Aug 1 2006

If You Don’t Like Voters’ Views, Just Use Republican Spin Points

When congressional Democrats in June proposed a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, this was portrayed by the New York Times as a real problem—for Democrats.

The underlying assumption in the reporting was that this position was a risky one, playing right into the hands of Karl Rove and the GOP. A June 14 Times story said that such a position would let the White House “again . . . cast [the Democrats] as weak on national security.” The Times noted that a vote on setting a deadline for troop withdrawal “could create a hard choice for Democrats in the Senate: antagonize the party’s anti-war base or provide fodder for Republican attacks.”

This same point was made the day before, when the Times reported that “leading Republicans in the House were preparing for a week of legislative maneuvers meant to portray them as better equipped to fight terrorism and Democrats as blanching in the face of a tough enemy.”

Republicans were scheduling “several debates and votes intended to shore up public support for the war,” which according to the Times “seemed intended to force Democrats to take a stand on setting a date for the withdrawal of American troops, a divisive issue.”

But by most available measures—including the New York Times’ own polling—these stories have it precisely backward. Polls show many Americans are in fact supportive of setting a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq. A New York Times poll from May (5/4-8/06) found 60 percent support for setting a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, vs. 36 percent opposed. Further, the same poll found that when asked which party is “more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq,” the public favored Democrats 48 percent to 30 percent.

But the Times seemed intent on ignoring such polls. A June 22 article said only that “some polls” show majorities think invading Iraq was a mistake, and “pollsters say independent voters are particularly open to the idea of setting some sort of timetable for withdrawal.” Actually, all major polls show majorities think the war was a mistake; and why the Times isolated independents on the issue of withdrawal is hard to say, since it’s overwhelmingly popular with Democrats.

The following day (6/23/06) the Times did even worse, reporting of the Democrats, “Even in defeat, they declared themselves on the same side as the majority of Americans.”

The paper added that Democrats were still “believing that polls show a majority of Americans want troops to begin coming home.” Instead of telling readers what Democrats believe, why not just show them what the public thinks?

Such reporting ignores the polls’ indications that the war remains a significant political difficulty for Republicans, and instead frames the issue in the terms dictated by the White House—as this excerpt from the Times (6/14/06) illustrated: “As Mr. Bush pledged to Iraqis in Baghdad that he would stick by them, Democrats in Washington were debating whether the United States should set a deadline for withdrawing troops, creating precisely the contrast the White House sought to establish.”

One could just as easily have reported that while Democrats were discussing setting the kind of deadline that a majority of Americans support, Bush was in Iraq pledging to continue the war indefinitely—creating precisely the sort of contrast that Democrats sought to establish. To report the story that way would be exchanging one partisan framing for another—but at least it would have the virtue of being based on actual polling data, rather than on the hopeful spin of PR strategists.