By Bill Boyarsky
Why, when a majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war, are the political correspondents so eagerly awaiting the nomination acceptance speech of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate most likely to continue the conflict?
Soon we’ll be reading about the brilliant thinkers and literary stylists who will write her acceptance speech. Team Hillary members, such as her chief strategist, Mark Penn, are becoming the subjects of admiring pieces by writers wanting to suck up to power.
The political correspondents—mainly those based in Washington—go along with what everyone else thinks. Their professional lives are spent nervously eyeing the Conventional Wisdom Express, desperate to climb on before the train leaves the station.
The polls show that a majority of Americans want out of Iraq. A New York Times/CBS survey taken in September found that 30 percent wanted our troops out and 35 percent favored a reduction in the force. Just 41 percent felt that going to war was the right thing to have done, and only 34 percent felt it was worth the cost. Other surveys show much the same. The cautious Clinton is probably worried about the almost 30 percent of people in the survey who favor either keeping our troops at the same level or increasing our forces. Barack Obama and John Edwards show the same caution. All of them say they worry about departing American forces leaving behind a hopelessly chaotic Iraq. But what do we have now?
Clinton said she would quickly convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her defense secretary and her National Security Council to come up with a plan to bring troops home. I assume all these people would be part of a Washington establishment afraid to veer too far one way or the other in policy matters. Clinton’s top strategist, Penn, is worldwide president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, which helped prepare the chief of Blackwater USA for his congressional testimony; in that testimony the Blackwater executive defended the way that company employees killed 17 and wounded 24 while fulfilling its contract to provide security for the State Department. It’s all very clubby.
I’d say it would be a hawkish plan. Clinton voted recently for a Senate resolution condemning the Iran Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, a stand that has been interpreted by some war critics as giving President Bush authority to attack Iran. Enough Iowans were upset by the vote for her to send out a letter explaining her stand. Trying to hold on to a slender polling lead for the Iowa caucuses, Clinton said she voted for the measure only after the removal of language she felt would give Bush power to take military action against Iran without congressional approval. “I was there; I exercised leadership ...,” she said.
That was a dig at Obama, who missed the vote. Both Obama and Edwards favor a pullout. But like Clinton’s, their withdrawal proposals foresee no end. Obama wants to leave enough troops to support the Iraqi army and police and conduct specialized counterterrorism operations. Edwards favors a complete withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq in the next 12 to18 months without leaving behind any permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. But he hedges, too, wanting to leave enough troops in Iraq to assure that instability in Iraq doesn’t spill over to other countries and cause another war, create a terrorist haven or permit genocide. Of the Democratic candidates, only Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson favor a complete pullout, and only Richardson has even a remote chance of being on the ticket.
“The foundation of my Iraq plan is this: Get out now. Get all our troops out now,” Richardson said at Georgetown University early in October. “So long as we are there, with a bull’s-eye on our back, the situation cannot change for the better. ...”
He’s absolutely right. Only he and Kucinich have the sense and guts to say this.
But I don’t think the candidates are the villains of this piece. The real villains are the news media.
Popular perceptions are shaped by the way television, print and the Internet play the news. Communications academics call it “framing” the news. If something is not on television or in the papers, it has not really happened.
The Internet is supposed to have changed this equation. But, despite the hammering away of informed commentators such as Juan Cole and the many others who blog about the war, the mainstream media still shape American consciousness.
A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism helps explain why, despite the opposition of a majority of Americans, the war goes on without much protest.
Coverage of the war has dropped. The PEJ study found that in April, May and June of this year, 15 percent of the news space and time was devoted to the war, down from 22 percent for the previous three months. In the first days of October, Iraq got just seven percent. It was only the fourth most played story on the networks and was lower than that on cable. Only online sources gave the war the attention it deserved. When the war and its policy debates are not covered, people stop caring.
But if Iraq gets worse, the war will move up on the coverage charts. If that happens, audiences in the heavily covered small states of Iowa, with its caucuses, and New Hampshire, with its primary, will start asking questions and insisting on answers.
Chase Martyn of the Web site Iowa Independent noted that Clinton, Obama and Edwards “are locked in a virtual tie for first place in Iowa”—an observation backed up by the polls. “If Clinton hopes to maintain or expand her standing in Iowa, she will have to start giving specific answers to questions posed by members of the public,” Martyn wrote. If the answers aren’t direct, perhaps the reporters will notice.
As was the case with their passionate but brief love affair with Howard Dean four years ago, the Hillary-loving correspondents may drop her and run off with the next new thing. With such fickle lovers calling the shots, this campaign is far from over.
AP photo / Charles Dharapak
Clinton meets the press: The senator talks to reporters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3 after winning the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers.