Will pundits who blasted Howard Dean in 2003 over troop-numbers response question McCain's fitness following his Iraq troop-level falsehood?

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI, KATHLEEN HENEHAN & DIANNA PARKER

During a May 29 campaign appearance, Sen. John McCain falsely stated that U.S. troops in Iraq "have [been] drawn down to pre-surge levels." As the Associated Press reported, "[T]here are 17 brigades in Iraq" right now, as opposed to the 15 brigades in place before the increase. In 2003, then-Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was criticized in the media for his response to a question about the number of active-duty soldiers, with Tim Russert and others questioning his fitness to be commander in chief. In light of McCain's troop-surge falsehood and numerous national security gaffes, will the media similarly question his suitability to be commander in chief?

During a May 29 campaign appearance, Sen. John McCain falsely stated of the Iraq war: "I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels." As the AP pointed out on May 30, U.S. troop levels are not at "pre-surge levels." The AP reported: "There were 15 combat brigades in Iraq before the increase began. Five were added, and the United States has been reducing numbers since December. As of Friday, there are 17 brigades in Iraq, another brigade will depart in June and the plan is to pull out another in July, returning the level to 15." In 2003, then-Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was criticized in the media for his response to a question about the number of active-duty members of the U.S. military.

On the June 22, 2003, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Dean: "[H]ow many men and women do we now have on active duty?" After Dean responded, "I can't tell you the answer to that," Russert said, "But as commander-in-chief, you should know that." Dean responded: "As someone who's running in the Democratic Party primary, I know that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people, but I don't know the exact number, and I don't think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary." Dean later said, "For me to have to know right now, participating in the Democratic Party, how many troops are actively on duty in the United States military when that is actually a number that's composed both of people on duty today and people who are National Guard people who are on duty today, it's silly. That's like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is." Russert replied: "Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. Not if you want to be commander-in-chief," later adding: "If somebody wants to be president of the United States, have a sense of the military." Dean replied: "I do have a sense of the military," adding, "I know there are roughly between a million and two million people active duty." A June 23, 2003, New York Times article about the exchange reported, "According to the Pentagon's Web site, there were 1.4 million as of March."

In the wake of his Meet the Press appearance, several media figures, in addition to Russert, suggested that Dean's response raised doubts about his candidacy or his fitness to be president. Their response to Dean raises the question of whether, in light of McCain's troop-surge falsehood and numerous other national security gaffes and falsehoods, they will similarly challenge McCain's fitness to be commander in chief. In addition to Russert's assertions, instances of media criticizing Dean include:

  • On the June 23, 2003, edition of MSNBC's Hardball, MSNBC political analyst Mike Barnicle introduced a clip of Dean's response by stating, "[P]art of the interview, I think, resembled the sound and the sight of a man crashing his candidacy into a bridge abutment." Chicago Tribune managing editor Jim Warren later said: "[I]f he keeps blowing questions like that, people can legitimately raise questions about his whole grasp on details and his precision if he were to be put in charge of the White House." In addition, Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley claimed Dean's "statement [was] fairly embarrassing that he didn't know roughly the size of our military."
  • On the June 23, 2003, edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, host Joe Scarborough said: "[I]f Dean wants to have any chance of getting into the White House, he needs to learn some basic facts about our country. On NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, the Vermont governor wasn't even able to tell Mr. Russert the number of American service men and women in uniform."
  • On the June 26, 2003, edition of Scarborough Country, Scarborough called Dean's performance on the June 22, 2003, Meet the Press "ugly," adding, "I cannot believe anybody running for president of the United States would not know how many American troops are in uniform."
  • On the June 27, 2003, edition of Scarborough Country, Scarborough again raised the issue of Dean's performance, asserting: "I said if Dean wants to be president, he would [be] well served learning some basic facts about our military."
  • On the June 23, 2003, edition of MSNBC's Buchanan & Press, National Review White House correspondent Byron York asserted that Dean "was absolutely embarrassing on the issue of the U.S. military when he was asked how many people are in active military service and he said well basically, I'm a Democrat running for the nomination. I don't need to know that stuff. I've got people to tell me that kind of stuff."

From Dean's June 22, 2003, appearance on NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Let's talk about the military budget. How many men and women would you have on active duty?

DEAN: I can't answer that question because I don't know what the answer is. I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now. I supported the president's invasion of Afghanistan for the obvious reasons, what had gone on and the murder of people. But I do not support what the president's doing there now. We need more people there. We cannot be making alliances with warlords in the hope that we're one day going to have the democracy in Afghanistan. And what I would do in Iraq now is bring in NATO and bring in the United Nations, because our troops on the ground deserve better support than they're getting.

RUSSERT: But how many troops -- how many men and women do we now have on active duty?

DEAN: I can't tell you the answer to that either. It's --

RUSSERT: But as commander-in-chief, you should know that.

DEAN: As someone who's running in the Democratic Party primary, I know that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people, but I don't know the exact number, and I don't think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary.

RUSSERT: How many troops would have in Iraq?

DEAN: More than we have now. My understanding is we have in the neighborhood of 135,000 troops. I can't tell you exactly how many it takes. General [Eric] Shinseki thought that we were undermanned by roughly 100,000. Maybe that's the right attitude.

Tim, you have to understand, and I know you do understand, that as you run a campaign and as you acquire the nomination and as you go on to be president, you acquire military advisers who will tell you these things. And, no, I don't have a military background. Neither did Bill Clinton. George Bush had a National Guard background. Ronald Reagan did not have a military background. I will have the kinds of people around me who can tell me these things. For me to have to know right now, participating in the Democratic Party, how many troops are actively on duty in the United States military when that is actually a number that's composed both of people on duty today and people who are National Guard people who are on duty today, it's silly. That's like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is.

RUSSERT: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. Not if you want to be commander-in-chief. But we now have 9,000 troops --

DEAN: So your perception -- your position is that I need to know exactly how many people are on duty today in the active military forces --

RUSSERT: Well, have a sense --

DEAN: -- six months away from the first primary?

RUSSERT: If somebody wants to be president of the United States, have a sense of the military.

DEAN: I do have a sense of the military.

RUSSERT: -- of how many people roughly --

DEAN: I know there are roughly between a million and two million people active duty. I know that we don't have enough people in Iraq. I know that General Shinseki said that we need 300,000 troops to go into Iraq, not 200,000 troops, and I'm prepared to assume the burden and have the proper people around me advising me on what needs to be done.

RUSSERT: All right, Afghanistan, we have 9,000. You would bring it up to what level?

DEAN: Well, I believe that we need a very substantial increase in troops. They don't all have to be American troops. My guess would be that we would need at least between 30,000 and 40,000 additional troops. They don't all have to be American because we have got to start taking over the security functions from the warlords in order to prepare the way for a unified Afghan police force that's a national police force.

RUSSERT: There is concern about your awareness and positions on national security. You must acknowledge that?

DEAN: Sure there are. Because just like President Reagan, President Clinton, and President Bush, I do not have extensive experience in national security.

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