Media to GOP: Heads you win, tails you ... win

In their recent coverage of three major national security developments, various media outlets have portrayed the events as “victories” for President Bush and Republicans or losses for Democrats, with little or no discussion of how these events could be seen as bad for the White House and the GOP.

In reporting on three major developments regarding U.S. national security in past weeks -- Gen. George W. Casey's briefing of the White House on a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, days after Democratic withdrawal plans were defeated in the Senate; the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld; and North Korea's missile tests -- various media outlets and figures have gone to great lengths to spin these developments as “victories” for President Bush and Republicans or losses for Democrats, with little attention to how these events highlight the hypocrisy, lawlessness, or ineffectiveness of the White House and the GOP.

That the media can spin these incidents as victories for the GOP, losses for the Democrats, or both suggests that little could happen on the national security front that the media would view as a loss for Republicans. What, for example, would they have said about a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Bush administration's military tribunal policy? Obviously, it would have been portrayed as good news for the GOP. On military and national security issues, Bush and the Republicans apparently can simply do no wrong, suffer no loss in the eyes of the media, no matter how costly the transgression in terms of American lives, reputation, or dollars. This assumption on the part of the media may have been justifiable three years ago, when polling showed widespread public support for Bush's handling of Iraq and terrorism. But now that the public is roughly evenly split on his handling of terrorism, and strongly opposed to his handling of Iraq, the media's continued assumption that these issues will redound to his party's benefit does not reflect reality, although the relentlessness with which the media promote this assumption may actually affect it.

Casey's troop-withdrawal plan

On June 22, the Republican-controlled Senate defeated two Democratic proposals for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq -- proposals that the White House and Republicans had tarred as “cut-and-run” policies and “defeatism.” On June 25, The New York Times reported that Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, had briefed the White House on a plan to withdraw significant numbers of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2007. The report sparked outrage among congressional Democrats, who complained that the White House had spent the better part of the previous week attacking their “cut-and-run” strategies, and then immediately embraced a troop-withdrawal plan of their own.

To some, the Bush administration's actions might indicate a glaring inconsistency between their rhetoric and their policy. To the Los Angeles Times, however, the administration's embrace of Casey's plan presented a problem for Democrats. From the Times' June 25 article:

Last week, Congress debated two Democratic proposals that called for Bush to begin a troop drawdown, resolutions that divided the party. Public acknowledgment of the Casey plan by administration officials could leave the Democratic Party's leaders in an even more awkward position, having backed a withdrawal plan already embraced by the White House -- in effect leaving the party with no Iraq policy distinct from the administration's as the parties head into the midterm elections.

As Greg Sargent of The American Prospect noted on his weblog The Horse's Mouth:

Just try to wrap your brain around that logic for a second. Dems, led by [Rep.] Jack Murtha [D-PA], have been beating the drums and demanding that the head-in-the-sand White House make some sort of move towards troop withdrawals. In response, the GOP has adamantly refused, smearing anyone even whispering such things as a weak, vaccillating [sic] Jane Fonda defeatist. Buoyed by the Zarqawi killing, the media relentlessly tried to portray this smidgen of good news in Iraq -- and the GOP strategy of demonizing Dems as cowards -- as political winners for Republicans. But Americans refused to think the way the commentators told them to. Polls continued to show no real uptick in approval for Bush or for his handling of Iraq, and that sizeable blocs of the public want to see some sort of phased withdrawal.

So now word is being leaked that the top commander in Iraq is “projecting” just what Dems pushed for and just what the GOP derided relentlessly as embracing “retreat” and “surrender.” So how does the media react? By refusing to even acknowledge the political context of this at all.

And now the LA Times casts the fact that the Republicans are being forced by pressure from the Dems to start down the road toward troop reductions as something that will be bad for...Democrats! What is it going to take to get the media to stop spinning everything -- even a situation where Republicans are being forced to follow where the Dems led -- as good for the GOP?

The Los Angeles Times editorialized on June 26:

Senate Democrats seemed not to mind that both proposals went down to defeat. What mattered, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested, was that Democrats had gone on record in favor of a “change of course” while Republicans had embraced “an open-ended commitment.” Whether or not that political calculation survives Gen. Casey's proposal, it would have been a mistake for the Senate to endorse even the “soft” redeployment language in the Levin-Reed bill. Advisory or not, such a statement could have emboldened Iraqi insurgents.

Therefore, according to the Times, in embracing Casey's plan for troop withdrawal, the White House may have undone the Democrats' “political calculation” on Iraq but in no way affected the GOP message. And, inexplicably, the Times called the “soft” troop-withdrawal proposal of Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI) a “mistake,” but found no room to criticize the White House's support for Casey's reported withdrawal plan.

In a July 2 article on the Republicans' “uncompromising stance against terrorism,” the Times uncritically quoted a variety of Republicans attacking Democrats for advocating “cutting and running” and pursuing a strategy that would “embolden” terrorists. No mention was made of the Casey withdrawal plan. From the July 2 Times article:

The Republicans' new offensive on national security was launched last month by the White House, which encouraged Republican leaders in Congress to press for a debate on Iraq.

As the debate approached, Bush embarked on a surprise, made-for-TV mission to Baghdad. On the same day, the president's top strategist, Karl Rove, accused Democrats of wanting to “cut and run” from Iraq.

In a June speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Rove charged that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who have proposed a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, were “ready to give the green light to go to war, but when it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running,” according to the Union Leader newspaper.

The next day, Bush signaled that Republicans would paint the Democrats as pushing a plan that would “embolden” terrorists.

“What's going to matter [in the 2006 elections] is who has got the plan that will enable us to succeed in Iraq,” he said.

