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"Impossibly risky"? Only if you weren't paying attention
Two days after Democrats won resounding victories in the 2006 mid-term elections, the New York Times ran a post-mortem on the campaign that focused in part on the role voter discontent with the Iraq war played in the outcome. According to the Times:
"The Democratic strategy of running against the war, which would have seemed impossibly risky just three months earlier, when the White House had urged its candidates to embrace the war, was encouraged by poll after poll, not to mention regular reports of American casualties."
But not everybody thought the strategy of running against the war would be "impossibly risky" -- just the Beltway political journalists and the all-too-homogeneous chattering class that establishes conventional wisdom. For more than a year, we've pointed out the media's failure to understand and adequately address public opinion on Iraq. From a failure to explore the consequences of the fact that people think Bush lied about his reasons for going to war in Iraq to absurd assertions that Bush had "dealt to a large degree" with his "most acute political problems" and "stabilized his political standing" -- all while majorities thought things were going poorly in Iraq, and Bush was not telling the truth about it - to misusing polling data to countless other failings, large and small, the Washington political journalist crowd has been inexplicably blind to the public's unhappiness with the Iraq war.
As long ago as February, we pointed out that:
[..] the Iraq war is currently nearly as unpopular as Vietnam ever was, and that, as the New York Daily News has reported, even Bush allies are grumbling about his administration's "absolutely inept" political decisions.
Only two questions remain: What, exactly, will it take for Blitzer and his colleagues to finally understand that a wildly unpopular president, who lost the popular vote the first time he ran and likely would have lost it the second time had the media not so poorly covered the war he bungled and misled us into, is not the invincible political genius they imagine him to be? And how poor would Bush's standing be if he didn't benefit from the media constantly propping him up like this?
In March, we pointed out that the public had lost confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism - but still the media treated the issue as a political winner for the GOP.
In June we noted:
For most of this week, the leading political story has been the Senate debate of two proposals offered by Democrats, both of which called for a beginning to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. While there is disagreement among Senate Democrats over how, and how quickly, to leave Iraq, the overwhelming majority of the caucus is united on the basic point that it is time for the United States to begin to do so. That position is shared by the majority of the American people. Republicans, on the other hand, are united in their support for Bush's plan, or lack thereof, which seems to consist largely of staying in Iraq indefinitely, prolonging an occupation that is wildly unpopular both here and in Iraq by at least three more years.
Given that scenario -- Democrats in agreement with the American people on beginning to withdraw from an unpopular occupation that has cost thousands of Americans their lives; Republicans supporting three more years of Bush's unpopular leadership of an unpopular war -- it seems obvious which side should enjoy better political prospects as a result of the debate. And it was obvious to the media: the Republicans.
The nation's leading news organizations seem to automatically assume, even in the face of mounting public polling to the contrary, that any debate over Iraq, or terrorism, or security, automatically redounds to the Republicans' benefit.
The media's strange insistence that Iraq and related issues are political winners for Republicans, despite all evidence to the contrary, has serious consequences. It not only has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophesy, influencing elections, but also skews the terms of the debate over Iraq. An incomplete and highly inaccurate public understanding of the threat posed by Iraq -- for which the media bear a great deal of responsibility -- is why we are in this mess in the first place. Now we risk continuing an unpopular and deadly occupation for several more years, in no small part because of the media's failure to present an accurate and complete picture of the situation in Iraq, and of the public's attitudes toward it.
None of this was rocket science: public polling has consistently shown that people are unhappy with the Iraq war, and with the people in charge of it, and the media coverage of Iraq as a political issue consistently failed to reflect that. We certainly weren't alone in seeing this, or in the lead. The data was there for anyone who chose to see it.
That same week in June, Paul Begala wrote for the Huffington Post about The Note's bizarre assertion that Democrats were "on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party." Noting that The Note's claim "captur[ed] the stupidity, vapidity and gullibility of the mainstream media perfectly," Begala wrote:
I'm sure I've read a dopier statement of conventional wisdom, a more perfect transcription of Karl Rove's ignorant talking points, but I really can't remember when.
