Articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times painted a surprisingly sunny picture of the political environment for President Bush and the Republicans; downplayed Bush's dismal poll numbers and growing scandals involving prominent members of the Republican Party.
Downplaying President Bush's dismal poll numbers and growing scandals involving prominent members of the Republican Party, articles in the January 26 editions of The Washington Post and The New York Times painted a surprisingly sunny picture of the political environment for Bush and the Republicans.
The New York Times article, a preview of Bush's State of the Union address and his 2006 agenda by Richard Stevenson, began:
Having stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005, President Bush is heading into his State of the Union address on Tuesday intent primarily on retaining his party's slim majority in Congress this year and completing unfinished business from his existing agenda.
The contention that Bush has "stabilized his political standing" is grossly misleading at best. While Bush's poll numbers do seem to have "stabilized" a bit, they have done so at very low levels. Seven straight Gallup polls, for example, have shown his approval ratings deviating by only two points. But the two-point range in question is between 41 and 43 percent, near Bush's historic low point of 37 percent.
Likewise, three consecutive Zogby polls showed "stability" in Bush's job performance ratings, with the percent of people calling his performance "excellent" or "good" at either 38 or 39 percent in the three polls, while the percent calling it "fair" or "poor" coming in between 60 and 62 each time. And the last three Fox News polls each put Bush's job approval at 42 percent.
Indeed, Stevenson himself later acknowledged that Bush's poll numbers "remain at anemic levels"; that Bush has had "increasing difficulties ... keeping Republicans together on domestic issues and in line with his assertively expansive view of his own wartime powers"; and that he has had "five tumultuous years in office." Yet the very first words of the article tell readers a far different story: that Bush has "stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005."
Later in the article, Stevenson again asserted that Bush has put his difficulties behind him:
The president goes into the speech having dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems from the latter half of last year. One was the demoralization of his conservative base, whose enthusiasm could determine the control of Congress. The other was his loss of control last fall of the terms of the partisan debate over national security, the issue that more than any other has determined his political fortunes.
Given Bush's continued and overwhelming unpopularity, it is difficult to make sense of Stevenson's assertion that Bush has "dealt to a large degree" with his political problems.
Nor does Stevenson do much to help the reader understand how such an unpopular president can be said to have dealt with his "most acute political problems." The Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, for example, is frequently cited as a major part of Bush's political struggles -- but Katrina isn't mentioned anywhere in Stevenson's article. The most recent public polling on the topic, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll from December, found that just 41 percent approved of Bush's handling of Katrina, while 57 percent disapproved.
The rosy scenario Stevenson created for Bush may reflect the views -- or spin -- of the people he chose to interview for his article. Stevenson quoted White House communications director Nicolle Wallace, former Republican member of Congress and current Club for Growth president Pat Toomey, former Bush White House official R. Glenn Hubbard (identified by Stevenson only as "a former chief economist at the White House" without noting that Hubbard served in the Bush White House), and conservative commentator Bruce Bartlett. By contrast, Stevenson quoted only one Democrat -- Democratic Leadership Council president Bruce Reed. Stevenson quoted Reed warning that Democrats "shouldn't underestimate the White House's ability to win a political campaign."
The Washington Post article by Jim VandeHei, meanwhile, repeatedly touted the political benefit Bush and the Republicans claim they will gain from the controversy over the administration's domestic spying program. VandeHei included numerous references to the Bush camp's claims that the issue is a winner for them:
Bush, whose aides said they consider the issue a clear political winner, is resurrecting tactics from the last campaign to make the NSA spying program a referendum on which party will keep the United States safe from terrorists. He has dispatched top White House officials almost daily to defend the program and has sent a message to party activists that he considers fighting terrorism with tools such as NSA eavesdropping the defining issue of the November elections."
The issue is different but the message is similar to the one many political analysts credit for Bush's 2004 victory: He can be trusted to protect U.S. citizens, and Democrats cannot. In a recent speech to the Republican National Committee, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove previewed a similar strategy for this year's elections, in which the GOP majorities in the House, Senate and governorships are at risk. When news of the NSA program broke, Bush was put on the defensive, but he and strategists quickly decided this fight could be an asset at a time when the president was struggling to regain his balance, advisers said.
