Steele Trap

The press knew what the RNC chief was saying, but internecine warfare is a better story

Michael Steele had a rough holiday weekend. The right’s media heavies called for the RNC chairman’s resignation, GOP senators kicked him around the Sunday shows, and only Ron Paul stood with him.

The beat-down came, of course, after Steele called Afghanistan a “war of Obama’s choosing” at a closed Connecticut fundraiser last Thursday evening.

Things have settled down a bit since the weekend; many on the right seem content to wait out Steele’s term rather than push the eject button. But no matter what you think of Steele, there’s a case to be made that the media did the chairman a disservice in their reporting of his supposed gaffe.

Most press accounts—and most of Steele’s critics—homed in on the “war of Obama’s choosing” phrase, declaring it historically inaccurate. The war, as everyone, including Steele knows, began well before Obama was in the White House. But while Steele’s wording may have been less that crystal clear, this attack hinges on a wilfully simplistic reading of what he said. It is a case in point of something the political press does all the time: latch on to the words or phrases that are sure to provoke, and play dumb in terms of the fuller context or the speaker’s obvious intent.

CBS News led its Web report with:

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele suggested at a Connecticut fundraiser that Afghanistan is “a war of Obama’s choosing” despite the fact that it began years before the president took office.

The New York Times devoted a paragraph to correcting the chairman in a piece on the fallout headlined, “Republican Senators Denounce Steele’s Remarks”:

He questioned the military strategy in Afghanistan as he delivered a broader critique of Mr. Obama, but he misstated the history of the conflict, which President George W. Bush started nine years ago in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Naturally, Steele released a statement clarifying, fleshing out, and backing down a little from his remarks.

“During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama made clear his belief that we should not fight in Iraq, but instead concentrate on Afghanistan,” he continued. “Now, as President, he has indeed shifted his focus to this region. That means this is his strategy. And, for the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war.”

It is clear that 9/11, etc. had not slipped the chairman’s mind. Rather, as he explains in the above release, Steele argued that Obama “shifted his focus” from Iraq to decide that “the battle really should be Afghanistan.” This was the “choice” part. Now, you can agree with that or not, but it is certainly not historically inaccurate.

We’re not suggesting reporters come to the rescue of politicians whose reasoning gets tangled in their rhetoric. But nor should reporters simply latch on to headline-grabbing sound bites and ignore the larger points or arguments that the pol is making.

Not only did few outlets make the effort to contextualize or understand what Steele was trying to say when he made his “gaffe”—which, admittedly, was politically “tone deaf” in a “clinging-to-guns” kind of way—but when reports came of GOP senators and pundits like Bill Kristol calling the statements wildly inaccurate, there was little pushback or acknowledgment by the press of what Steele was actually saying. Perhaps it was too easy to add another gaffe to his growing list; a nice next chapter in the “When Will Michael Steele be Booted?” narrative the press has been writing (with plenty of help from Steele himself).

So I was relieved to come across Andrew Sullivan’s blog post earlier this week, “Michael Steele Was Right.” It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with Sullivan’s conclusions (or the chairman’s, for that matter), he at least fully engages.

This is, at this point, Obama’s war - because it was a war of choice for him, not necessity. The scale and ambition of this madness is Obama’s scale and ambition, no one else’s. This war is now his war, as much as Vietnam was LBJ’s. And this is not because he inherited it. He inherited a critical window to cut our losses and get the hell out, with a minimalist Biden-style strategy to minimize, if not end, the threat.

Of course, there are consequences to such sharp reading and thinking. As Sullivan wrote yesterday in a follow-up on the issue, quoting another conservative gaffe machine: “I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with this, but Ann Coulter and I are on the same page.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.