little boos when he raised the issue of illegal --
BLITZER: -- immigration, given his stance with Ted Kennedy --
BENNETT: Sure. Sure.
BLITZER: -- on that matter. And so I guess he did get -- here's the question: Who was more well-received today at that CPAC conference? Was it John McCain or Mitt Romney?
BENNETT: Well, I think, when he came in, it was Mitt Romney. When they left, I think it was pretty close. It may still be Mitt Romney, 'cause you probably had more Romney people than McCain people. But I've been talking to these young people here and I have to tell you, some of them, it seems to me, Wolf, are showing more maturity than some of their elders. They're saying, "Well, I was for Romney, but, you know, if it's going to be McCain, then we'll get behind him."
By the way, all of us have disagreements in politics. I have serious disagreements with John McCain. But if he's going to be the nominee, you know, then doing this "what have you done for me lately?" John McCain's rating from the American Conservative Union is 82. It ain't 100, but it's 82. Hillary Clinton's is 9. I mean, there's a difference for conservatives, and they need to look at it.
BLITZER: And in the last hour, we heard from Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News -- and he himself a radio talk-show host. He has a very different perspective than Bill Bennett does. Bill, thanks very much for that. Bill Bennett joining us.
BENNETT: You bet.
BLITZER: So, what if the Democratic nomination does come down to a back-room deal at the convention in Denver at the end of the summer? Let's talk about that and more. Two top Democratic strategists joining us: James Carville, who supports Hillary Clinton, and Jamal Simmons, who supports Barack Obama. Guys, what do you think?