With Middle East conflict, media continue heads-you-win-tails-you-win pronouncements for Bush, GOP


Following a recent trend of portraying bad news for President Bush as a blessing in disguise for Republicans and the White House, various news outlets and media figures have uncritically echoed the Bush administration's claim that the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Hezbollah represents a "leadership opportunity" for Bush.

In recent months, Media Matters for America has noted the media's tendency to portray empirically bad news for President Bush or rebukes of Bush administration policy a political opportunity for Republicans and the White House. From Bush's plummeting poll numbers to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld to North Korea's recent missile tests, numerous media figures have been quick to spin the events as losses for Democrats and blessings in disguise for Republicans. Now, with the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Hezbollah, various news outlets and media figures have continued this trend, advising that it is in the Democrats' best interest to "[c]hange the subject" away from the administration's handling of the conflict and uncritically repeating the White House's claim that the crisis represents a "leadership opportunity" for Bush.

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider argued on the July 21 edition of The Situation Room that, because arguments connecting the White House's actions to the current conflict "require some understanding of the Middle East," the Democrats' "best bet" is to simply "[c]hange the subject." In his report, Schneider aired clips of political analyst Stuart Rothenberg asserting that the escalating situation "could actually help the president" and that a discussion of the crisis in Lebanon is not "a winning issue" for the Democrats.

In a similar vein, Fox News political analyst Dick Morris predicted on the June 24 edition of The O'Reilly Factor that Bush's approval rating would improve as a result of the conflict and "come up into the 40s." Morris supported this assertion by claiming that Bush "is so good at handling these crises and it is so evident to the American people that he is strong and the Democrats are not." Further, he said that when the Democrats criticize the White House's handling of the situation, "the American public sees that as siding with the terrorists." But a poll that came out after the CNN report and Morris's remarks do not support their prognostications and assessments: A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted July 21-23 and released July 25 found that Bush's approval rating has not risen during the current crisis. Indeed, it has dropped three points -- from 40 percent in early July to 37 percent in this most recent survey, a decline within the poll's margin of error. On the specific issue of Bush's handling of the Middle East conflict, 37 percent of those polled approved and 56 percent disapproved'

In an article in the July 31 issue of Time magazine, staff writer Mike Allen focused on the political ramifications for Bush's legacy. Allen framed the conflict as a potential "second chance" for Bush "to redeem himself as a peacemaker" and quoted his aides referring to the crisis as an "opportunity for a 'leadership moment.' " Further, the article portrayed the White House team as "ever optimistic" and described Bush as "ready to leap at the chance to refresh the landscape and make his own history." From Allen's article, headlined "Back into History":

Before dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region, Bush initiated a series of phone calls from Air Force One and the Oval Office to leaders around the region. Making a virtue of necessity, the President's team says it sees the opportunity for a "leadership moment" -- and, however counterintuitive, an unexpected new chance to make headway on Bush's grand goal of leaving the Middle East more democratic than he found it. Ahead of Rice, a State Department envoy and Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, spent four days in the region.


Yet Bush would dearly love to accomplish something, to neutralize anti-American forces in the Middle East and to redeem himself as a peacemaker. Without that, his foreign policy legacy lives and dies with Iraq, and it's looking ever more likely that the country won't be peaceful before he leaves office. Still, the Administration is ever optimistic. In an e-mail titled "Setting the Record Straight" late last week, the White House declared, "The President's foreign policy is succeeding."


With the Democrats determined to make a major issue of Bush's foreign policy competence, the President seems ready to leap at the chance to refresh the landscape and make his own history.

