On Today, Russert baselessly asserted that Democrats have had difficulty being competitive" on foreign policy issues

While discussing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) trip to Syria on the April 6 edition of NBC's Today, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asserted without evidence that “Democrats have always had a difficulty being competitive with the Republicans in the public voters' mind on national security and foreign policy issues.” But despite Russert's assertion that Democrats “always” have difficulty competing with Republicans on these issues, several polls in the past year have found that Democrats had an advantage on national security and foreign policy issues:

  • In a March 21-22 poll, Rasmussen Reports found that "[f]orty-six percent (46%) of voters trust the Democrats more on National Security while 44% prefer Republicans."
  • In a March 7-11 New York Times poll, 45 percent of respondents said the Democratic Party was “more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq,” while 32 percent said the Republican Party was more likely.
  • A February 22-25 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 52 percent of respondents “trust[ed]” congressional Democrats “to do a better job handling ... terrorism” while 39 percent of respondents said they “trust[ed]” President Bush.
  • An Associated Press poll conducted August 15-17, 2006, found that -- including “lean[ers]” -- 47 percent of respondents picked Democrats when asked, “Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country?” By contrast, 40 percent chose Republicans. Without “lean[ers],” 37 percent of respondents said chose Democrats and 32 percent chose Republicans.
  • In a February 22-23, 2006, poll, Rasmussmen Reports found that respondents had “a slight preference for Democrats in Congress over the President on national security issues. Forty-three percent (43%) say they trust the Democrats more on this issue today while 41% prefer the President.”

Prior to the 2006 congressional election, Media Matters for America noted that many in the media had either uncritically reported or asserted that “national security” or “terrorism” are Republican “strengths” -- ignoring polling that undermined those assertions. For instance, on the August 11, 2006, edition of NBC's Today, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory said, “However bad things are in Iraq, the president's biggest political strength has always been leading the fight against terror,” despite the fact that at the time, three of the four most recent Washington Post polls had found that a plurality of Americans trusted Democrats rather than Republicans to handle the “campaign against terrorism.”

As the weblog Think Progress noted, while interviewing Russert, co-host Matt Lauer cited Vice President Dick Cheney, a misleading April 5 Washington Post editorial, and an April 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed as evidence that “a lot of people think” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “messed up” by flying to Syria and meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on April 3. Lauer went on to ask Russert, "[I]s this the way the Democrats wanted to get off the mark in terms of foreign affairs?"

From the April 6 broadcast of NBC's Today:

LAUER: So, let's get to some of the comments here. Vice President Cheney called Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria, quote, “bad behavior.” A Washington Post editorial on Thursday called it, quote, “counterproductive” and “foolish.” An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning goes a step further and suggests her trip may have actually been a felony - that it may have violated something called the Logan Act. Tim, is this the way that Democrats wanted to get off the mark in terms of foreign affairs?

RUSSERT: No. They clearly wanted to distinguish themselves from the president's policies, but you have to be careful as [former] Congressman [Lee] Hamilton [D-IN] suggested. One ranking Democrat, Matt, said, “We have a Democratic alternative foreign policy.” That is going to be very difficult to articulate and to put into place when you don't control the White House. On the other hand, Speaker Pelosi issued a statement last night on behalf of the bipartisan delegation that she is leading. Her delegation includes Republican congressmen. She is saying she has done nothing wrong or inconsistent with American foreign policy.

LAUER: Well, that's their side of the story. However, if you look back at the midterm elections, clearly some voters in this country were unhappy with the administration's foreign policy, specifically in Iraq. It's one of the reasons we think the Democrats took control of Congress, but if the Democrats and Speaker Pelosi appear to be acting irresponsibly or incompetently -- and let's face it, a lot of people think she messed up on this one -- what's the impact for Democrats overall?

RUSSERT: It's considerable. The Democrats have always had a difficulty being competitive with the Republicans in the public voters' mind on national security and foreign policy issues, and if the people perceive missteps, it's going to create and underscore that perceptual problem of Democrats.

LAUER: And -- and let's go back to -- what you -- the point you touched on a second ago. If it's seen -- what is the bigger and longer-term issue here if a political party is seen as usurping presidential power in designing and implementing foreign policy?

RUSSERT: As we learned in 1994, Matt, when the Republicans took control of Congress with the Republican Revolution, the Contract with America, people voted for change. But the voters are also willing to turn that around on its head if they believe people have gone too far. That's why this debate is so important.

LAUER: Let's talk about the presidential campaign.