On the October 29 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, following the release of a taped message from Osama bin Laden, Newsweek chief political correspondent and NBC news analyst Howard Fineman spelled out how partisans of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry each might plausibly interpret the political impact of the tape as benefiting their side in the final 72 hours of the presidential race. But while Fineman did not endorse either interpretation, a slew of cable pundits and reporters Friday night did -- and they were unanimous and mostly unequivocal in adopting the partisan Bush line. NBC's Andrea Mitchell went further, saying “it almost makes it more difficult” for Kerry to continue pointing to the administration's failure to capture or kill bin Laden.
The basis for most of these assessments is the assumption that Bush's opinion poll numbers would likely climb with terrorism back in the news. Yet a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, conducted October 28 and October 29 and released late Saturday, showed Bush's support falling three points, from 50 to 47 percent. Kerry's support was unchanged at 45 percent. An article about the poll on FoxNews.com noted: “Polling was conducted Thursday and Friday evenings, so about half of those interviewed would have had the opportunity to hear reports of a new tape from Usama bin Laden.” And according to Salon.com's "War Room," Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg told reporters in a call on the afternoon of October 30 that voters split 46-36 in favor of the view that the bin Laden tape makes them think Bush “took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted resources to Iraq.”
While it's not possible to know what motivated bin Laden, conservatives, resurrecting their months-old “terrorists for Kerry” smear as documented by Media Matters for America (for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here) charged that the tape was designed to help Kerry, ignoring entirely the possibility that the tape was intended to help Bush. As the Bush campaign attacked the Kerry campaign for politicizing the tape, Republican National Committee (RNC) adviser Peggy Noonan appeared on FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes and did just that, saying, “Do you think he [bin Laden] wants George Bush to have a nice day on Tuesday? I don't think so.”
On the October 29 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Fineman explained:
On Democrats' side, on the Kerry side, Kerry's arguments for months and months has been I would be a better, smarter commander in chief because I wouldn't have taken my eye off the ball. I would have surrounded Osama bin Laden and his fighters in Tora Bora and Afghanistan. I would have hunted them down the way I did in Vietnam when I was a swift boat commander myself. I wouldn't have gotten involved in the adventure in Iraq and I certainly wouldn't have done it the way George Bush did it. So that's John Kerry's argument, and the fact Osama bin Laden reappears a few days before the election apparently in good health, sort of sitting at a lectern like he's giving a political science lecture, has to underscore Kerry's point.
But on Bush's side, the president can argue, the emotions of this. He can say as did he already today, we will not be intimidated by this barbarous enemy. That the American people will rally around the cause of fighting terrorism. That in fact, the reappearance of bin Laden shows the nature and the implacability of the enemy we're fighting and only somebody willing to take offensive as I have, Bush will say, and is saying, only that kind of commander-in-chief can fight somebody like bin Laden. And if you look at our poll and everybody's poll, on the question of who can better fight the war on terrorism, not Iraq, but the war on terrorism, Bush is ahead by 20 points. So anything that reminds people of the war on terrorism, and that's bin Laden has to benefit the president.
Yet sixteen reporters and pundits, appearing on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News Channel, saw only an upside for Bush:
• KAREN TUMULTY (TIME magazine national political correspondent): Well, considering, however, that the arguments for the last week have essentially consisted of bouncing from headline to headline, I think this gives us the message for the rest of the campaign. Quite frankly, I find it hard to find any way that this helps John Kerry. What we've seen over and over and over again is that when terrorism is the topic, and when people are reminded of 9-11, Bush's numbers go up. [CNN, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 10/29]
• ROGER SIMON (U.S. News & World Report chief political correspondent): I don't have any trouble parsing out who this helps. I think this is an enormous boost for George Bush. And if the president is reelected, to some extent, he will have Osama bin Laden and this tape to thank for it. ... That's why I think energizing the base is so important. Any little unexpected thing -- we thought the October surprise might be the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. This tape is better than either of those things for George Bush. [CNN, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 10/29]
• CHRIS MATTHEWS (MSNBC host): The big thing in politics, of course, is picking the right topic. This shifts the topic from Iraq where the challenger was hitting the president hard for alleged mismanagement of the war. Now it takes it all back to 9-11, the moment of the president's greatest heroism. ... This creates a terrible situation for the challenger because it seems to me that Karl Rove has his finger on this. He knows that the American people have only one president at a time. And that's George W. Bush. We only have one protector at a time. We have to rally behind the president when we're threatened by an enemy. Osama bin Laden. And he's done it again. [MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, 10/29]
• ANDREA MITCHELL (NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent): Absolutely (following Matthews' first sentence above). And it almost makes it more difficult for John Kerry to use a standard part of his stump speech when he talks about having his allegation that George Bush let Osama bin Laden get away In Tora Bora. It is almost difficult now for him to do that because he would appear to be taking advantage of this new tape. It makes it harder for Kerry, and it shifts the subject matter back to what George Bush is strongest on. The Bush people may not say that they are happy about this, but I'm sure that they could not be more pleased that this is the subject of the closing days. How do you say October surprise? This is one that could benefit the president. [MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, 10/29]
