Not once but twice in recent days Meet The Press host David Gregory announced that the troubled launch of President Obama's new health care law is roughly the equivalent to President Bush's badly bungled war with Iraq. The NBC anchor was quick to point out that he didn't mean the two events were the same with regards to a death toll. (Nobody has died from health care reform.) But Gregory was sure that in terms of how the former president and the current president are viewed, in terms of damage done to their credibility, the men will be forever linked to a costly, bloody war and a poorly functioning website, respectively.
“Everybody looked at Bush through the prism of Iraq,” Gregory explained. “Here, I think people are going to look at Obama through the implementation of Obamacare.” It's Obama's defining event of their two-term presidency. It's a catastrophic failure that's tarnished Obama's second term, and will perhaps "wreck" his entire presidency, according to the media's “doom-mongering bubble,” as Kevin Drum at Mother Jones described it.
But like the painfully inappropriate comparisons to Hurricane Katrina that have populated the press, Gregory's attempt to draw a Bush/Obama parallel is equally senseless. Bush's war morass stretched over five years, so of course it defined his presidency. Obama's health care woes are in week number six and could be fixed within the next month.
There's something else in play here though, as the Beltway press corps strains to anoint Obama as the new Bush, as it tries to convince news consumers that Obama's failures simply show how presidents are so alike, as are the crises they face and sometimes create. An American city drowned in slow motion following Hurricane Katrina? The United States launched a senseless, pre-emptive war that will drain the U.S. Treasury for decades to come? Well, Obama's Healthcare.gov website doesn't work very well!
This is the mother lode of false equivalency.
But note that the casual attempt to connect the current health care setbacks with the war in Iraq represents a particularly disingenuous attempt to downgrade Bush's historical failures, and to cover the media's tracks of deception.
Fact: You can't talk about the Iraq War as a political event without addressing the central role the U.S. media played in the botched run-up to the war, and the fevered and futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction. By suggesting that Obama's six-week health care crisis puts him in the same position of Bush following the Iraq invasion softens not only the magnitude of Bush's failures, but the media's as well. It's an effort to downplay the massive missteps that led to the war and to trivialize the staggering costs still being paid by Americans. (The Bush and media failures surrounding Iraq are forever linked.)
“No pundit should be allowed to use Iraq as a measuring tool until they are willing to have an honest discussion about their role in selling the country on Iraq,” wrote PoliticsUSA's Sarah Jones this week. And she's right.
And as Ana Marie Cox at the Guardian noted, the media's early conclusion on the Iraq War was that it represented a stunning victory for Bush. “Just as we were quick to declare the Iraq War a success based on a shiny beginning and short-term successes, so has the mainstream press decided that the ACA is a failure based on a set of stubbornly dysfunctional websites.” So not only did the press willingly trumpet White House spin about the need for war, but the press then swallowed White House spin about how it had all gone according to plan. (Here's Ron Fournier, now with the National Journal, reporting in 2003 for the Associated Press that Bush would soon announce that the war in Iraq was over.)
David Gregory has hardly been alone with his Obamacare-is-like-the-Iraq-War rhetoric. Of course, the right-wing media has been pushing the same in an obvious attempt to tarnish Obama and to minimize Bush's signature failure. (See Geraldo Rivera, S.E. Cupp, the Washington Examiner.) They are simply echoing Republican Party spin. “This is an unfolding disaster politically, in a way that's something like the Iraq war was for the Republican Party,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said this week. “If they don't get this fixed they're going to pay a horrific political price.”
But the Baghdad talking point clearly crossed over into the mainstream. Aside from Meet The Press, Fournier appeared on MSNBC and insisted Bush's handling of the Iraq War was the best “analogy” for the health care problems dogging the White House, while the Associated Press warned that Obama could face a similar fate like the one Bush suffered in the wake of Iraq.
Keep in mind that to date, the Iraq War (once described by retired General Anthony Zinni as "brain fart") has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than 130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars. If the costs of medical care of wounded veterans are factored in, the final Iraq War tab could reach between $4 and $6 trillion, according to a Harvard University study.
Why the media interest in connecting Obama's current setback to the monumental failure of the Iraq War? Whatever the motivation, the effect is that the false equivalency creates bogus presidential backdrop where Bush and Obama stand as equals; where the generation-defining war is similar to a flawed health care rollout.
But again, Bush isn't the only one who benefits from that flawed comparison. So does the press, which under a Republican president in 2002 and 2003 abdicated its most important role, that of independent watchdog.
As Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote in 2005, the mainstream media's performance during the run-up to the war -- its inability and refusal to demand sharp answers to difficult questions about prewar intelligence --represented their most crucial newsroom failing in nearly half a century. “How did a country on the leading edge of the information age get this so wrong and express so little skepticism and challenge?” asked Getler.
Similarly, The New York Times' public editor labeled its paper's prewar coverage, "flawed journalism."
The media's malpractice during the crucial period of the run-up to the Bush-led invasion remains one of the worst journalistic failures in modern American history. That so many pundits, reporters and producers got the war story that wrong not only defied common sense, it helped lead the nation into a disastrous and costly war.
By suggesting the temporary health care woes are like Iraq, the press is doing its best to wash away the Iraq War stain.