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On the August 5 edition of the NBC-syndicated Chris Matthews Show, Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman stated that the political environment for the 2008 election favors Democrats, but said that the Democratic Party faces disaster if it cannot come up with a long-term plan for fighting terrorism. Using a historical reference he has employed before, Fineman asserted that if Democrats cannot win the 2008 election, they "deserve to go the way of the Whigs, which is a political party that disappeared ... because it couldn't deal with the biggest issue of the time, which was slavery." He added, "[T]he issue this time that could render the Democrats useless to history ... is terrorism" and that "unless the Democrats can figure out an answer on foreign policy, then there is a chance that they could blow it." Fineman did not explain why, given the Bush administration's record on foreign policy, it is the Democrats who face extinction over national security concerns. Media Matters for America has documented Fineman's pattern of noting Republican failures and setbacks and then claiming that Democrats will face political problems.
Fineman, host Chris Matthews, and NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell all echoed the conventional wisdom, advanced by Republicans and many in the media who are apparently ignoring events in recent years, that Democrats continue to bear the burden of explaining themselves on national security. In fact, the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Al Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" and established a "safehaven" in Pakistan. Additionally, as Media Matters noted when washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza said that "Democrats still know they need to prove to the American public that they can keep them just as safe as Republicans can," The New York Times reported on July 17 that "President Bush's top counterterrorism advisers acknowledged today that the strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan had failed." The Times article added: "In identifying the main reasons for Al Qaeda's resurgence, intelligence officials and White House aides pointed the finger squarely at a hands-off approach toward the tribal areas by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who last year brokered a cease-fire with tribal leaders," a pact that was "reluctantly endorsed" by the Bush administration.
Fineman's comments are part of his longstanding pattern of finding Democratic vulnerability amid Republican failures and weaknesses:
- On the May 7 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Fineman discussed a Newsweek poll that found 77 percent of registered Democrats and "Democrat Leaners" are "satisfied" with the Democratic presidential candidates, in contrast with 52 percent of Republicans and "Republican Leaners" who said they were satisfied with the Republican field. Fineman concluded: "We may have a situation here where both parties are going to nominate somebody that they're sort of not wildly enthusiastic about, and then there is going to be seven months -- February, March, April, May, June, July, August, until after the Olympics in China -- for everybody to have buyer's remorse big time."
- Fineman's invocation of the Whig Party analogy to describe Democrats was at least his second in a year. During the October 3, 2006, edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, he said: "[I]f the Democrats don't take either the House or the Senate now, in these circumstances, with the president's approval rating where it is, with the right-direction, wrong-track numbers where they are, and they're dismal for the president, I mean, the Democrats may as well just go the way of the old Whig Party." Fineman added: "I mean, if they can't win something now, and in order to win, and certainly in order to help govern, they have to say more about what they would do with Iraq." As Media Matters noted, on November 7, 2006, Democrats gained control of both the House and the Senate without losing a single seat in either chamber of Congress.
During the August 5 Chris Matthews Show, Matthews and O'Donnell both said that Republicans had a strong "image" on terrorism issues. Matthews began the show by asking: "Would an 11th-hour terror strike ... underline the Republican image of strength or explode it?" O'Donnell said that "another attack or something" could "put a spotlight again [on] terrorism, national security issues that would drive that issue again toward Republicans, away from Democrats."
But recent polls have shown mixed results on which political party the American public trusts more on terrorism or national security. A July 27-30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that the Democrats and Republicans were tied at 29 percent on the question of which party would do a "better job" "[d]ealing with the war on terrorism." Thirty-eight percent of respondents said both or neither would do a "better job." The same poll gave the Republican Party a 12-point advantage on who would do a "better job" "[d]ealing with homeland security," slightly up from a 10-point advantage in March 2006, but significantly less than the 29-point advantage it held in January 2004. A July 27-29 poll by Rasmussen Reports found that the Democrats held an advantage of 2 percentage points among "likely voters" on being "trusted" on "National Security."
By contrast, when Matthews asked if a "terror attack" would "underline the Republicans' claim to security," U.S. News & World Report contributing editor Gloria Borger said of a hypothetical attack: "I don't think it's a knee-jerk reaction any more the way it used to be that it's going to help the Republicans: national security, etc. etc. I think that now the public's going to have to dissect ... the causes of it. ... Go to the question of 'Are we safer?' and 'Did the war in Iraq make us less safe?' "
And at the end of the show, Matthews asked a related question: "[W]ould another terror attack close to home make this president's case for sticking in Iraq?" O'Donnell replied: "I think some Americans reluctantly might buy that argument, and others will just be frustrated again that [Al Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden has not been found."
