Given The Media And The Post-Saddam Environment, Who Is Best Positioned?
I want you to read the transcript of yesterday's relatively impromptu press conference, and then tell me that Bush doesn't have a fawning press corps sucking up to him. Note the almost collegial atmosphere, the informal use of last names or nicknames, the repeated laughter at his answers, some of which were disjointed ("commiserate"?). But there are a couple of other things that I want you to think about and weigh in on.
First, Bush did a pretty good job in fielding the questions and giving somewhat coherent answers yesterday. Put aside the notion of holding the leader of the free world to a standard whereby he maintains a level of intellect and ability to think on his feet, giving serious questions a serious answer. Put aside the notion of a media that actually asks followup questions that drill down whenever the first answer is nothing more than fluff. Put aside the fact that this press corps was nowhere in evidence for eight years when the matters of state seemed to center on failed money-losing land deals two decades ago, travel office firings, or semen-stained dresses and the media thought its job was to never let up in drilling down for answers to those weighty matters. When you put aside those notions of how we thought the media was supposed to do its job in holding government at all levels accountable, Bush's performance yesterday against a lowered media crossbar was pretty damn good.
Which brings me to my second point. Take a look at the scrutiny of Bush's remarks yesterday and the fawning reaction to them (note that he got away with dismissing the question on whether he had advance knowledge of 9/11 as an "absurd insinuation"):
Q I know you said there will be a time for politics. But you've also said you wanted to change the tone in Washington. Howard Dean recently seemed to muse aloud whether you had advance knowledge of 9/11. Do you agree or disagree with the RNC that this kind of rhetoric borders on political hate speech?
THE PRESIDENT: There's time for politics. There's time for politics, and I -- it's an absurd insinuation.
That was it. The media went on with the next wet kiss. And then, take a look at how Bush still maintains that David Kay has found adequate proof of Saddam's WMD program:
And so I went to the United Nations, as you recall, September the 12th, 2002, and said to the United Nations, let's work together to disarm this man; you recognized he had arms, we recognize he's got arms, let's disarm him. And 1441 came about, it's when the world spoke through the United Nations Security Council with one voice, and in a unanimous voice said, disarm, or there will be serious consequences. In other words, they agreed that Saddam was a threat. And so we moved to disarm him. In other words, there were serious consequences because he was defiant.
Since then, David Kay has reported back that he had weapons programs that would have put him in material breach of 1441. What that means, of course, is that had David Kay been the lead inspector, and had done the work that he did prior to our removal of Saddam, he would have reported back to the U.N. Security Council that Saddam was, in fact, in breach of the Council resolutions that were passed.
Again, that's it. No follow-up from a compliant media on what exactly is the substantiation for the assertion that Kay has provided sufficient evidence to validate a breach of 1441.
Yet, there are signs of encouragement. Why? Because the media could have confirmed my worst fears yesterday by showing how inconsistently they treat Bush and Dean. Oh sure, we got the usual overgeneralization by David Brooks that Dean doesn't see the issue as right versus wrong. And the rightwingnut media will continue to show their partisan colors. But the attention focused on Howard Dean's remarks about Saddam yesterday in his speech was pretty evenhanded. Dean has said generally these same things before, even if his timing (about saying that Saddam wasn't a threat) could have been better. But we got largely fair accounts of Dean's speech in the Post and the Times, which noted that Al Gore edited the speech, and we got the expected hyperventilation from his opponents, (one of whom was my man Kerry who now seemed to want us to remember that he supported the resolution-imagine that turnaround). We even got a smart column from Will Saletan in Slate, who showed that Dean can use Bush's approach from 2000 against him in 2004, by admitting history and spinning the argument quickly to what you will do with the future.
My concern here is not that the media will continue to cover Bush with kneepads on; they will, and there's nothing we can do about that. My real concern is that the Democrats will not be able to make the media and the voters pay attention to the chinks in Bush's armor until this is a head-to-head race, since the media won't be doing its job until they have a horse race to cover. So we have to expect this fawning, ignore history approach by the media to go on for months more.
It means that the Democrats will only get a limited chance to knock Bush down and make the media and voters see the flaws in the record, and they can't waste that chance on a misfiring campaign or a candidate who can't go for the kill credibly with a one-strike limitation on the issues that matter. There won't be second chances in 2004 to make the case against Bush. Any misfires will allow the media to put the kneepads back on and close the book on the race.
I think there are soft spots for Bush that will cause problems for him with the right candidate. These center on the issues of what he knew pre-9/11 (since this gets to the issues of competence and trust), the ability to make us safe from a repeat of 9/11 (since this gets to the issue of judgement and priorities), and whether this country can stand four more years of these misplaced priorities and their impact upon the public interest (which gets to the issues of private versus public interest, and who is best for our future and that of our children). Add to that the always-winning Reaganesque wildcard of "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" question, and you have some real openings, but again, only with the most effective one-strike candidate.
With that in mind, ask yourself now, who between the real remaining candidates is best able to carry out the above lines of attack credibly in a one-on-one, face-to-face environment, possibly in a limited period of combat like at the debates? And in order to make the most of those limited opportunities, who has the means and resources to hammer those issues and establish the negatives credibly over the months leading up to the face-to-face part of the campaign?