Russert Watch: Eye of Newt, on the 2006 elections

Hello and welcome to another episode of Meet The Press, where hopefully God will help Tim ask the right questions. Here at RussertWatch, we pride ourselves on publishing many scary untruths. If you don't believe us, ask Tim - he knows there are untruths 'cause he doesn't read us. Read all about him and the touching story he has about his mother in today's New York Times Magazine.

A moment, if I may: I began RussertWatch pretty neutrally, taking over the mantle from Arianna and the gang, and trying to be as even-handed as possible. I had no personal feelings about Tim, really, except for thinking that he was kind of a square. However, obvious loyalties aside, I think it is pretty shady to assert that a publication contains "many untruths" without providing solid evidence to back up that claim (and no, admitting that you don't actually read it does not quite count).

Right then, on to this week's edition: Newt Gingrich on the banner week for the Bush administration. The transcript is here, so you can see for yourself that Russert pretty much let Gingrich have the floor. It was Gingrich who controlled the talking points, Gingrich who controlled the message. True, Russert grilled Gingrich on his inconsistencies on Iraq, and true, Russert did bring up Gingrich's own ethics violation (a "fine" said Russert; a "voluntary payment of legal costs" said Gingrich), but overall, Russert let Gingrich get the Republican take across (it helps when you let your guest finish his sentences, unlike last week's bullying offensive on Nancy Pelosi).

The upshot: Gingrich was on not to shore up support for the Bush administration, but for the Republican party. He did this not only by flat-out defending NSA wiretapping on a national security basis, but more importantly for the Republicans in general, by setting the spin 060522_Cover.standard.jpgrequired for any future electoral victories: Americans don't want crazy left-wing Democrats. They voted Conservative because they want Conservative, and the Republican party is going to get back on track and give it to them.

The most important issue this week was, hands down, the issue of NSA domestic spying. Russert led with Thursday's blaring USA Today headline: "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls": Millions of phone calls by millions of people, secretly collected by the NSA, authorized by the Bush administration. What, asks Tim, does Newt think? Here Newt has a perfect opportunity to refine his comments Thursday on when he called the program "indefensible." Today, that is precisely what he does: defends it, right off the bat: "Everything they've done is totally legal." The real problem, says Newt, is presentation: if only the Bush administration had sold it properly, and framed it as a choice between millions of people dying in a terrorist attack and using "the technical ability to stop it." Russert calls Newt on the "indefensible" comment and Newt says, yes - I can't defend how they've handled it but I have no problem with them doing it: "[T]he idea that we're going to say to the United States government, for libertarian reasons, "We'd rather lose a city than have you gather data," I think is totally out of touch with the danger of the modern world."

Of course, in all the tough-talking national security discussion neither Gingrich nor Russert raised the potential for abuse: a giant database of who's calling who can be very, very useful, and very, very tempting (James Love notes specific examples in this administration of how that can play out). Gingrich's pooh-poohs libertarian concerns, but those concerns aren't only about whether the government should have information they can use if they need to. It's about whether the government will use that information when they want to.

But enough about that. (No, seriously. The NSA issue was neatly dispensed with in three short questions.) Russert asks Newt about his proposed Dem campaign slogan: "Had enough?" He asks, innocently, "Had enough of what?" Newt knows damn well what the "what" is (see his elaboration in the original interview in Time) but maybe he got spanked for handing the Dems such an effective slogan, because he takes this opportunity to dodge the question, instead going off on the Dems as "a party whose contract is with San Francisco and Vermont," filled with people like "Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and their allies are so far to the left." Did you catch that? Russert asks Gingrich why voters would have had enough of the Bush administration, and instead of citing Katrina, Iraq, corruption scandals, and skyrocketing oil prices, he hammers home a point about the dithering left-wing Dems. "Answer the question!" thunders Tim, pounding his fist on the desk. Just joking. Tim is silent, and allows Newt to go on to round out his pitch: Republicans know they've gotta change, doggone it, and they already are - look at our fiscally responsible Denny Hastert! (Well, if anyone knows how to bulldoze over a high spending bill...)

