It’s easy to see why Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle got upset.
In the second paragraph of a Sept. 25 front page story, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote, “Four times in the past two days, (President) Bush has suggested that Democrats do not care about national security, saying on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Senate is ‘not interested in the security of the American people’.”
That was enough to send Daschle into a rage on the Senate floor. “The president is quoted in The Washington Post this morning as saying that Democratic--the Democratic-controlled Senate is not interested in the security of the American people” Daschle sputtered. “Not interested in the security of the American people? You tell Senator Inoue he is not interested in the security of the American people. You tell those who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous--outrageous.”
But the Bush quote -- in the second paragraph of an article that should have been labeled “News Analysis” but was not -- was misleading. Milbank chopped the President’s quote down to only nine words, as if he was editing it for a TV news soundbite. He then added the context, writing that Bush had said “the Democratic-controlled Senate is ‘not interested in the security of the American people’.”
What Bush actually said was, “the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people. I will not accept a Department of Homeland Security that does not allow this President, and future Presidents, to better keep the American people secure.”
Still inflammatory? Perhaps. But adding that second sentence makes clear Bush is not launching a direct attack on Senate Democrats, as Milbank’s report made it seem.
Bush didn’t single out Democrats when he talked about the Senate’s failure to act. In fact, in his next paragraph, Bush pointed out, “people are working hard in Washington to get it right in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats.” And he praised Democratic Senator Zell Miller by name and party.
What the President seems to be doing is making his case directly to the American people. That’s something Presidents have been doing for more than 200 years now.
Theodore Roosevelt gave frequent stump speeches from his “The Bully Pulpit” and cleverly used the press to get his message out. His cousin Franklin Roosevelt used radio “fireside chats”. Harry Truman went on a “whistle-stop tour”. And Bill Clinton convened Town Meetings.
So it is hardly surprising that President Bush is trying to put pressure on the U.S. Senate to pass his proposals. Sen. Daschle calls that “playing politics”. He told the Washington Post, “I don't care whether you are talking about homeland security, I don't think you can talk about Iraq, you can't talk about war, you can't talk about any context that justifies a political comment like that.”
But it’s happening on his side, as well. As the New York Times reported on Sept. 25, “A moderate Republican senator gave Democrats the margin they needed today to keep President Bush from firing workers in a new Homeland Security Department, setting up a veto battle with an administration that sees such a transformation of federal work rules as vital to national security. Republicans said the alliance between the Democrats and Lincoln D. Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, could mean that the reorganization to create the new department would not take place until next year.”
The Times points out that Sen. Chafee made his decision after weeks of lobbying from union leaders and discussion with Senate Democrats. They did what they had to do to get Sen. Chafee to go along with their proposal. Just as President Bush is doing everything he can to get the Senate to pass his proposal. And isn’t it better to have the President’s type of politics – public appeals in speeches and interviews – instead of the type of backroom lobbying and arm twisting that influenced Sen. Chafee?
By involving politics, the President and the Senate are involving their constituents -- that’s all of us -- in the debate about what should be done to protect the homeland, and what should be done about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. That’s how things should happen in a democracy.
Let’s have more politics from our elected officials, so we’ll all know where they stand on important issues. That way, we can make informed decisions about whether to keep them in office.
And let’s have longer quotes in our leading newspapers, so our political leaders won’t misunderstand the political points the President is trying to make and get needlessly upset.