• MORTON M. KONDRACKE (Roll Call executive editor): Well, I think what it serves is to remind people that Osama bin Laden is still lurking out there and we face a dire terrorist threat. I mean both candidates reacted similarly forcefully to this thing. But the fact of the matter is, is that our FOX News poll, and consistently this is the case, shows that on the issue of terrorism, Bush leads by miles. I mean, our latest poll at 61 to 28 that Bush leads on the issue of terrorism. If this -- if Osama bin Laden injects this issue back into peoples' heads, then I think it benefits Bush. [...] Well, it's not going to help defeat -- no, I don't think it's going to help defeat Bush for the reasons that I said. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/29]
• JEFFREY H. BIRNBAUM (Washington Post staff writer): Yes. That is exactly the question. And in almost every case where there was a threat implied or otherwise, I think that we'd find that the polls showed a bump for George W. Bush. So this should be a benefit for Bush. In fact, I mean when I saw -- the moment I saw bin Laden on the screen, I was wondering, completely in jest of course, whether at the end of it Bush himself might show up on the screen and say, “I'm George Bush and I approve this message.” [laughter] Because I think that -- because I think this is a benefit for the Bush campaign, coming right at the moment when he needs it. Because I think he's been losing some steam due to the New York Times missing-explosives piece. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/29]
• BILL O'REILLY (FOX News Channel host): All right, this Osama bin Laden video was just released late this afternoon. And I believe it will help President Bush because it's a reminder of the villain, what he's done. He's actually gloating about what he's done. And even though Bush hasn't gotten him, all the polls say Bush is much stronger in the minds of Americans on terror. [FOX News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor, 10/29]
• CHARLIE COOK (Editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report): You just have to wonder whether Osama bin Laden may have just made a huge in-kind contribution to President Bush's reelection campaign, bigger than George Soros ever did for John Kerry. I mean I can argue this thing either way, but the case for it helping John Kerry is fairly anemic. Yes, you could say that it puts the attention back on the fact that we went into Iraq and went after Saddam Hussein instead of Osama bin Laden. But to be honest, I have to think that this helps President Bush a great deal. [MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, 10/29]
• JOE SCARBOROUGH (MSNBC host): I really do think that history is going to record Osama bin Laden's election to the American people earlier this afternoon as a deciding factor in the 2004 presidential campaign. ... Let me tell you something, friends, today bin Laden made the war on terror the issue, the only issue, in this political campaign. And that means that the candidate who is enjoying a 20-point lead on that issue, will reap great political advantages. Expect to hear this from Republicans. [MSNBC, Scarborough County, 10/29]
• LAWRENCE KUDLOW (CNBC's Kudlow & Cramer co-host): It plays into Bush's hands. ... It falls into Bush's lap, and unlike 2000, I think it's the kind of thing that will cause the remaining undecided voters in the next 72 hours or so to break for Bush, whereas in 2000, the DUI incident caused those voters to break against Bush. [MSNBC, Scarborough County, 10/29]
• PAT BUCHANAN (former Republican presidential candidate and MSNBC analyst): Clearly, bin Laden is showing us he alive and well and taunting us and saying Bush did not get me despite what he said. But clearly at the same time, he is insulting and challenging the president of the United States, and if he turns this in Osama bin Laden versus Bush, the president is going to benefit for the next three days. [MSNBC, 4 Days & Counting: An Election Special, 10/29]
• G. GORDON LIDDY (radio host and former Nixon administration official): I think what we need to do is take the bin Laden tape in association with the Azzam tape that came just a few days ago, also, directly from Al Qaeda, and the insults are not a problem. What they do did is directly threaten the American people. And that has got to redound to the benefit of President Bush because, as you know, when they ask people who can best keep you safe, it's Bush. [MSNBC, 4 Days & Counting: An Election Special, 10/29]
• MIKE BARNICLE (Boston Herald columnist): Instinctively I would say it would play strongly for President Bush, especially among those that might be undecided at this late stage in the election, because the mere appearance of Osama bin Laden on our TV screens is a vivid reminder of the finest moment of his presidency, a moment when I would view his becoming president of the United States on the rubble within the World Trade Center several days -- a few days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, and they collapsed because this man assembled a group of people that came here to kill us, and George Bush is intent on killing them. And John Kerry issued a strong statement this afternoon on the tarmac in Florida, but this would be, I think, play right to George Bush's strength. [MSNBC, 4 Days & Counting: An Election Special, 10/29]
• STEPHEN HAYES (Weekly Standard staff writer): I think, as most people have indicated, it's [the bin Laden tape] likely to help President Bush. [MSNBC, 4 Days & Counting: An Election Special, 10/29]
• MAJOR GARRETT (FOX News Channel general assignment correspondent): One quick observation on the bin Laden tape. Last week, I talked to a couple of Democrats in town who said their biggest fear this week would be that the president would raise the terror threat level right before the election. They thought that would bring into fresh release the whole anxiety the country has legitimately about the terrorism threat. This bin Laden tape essentially does that in its own way with the administration not elevating the terror threat. Now Democrats feeling, generally speaking, that terror works to the president's advantaging and not theirs. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/29
• JEFF GREENFIELD (CNN senior analyst): I think it increases the chance that people who want change and are concerned that they shouldn't change in a national security terrorism umbrella will think more that way. Whether this is the late October surprise, I don't know. [CNN, NewsNight with Aaron Brown, 10/29/04]
• NEIL CAVUTO (FOX News Channel host): People might look at this and say, hey, this knucklehead's still out there. He's still a threat, but -- but, if he's doing this to get the American people against Bush, that could kind of be the wrong message, right?