From the August 5 edition of the NBC-syndicated Chris Matthews Show:
MATTHEWS: How can the Democrats lose? Americans don't like George Bush. They hate the war. They see the country going in the wrong direction and they want change. Is there anything that'll stop the Democrats?
October Surprise: Would an 11th-hour terror strike change everything? Would it underline the Republican image of strength or explode it?
MATTHEWS: Well, how can they [the Democrats] lose with this if all the polls show we want change and they're offering it?
FINEMAN: If they can't win this one, the Democrats deserve to go the way of the Whigs, which is a political party that disappeared. Now, why did it disappear? It disappeared because it couldn't deal with the biggest issue of the time, which was slavery.
FINEMAN: So, I'm thinking, what's the issue this time that could render the Democrats useless to history? And the answer is -- if there is one -- the answer is terrorism. And who is dehumanizing whom? Is it the terrorists who are dehumanizing us? Or we, who are refusing to view them as real people? And unless the Democrats can figure out an answer on foreign policy, then there is a chance they could blow it despite all of what you said.
MATTHEWS: Open question: Inside the White House, which you cover every day and you hear all the whispers and worries and sweats and everything over there. Do they believe that this is just not their year next year? That this is one of those times you just gotta live with change?
O'DONNELL: Well, there's certainly frustration and it bubbles over frequently, but "event-driven." If there were, God forbid, another attack or something that would put a spotlight again terrorism, national security issues that would drive that issue again toward Republicans, away from Democrats, that could mix things up. And not that Republicans in the White House are thinking that will happen, but they know that events are so beyond everyone's control that that could make a difference. So they're not totally resigned to a loss.
MATTHEWS: If there's a terror attack, close to home, like home, before the election, will that automatically underline the Republicans' claim to security or will it challenge it? Jeopardize it?
O'DONNELL: Well, it's certainly always seems in our history that when that kind of issue comes forward, people lean to the right, look to the right, and it's really for Democrats to now try to say they can do it better, and that's what we hear a lot from Hillary Clinton.
MATTHEWS: Can it, Howard, can it undercut the argument "We've made you safe"?
FINEMAN: I think it can. I think it depends on the particulars. If it's Osama again, it depends where, who perpetrated and so on. The question is, are we America or are we Spain? Don't forget, in Spain, they were attacked, they get out --
MATTHEWS: They buckled. Right.
FINEMAN: -- of Iraq. They buckled. I don't think we buckle, but I do think it depends on the circumstances.
FINEMAN: And if the Democrats can show their strength, they can capitalize on it.
MATTHEWS: One thing we know: The bad guys on the other side are watching our calendar. Look what they did the last time. Right before the election, they put out that tape. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, believed it really hurt him because it accentuated the president's strength.
BORGER: I don't think it's a knee-jerk reaction any more the way it used to be that it's going to help the Republicans: national security, etc., etc. I think that now the public's going to have to dissect -- as you were saying, Howard -- the causes of it. Could it have been prevented? Go to the question of "Are we safer?" and "Did the war in Iraq make us less safe?"
MATTHEWS: Earlier we talked about how another terrorist strike could shake up the '08 presidential race, but would another terror attack close to home make this president's case for sticking in Iraq? Kelly?
O'DONNELL: Well, I think some Americans reluctantly might buy that argument, and others will just be frustrated again that Osama bin Laden has not been found.
FINEMAN: I think we're beyond the tipping point on the war in Iraq with the American people and I think they'll see it as a catastrophe that warrants our getting out.
From the October 3, 2006, edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:
AMY ROBACH (guest host): Yes, and the poll numbers we just mentioned on Iraq all seem to break one way. And there's also this poll: 57 percent majority believe that safety from terrorism does not depend on success in Iraq. Obviously, one would think those numbers would help the Democrats, but does it let them off the hook, in a sense? Because many people have called for Democrats to formulate a plan on Iraq and what the strategy is. If we don't hear that plan from Democrats, does it work in their favor?
FINEMAN: Well, I think the Democrats need to say something more. I think to merely say, from now to Election Day, "Had enough?" which is basically their campaign plan, might not be enough in the middle of a war on terrorism.
I think if the Democrats don't take either the House or the Senate now, in these circumstances, with the president's approval rating where it is, with the right-direction, wrong-track numbers where they are, and they're dismal for the president, I mean, the Democrats may as well just go the way of the old Whig Party.
I mean, if they can't win something now, and in order to win, and certainly in order to help govern, they have to say more about what they would do with Iraq. It's not clear enough yet. A lot of them had criticisms, and yet they voted more money for the war. Where do they stand on that kind of thing? They're not speaking with one voice. They're not even speaking with many voices. They're mostly keeping their mouth shut right now.