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 Media Files
Friday, June 16, 2006 11:18 PM

Action Alert
Warning Dems Against Withdrawal
NY Times paints Iraq vote as boon for Republicans


Recent moves by Democrats to suggest a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq are being portrayed by the New York Times as a real problem—for Democrats.

The underlying assumption in the reporting is that this position is a risky one, playing right into the hands of Karl Rove and the GOP. A June 14 story began with that framing:

At the moment that the White House is again trying to cast them as weak on national security, Democrats are debating their stance on the war in Iraq with new intensity, with some of the party’s leading figures—including potential 2008 presidential candidates—sharply divided over whether the United States should set a deadline for bringing troops home.

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 antiwar 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 last month (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 coverage suggests that the political situation has changed significantly since the White House got a “boost” from recent developments in Iraq. As the Times reported on June 14, “Since the killing last week of the jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, polls have shown some tentative signs of a reversal in the slide in public support for the war.” No polls were cited by the Times, perhaps because the polling is so unclear on this point. The most recent CBS poll, for example, found a slight increase in support for the belief that the United States might succeed in Iraq; at the same time, 80 percent of the public felt the killing of Zarqawi would have either no effect on the level of violence in Iraq, or that attacks on U.S. forces would actually increase. Polls show that public opinion of Bush’s handling of the war has improved only slightly, at best, while a CNN poll (6/8-11/06) shows no change in people’s perception that invading Iraq was a mistake (55 percent).

Such Times reporting ignored the polls’ indications that the war remains a significant political difficulty for Republicans, and instead framed the issue in the terms dictated by the White House: “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.

Ask the Times why its reporting on plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq suggests that such a policy would be unpopular—ignoring the Times’ own polling that suggests the opposite.

Byron Calame
New York Times
Public Editor
Phone: (212) 556-7652

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