As usual, the Smart Guys have it backwards. Democrats can and will win the Iraq debate if they embrace the fact that they disagree and contrast it with the slavish, mindless rubber-stamp Republicans.
Again: this wasn't difficult to see. It was right there in the publicly available polling. To take but one example: the last time even a plurality of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Iraq in a USA Today/Gallup poll was February ... of 2005. Disapproval has been at 55 percent or higher since May 2005; 11 of 13 polls dating back to mid September 2005 have placed it in the 60s. The clarity of the polling, coupled with the DC establishment's inability to see it, is eerily similar to 1998. That year, polling consistently showed that the American people liked Bill Clinton, didn't think he should be impeached, and, basically, wanted Ken Starr and the Republicans to knock it off. Despite this, the Smart Guy pundits kept insisting that the controversy surrounding Clinton would prove devastating to Democrats in that year's mid-term elections. Don't they ever get tired of being wrong?
To be sure, there were many progressive (and neutral) writers and bloggers who have been arguing for months that Iraq was likely to be a political winner for Democrats. They just didn't tend to find themselves quoted in the New York Times or The Note or asked to appear on Meet the Press. Instead they watched as the "Smart Guys" insisted that national security remained a weakness for Democrats; that they'd be better off focusing on gas prices than on the Republicans' tragic bungling of a wildly unpopular war.
The nation's leading news organizations botched their coverage of the runup to the Iraq war in part by marginalizing anti-war voices; by offering readers and viewers only a narrow sampling of acceptable, responsible opinion, as determined by the Beltway chattering class. That was a spectacular failure, as some have acknowledged - not that they've changed their ways. In April, we wrote:
There is one simple step that news organizations could take to try to ensure that they do not again simply repeat the dubious claims of war advocates: consider their sources. Were they right or wrong about Iraq? Are they making the same types of claims now that they made prior to the Iraq war? Did those claims turn out to be accurate? Certainly, someone who was wrong about Iraq may be right about Iran -- and vice versa. Those who were wrong about Iraq shouldn't be automatically deemed to have no credibility about future events. But, perversely, it often seems that the "experts" and "authorities" who turned out to be so wrong about Iraq are still taken seriously, while those who were right are still dismissed.
Whose opinions do the media seem to take more seriously on questions of foreign policy and military action: John McCain's or Howard Dean's? The conservatives who beat the drums for a trumped-up war against a nation that didn't attack us, or the progressives who questioned their claims?
Likewise, the major media's coverage of the politics of national security has been atrocious, and in similar ways, most notably in their endless promotion of stale Beltway conventional wisdom, and marginalization of other voices.
Political journalists who concluded on their own that focusing on Iraq would be "impossibly risky" should consider a career change; those who relied on sources who led them to that conclusion should find better sources. They aren't hard to find. And they were right. Maybe it's time the media started to listen.
One of the great fictions of modern political journalism is that the leadership and rank-and-file congressional membership of the two major parties are equidistant from the "middle" or "center" of public opinion, which is embodied by the likes of John McCain, a few other "moderate" Republicans, and Joe Lieberman. (We're being generous, actually: the Democratic Party is routinely portrayed as out of touch with "real Americans" in a way the Republicans are not.)
But this is flatly wrong. In fact, the Republican Party's representatives in Washington are far out of the mainstream of public opinion, while the Democratic Party, on most major issues, is quite near the center.
We touched on this last week, and at various times in the past, so we won't go into great detail here. But consider this: Earlier this year, McCain indicated that if he was governor of South Dakota, he would have signed that state's blanket ban on abortion. On Tuesday, South Dakota voters rejected that ban by a decisive 12-point margin.
Think about that for a moment.
South Dakota is among the most conservative states in the nation. It is one of only 11 states in which President Bush's net approval rating is better than negative 10; in 2004, Bush carried the state by 21 points.