ALAN COLMES (FOX News Channel Hannity & Colmes co-host): I don't think the terrorists think -- I don't think he's narrowing escape with a Kerry-Edwards sticker in the cave. I don't think that's what's happening.
CAVUTO: But he's all but doing that, isn't he? I thought I saw a button. [FOX News Channel, Your World w/ Neil Cavuto, 10/29]
• DICK MORRIS (FOX News Channel political contributor, author and columnist): But then the second thing is that obviously he criticizes Bush more than Kerry, OK? Obviously. So obviously it's a design on his part to help Kerry, and that's going to backfire massively as everybody knows. [...] Bush has nothing to defend himself about. This tape will help Bush enormously. [...] It's all going to help Bush. Because, look, in the worst poll, he gets by a 10-point margin being better in Iraq and a 20-point margin being better in the war on terror. And there is no way that Kerry is going to flip those issues with three days left. [FOX News Channel, The Big Story w/ John Gibson, 10/29]
• FRED BARNES (Weekly Standard executive editor): Well, I don't know. But I talked to somebody at the White House a little bit ago who said, you know, next to actually capturing Osama bin Laden, having him campaign against you was probably the best thing that could happen. And even picking up some of the Democratic language. You know, he talked about Bush reading that “My Pet Goat” book to school kids in Sarasota, Florida. After -- I mean he, Osama bin Laden, tried to maintain that Bush was doing that and the government was stopped from reacting to the attacks. Which is nonsense, of course. [...] This certainly isn't going to help defeat Bush. [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/29]
• BILL GERTZ (Washington Times defense and national security reporter): Well, you know, that may be the message here, that, “you can't find me,” and I can continue to make these messages. He was kind of taking a dig at the United States again by highlighting why he did the September 11 attacks. He made no mistake about that. He is the guy who's responsible for the murder of 3,000 Americans. I'm not sure that this is going to work to his advantage, if he had some intention of trying to influence the election against Bush. He talked about the Bush family, Bush, Sr., in this, and compared the United States to a regime that's similar to some of the military regimes or some of the dynasties and monarchies in the Middle East, which he's opposing. [FOX News Channel, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, 10/29]
• PAUL MCGUIRE (radio host): The way I see it, Bill, is that this is an attempt by al Qaeda to influence the election as they did in Madrid, Spain on March 11th. Three days before the election in Madrid, Spain, al Qaeda struck the trains. And they caused a conservative government to be removed and a socialist government to be put in. I think al Qaeda and this other guy are trying to tip the scales of the American election to appeal to the Michael Moore crowd and the undecided soccer moms. And I think it's an attempt to sway the people to get Bush out and to put Kerry in. [FOX News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor, 10/29]
• SEAN HANNITY (FOX News Channel host): Why would Osama bin Laden, who's been quiet for so long, come out and virtually try and influence the election today in favor of John Kerry by attacking the president the way he did? Let's be analytical here. Why would he do that if he didn't think Bush was a stronger leader? [...] Let me -- this is important, though, because obviously, bin Laden's been so silent, decided to come out now and impact this election and influence this election. And in the course of what he said, he says how to avoid another Manhattan. He says Bush is still deceiving you. He says we had no difficulty in dealing with Bush and his regimes. They resemble our countries. Bush adopted despotism. On and on and on. He's attacking Bush. Clearly, he wants George Bush to lose, and the question is why? [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 10/29]
• PEGGY NOONAN (RNC adviser, author and speechwriter): This is a man on the run who got into a studio, got a camera on him and tried to act like he was a big, strong guy. This guy is half finished, and the reason is George Bush. Do you think he wants George Bush to have a nice day on Tuesday? I don't think so. [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 10/29]