NBC's Today, New York Times repeated GOP claim that arrests benefit Republicans in elections, when polling shows Democrats have erased GOP advantage on the issue

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

NBC's Today and The New York Times reported the GOP assertion that the UK arrests of several suspected terrorists would play to the Republicans' advantage in the midterm elections because the issue of terrorism is a weakness for Democrats, without noting recent polling that shows an erasure in the advantage President Bush and congressional Republicans once held on the issue.

NBC's Today and The New York Times reported the assertion, made by numerous Republican officials, that the arrests in the United Kingdom of several suspected terrorists reportedly on the verge of executing an attack on U.S.-bound international flights would play to the Republicans' advantage in the midterm elections because the issue of terrorism is a weakness for Democrats. But missing entirely from their reports was any reference to recent polling that shows an erasure in the advantage President Bush and congressional Republicans once held on the issue. Indeed, as Media Matters for America noted, three of the last four Washington Post polls have found that a plurality of Americans trust Democrats rather than Republicans to handle the "campaign against terrorism."

Reporting on the August 11 broadcast of NBC's Today, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory told co-host Matt Lauer, "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." His report quoted White House press secretary Tony Snow, along with Bush and Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the National Journal's weblog, The Hotline, who said: "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." Gregory also read part of a statement released by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and concluded his report by saying, "And so, you will see Democrats making that argument -- that fighting the war on terror is vital but has nothing to do with the war in Iraq." However, neither Lauer nor Gregory mentioned recent polling on the question of which party is viewed more favorably to handle "the U.S. campaign against terrorism."

While Republicans once enjoyed a clear advantage on the issue, results are now mixed, but, in any event, demonstrate that their prior advantage has been virtually wiped out. More Americans disapprove of the job Bush is doing in the war on terror than approve, by 50 percent to 47 percent, according to an August 7 ABC News/Washington Post poll. The same poll found that respondents also said they trust Democrats to do a better job handling "the U.S. campaign against terrorism" than Republicans, by a margin of 46 percent to 38 percent.

During the August 10 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider also noted during a discussion about the political implication of the UK arrests that "Republican advantage on terrorism had vanished, at least before today's news." Citing the latest CNN poll, Schneider told host Wolf Blitzer that "[a]mong voters concerned about terrorism, slightly more said that they would vote for a Democrat, rather than a Republican, for Congress this year," adding that a majority of Americans "believe terrorism has increased around the world because of the situation in Iraq":

BLITZER: Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us now. Bill, first of all, how might this kind of terror threat affect the political landscape going into the midterm elections?

SCHNEIDER: Wolf, typically, when people become fearful, public support for the president tends to go up. President Bush and his party used the security issue to their advantage in the last two elections, but will it work this year? Well, here, we see that, in a CNN poll taken by the Opinion Research Corporation last week, before the arrest of terrorist suspects in Britain, terrorism topped the list of issues that voters said they would be -- would be extremely important to their vote. Among voters concerned about terrorism, slightly more said that they would vote for a Democrat, rather than a Republican, for Congress this year. Republicans still do better on terrorism than on any other issue, except same-sex marriage, which is far less important to voters. But the Republican advantage on terrorism had vanished, at least before today's news.

BLITZER: And what's the reason of that -- for that, Bill?

SCHNEIDER: Well, here's a clue, Wolf. As of last week, only 31 percent of Americans believed the U.S. and its allies were winning the war on terrorism. That 31 percent is the lowest figure recorded since 9-11. The prevailing view is that neither side is winning the war on terror. Now, one reason is disillusionment with the war in Iraq. A majority of Americans believe terrorism has increased around the world because of the situation in Iraq. Only 5 percent believe the war has decreased the threat of terrorism.

In addition to Today, an August 11 New York Times article by staff writer Adam Nagourney repeated numerous Republican talking points concerning the arrests. As blogger Greg Sargent noted, Nagourney reprinted Republican spin on the arrests for the first nine paragraphs with no mention of polling that undermining their claims. Nagourney also allowed an administration official to anonymously spin the arrests as fair game for Republicans to use in the elections:

A senior White House official on Air Force One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the notion that there was anything wrong with these kinds of issues being mixed up in a political campaign.

"The issue is going to be discussed in the fall," this official said. "Are you saying if the Democrats talk about the war, we shouldn't? We will talk about the war, and we will talk about the consequences of the policies advocated by the Democrats."

An August 11 report (subscription required) in The Wall Street Journal by staff writer John D. McKinnon also claimed that "[t]he 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."

In contrast with these reports, Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker noted in their August 11 Washington Post article:

Unlike in the 2004 election, when Republicans clearly benefited from the terrorism issue and a general sense of insecurity among many voters, the politics are muddled this year. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted last week, found Democrats with an eight-point edge when people were asked which party they trusted more to handle terrorism issues.

"I can't help but admit that I had a small knot in my stomach this morning," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It was eerily familiar. But upon reflection, we are in a fundamentally different place in 2006 than we were in 2002 and 2004. For two or three generations, Republicans have, in the main, had a very substantial advantage on national security. The reality is, they have squandered that advantage in the sands of Iraq."

From the August 11 broadcast of NBC's Today:

LAUER: These arrests are a huge law enforcement success, but will that translate into political capital for the Bush administration? NBC's chief White House correspondent David Gregory is here with a look at that. David, it's always tricky when you start to bring politics into a situation like this?

GREGORY: It is, but it's certainly there, Matt, thanks very much. 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.

