Why are the media depicting GOP support for unpopular war as a political winner?
Research ››› ››› JOSH KALVEN
As Senate Democrats debate two proposals regarding U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, news outlets have gone out of their way to frame the Democratic differences over how soon to redeploy forces as politically favorable for the Republicans while not reporting that the Democrats' position is shared by a majority of Americans, that the war supported by Republicans is deeply unpopular with the American public, and that the GOP's alternative plan appears to involve remaining in Iraq indefinitely.
As Senate Democrats debate two proposals regarding U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, news outlets have gone out of their way to frame the Democratic differences over how soon to redeploy forces as politically favorable for the Republicans. For instance, ABCNews.com's The Note declared on June 21 that Democrats are purportedly "on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party." But if the media are right that Republicans stand to gain politically from this debate, it is only because the media have already pronounced them the winners, thereby helping to bring about the result that they are predicting. If rather, the media discussed below were to simply report relevant information -- that the backers of the two Democratic proposals are united in their belief that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq, that this position is shared by a majority of Americans, that the war supported by Republicans is deeply unpopular with the American public, and that the GOP's alternative plan appears to involve remaining in Iraq indefinitely, but no less than three years -- then their assessment of the political winners and losers in this debate would necessarily be very different.
CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash's report from the Senate on the June 21 edition of CNN Live Today provided a case study in how the media are reinforcing the baseless narrative that the Republicans are winning the rhetorical battle over Iraq. In characterizing the debate, Bash emphasized that despite Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's recent efforts "to find consensus," the two Democratic camps have arrived at "very different views" about how to move forward in Iraq. She further reported that they have decided to debate "the one thing that actually does divide Democrats, which is whether or not U.S. troops should come home." But the disagreement between the two proposals being debated by Senate Democrats is not whether U.S. forces should be redeployed out of Iraq, as Bash reported, but rather how soon. The nonbinding amendment sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) calls for "the beginning of a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year" and urges the administration to "submit to Congress its plan for continued redeployment beyond 2006." The measure put forth by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), meanwhile, sets a deadline of July 1, 2007, for the full redeployment of U.S. troops. By mischaracterizing the focus of the Democratic debate in this manner, Bash exaggerated the degree to which the party is actually divided and lent support to the Republicans' repeated claim that the Democrats are in disarray over the issue.
Not only did Bash mischaracterize the Democrats' debate, she also falsely suggested that it is the Democrats -- and not the party voting to continue indefinitely a costly, unpopular war -- that stand to lose politically. In fact, the position articulated by the backers of the two proposals in favor of troop redeployment is in line with public opinion -- a fact ignored by numerous other news outlets. A poll by CNN -- Bash's network -- conducted June 14-15 showed that 53 percent of respondents favored a timetable for withdrawal, while 41 percent opposed such a measure. Similarly, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted June 9-12 found that 57 percent of respondents supported reducing troop levels now, compared with 35 percent who favored maintaining the current deployment.
In light of these facts, it is unclear how exactly the Democrats' current emphasis on the need for withdrawal is politically perilous. Nonetheless, Bash went on to uncritically report that Republicans "are having nothing short of a field day with what they see going on with the Democratic Party and ... they believe that this fundamentally plays into their plans for this election year." Bash noted that some Democrats "are a little bit worried that Democrats are playing into Republicans' hands." Further, she reported that the Republicans intend to emphasize that "the Democrats want nothing more than to cut and run from Iraq" -- a phrase repeatedly highlighted at the bottom the screen throughout her report.
Just as Bash ignored the fact that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats' position on Iraq, she failed to note that the war faithfully backed by so many congressional Republicans is deeply unpopular with the public. The CNN poll noted above showed that only 38 percent of respondents supported the war, while 54 percent opposed it. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll similarly found that only 40 percent of those surveyed believed the war was "worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost."
Also absent from Bash's reporting was any mention of the Republicans' plan regarding the war, which apparently consists of keeping significant levels of U.S. troops in Iraq through the end of Bush's presidency. Indeed, during a March 21 press conference, Bush said the complete pullout of troops from Iraq "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Further, The New York Times reported on June 11 that "the administration has begun to look at the costs of maintaining a force of roughly 50,000 troops there for years to come." On June 20, blogger Joshua Micah Marshall summed up the GOP plan -- or lack thereof -- in the context of the current Senate debate:
In terms of domestic politics, this isn't that complicated. President Bush wants to stay in Iraq for at least three more years. Members of his party in Congress agree with him. They don't have a plan. That's where to make this argument because very few people in this country think we should keep our troops there for another three years with our current policy.
Moreover, getting suckered into a debate about deadlines for leaving Iraq is foolish, especially when President Bush has said on the record repeatedly that he plans to keep our troops in Iraq for the remainder of his presidency. He wants them there for at least three more years. What happens after that he'll leave to future presidents. This isn't what Democrats claim. This is what he says. He doesn't say he's willing to keep them there to achieve this or that aim. He's committed to keeping them there.
