Sometimes it takes a village—sometimes it takes a president with popularity ratings below forty percent for just about a year. Whatever the cause, there are times—few and far between of late, alas—when the press, rather than being rolled by conservatives working the refs on their behalf, interprets the news with two proverbial feet planted firmly in the soil of what used to be called “reality.” Surprisingly, given the roll-over-to-get-its-tummy-scratched coverage that has characterized so much of the mainstream media’s national security coverage since 9/11, last week’s arrest of a group of Pakistanis in the U.K. suspected of plotting to blow up commercial airliners miraculously escaped. Several reporters have resisted the “good for Bush” meme that administration apologists have successfully spun despite all evidence for the past half-decade.
It didn’t start out so hot, however. Last Friday on a broadcast of NBC’s “Today,” David Gregory fell into the same old trap: “However bad things are in Iraq, the president’s biggest political strength has always been leading the fight against terror. Well, this latest plot gives the White House and Republicans the chance to drive that message home to voters.”
Chuck Todd, editor in chief of Hotline blog agreed, deciding that “It’s absolutely a short-term positive for the White House. Any time that the conversation is about the war on terror and not the war in Iraq that is a positive for the White House.” The same day, The Wall Street Journal also chimed in that “the foiled British bombing plot is likely to benefit President Bush and the Republican Party … by reminding voters of national-security concerns and the war on terror—two areas where the president and his party have earned high marks from U.S. citizens.” On Sunday, Newsweek chimed in, asserting that “news of a serious terror threat boosts the president’s ratings, a correlation long noted by both Democrats and Republicans.”
While all indications were that we were in for more of the same, last Friday also saw a glimmer of hope. While The New York Times turned in a spotty performance by initially claiming that “Arrests Bolster G.O.P. Bid to Claim Security as Issue,” the piece wasn’t nearly as misleading as its headline. The “evidence,” such as it was, came entirely from members of the party apparatus themselves, who spoke of the President’s strength on national security issues as no less predictable than the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. The article noted that “the developments played neatly into the White House-led effort,” as House majority leader, John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican chairman Bill Bennett, Dick Cheney, and Joe Lieberman all were given space to portray Democrats as weak on national security. Down in the twelfth paragraph however, reality began to seep in to the analysis. “But in a sign of how this campaign might be different, Democrats struck a tone notably different from the elections of 2004 and 2002, when for the most part their strategy was to try to turn the subject away from national security. This time, Democrats attacked Republicans as failing to improve airline security and, most of all, argued that the decision to invade Iraq had been a distraction that depleted United States resources and allowed the world to become more dangerous.” (Remember, the plot was discovered by police work—an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with it.)
In any case, the entire strategy is misguided if one treats the prevailing view of Bush among actual Americans—rather than just Washington pundits—as the proper context for one’s judgment. A Washington Post poll asked, “Which political party, the (Democrats) or the (Republicans), do you trust to do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism?” Respondents chose Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of 46 percent to 38 percent.
Oddly, The Washington Post’s coverage was tethered much more tightly to reality. Looking at the same facts and the same people, Post reporters paid more attention to the robust Democratic response, and less to the time-tested administration spin. “The aggressive Democratic response to this week’s foiled terrorist plot reflects a widely shared view among party strategists that intensified attacks against President Bush represent the best chance to offset what historically has been a clear Republican advantage whenever national security issues become more prominent, Democratic officials said yesterday…” The Post took a wider view, and instead of focusing on a few sound bites from either side, wrote that “Democratic leaders in Washington moved on several fronts to accuse Republicans of exploiting terrorism fears for political gain—and to warn that Democrats will respond to weak-on-security attacks of the sort launched by Vice President Cheney on Wednesday…”
Alas, before anyone gets excited about a potential twist in the “Everything—no matter what it is—helps Bush” insider zeitgeist, we see Mike Allen’s blog in Time, going back over the same clichéd ground trod by David Broder/Marty Peretz/Jacob Weiberg/Fred Barnes/William Kristol/Peggy Noonan/David Brooks/Michael Barone regarding Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary as a victory for GOP talking points, though this time it was more transparent. Citing such trusted voices as RNC chair Ken Mehlman, Vice President Cheney, and White House spokesman Tony Snow, Allen concluded that yes indeed, the victory by this moderate entrepreneur proved that the Democratic Party had indeed been hijacked by the radical, anti-war left.
Allen’s piece was indifferent as to whether or not the charges were true or not. Instead, he portrayed the Democrats as “doleful” and Republicans as “gleeful,” while musing that the “Democrats’ rejection of a sensible, moralistic centrist has handed the GOP a weapon that could have vast ramifications for both the midterm elections of ’06 and the big dance of ’08.” Alas, all that happened was that Connecticut Democrats voted to support the candidate who holds the majority position not only in their party and state, but also across the entire country, outside the confines of cable and network green-rooms, White House press briefings, and perhaps pre-vacation Georgetown cocktail parties. Even though they supported the loser in the primary, party bigwigs rallied round the winner. Outside of Washington, they call that “democracy.” Would that the poobahs of the punditocracy were ever forced to discover it�??.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin, which is the subject of a historians’ online symposium, HERE.