Ignoring bipartisan criticism of administration, media warn that U.S. attorneys investigation could backfire on Democrats

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Several media figures have asserted that the investigation into dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys by the White House and Justice Department will backfire on congressional Democrats, claiming that the Democrats may appear to be "too political" or "the party of investigation rather than legislation."

None of them mentioned that Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, as well as in criticizing the Bush administration's offer to allow White House aides to be interviewed by congressional committees investigating the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys but only in private and without an oath, transcripts, or subsequent subpoenas. As USA Today reported on March 15, Sens. John E. Sununu (R-NH) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) have advocated that Gonzales step down or be fired. On the March 25 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said:

SPECTER: I talked to the attorney general yesterday, and I told him that he would have an opportunity, as far as I was concerned, to present his case, but that he was going to have to have an explanation as to why he said he wasn't involved in discussions -- that's the key word -- and now you have these e-mails which appear to contradict that. Look, we have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful. And if we find he has not been candid and truthful, that's a, a very compelling reason for him not to stay on.

Also, as Media Matters for America noted, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) rejected the White House's offer to allow aides to be interviewed by Congress, and voted to authorize subpoenas for White House aides. Grassley even made a point of documenting his vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee records. According to a March 22 Congressional Quarterly article, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) also said he "would like transcripts of interviews."

On the March 18 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood claimed that "[i]nvestigating the Bush administration is a lot easier than passing new laws," and cautioned that "[o]ne danger for Democrats is whether they look too political in exploiting this." NBC's Brian Williams "paraphrased" Harwood's comments on the March 26 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, saying: "I can't help but wonder if the Democrats are finding it a little easier to investigate than legislate." Williams went on to ask: "How much mud is getting splashed back up on the Democrats?"

On the March 25 broadcast of the NBC-syndicated Chris Matthews Show, Time managing editor Richard Stengel claimed that he is "so uninterested in the Democrats wanting [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove because it is so bad for them, because it shows business as usual, tit for tat, vengeance," adding: "That's not what voters want to see." Stengel was referring to efforts by congressional Democrats to receive sworn testimony from Rove and other senior White House officials regarding the firings. He also claimed that the investigation is "small-bore politics," to which MSNBC chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell responded: "The Democrats have to be very careful that they look like they're not the party of investigation rather than legislation and trying to change things."

In a March 26 New York Times article, reporter Adam Nagourney wrote: "The biggest question is, how far can Democrats go in opposing this president? The biggest risk is going so far that they feel the sting of a backlash -- of being transformed from the fresh new face of change to the latest cast of Washington players enmeshed in partisan wrangling." Nagourney later noted: "Democrats clearly have some leeway to go at least as far as they have gone, if not further. A poll for the Pew Research Center last week suggests that Americans are strikingly sympathetic to Democrats: 50 percent said they identified with or leaned toward the Democrats, compared with 35 percent for Republicans. Their main opponent, President Bush, is weighed down by the war and his own unpopularity, making him feeble on this field, even Republicans said."

By contrast, on the March 26 broadcast of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, senior news analyst Cokie Roberts, when asked if Democrats "are in danger of overplaying their hand," said that "they can do that," but also noted that Democrats "feel the Bush administration had six years of essentially no oversight whatsoever with the Republican Congress," and that Democrats are seeking to obtain bipartisan support, as they have in approving subpoenas for administration officials to testify on Capitol Hill.

From the March 18 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

JOHN SEIGENTHALER (anchor): Well, with the Democrats now in charge, is this just a sample of what the Bush administration can expect from Congress?

HARWOOD: Without question, and that may be the most dramatic consequence of the 2006 elections. Investigating the Bush administration is a lot easier than passing new laws, as Democrats are discovering in their struggle over exactly what to do about Iraq. One danger for Democrats is whether they look too political in exploiting this. Senator [Charles] Schumer [D-NY] sits on the Judiciary Committee. He also chairs his party's Senate campaign machinery for 2008.

From the March 25 broadcast of the NBC-syndicated Chris Matthews Show:

STENGEL: I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove because it is so bad for them, because it shows business as usual, tit for tat, vengeance. That's not what voters want to see.

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): So instead of, like, an issue like the war, where we can say it's bigger than all of us, it's more important than politics, this is politics?

STENGEL: Yes, and it's much less. It's small-bore politics.

O'DONNELL: The Democrats have to be very careful that they look like they're not the party of investigation rather than legislation and trying to change things.

From the March 26 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning:

DON IMUS (host): What's going to happen -- we're talking with Brian Williams from the NBC Nightly News -- what's going to happen with Alberto Gonzales?

WILLIAMS: Oh, boy. Well, we have some interesting testimony coming up from Mr. Kyle Sampson this week, as you know, and --

IMUS: Well, who is he?

WILLIAMS: Huh?

IMUS: Who is he?

WILLIAMS: The former chief of staff there, and he's going to testify on the record, and he's gonna talk about what he knows about these U.S. attorneys. And, you know, I keep going back to a moment on weekend Nightly News, it's two weeks ago now, when John Harwood of CNBC said -- you know, I'll paraphrase him -- I can't help but wonder if the Democrats are finding it a little easier to investigate than legislate. And that may haunt this debate. It's interesting night after night when we find ways of telling this story and explaining the moving parts. It will be interesting when the Pew survey folks -- kind of when this story is all over -- ask about public attitudes. How much mud is getting splashed back up on the Democrats?

Of course, you watch a guy like Arlen Specter yesterday on Meet the Press and take your cue from the Republicans, and it's very interesting, and people like Senator Sununu who, of course, is in the Times for a different reason, and that is he's one of this group up in '08.

From Nagourney's March 25 New York Times article:

Democrats say this escalating battle acts on the message voters sent by putting them in charge. That is, to end an unpopular war and bring oversight to a White House that has gone largely unmonitored.

Still, there are questions and risks for the new majority party. The biggest question is how far can Democrats go in opposing this president? The biggest risk is going so far that they feel the sting of a backlash -- of being transformed from the fresh new face of change to the latest cast of Washington players enmeshed in partisan wrangling.

Democrats clearly have some leeway to go at least as far as they have gone, if not further. A poll for the Pew Research Center last week suggests that Americans are strikingly sympathetic to Democrats: 50 percent said they identified with or leaned toward the Democrats, compared with 35 percent for Republicans. Their main opponent, President Bush, is weighed down by the war and his own unpopularity, making him feeble on this field, even Republicans said.

From the March 26 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition:

RENEE MONTAGNE (host): Still, are the Democrats in danger of overplaying their hand on this one?

ROBERTS: Sure, they can do that, and they know it was a problem when Republicans controlled Congress in the Clinton years. To spend a lot of time on investigation, on issues that voters don't really care much about, can be very damaging to a party in Congress. But they feel the Bush administration had six years of essentially no oversight whatsoever with the Republican Congress, and they're trying to balance that with the problems of overstepping their hands, and they're getting Republican backing when they can. And on the question of testimony of administration officials, which the White House is trying to block on this U.S. attorney question, it looks like the Democrats are getting some Republicans to side with them on getting those administration officials to Capitol Hill to testify and, at least, to have transcripts of what they say.

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