He doesn't have a plan for what to do in Iraq so he wants to keep troops there for the rest of his presidency. That's his plan: stay long enough that it becomes someone else's problem.
In contrast with Bash's reporting on the Senate debate, NationalJournal.com contributing editor Chuck Todd wrote in a June 21 column that it is "a bit early to assume that this perceived Republican comeback (there's more swagger right now than polling evidence) is going to hold up." While faulting the Democrats for "let[ting] the GOP and the media dictate the rules of the Iraq debate," he noted that the Democrats "should have taken heart" in a finding in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which "showed a majority of voters -- including self-described independents (i.e. 'casual' voters) -- say they are more likely to support a congressional candidate who advocates getting out of Iraq in a year."
From the June 21 edition of CNN Live Today:
DARYN KAGAN (host): Well, pushing for a pullout from Iraq, Senate Democrats set the stage for a fiery debate on Capitol Hill today. But even Democrats are divided. Two resolutions are up for debate. One is calling for phased redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq beginning this year; the other calls for full withdrawal by July of 2007. More on the debate now from congressional correspondent Dana Bash. Dana, good morning.
BASH: Good morning, Daryn. And, you know, the Democratic leader Harry Reid tried very hard over the last several weeks, in a series of meetings, to try to find consensus, to try to rally around one particular measure when it comes to what the Democrats' plan is on Iraq. But the bottom line is there are just very different views. And you just have really laid out the two reasons why: the two plans that we are going to see come forward today.
Bottom line is that Senator John Kerry and also along with [Sen.] Russ Feingold [D-WI] and Senator Barbara Boxer [D-CA], they believe that the only way to go about this is to set a hard and fast deadline of July 1st, 2007. That's their plan right now, to have all U.S. troops come out of Iraq. But if you have any question about where the Democratic leader stands on this, you can just look at the debate -- the schedule for the debate today. He made it so that John Kerry's amendment won't come up until very, very late in the day.
So Senator Kerry's camp sent us some excerpts of the argument that he will make on the Senate floor when he gets there later today. "Setting a deadline," he will say, "to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq is necessary for success in Iraq and victory in the war on terror. Iraqi politicians have proven they only respond to deadlines, a deadline to transfer authority, deadlines to hold two elections and a referendum, and a deadline to form a government." He will go on to say, "That's why we must change course now, because we need another deadline to get Iraq up to its own two feet and get American troops home."
Now, Kerry's camp -- aides to Kerry -- say that they are gaining support. But at this point, it looks like they might not have many more than about 10 Democratic senators voting for that, ultimately, probably tomorrow morning.
Most of the Democrats will likely vote for an alternative, something sponsored by Senator Carl Levin, the ranking senator on the Armed Services Committee, that doesn't have a hard-and-fast deadline, but simply says that the U.S. should begin a phased withdrawal starting this year.
LEVIN [video clip]: We don't set the end date for it, we set the beginning date. We don't set that beginning date immediately. That would be precipitous. But we say that the open-ended commitment has got to end, and we've got to find a way to leave Iraq in better shape than we found it. But our presence there is contributing as much to instability now as it is to security.
BASH: Now, so far, Daryn, Republicans here in the Senate, over at the White House, are having nothing short of a field day with what they see going on with the Democratic Party and what they will see on the -- play out on the Senate floor this week, as they believe that this fundamentally plays into their plans for this election year, that they want to make Democrats look weak on national defense. And they hope that this will help. And also, we've heard it over and over again, and we'll hear it many times today, the term "cut and run." They will say the Democrats want nothing more than to cut and run from Iraq.
And I can tell you, Daryn, in talking to some Democrats, they are a little bit worried that Democrats are playing into Republicans' hands and that perhaps they made a mistake by making these two issues, these two amendments, about the one thing that actually does divide Democrats, which is whether or not U.S. troops should come home and when, as opposed to a lot of things that they actually agree on, which primarily is the fact that they believe the Bush Iraq war has seen many blunders and that they need to be held to account, and Republicans here in Congress aren't doing that.
From the June 21 edition of The Note, written by the ABC News political unit:
Democrats can deny it all they want (and not all do ...), but they are on the precipice of self-immolating over the issue that has most crippled the Bush presidency and of making facts on the ground virtually meaningless. In other words, they are on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party.
If the Democrats can't make cable TV bookers and Washington assignment editors feel there is a dime's worth of difference between something called "Levin" and something called "Kerry," our guess is that the American people won't see much of a difference between those options when they pull their levers (or punch their chads, or whatever) come November. Remember our rule from yesterday, which we paraphrase here: if you have to deny your non-binding resolution amounts to "cut and run," you are losing the battle (and the war -- but not that war).