Similarly, Richard Wolffe's profile of Bush in the July 31 issue of Newsweek magazine, "How Bush Handled Mideast Crisis," portrayed the president as seizing on the situation in Lebanon because he thinks it "vindicates his early vision of the region's struggle" and represents "an extraordinary opportunity":

After five years of terrorism and bloodshed, crisis has become a way of life for George W. Bush. Back home, he usually has the luxury of managing events in private, with his aides close at hand and world leaders a phone call away. This time it's just the opposite: Bush must respond to the violence in the full glare of a global summit, where the leaders like to take each other's measure in front of the cameras. Over the next several days, Bush huddles with presidents and prime ministers, showing how far he has traveled since 9/11 -- and also how little he has changed. Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region's struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism. He still believes that when it comes to war and terror, leaders need to decide whose side they are on.


Bush may deplore the loss of life, but he also sees the crisis as an extraordinary opportunity. "I view this as the forces of instability probing weakness. I think they're testing resolve in many ways," he tells NEWSWEEK moments after the phone calls. He is leaning back in his leather chair, wearing his Air Force One jacket, emblazoned with the presidential seal. Bush thinks the violence speaks more effectively than he does; he knows that the world is wary when he talks about force. "Sometimes, in order to get others to act with us," he says, "there has to be conditions on the ground that make the case better than I can make it." It hasn't always turned out that way: in Iraq, conditions on the ground have long conspired against Bush and driven allies away.

From the July 21 edition of CNN's The Situation Room with host Wolf Blitzer:

SCHNEIDER: Wolf, will the Middle East conflict have any impact on this year's midterm elections? Well, a simple formula can help answer that question. An average of more than 100 civilians per day are being killed in Iraq, the United Nations reported this week. But the press and public have been focused, understandably, on the escalating warfare in Israel and Lebanon. That shift has political implications.

ROTHENBERG [video clip]: There is this international, global terror threat that could actually help the president.

SCHNEIDER: That's because the war on terror is a Republican issue. Iraq is a Democratic issue. A recent poll showed Republicans with an 11-point lead on terrorism and Democrats with a 10-point lead on Iraq.

Israel is fighting a war with radical Islamists, America's enemies in the war on terror. Democrats could argue that the Bush administration's policies have made the Middle East problem worse by allowing Iran's power and influence to grow.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Brookings Institution senior fellow) [video clip]: Iraq is not going to be a major power in any foreseeable future, no matter what happens militarily. So Iran is the dominant power in the Gulf.

SCHNEIDER: By supporting elections that allowed extremists to gain power in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority -- those arguments require some understanding of the Middle East. The Democrats' best bet? Change the subject.

ROTHENBERG [video clip]: They don't want to transfer the debate of the discussion over to Lebanon. I think that's not a winning issue for them. Democrats know that they have a winning issue in Iraq.

From the July 24 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

MORRIS: At the time that Israel invaded Lebanon, [former President] Clinton had discussed with Shimon Peres, the Israeli premier, a pact in which the United States would be legally obliged to come to Israel's aid if it were attacked, which Clinton told me the Israelis say they don't want but they really want. And he said after Israel mistakenly bombed a refugee camp in 1996 and there was a global outcry, he said, "Now I can't sign that treaty." And when you compare Bush's stand-up attitude in the face of global public opinion -- which is to say European public opinion -- and Clinton's response to that, I think you see the difference between a Republican and a Democratic administration on this issue.

BILL O'REILLY (host): Do you believe that the Middle East violence will help President Bush in the polls?


O'REILLY: I mean, will it become a domestic issue here?


O'REILLY: It will?

MORRIS: I think it will help him. I don't think it will necessarily carry through to November. I remain pessimistic about Bush's chances of hanging onto Congress. But I think clearly within this three- or four-week window, his poll ratings -- which were descending into the netherworld -- will come up into the 40s, because he is so good at handling these crises and it is so evident to the American people that he's strong and the Democrats are not. Remember, the American voters now hate the terrorists just as much as the Israelis do. It's a common-cause situation. And when [Democratic National Committee chairman Howard] Dean and [Sen. John F.] Kerry [D-MA] and [Sen. Joseph R.] Biden [D-DE] -- more Dean than Kerry -- criticize what Bush is doing or knock it or say this wouldn't have happened under us, the American public sees that as siding with the terrorists. It's a mistake for them to do it.

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