John McCain, the media's poster child for the "sensible center," holds a position on abortion that is far to the right of that held by the people of South Dakota.
So, on what is perhaps the most widely-used ideological litmus test, John McCain is far to the right not just of the country as a whole, but of the electorate of one of the most conservative states in the nation.
How about what is arguably the biggest issue of our time: the Iraq war? McCain is a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, and has suggested sending more American troops to fight it. Polls have consistently shown - and Tuesday's results confirmed - that the American people disapprove of the war, and want to end it. McCain is, in short, far to the right of public opinion on Iraq.
The simple fact the pundits won't tell you is that the national Republican Party has veered far to the right over the past dozen years, and the national Democratic Party is quite centrist. (Whether that's a good thing, or reflective of the positions of the parties' rank-and-file voters is another question.) On issues ranging from tax and budget policy to health care to the minimum wage to abortion to the war in Iraq to the environment, so-called "far left" Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi hold positions that enjoy the support of the American people. Even on issues that Democrats have essentially stopped talking about and acting on, like universal health care and gun safety legislation, their positions are quite moderate.
So when media report that Democrats won by embracing "moderate" or "centrist" positions, that's true - but not in the way that they mean it. Democrats have long embraced centrist positions. The suggestion, however, that they won by running towards the right, or towards the center, rather than by continuing to occupy it, is as wrong as it is widespread. As Media Matters detailed this week, the Democrats who won previously-Republican seats did so largely by taking traditional Democratic positions - which is to say, centrist positions.
But when political journalists and pundits use words like "centrist" and "moderate," they aren't talking about Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin. They are -- quite bizarrely -- talking about people like the far-right John McCain.
That's presumably why McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman are reportedly the guests on the first post-election edition of Meet the Press: their reputation, deserved or not, for being moderate consensus-builders. According to ThinkProgress:
The 2006 election was defined by a) a repudiation of the war in Iraq and the current Iraq strategy, and b) widespread national victories for Democratic House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates.
Yet, according to a press aide, this Sunday's edition of NBC's Meet the Press will include two interviews: one with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), an Iraq war supporter who defeated Ned Lamont (D-CT), and one with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who recently called for 20,000 additional U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq, and who was not up for reelection in 2006.
In other words, the first post-election edition of Meet the Press will exclusively feature politicians who support the war in Iraq, neither of whom ran as a Democrat.
And so Meet the Press, the most famed of the Sunday political talk shows, has become Fox News, where "balanced" means hosting Republicans who back Bush's war ... and Democrats who back Bush's war.
This is, simply put, a slap in the face to the American electorate, which resoundingly rejected the war on Tuesday.
And what is the justification for it? We can only guess, but it seems likely to be the popular-among-journalists-but-not-voters notion that McCain and Lieberman represent a platonic ideal of what a United States Senator should be; that they are noblemen and selfless thinkers; beacons of goodwill and bipartisan comity -- the last honest men in American life. David Broder may believe that, but real people do not. That's why, whenever voters outside his home state of Connecticut have been presented with the opportunity to vote for Joe Lieberman, they have politely but firmly declined.
It's easy (and proper) for progressives to remain sanguine about Tuesday's electoral results despite Lieberman's victory. After all, he was one of very few prominent Iraq war supporters to enjoy any significant success - and "The Last Honest Man" did so in no small part by downplaying his backing of the war and denying his famous assault on critics of President Bush. But Lieberman's own reaction to his victory puts the lie to the Beltway myth that "centrists" are more "civil" than their counterparts on the "angry left."
In September, Broder wrote in the Washington Post that Lieberman's re-election was "important," because it would "signal that independence is a virtue to be rewarded," contrasting Lieberman with "the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left."
