After a week of controversy surrounding the release of an American POW, and an overabundance of chatter on the Sunday shows, it’s hard not to wonder about the political motivations behind the Republican condemnations.
For example, the debate, for lack of a better word, is clearly related to GOP opposition to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay – an idea that enjoyed bipartisan support until Republicans changed their minds. It also connects to the right’s outrage over the end of the war in Afghanistan, as well as the silly meme about President Obama’s “tyranny.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made some comments the other day that suggest something more fundamental – and less nuanced – about the strategy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham says President Barack Obama “thought everybody would be cheering” the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. … “He wanted last week to be a great week.”
And so Graham and his allies pushed back, ensuring that it wasn’t. Graham had related concerns – did you know Graham thinks “radical Islam is a threat to our way of life”? – but the result was something almost unimaginable: a major political party convinced much of the country that the release of an American prisoner of war was something other than good news.
Indeed, a new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans agree with the White House that the United States “has a responsibility to bring a captive American soldier home, regardless of the circumstances,” but a majority still disapproves of the president’s handling of the correct decision.
The political pushback, in this sense, worked: more than of the country backs the Obama administration’s policy, but only a third of the country believes the Obama administration made the right call. That may sound contradictory, but the poll suggests the mainstream believes the president did the right thing the wrong way.
And so, it wasn’t “a great week.” Republicans had to flip-flop, contort themselves into rhetorical pretzels, and push unsavory conspiracy theories, but the sense of pride and optimism that could have come with the release of American POW was nipped in the bud. And this election year, very little else matters.
In fact, it reminds me of a story from 20 years ago.
I was reading over the weekend about the 1996 presidential race. As folks may recall, in mid-May 1996, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole shocked the political world when he announced he would resign from the Senate, focusing exclusively on his presidential campaign. At the time, the assumption was that Dole could lose the race for the White House and then simply return to the job he loved, but the Kansas Republican decided it was the Oval Office or bust.
Dole gave a touching speech on Capitol Hill – even some reporters were reportedly seen getting choked up – and his decision was hailed by pundits as a breakthrough moment. Almost immediately, the Clinton team’s internal polls showed Dole’s favorability numbers, long languishing, starting to climb. For the first time in a long while, Americans liked what they saw in the Republican leader.
And so, at the president’s behest, Clinton/Gore ‘96 launched an ad called, “Empty,” blasting Dole for abandoning his post, leaving behind gridlock he and Newt Gingrich helped create. It was soon labeled “The Quitter” ad.
The Beltway media was utterly disgusted by the commercial. Assorted columnists and editorials, including many on the left, called the attack spot, among other things, “terribly bad form,” “stunningly unseemly,” “unpresidential,” and “absurd and offensive.”
Dick Morris later said the criticisms were irrelevant – the spot aired for five days over most of the country, and Dole’s favorability rating stopped climbing. For Clinton’s campaign team, whether or not the attack ad was unbecoming mattered less than its efficacy.
The moral of the story, of course, is that uncontested good news is simply intolerable. That was true then, and it’s true now.