The good news is that some Democrats are mastering the GOP's techniques for manipulating the press. The bad news is that they're using it against other Democrats. Eric Boehlert and Bill Press got it right about this week's appalling coverage of the Democrats on the war issue, but they overlook the role some Democrats played in this week's media disaster.
Boehlert, Press, and Media Matters lament the spin being given to the Senate debate over two competing Democratic proposals. "No, no, no!" says Press about this CNN headline: "Debate Highlights Democratic Fissures Over Iraq." And Boehlert writes:
"It's been a head-scratching spectacle this week to watch Democrats in the Senate debate war resolutions that would press the administration to begin bringing troops ... and then be depicted in the press as the likely losers in the unfolding political battle."
They're right, of course. But there's no need to scratch your head over the motives behind the anonymously-sourced hit piece in yesterday's New York Times. Boehlert, whose book Lapdogs is a must-read about today's journalistic quagmire, knows better than anyone what happens when politicians offer juicy anonymous quotes to a Washington reporter.
Usually Republicans are the ones baiting the hook, but take a look at Kate Zernike's article. It's a feeding frenzy of unsourced centrist Democrats, taking aim at the amendment to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
Why are the Democrats being hammered as divided, "fissured," squabbling, and petty? In part, it's because "moderate" Democrats are fueling that perception -- and their behavior underscores the point.
There's nothing uglier than a Democrat who says the party needs to "preserve a united front" -- at the very moment he or she is surreptitiously attacking another Democrat.
I'm not rushing to defend Kerry, who I assume can take care of himself. My point is that the issue isn't about him -- it's about the need to end the debacle in Iraq. Democrats who don't want to set a fixed timetable are personalizing the issue around an individual, because attacking his motivation is easier than discussing the merits of the amendment.
Murtha's too much of an icon, and Feingold's less visible, so they're going after Kerry. In the process, they're dismissing or stigmatizing an entire wing of their party, and most Americans, who want a timetable for withdrawal. (They're also standing against the wishes of most Iraqis, who want a timetable for withdrawal.)
It's the politics of the personal vs. the politics of substance, and these Democrats have shown they can play it as well as any Republican. In fact, the Times piece is a case study in how it's done.
Take a look: The "Democratic leadership wants its membership to rally behind a proposal ... that does not set a fixed date ..." Who, exactly? They don't say.
"Senate Democrats have been loath to express their opinions publicly ... but interviews suggest a frustration with Mr. Kerry ..." Who's frustrated with Kerry? Why won't they speak openly? And why should we care about their "frustrations," or any of that "inside baseball" political talk, when there's an important proposal on the table?
And then there's this: "Mr. Kerry's insistence on pushing ahead with his own plan has left the Democrats divided and open to renewed Republican accusations that they are indecisive and weak."
Why doesn't the insistence of Reed, Levin, and the others to offer a different proposal leave them "open to renewed accusations they are indecisive and weak"? Because Ms. Zernike's anonymous sources told her otherwise, and -- good typist that she is -- she wrote down the spin points that so nicely mesh with the GOP's.
(Note to Ms. Zernike: The Times' policy on anonymous sources states that "We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack.")
If you read the Times piece carefully you'll notice that something's missing: a substantive critique of the proposal on the part of their Democratic opponents.
Forget this "centrist" argument that this is about electoral politics. Feingold's been pushing for a withdrawal plan for a year. The position that he, Kerry, and Murtha are taking is leading the nation and changing its position on the war. Gore's been speaking against the war since 2002. And the Reed/Levin proposal, diluted as it is, wouldn't even exist if it weren't for their perseverance.
Anyone who's frustrated that the media isn't spinning the war as a strong issue for Democrats should take note of this sentence: "Some Democrats felt Mr. Kerry allowed Republicans to embarrass them in a vote last week, when the Republicans embraced Mr. Kerry's proposal, certain it would be defeated and allow them to declare themselves the party of unity and strength."
This isn't just a GOP spin point anymore. It's a point that Democrats who support Reed/Levin are helping to reinforce. Once again they're taking cover in Republican rhetoric to protect themselves.
They're turning on other Democrats under the cloak of anonymity, using GOP talking points to slash at other Democrats so they can hide from taking a strong position on ending the occupation of Iraq.
Is it fair to call that tactic "cut and run"?
UPDATE: Even the so-called "moderate" Republicans taste blood in the water now.
UPDATE II: To find out how Democrats voted on the Kerry Amendment, go here.