Ignoring history, media touted Feingold censure proposal as GOP political opportunity
Research ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
In reporting on Sen. Russ Feingold's call for the censure of President Bush for authorizing the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program, numerous media outlets have repeated the Republican talking point that Feingold's action provides an opportunity for Bush and the GOP to regain ground by turning the public's attention back to national security.
In reporting on Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) call for the censure of President Bush for authorizing the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program, various media outlets repeated the GOP talking point that congressional Republicans and the White House stand to reverse their downward slide in the polls by emphasizing national security issues and painting Democrats as "soft on terrorism." The Feingold resolution, however, is not the first time that the media have seized on an event that the GOP claims is a likely turning point in the declining popularity of the majority party and the president. Absent from these media reports is any indication that the GOP and the White House have failed -- despite numerous attempts -- to lift their sagging poll numbers by refocusing national attention on terrorism and security issues. The New York Times and The Washington Post both characterized the Feingold resolution as a rallying cry for Bush's base. But if similar past instances are any indication, public opinion of Bush and congressional Republicans could be largely unaffected.
The media's reaction to the Feingold resolution mirrors their reaction to prior events that Republicans have claimed exposed the Democrats' weakness on issues of national security. As with the Feingold resolution, the media have touted those events -- including a speech by White House senior adviser Karl Rove and The New York Times' disclosure that Bush had authorized a domestic surveillance program in apparent violation of the law -- as opportunities for Bush to refocus the country's attention on his purported strength in the public's mind: national security.
After The New York Times first broke the NSA eavesdropping story in December 2005, Rove, in a speech to the Republican National Committee on January 20, suggested that Republicans should use the controversy over the warrantless surveillance program and criticism of the Iraq war to, as the Los Angeles Times put it on January 25, "portray the Democrats as weak on national security." Rove said: "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security. Republicans have a post-9-11 worldview -- and many Democrats have a pre-9-11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."
As Media Matters for America noted at the time, Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei essentially echoed Rove's talking points in a January 26 article:
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.
Some Democratic strategists say the NSA program is a political loser for Democrats, whom many voters still see as soft on national security. But there is no way for elected Democrats to avoid the fight -- and few want to. With congressional hearings on the topic expected early next month, Democrats and several Republicans have serious policy differences with Bush and consider the NSA fight part of a much larger battle over presidential power and congressional oversight.
Rove's speech also reflected an effort to capitalize on the January 19 release of an audiotape by Osama bin Laden. On the January 20 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, congressional correspondent Ed Henry reported that "Republicans believe bin Laden's latest broadside should be a wakeup call that Al Qaeda is still dangerous and the NSA program will help keep America safe." Henry went on to report:
HENRY: But the new Osama bin Laden audiotape has given Republicans a political opening to make the case for the surveillance program and other anti-terror tools. Republican Senator John Kyl [AZ] said, "We cannot bind our hand in this fight. If we do, and terrorists launch more attacks against us, opponents of security tools such as the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance will have to answer for their opposition." A point Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman tried to hammer home Friday.
MEHLMAN [video clip]: ... that Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells inside the United States.
Similarly, the media widely reported that the Bush White House had shifted into "campaign mode" in late 2005 to, as the Associated Press reported on December 9, "reverse his slide in public opinion polls." White House officials essentially acknowledged that they had, in fact, entered "campaign mode" to boost Bush's flagging poll numbers by promoting the Iraq war and its purported connection to the fight against terrorism. From a November 18, 2005, Washington Post article:
Such trash-talking of opponents is commonplace for politicians in campaign mode. Even in the context of a polarized capital, it is noteworthy for a White House to strike such a tone in making its case on a sensitive national security issue. Bush aides suggested that if they sound as though they are waging a campaign, it is because a campaign is being waged against them.
"One way to look at it is that the need to respond aggressively is born out of the audacity of the Democratic attacks," said Nicolle Wallace, White House communications director. "... We recognized the need to set the record straight in a way that hasn't been necessary since the campaign."
But the media's predictions of a Bush and Republican resurgence in the polls in the wake of these events have not borne out, certainly not for long. The White House and the GOP have seen their poll numbers on terrorism and national security either drop or remain stagnant since mid-January. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted February 28-March 1, Bush's approval rating for "handling terrorism" dropped seven points in February -- from 54 percent to 47 percent. According to a March 2-5 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Bush's approval rating for handling the "campaign against terrorism" dropped three points from December to January -- 56 percent to 53 percent -- and remained at 52 percent through February and into March. A March 9-12 CBS News poll showed that Bush's approval rating for the "campaign against terrorism" dropped from 51 percent in early January to 45 percent in mid-March.
Bush's job approval ratings experienced a slight uptick in November and December 2005 but have since dropped to their lowest levels of his presidency. A March 10-12 Gallup poll showed Bush's approval rating dropping from 43 percent in early January to 36 percent in March, while a March 8-12 survey by the Pew Research Center reported Bush's approval rating at an all-time low of 33 percent. With regard to the warrantless eavesdropping program, majorities of Americans disapprove of the surveillance tactics the Bush administration employed, as Media Matters noted.
As for congressional Republicans, a February 28-March 1 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll reported that trust in Republicans to "do a better job protecting the country from terrorism" fell 5 percent from mid-January to early March -- 43 percent to 38 percent -- while trust in Democrats went up three percent -- 30 percent to 33 percent. The ABC News/Washington Post poll cited above saw trust in Republicans to "do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism" remain at 46 percent from January to March, while Democratic numbers dropped from 41 percent to 39 percent.
And yet, the media are again reporting that Feingold's call to censure Bush represents a political opportunity for Republicans without recognizing the White House's and GOP's recent failed efforts to take advantage politically of national security issues. In a March 16 New York Times article titled: "Call for Censure Is Rallying Cry to Bush's Base," reporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote: "Republicans, worried that their conservative base lacks motivation to turn out for the fall elections, have found a new rallying cry in the dreams of liberals about censuring or impeaching President Bush." Kirkpatrick cited a variety of conservatives who plan "to harness such attacks to their own ends," such as nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the Cybercast News Service, and a variety of Republican spokesmen.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in his March 16 "Media Notes" column: "One thing is clear about Russ Feingold's move to censure President Bush: Republicans love it and Democrats hate it." Kurtz went on to cite Kirkpartrick's New York Times article, along with a host of other Republican and conservative media figures and politicians.
On the March 13 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, correspondent Norah O'Donnell, during a discussion of Feingold's call for censure, said:
O'DONNELL: Well, remember that President Bush has always done well when he's in campaign mode. And his approval ratings has always -- have usually remained above 50 percent when there's a clear opponent, like Senator John Kerry [D-MA]. And his numbers have dipped because he doesn't have a clear political opponent. So, it's a perfect political opportunity for this White House, and Vice President Cheney was unleashed today, if you will, ready to sort of deliver the political attack. And they were -- this White House likes to have a debate about national security. They've had a tough one over the Dubai ports deal for the past two weeks, where we've seen the Democratic Party gain an upper hand coming to national security. I think that's why the Republicans smelled some blood today and thought they could turn this around on the Democratic Party. Clearly it divides them, and it looks like Senator Feingold, who is probably running for president in 2008, was trying to, at least, stir the pot.
Absent from O'Donnell's remarks was any mention that Bush's approval ratings have sunk in recent months, even though White House officials, by their own admission, have been in "campaign mode" since November.