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Axing the tough questions

The White House -- aided by its pundit allies -- bullies its way out of trouble.
By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
May 21, 2002
[First published on Salon.com (Salon Premium subscription required)]

Since the story broke Thursday that President Bush received a general warning before Sept. 11 of possible hijackings, Democrats have been asking tough but fair questions about information the government had prior to the attack. Many Republicans and conservative pundits, however, have claimed such questions amount to suggesting that Bush had knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and failed to prevent them.

This is only the latest example of GOP officials and their supporters in the media using bombastic, anti-democratic rhetoric to shut down debate on any issue related to the war. Whenever serious questions have been raised, this Republican-pundit alliance has launched a massive and aggressive counteroffensive to silence critics -- with grave implications for open debate about the war on terrorism.

Thursday's disclosure set off a firestorm of spin, which we documented earlier. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., had particularly tough questions for the president, as did Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and others. Their statements were generally more aggressive in tone than previous criticism of the administration since 9/11, and Gephardt and others used phrasing that carries inflammatory echoes of a famous Howard Baker statement during Watergate -- "What did the president know and when did he know it?" At worst, they suggest a coverup or possible incompetence. But no leading Democrats accused the president of failing to act on a specific warning of an attack or even suggested as much.

Conservative pundits and GOP officials, however, trotted out that straw man and beat it savagely in a counterattack that the ABC News political unit called "brutal and demagogic" Monday. Most prominently, Vice President Dick Cheney launched a broadside on Thursday with Bush's approval (according to Time magazine), saying Democrats "need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11." When he was finally asked three days later on "Fox News Sunday" who actually suggested this, Cheney only offered Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who made the irresponsible claim in April that Bush ignored a specific warning of an attack, but was much more restrained in her statement last week.

On Fox, the vice president added that he doesn't "have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies," but he has "a real problem with the suggestion that somehow my president had information and failed to act upon it to prevent the attack of Sept. 11," calling it "beyond the pale." No evidence of these "suggestions" was provided, however, for the simple reason that there is none.

Appearing next on NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney was asked again whom he was singling out for taking "political advantage by making incendiary suggestions." This time he implicitly named Gephardt and Clinton (who referenced the deceptive New York Post headline "Bush Knew" in a statement Thursday), saying he was speaking of "the rush to the floor of the House and the Senate in front of the cameras saying, 'What did he know and when did he know it?'; people waving newspapers -- the one you showed at the outset; the New York Post saying, 'Bush Knew.'" Again, Cheney provided no argument as to how these examples justify his characterization of the Democrats.

The Washington Times, along with many other conservative pundits, pushed the same claim. In an editorial, the paper suggested that "the hacks of the Democratic Party" are claiming Bush knew of the attack and failed to stop it. The only evidence the editorial writers could muster, however, was political strategist and "Crossfire" co-host James Carville asking, "What did the president know, when did he know it and what did he do about it?"

There were even attempts to link administration critics to terrorists. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said on Thursday, "For us to be talking like our enemy is George W. Bush and not Osama bin Laden, that's not right." Going even further, White House communications director Dan Bartlett told the Washington Post Friday that Thursday's statements by Democrats "are exactly what our opponents, our enemies, want us to do." This is the most direct statement by an administration official to date suggesting that dissent aids the enemy.

The Washington Times editorial also states: "Richard Gephardt, Cynthia McKinney and Tom Daschle, Democrats all, can barely contain their righteous indignation, and they can be counted on to remain in attack mode. The nation remains under constant threat from armed and dangerous terrorists, willing to sacrifice their own lives, but that's just a risk they're willing to take." The Washington Times is suggesting here that Democrats are intentionally and knowingly putting the country in danger. Note that there is absolutely no rational argument made to explain how exactly they are doing so.

On Fox News Channel's "Beltway Boys," Fred Barnes pushed further insinuations of a lack of patriotism or even treason, saying Democrats "looked like not a loyal opposition but a disloyal opposition, encouraging ... conspiracy theories about how President Bush might have known about the terrorist attacks prior to September 11 and didn't do anything about them." Robert Novak even asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y., on "Crossfire" Friday the absurd question of whether he had "disqualified [himself] to speak on national security" because of Nadler's votes to cut defense and intelligence spending, a list of which Novak introduced. This information was apparently supplied by the National Republican Congressional Campaign, which the New York Times reports is circulating "a list of votes against military or intelligence spending by Democrats who had questioned the president."

More comments along these lines may be on their way. The Washington Times reports that "some Republicans with access to the White House" said that "the White House must convince both the Democrats and the press that a return to the national unity that prevailed until last week is essential to the health and security of the nation." As of Sunday, this appears to have worked. Democrats are largely chastened in their criticism of the administration, and few have criticized attempts to silence them.

This pattern of silencing questions about administration policy dates back to a Dec. 6 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, when Attorney General John Ashcroft faced off with Senate Democrats. The hearing came at a time when criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror at home was first starting to build. Even though some administration proposals, such as plans for military tribunals and the monitoring of attorney-client conversations, were controversial, most critics were quite restrained because of the political climate. Still, in his opening statement, Ashcroft directly alleged that criticism of the administration aids the enemy:

"We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear-mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."

As we pointed out, Ashcroft implied that the motives of critics were purely nefarious. He never cited an example of the rhetoric he claimed to condemn, and his phrasing suggests that virtually all critics of Bush's anti-terrorism policies aid terrorists. After Ashcroft's opening statement, committee Democrats almost completely backed down. He was condemned by a number of major newspapers in editorials, but the damage had been done.

Then, in late February, Daschle raised relatively mild questions about the war, saying the future success of the war "is still somewhat in doubt" and that it would be a failure if Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden were not captured.

As we showed at the time (here and here), Republicans immediately and hyperbolically lashed out in yet another attempt to silence debate. The same day Daschle made his statement, Lott issued a statement that read, "How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field." Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, chimed in, saying that Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country." Conservative pundits like Sean Hannity backed them up and, again, debate quieted and another marker was laid down.

The prevailing GOP/conservative strategy is to try to shut down debate over the war before it even starts. Any questioning of the administration's handling of the war on terror is immediately mischaracterized and attacked as unpatriotic. This bullying makes actual dissent from the president's policies nearly impossible -- and it appears to be working yet again. And every time it does, our democracy is debased just a little bit more.

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