The White House wasted no time telling the public the British terror plot posed a direct threat to the United States. Interrupting a campaign event in Wisconsin, the president used some of his toughest rhetoric to date.

BUSH [video clip]: The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.

GREGORY: Just weeks before the fifth anniversary of 9-11, Mr. Bush said the government's counter-terror efforts have made the country safer, but warned the British plot proves there is more to do.

BUSH: It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America.

GREGORY: Events like this have given the White House a boost before. Just days before the 2004 election, Osama bin Laden taped a threatening message, which both the Bush and Kerry campaigns said later helped the president in the polls. What's the political impact of this latest event?

TODD: 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.

GREGORY: The British terror plot was exposed just one day after a fierce national security debate was reignited by the Connecticut Senate race. White House officials suggested pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman's defeat in Tuesday's primary helps the enemy.

SNOW: Osama bin Laden some years ago said that one of the keys is that if you simply stay at terror long enough, the West is too weak. He said the Americans were too weak and would stand down.

GREGORY: Fighting back, the Senate's top Democrat suggested Thursday the Bush administration's policy in Iraq has inspired acts of terror like those being planned in Britain. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement, quote: "The Iraq war has diverted our focus and more than $300 billion in resources from the war on terrorism and has created a rallying cry for international terrorists." And so, you will see Democrats making that argument -- that fighting the war on terror is vital but has nothing to do with the war in Iraq. Matt, both parties beginning to frame the terms of this debate.

From the August 11 edition of The New York Times:

Republicans seized on the arrests of terrorism suspects in Britain yesterday to bolster a White House campaign to turn national security issues to their advantage this fall, arguing that the nation needs tough Republican policies to protect Americans from threats from abroad.

Officials in both parties said they viewed the arrests as critical in determining how they would approach the fall campaign, with Republicans saying it could be a turning point in a year in which they have been on the defensive over the war in Iraq and other issues.

The developments played neatly into the White House-led effort, after Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, lost on Tuesday to an antiwar primary challenger, to remind voters of the threats facing the nation and to cast Democrats as timid on national defense.

The arrests were announced less than 24 hours after Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republican officials suggested that Mr. Lieberman's defeat reflected the world view of a Democratic Party that was not prepared to lead the nation in such dangerous times.

Mr. Cheney, who a spokesman said had been kept abreast of the investigation, suggested in his remarks Wednesday that the outcome of a Democratic primary in Connecticut could embolden "Al Qaeda types."

Republicans, facing tough midterm elections -- and with a history, as Democrats noted, of spotlighting terrorist threats in election seasons -- used the news from England to try to pound home their message that they were doing everything possible to keep the nation safe. Mr. Bush strode off Air Force One to television cameras to declare that the United States was safer from terrorist attacks than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, but remained in danger.

On Capitol Hill and in states where Republicans are facing tough re-election battles, party officials applauded the arrests by the British authorities as evidence of the administration's policies in fighting terrorism, and suggested that Americans might take a cue from the tougher antiterrorism statutes Britain has enacted. In line with their efforts to keep the election from being a referendum on Mr. Bush and instead make it a choice between two distinct approaches to national security and other issues, they used the arrests to portray Democrats as weak.

"Defeatocrats!" declared a statement issued by office of the House majority leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, capturing the tone of Republican rhetoric as the news unfolded.

The Ohio Republican chairman, Bill Bennett, attacked Representative Sherrod Brown, the Democratic challenger to Senator Mike DeWine, for voting against some intelligence bills, "the very types of programs that helped the British thwart these vicious attacks."

In a sign of how the terrorism issue was roiling American politics, Mr. Lieberman echoed Mr. Cheney as he attacked his primary opponent, Ned Lamont, for his opposition to the war. He said Mr. Lamont's desire to withdraw troops from Iraq would result in victory for Islamic extremists.

[...]

Republicans have successfully portrayed Democrats as weak on terrorism for two national elections in a row. Still, before this threat, Democrats showed signs that they were viewing problems in Iraq and the unpopularity of the war as ways of undermining Republicans on their signature issue. And some Republicans were concerned that the party might not be able to go to the well on national security a third time.

Republicans have become increasingly alarmed that the war might drag down incumbents. A senior Republican consultant with ties to the White House, who was granted anonymity so he could describe internal research for a Republican member of Congress, said he had recently conducted a focus group in a highly contested Congressional district in the Philadelphia suburbs.

He was shocked, he said, at the degree of hostility among Republicans toward the war, even accounting for the fact that Northeast Republicans are more moderate than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

The importance of the struggle by both parties on whether this was an election season debate about terrorism or about the war in Iraq was demonstrated in a New York Times/CBS News poll late last month. Forty-two percent of Americans said they thought the Republicans were more likely than Democrats to make the right decision about the war on terror. The same percentage said they thought Democrats were more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq.

The White House had been aware for weeks that Britain was moving to shut down this plot. White House officials said that Mr. Cheney was kept abreast of the plot and the investigation, but that his comments on Wednesday, in a rare teleconference with news service reporters, were simply in reaction to what they said was an extraordinary political event, the defeat of a sitting senator.

A senior White House official on Air Force One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the notion that there was anything wrong with these kinds of issues being mixed up in a political campaign.

"The issue is going to be discussed in the fall," this official said. "Are you saying if the Democrats talk about the war, we shouldn't? We will talk about the war, and we will talk about the consequences of the policies advocated by the Democrats."

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