How ironic, then, that in celebration of his re-election, Lieberman's campaign web page was stripped clean of niceties like a link to an issues page or a contact form; in their place was a single link, in all CAPS, stretching nearly the entire width of the page, to a blog post that was nothing if not vituperative. "The nutroots have struck out," the blogger wrote, and in case anyone missed the oh-so-witty play on words (get it? "nutroots" -- it's like "netroots," but he's saying they are nuts. Clever.) he repeated the slur five more times, throwing in adjectives like "pathetic" and "bloviating" and "puerile" to describe supporters of Lieberman's vanquished opponent. Classy.
Incredibly, the same blog post repeatedly hails Lieberman's reelection as a rejection of "polarization" -- "polarization is passe," "polarization has its limits," "the sensible voters of Connecticut rejected polarization and partisanship."
Again: this post is what Joe Lieberman's campaign web page featured prominently in celebration of his victory - and it is the only thing, other than pictures, that the page featured. If there was a victorious candidate in the country who celebrated in a more divisive way, we haven't seen it.
And who was the blogger who wrote these vituperative words? Marshall Whitman, a former top aide to John McCain, another of Broder's extraordinary noblemen who would unite the nation in bipartisan comity.
This should come as little surprise to anyone aware of John McCain's legendary temper and fondness for vicious insults (He once "joked" that then-teenager Chelsea Clinton was "ugly" because "her father is Janet Reno").
But McCain and Whitman pay lip service to the need for bipartisan cooperation and civility, to a desire to move beyond polarization - and David Broder eats it up with a spoon, regardless of what the record shows. The holier-than-thou assertions are enough; no need to follow through.
When it comes to proclaiming an interest in bipartisanship, refusing to follow through, and getting a pass from the media, President Bush gives McCain a run for his money.
Anybody who expected President Bush, who became president after losing the popular vote but winning the votes of 5 unelected Supreme Court justices and promptly governed as though he had won in a landslide, to learn from the thumping he received on Thursday was quickly proven wrong. In his first public comments, Bush wasted no time in displaying the petty partisanship the nation has come to know and loathe. In his post-election press conference on Wednesday, Bush led off with his favorite petty slur, saying it was clear the "Democrat Party" had a good night. Moments later, he pledged to "find common ground" with the Democrats, adding "I believe that the leaders of both political parties must try to work through our differences" and pledging "bipartisan cooperation" with the party he had just insulted.
The next day, his pledge of bipartisanship was revealed to be hollow in a much more substantive way. As Steve Clemons has noted, just 14 minutes after Nancy Pelosi sat with Bush in the White House and told the American people that the two leaders had "both extended the hand of friendship, of partnership to solve the problems facing our country," Bush sent John Bolton's failed nomination to serve as UN Ambassador back to the Senate, in hopes of forcing the nomination through before Democrats take control of the Senate. Outgoing Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee announced that he would oppose the nomination, noting "The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy ... And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against ."
But, while some news reports noted that the Bolton gambit threatened to undermine Bush's stated desire for bipartisanship, many took Bush's claims at face value - and talked up his previous claims to be a "uniter not a divider" and his purported bipartisanship as governor of Texas. CNN 's Lou Dobbs, for example, uncritically told viewers "Earlier in the day, President Bush called for a new bipartisan tone in Washington."
Lets put to rest right now the notion that any reporter should ever again put any stock in anything Karl Rove says (we'll set aside, for now, the question of whether they should have done so for the past six years.)
During an October 24 appearance on NPR's All Things Considered, Rove insisted that Republicans would retain control of both the House and the Senate. Challenged by the host about polling that indicated a looming disaster for Republicans, Rove insisted "I'm looking at 68 polls a week. You may be looking at four or five public polls a week that talk about attitudes nationally but that do not impact the outcome ... I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to the math."
Obviously, the math worked out a little differently, giving Republicans what President Bush described as a "thumpin'."
So was Rove lying on October 24, or is he hopelessly out of touch with the nation's political environment? Or both? It doesn't matter, really. Either way, journalists should probably stop believing that his political pronouncements carry any meaning.