In a New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg characterized the White House's ploy of using flatly false, straw-man arguments and the Democrats' reaction to it as a difference of perception, rather than as Democrats accurately accusing the Bush administration of misrepresenting their arguments. Additionally, Rutenberg forwarded a second Republican rhetorical deception -- distancing the party from terminology it coined, "stay the course," later found to be troublesome.
In a September 26 New York Times article on the Bush White House's "[w]ar of [w]ords," Times reporter Jim Rutenberg claimed that "Democrats say" the White House "is engaging in a rhetorical device that subtly distorts their positions" on terrorism and national security "to make them seem extreme or misguided." But the statement mischaracterized the Democrats' criticism of the Bush administration -- they say that GOP descriptions of Democratic positions on terrorism and national security often take the form of flatly false, straw-man arguments, and are not merely, as Rutenberg wrote, "subt[le] distort[ions]." Indeed, Rutenberg had already quoted Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) responding to Bush's suggestion that Democrats want to "negotiate with" terrorists, saying: "No one in America thinks that," but nevertheless described the White House's strategy as "subtly distort[ing] their positions."
Rutenberg suggested that what Democrats accurately identified as straw-man arguments were in fact arguments they merely perceived to be false, citing Bush administration officials who claimed that the Democrats were at times making things up: "Current and former administration officials say some cases cited by the Democrats are legitimate interpretations of Democratic positions through a deductive, if Republican, lens. Other times, they say, Democrats were seeing things that were not there." In characterizing the dispute as one of different perceptions, rather than as Democrats accurately accusing the Bush administration of misrepresenting their arguments, Rutenberg put himself in the position of identifying the Bush administration's rhetorical deception, while simultaneously demonstrating the media's complicity in furthering that deception.
Addressing Americans' views of the Iraq war, President Bush recently told an interviewer, "Most people want us to win."
Democrats heard a partisan implication in that statement that left them incredulous. "Like we want to lose?" asked Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
After Mr. Bush said at a Republican fund-raising event in Florida on Thursday that when it came to battling terrorists, "I need members of Congress who understand that you can't negotiate with these folks," Democrats were furious at what they heard as a suggestion that they backed a dialogue with Al Qaeda.
"No one in America thinks that," Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said indignantly.
As the White House intensifies a campaign to paint its opponents as wobbly in the war on terrorism, Democrats say it is engaging in a rhetorical device that subtly distorts their positions to make them seem extreme or misguided, raising phantom positions and implying they belong to Democrats before knocking them down as dangerous.
Current and former administration officials say some cases cited by the Democrats are legitimate interpretations of Democratic positions through a deductive, if Republican, lens. Other times, they say, Democrats were seeing things that were not there.
Each side agrees, however, that the White House is seeking to draw as sharp a distinction between Republicans and Democrats on terrorism as possible, something it has done skillfully in the past two election cycles. And so far this year it has lived up to its reputation of being particularly adept at using carefully chosen language to cast its opponents as unflatteringly as possible -- and to define their positions for voters before they can define them themselves.
Indeed, Rutenberg has uncritically reported Bush's straw-man arguments in the past. After former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) arguing that "[t]he world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Rutenberg and Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg noted, in a September 16 article, Bush's response to a reporter's question about the letter: "If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that." Rutenberg and Stolberg failed to note, however, that neither Powell's letter nor the reporter's question made any such comparison.
Additionally, in his September 26 article, Rutenberg forwarded a second Republican rhetorical deception -- distancing the party from terminology that it coined, but later found to be troublesome. Rutenberg claimed that "[t]he White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language against political opponents," writing, "Democrats have countered the Republican description of their calls for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a 'cut-and-run' position with a dismissive description of the president's plan for Iraq as 'stay the course.' " In fact, "stay the course" -- as it pertains to the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq -- is a term that originated with the Bush White House, and while Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman denies it represents the White House strategy, the term is used by the White House -- including Bush -- to this day.
The White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language against political opponents. Democrats have countered the Republican description of their calls for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a "cut-and-run" position with a dismissive description of the president's plan for Iraq as "stay the course." The White House complains that that ignores the regular change in tactics in Iraq that Mr. Bush approves.
The White House, however, started using "stay the course" not long after the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq. While speaking to U.S. troops in Qatar on June 5, 2003, Bush said: "Not only does the war on terror go on, but we've got a lot of work to do in Iraq. And we're going to stay the course until the job gets done. We will stand with them as they build a stable democracy and a peaceful future." At a July 10, 2003, press conference in Botswana, Bush said:
BUSH: We haven't been there long. I mean, relatively speaking. We've been there for 90 to 100 days -- I don't have the exact number. But I will tell you, it's going to take more than 90 to 100 days for people to recognize the great joys of freedom and the responsibilities that come with freedom. We're making steady progress. A free Iraq will mean a peaceful world. And it's very important for us to stay the course, and we will stay the course.
"Stay the course" in Iraq was the oft-repeated mantra of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. At an April 5, 2004, press conference, Bush said: "And we've got to stay the course, and we will stay the course. The message to the Iraqi citizens is, they don't have to fear that America will turn and run. And that's an important message for them to hear. If they think that we're not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take a risk toward -- take the risk toward freedom and democracy." In an April 13, 2004, nationally televised address, he said: "It's hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation's interest." During a September 23, 2004, press conference, Bush said: "It's hard work in Iraq. Everybody knows that. We see it on our TV. My message is that -- is that we will stay the course and stand with these people so that they become free."
As Media Matters for America has noted, Republicans, among them Mehlman, have sought to distance themselves from the term "stay the course," opting instead for "adapt to win," despite the fact that Bush and White House press secretary Tony Snow continue to use "stay the course" when speaking about Iraq. Indeed, as recently as September 10, Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press: "The president has said we will stay the course, complete the mission."
Nevertheless, the September 26 edition of ABC News' political weblog, "The Note," heralded Rutenberg's article as "masterful," "a must read," and an "excellent look at the rhetorical tactics (some actual, some perceived) employed by President Bush and his Administration when framing the choice before the American people this election year."