Perhaps Tim let him off the hook there because he was about to call Newt on his condemnation of his own party elsewhere (Philadelphia Inquirer: "GOP needs change now"). But let's not forget that Newt's big claim to fame is as the guy who handed the Republicans both the House and the Senate in 1994. He's a big-picture guy looking to the longevity of the Republicans and says as much -- which is why he has no problem acknowledging what is already beyond dispute: Katrina was massively screwed up. Money has been squandered in Iraq. He has his specific outrageous examples ($1.75 paid to a general contractor trickling down to only 10 cents on roofing in New Orleans, which he cites in the Time interview too) and he doesn't mind using them to demonstrate that, hey, Republicans can make these concessions. Why? Because in exchange, it makes his party look reasonable, and spins these gaffes as one-time exceptions to the proud, responsible party of choice: "The country would love for Republicans to be solid on this, the country does not want to go back to a left-wing Democratic majority, that they do want the Republicans to recognize things need to change." And there you have it: the spin that will take the Republicans into the 2006 - and 2008 - elections. Newt knows what he's doing, and he does it very, very well.

Which is why he manages to get the most airtime for his immigration proposal. Remember how NSA wiretapping was neatly and quickly dispensed with? Not so Newt's ideas on immigration, the subject of Bush's conveniently-timed address to the nation tomorrow night. Newt's plan (which he claims would cost less than the Senate bill) would require every illegal alien to return to their home country to sign a contract promising to obey American law in the future. He obviously hasn't worked through the details, because when Tim asks "But Mr. Speaker, many of those people have children here who are American citizens. Do they leave their children behind?" Newt is caught off-guard, and hems and haws a bit. "There are a lot of things you can do," he stammers, citing the limitless possibilities available in "the age of jet airplanes." Frankly, though, the details are fuzzy. But once again this issue, which seems to have whooshed up into something that has to be addressed RIGHT NOW (after being a de facto reality for 20 years, according to Newt), is once again getting the biggest airplay.

"Let me turn to Iraq," says Tim, finally getting a word in edgewise. He's collected a bunch of clips and he's excited for the parade. Upshot: Iraq was a necessity; Iraq has been a mess; we've got to stay and finish the job; we've got to pull out immediately. Care to reconcile those, Newt? Newt does indeed: He thinks America is safer now than if Saddam were still in power. (This conclusion, while surely debatable, neatly sidesteps the rationale presented to the American people for war). Russert calls him on that, and asks: "Knowing no weapons of mass destruction, knowing the level of insurgency resistance, knowing the sectarian violence, knowing the cost, do you believe it was still worthwhile -- and do you believe it was a war of choice or necessity?" Newt thinks that the president was right in 2002: there really WAS an axis of evil, and according to the intelligence (or "intelligence" as it were) then yeah, Saddam had to be removed. "Saddam had a direct relationship with al-Qaeda," said Newt, causing me to furrow my brow, because hasn't that claim actually been debunked? I check with Google to be sure, and yes, it's true: the Saddam-al Qaeda link made by the administration as the case for war was ruled out by the 9/11 commission. This makes me think of the game whack-a-mole: sure, we can smack it down when they say it. But the more they say it, the more we have to keep smacking it down, all while the "yes, but" and "what if" reports build and build on the web, so even if someone DOES do a Google search, the truth is harder and harder to come by. It's truthiness over truth, again: how many people still think Saddam was responsible for 9/11? (41%, according to a Dec./05 Harris Poll). It's enough that Republicans like Newt can still safely make that assertion, knowing that it's wrong but leaving it to the other side to make that correction.

Tim's on that other side, by the way, or should be: if I immediately knew that Newt misspoke, then Tim damn well should have. But he let that one go. The Washington Bureau Chief of NBC news let it go.