At a fundraising event last week for Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Bush said: “There's a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done. They're willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off.”

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the Bush administration's proposal to use military commissions for the trials of terrorism detainees violated the Geneva Conventions and could not be enacted without congressional approval. The Washington Post wrote in its June 30 analysis of the Hamdan ruling: “For many in Washington, the decision echoed not simply as a matter of law but as a rebuke of a governing philosophy of a leader who at repeated turns has operated on the principle that it is better to act than to ask permission. This ethos is why many supporters find Bush an inspiring leader, and why many critics in this country and abroad react so viscerally against him.”

Nonetheless, Post reporter Dana Milbank, on the July 2 edition of NBC's syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, postulated that the Hamdan decision was a “huge victory” for the president:

MATTHEWS: Dana, put this back on the track of the big question I started with [NBC chief Washington correspondent] Norah [O'Donnell], which is the question a lot of people are going to be talking about for months, right through the election. Is this president now been challenged in his right as commander in chief to wage war as he sees fit?

MILBANK: Technically, he's been challenged in a legal sense. But let me say something crazy -- and that we'll see Hamdan, this case in the Supreme Court, as a huge victory for Bush. He'll be celebrating Hamdan the way the Muslims celebrate Ramadan.

MATTHEWS: That's the case that was just decided.

MILBANK: Absolutely. And what's happened here is now he gets to campaign --forget about The New York Times -- he can campaign against the Supreme Court. They can put legislation before the Congress that gives him exactly what he wants, force the Democrats to vote against him and say, “Those guys want to release all the terrorists.” It's going to be the 2002 and 2004 campaign all over again.

No one on the show raised the issue of whether -- given Milbank's assertion that the administration's loss was actually a victory -- a decision by the Supreme Court upholding the administration's military tribunal policy would actually have constituted a loss.

Similarly, on the July 2 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host and chief foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood if the Hamdan ruling is “something that can actually work in the administration's favor.” Harwood responded:

HARWOOD: It's embarrassing, internationally. It isolates the United States. It's a setback for the administration's philosophy. Politically, I think they could come out ahead on this, in part because, as we just heard [Sens.] Mitch McConnell [R-KY] and Chuck Schumer [D-NY] say, the U.S. Congress is going to take up, very soon, legislation giving the president this authority. That's a good subject for Republicans to be on.


HARWOOD: Andrea, the other thing this does politically is underscore the arguments of conservatives of why it's important to change the court. You had [Supreme Court justices Antonin] Scalia, [Clarence] Thomas, [Samuel] Alito, siding with the administration, and the administration was saying we need some more conservatives.

The July 2 Los Angeles Times article noted above reported:

Republican strategists hailed last week's Supreme Court ruling on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, which held that Bush had overstepped his powers by refusing some legal protections for alleged terrorists.

“The Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo was a real blessing in disguise,” said Whit Ayres, another GOP pollster. It “allows us to have a debate on whether terrorists should receive the same legal protections as American military personnel.... It's hard to see Republicans losing when that's the debate.”

North Korea's missile tests

On July 4, North Korea test-fired a number of medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which crashed into the Sea of Japan less than a minute after liftoff. Following the launches, CNN hosted Gordon Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World (Random House, January 2006), who remarked on how the news was a reflection of the Bush administration's “failure of American policy for the last five years” regarding North Korea and its continuation of failed policies from previous administrations.

From the July 4 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

KITTY PILGRIM (guest host): Now, is the response by the Bush administration, in your estimate, the right one? Is this the right way to go about it?

CHANG: Well, I think that it is right for the Bush administration not to get rattled and not to overplay it. But we have to remember that the White House wants to downplay this because they don't want to highlight the failure of American policy for the last five years. This is not just a Bush failure. This failure is evident from administration to administration. The United States is large and North Korea is small, but they always seem to be one step ahead of us.

Similarly, The Boston Globe reported on July 5:

North Koreans have demanded direct talks with the United States, but US officials have refused, severely limiting negotiations.

The issue has been at a stalemate for months, as US attention has been directed at other urgent threats, including Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Many specialists have been urging the administration to take a new approach with North Korea, given that years of tense diplomacy and almost no contact has failed to work.

However, on the July 5 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, in discussing the political impact of the missile tests, asserted that “national security is President Bush's strength,” and "[i]t's a deep, deep strength for the Republican Party."

ROBIN ROBERTS (anchor): Joining us now with more of the political and military impact of the North Korean missile test, ABC's chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, who's here with us in New York, and ABC's chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, who joins us from the Hay-Adams [Hotel] in Washington.

George, let me start with you. National security, that's what the Bush administration claims is its strong suit. So in that context, what is the political fallout from this?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's a good question. In fact, I just checked in with a White House aide this morning who was basically pretty honest. He said he didn't know. There's two different prongs, though, to that. Number one, there's no question this is going to increase anxiety in the country. You see us bogged down in Iraq, tensions rising in Israel, slipping in Afghanistan, and tough negotiations now with both Iran and North Korea. A lot of people say we're on the wrong track. On the other hand, as you point out, national security is President Bush's strength. It's a deep, deep strength for the Republican Party, difficult to overcome for the Democrats.

The July 5 edition of ABC's political blog The Note offered similar analysis of the political effect the missile tests could have on the 2006 elections, and predicted that the “Daddy” Republicans will “trump” the “Mommy” Democrats in “a national security election”:

For 2006, is this [the news of North Korea's missile test] more likely to race through voters' minds in a way that makes this a national security election (favoring the hawkish party of the commander in chief) or a competence/change election (favoring the party of the Lioness from San Francisco)? (Our guess: Daddy trumps Mommy.)