The mainstream media is abuzz, making their strongest drive yet to depose Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But a critical look at who’s talking and how their argument is framed shows a lack of new data from those theorizing Rumsfeld should step down.
While Democratic assaults against Rumsfeld and the Iraq-war effort are not new, the media is smitten at the prospect of GOP officials taking similar jabs at the Pentagon’s leadership. Leading the charge are Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel. It was McCain who first made a splash two weeks ago on Fox News Sunday, announcing his lack of confidence in Rumsfeld. To no one’s surprise, the media ran with the story while McCain reciprocated, giving a number of interviews to print and television outlets. However, this past week when McCain issued the same statement, it was again treated as a breaking-news story. Meanwhile, Hagel continued his shadow-McCain approach, announcing on Face the Nation this Sunday that he too lacked confidence in Rumsfeld’s leadership.
However, two facts must be observed in weighing the credence of their claims. First, both McCain and Hagel have openly begun their campaigns to succeed President Bush in 2008. Positioning themselves as moderate critics of the administration allocates them credibility in the eyes of the mainstream press and provides greater access to the media coverage a potential presidential candidate needs. Second, their criticisms of Rumsfeld and Hagel’s opposition to the war effort are nothing new. Hagel went so far as to deride the entire administration for the deaths of soldiers in Iraq, stating, “I think it’s very reflective of how out of touch this crowd is.”
Maine Senator Susan Collins, fresh from her intelligence-reform victory over Rumsfeld, has been criticizing the war since it first became fashionable with the meteoric rise of the 9/11 Commission. And Trent Lott, an otherwise solid player in the war effort, has no love lost for an administration that allowed for, and some would argue advocated, his defrocking as Senate Majority Leader.
Meanwhile, the mainstream press has all but ignored the votes of confidence Rumsfeld has been receiving. This past Friday, influential GOP Senators Wayne Allard, Sam Brownback, Jim Bunning, Saxby Chambliss, John Cornyn, Mike Enzi, James Inhofe, Jeff Sessions, Ted Stevens, Bill Frist, Mitch McConnell, Rick Santorum, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Jon Kyl, and Elizabeth Dole released a joint statement offering support for Rumsfeld.
On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Chambliss stated in no uncertain terms, “This secretary is very sensitive to the needs of the military. He seems insensitive when he makes comments. And that seems to be what gets him in trouble.” And Virginia Senator John Warner, no close friend of Rumsfeld’s, added in his Meet the Press appearance, “I have confidence in my ability and his ability to continue to work together as a team for the common goals of the men and women of the Armed Forces and to support the goals of the commander in chief.”
More important politically than Rumsfeld’s critics are his allies. And he has no greater ally than the president himself. As war opponent Chris Matthews observed, “I think [Bush] knows the secretary of defense is his voodoo doll and that people are putting pins in him to get the president and they’re really attacking the war effort right now.” When asked about his secretary’s standing in Monday’s press conference, Bush told reporters, “I know Secretary Rumsfeld’s heart. I know how much he cares for the troops…. I have heard the anguish in his voice and seen it in his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq…. He’s a good, decent man. He’s a caring fellow. Sometimes perhaps his demeanor is rough and tough but beneath that rough and gruff no nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief war causes.”
This is all not to say that complaints against Rumsfeld lack validity. As Rumsfeld himself responded in USA Today to the National Guard soldier’s question, “His question was a fair one, and I share his impatience.” But taken in full context, Rumsfeld’s critics lack the armor afforded to honest brokers not operating in a two-front political theater.
–Eric Pfeiffer is senior writer for the National Journal’s “Hotline”.