There was more - yes, Newt thinks we can effect regime change in Iran (great), no he doesn't plan to run for higher office (well, he "doubts it" but has been to Iowa and New Hampshire a lot recently), yes we should tone down the rhetoric (like he's going to say no), and yes there's corruption - just look at those Democrats! He also said that sure, America might elect a lady president - after all, America had voted in "a peanut farmer," and "an actor who made movies with monkeys" so gosh darn it crazy things can happen.

About this time, I was ready for the commercial. Tim, I don't think God guided you very well today. Letting Newt get away with the Saddam/al Qaeda connection was a really huge blunder. Let's see if anyone else notices.

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Round two: Roundtable: John Harwood, Wall Street Journal/CNBC; Jon Meacham, Newsweek managing editor and "American Gospel," back
; and Judy Woodruff, PBS special correspondent and former host of CNN's "Inside Politics." Let the parade of bullet points begin:
  • Harwood starts it off with a hat tip to Mother's Day. Shocking that Tim forgot about that.

  • Woodruff notes that the White House "needs a win badly right now" and notes that only Nixon went this long under 40% approval. Even in red states, the natives are restless.
  • Meacham's mag says that 53% think the NSA phone call database is an unacceptable invasion of privacy; Meacham notes that while Bush may go on TV tomorrow to discuss immigration, medicare, and tax cuts, "80 percent or more of folks who are disapproving of the president are disapproving of three big things: Iraq, Katrina and the deficit." He also notes that Bush will be going into midterms with the lowest poll numbers in the history of polling.
  • Says Harwood: The NSA scandal is an "inkblot test" for America, and gives Meacham a hat-tip by calling it "a question of faith" - do Americans have faith in the good intentions of the administration? (Related: Matt Cooper wonders in Time if this is a tipping point.)
  • Russert brings it back to McCain, who finally spoke at Liberty University. Woodruff says it was a "smart" "safe" speech. Harwood says McCain is still a maverick, dammit. John Meacham quotes John Adams on polemical divinity and polemical politics. I wonder why we are suddenly talking about John McCain. More time is spent talking about McCain than NSA spying.
  • Midterm elections: Can Republicans come back? Meacham says it's gonna be "1994 all over again" except this time with the Dems. Harwood reminds us all not to forget what the Republicans have in the bank: literally, what they have in the bank. They're freaking loaded. $44 mil and counting. Who says elections can't be bought? Woodruff says Dems are worrying now about what they actually DO when they get there. Which Tim loves, of course, because it means he can close thusly: "Some Democrats saying, "Maybe it's better if we don't win, that way we can have the issues." Oh really Tim? Which Democrats are secretly hoping to lose? Did they go on the record? Are you prepared to back that up, or is that just a partisan punchline underscoring a well-used Republican talking point? And by the way, can you tell us more about Saddam's intimate connection to al Qaeda? Thanks much.
  • Meet the Press minute: CIA director William E. Colby under fire for domestic surveillance, parsing the word "wrong" as "not necessarily illegal." He is about as forthcoming as Cheney on a chatty day. Some interesting background on Colby here. Also note the fab head of hair on NBC's Ford Rowan, whose name and coif puts Ron Burgundy to shame.
  • Russert closes with another shout-out to the Buffalo Sabres and their dreams of Lord Stanley's cup, and a decidedly uncomfortable shout-out to Mother's Day. I mean, he really looks like he's in pain. Please note that CIA scandal and Michael Hayden's lukewarm reception on as potential CIA boss was not mentioned, nor was the looming possibility that Rove will be indicted on Plamegate charges. I'm just saying.And that's it for Meet The Press, unless you count the commercial with the kids shilling for coal. What a fun, illuminating way to spend a Sunday morning. Sigh. See you next week, because if it's Sunday, then it's RussertWatch. See you next week, Tim. Nice haircut.
  • UPDATE: Several commenters have rightly pointed out that Newt's flat-out justification of NSA wiretapping as "totally legal" is "totally debatable," at best. I ought to have called that out as well (and so, too, should have Tim).