"It is amazing to me -- not only are the Democrats not learning from costly policy mistakes, they are not learning what happened from the political mistakes of 2002 and 2004," said RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman.
VandeHei also asserted, "Some Democratic strategists say the NSA program is a political loser for Democrats, whom many voters still see as soft on national security" -- though he didn't quote a single Democratic strategist making that point, even anonymously.
While repeating the GOP spin that the issue is a clear-cut political winner for them, VandeHei omitted any indication that some in the party aren't so sure, or that the administration's spin may be overly optimistic. Had VandeHei wished to include such information, he could have simply referred back to his own previous reporting. On January 4, VandeHei wrote:
Adopting campaign-style tactics, Bush and his aides plan to accuse Democrats of jeopardizing national security to further their political agenda, a tack that worked well for the White House in the 2002 and 2004 elections. But the political environment is different now, with Bush less popular and Democrats better organized in opposition.
Moreover, key Republicans are also raising objections to Bush's broad interpretation of presidential power.
Or he could have looked to the Los Angeles Times' Ronald Brownstein, who also wrote this week of the Republicans' purported confidence that the NSA issue is a poltical benefit. But Brownstein, unlike VandeHei, mentioned some reasons why this may not be the case:
Political analysts interpreted the speech as evidence that the White House wanted to replicate its 2002 strategy, when Bush used a dispute over union rules for the Department of Homeland Security to picture Democrats as soft on security concerns.
But some Democrats see key differences from 2002. Bush's current approval rating is about 20 percentage points lower than it was then. That means he enters the argument with fewer voters leaning in his direction.
Public attitudes about the balance between civil liberties and security also have shifted since 2002, according to nationwide polls. More Americans now express concern that the government will restrict civil liberties too much in the fight against terrorism, and fewer say the average American needs to relinquish civil liberties to protect the country.
The White House faces another difficulty in forging its arguments into a partisan weapon for 2006: Some Republican lawmakers, and many prominent conservative activists, have joined Democrats in opposing Bush in the recent disputes.
For instance, four Republican senators backed the filibuster that blocked renewal of the Patriot Act. Other leading Republicans, including Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona, have questioned Bush's claim of legal authority to launch the NSA program.
Some key Democrats also insist that public anxiety about the continuing violence in Iraq will make it tougher for Republicans to use security arguments this year.
The Post's VandeHei also drew a false contrast between the Bush administration's efforts to spin the NSA spying program and its unsuccessful efforts to promote Social Security privatization last year:
Exhibiting an obsession to detail not seen in the Social Security rollout a year ago, the White House is even waging a war on the semantics being used in the debate, lashing out at reporters who call the program "domestic" spying, because the monitored calls involve a person overseas.
But the White House's "war on the semantics" is precisely what it did during last year's Social Security debate, as Media Matters repeatedly pointed out. And VandeHei's own newspaper reported on January 23, 2005:
President Bush is trying to keep the word "private" from going public.
As the two parties brace for the coming debate over restructuring Social Security, polls and focus groups for both sides have shown that voters -- especially older ones, who vote in disproportionately heavy numbers -- distrust any change that has the word "private" attached to it.
The White House has a logical idea: Don't use the word. This is difficult because, after all, they would be "private" accounts, and Bush's plan would "partially privatize" Social Security.
So Bush and his supporters have started using "personal accounts" instead of "private accounts" to refer to his plan to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds. Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to "private accounts," even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall.
"Semantics are very important," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said last week when a reporter asked about "private" accounts. "They're personal accounts, not private accounts. No one is advocating privatizing Social Security."
"Don't dismiss the use of a word," Thomas added. "The use of a word is critical in making law."
What VandeHei describes as the White House's new attention to detail is in fact exactly the same -- down to the browbeating of reporters -- as the failed strategy it used in promoting Social Security privatization.