Disingenuous Gillespie

If Barack Obama needed any help framing his message for the general election campaign, Republicans gave it to him this week. First, President Bush put himself center stage in the 2008 presidential campaign — and he did it on an international stage. Speaking to Israel’s Knesset, the president said, “Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along ... We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement ... ”

Hardly had the words escaped the president’s mouth when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was telling reporters on the bus the president was right and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was wrong. It was “naïve,” said McCain, questioning the “judgment” of his likely general-election opponent. It must have seemed like a deft blow at the time, turning Obama’s “judgment” criterion for being elected commander in chief against him.

The reaction of Democrats to the president’s remarks was to be expected. It is a tradition for a sitting president not to confuse partisan politics with foreign policy. We can have intense debates within our borders, but we don’t carry them overseas. We especially do not air our partisanship in a politically charged atmosphere, such as the Israeli Knesset, where it may well inflame passions in the complex and dangerous environment of the Middle East. Yet that is exactly what President Bush did.

When asked afterwards by NBC correspondent Richard Engel if those remarks were targeted at Sen. Obama, the president’s response was clear: “You know, my policies haven’t changed, but evidently the political calendar has.”

The White House would probably have been happy to leave it there had it not quickly appeared that the president had made a political misstep. The response of reporters and the public made clear that Bush had just clearly defined the difference both Obama and Sen. Clinton have been trying to make in the approach they would take to foreign policy. While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has criticized Obama as being too willing to talk with foreign leaders, she has not gone so far as to call his approach “appeasement.” That is a very loaded, very dangerous political word. It goes beyond tactics to strategy, a line no other Obama critic has crossed.

It soon became clear that Americans are re-thinking what strength means in foreign policy.

The cowboy approach of the Bush administration is beginning to seem foolhardy rather than fearless. Bush, and McCain’s all-to-quick endorsement of his comments, threaten to open up a line of debate the Obama campaign would love to engage on. Tying Bush and McCain together is dream positioning for Democrats.

Enter Ed Gillespie, one of America’s legendary spinmeisters, who learned his craft from Lee Atwater — the finest engineer of the game, if not its inventor. Once Gillespie saw the direction all this was going, he rolled out his classic change-the-subject strategy by launching an attack on NBC and Richard Engel. Suddenly this was not about a Bush-McCain foreign policy but the manipulative practices of the liberal mainstream media. Gillespie began by accusing NBC of “selective editing.”

Duh. That’s why they call it editing. You take out the superfluous material to get the story to fit in a network news slot. No matter that the entire interview was posted on a website for all to see. Well, I saw it. It is longer. It is slightly more informative. It does little beyond providing some spin context for the president’s remarks. But the president’s clever reference to the “political calendar” still leads the clip and he seems in full-on George Bush political mode.

Gillespie then goes on to blast Brian Williams, Chris Matthews, Keith Obermann and pretty much the entire NBC news operation. A vast left-wing conspiracy, perhaps? Floors of editors committed to “deception” and “masking” and shading the truth? Sort of like the White House initiative to seed all network programs with military experts fully briefed on their talking points? Ed, methinks thou dost protest too much.

The likely outcome of all this is that both the White House and the McCain campaign will probably do a better job of staying at arm’s length for the remainder of the campaign. That’s a good idea. But sending the pot out to call the kettle black is not going to work in this campaign cycle, no matter how good Ed Gillespie has been at message control all these years. It’s a new game, Ed.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com