Wall Street Journal
FEBRUARY 19, 2008
Press Corps Quagmire
By WILLIAM MCGURN
When a man hangs up his byline to write for a president, he gets more than a new job. He gets to see how the press and pundit corps look from the other side of the notepad.
And over three years in the West Wing, you see a few things. You see who's a straight shooter, and who's full of snark. You see who's smart, and whose outrageous behavior would have made its way to Drudge had it involved White House staffers instead of White House correspondents. Most of all, you see how conventional wisdom can keep otherwise talented reporters and commentators on the same stale storyline long after the facts on the ground have changed.
Let me put this in context with three contentious issues -- one economic, one cultural, and one on foreign policy. In each case, President Bush took a clear stand. In each case, he was accused of stupidity or stubbornness and sometimes both. In each case, the facts on the ground increasingly bear the president out, sometimes dramatically. Yet the beat goes on -- with no sense of the great irony that it may be our writers and pundits who are stubbornly clinging to old assumptions.
Start with taxes. In the first three years of his administration, the president signed into law a series of tax cuts. They helped families by lowering rates, doubling the child credit, and reducing the marriage penalty. They helped small businesses, by increasing the incentives for investment and lowering the rate at which most small businesses pay taxes. And they put the death tax on the road to extinction.
Critics attacked on all fronts. The tax cuts were unfair because they only helped the rich. They would blow out the deficit, and do nothing for the economy. And when the economy began to improve, the focus shifted to a "jobless recovery."
We now know that "jobless recovery" in fact produced the longest period of consecutive job growth in our history. We now know that the tax cuts that were supposed to blow a hole in the federal budget deficit actually contributed to economic growth that has in turn yielded record tax revenues. As for unfairness, we also know that if the Democrats have their way and allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, a family of four with $60,000 in earnings in 2007 would see their taxes go up by about $1,800. So who's being stubborn?
Or take stem cells. Shortly after taking office, the president had to make a tough decision about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that holds out hope for life-saving treatments. The problem was that getting the stem cells requires destroying embryos. In July 2001, Mr. Bush announced a reasonable compromise. The solution was that the federal government would support embryonic stem cell research, but would not support the creation of life just to destroy it.
For more than six years, the critics have reacted by suggesting America was regressing into a new Dark Ages. "An act of self-serving political Houdinism" said one columnist. A later editorial after a presidential veto ran under the headline "The President's Stem Cell Theology." The science reporter for ABC News put it this way: "We talk to a lot of scientists who believe nothing will change until the next inauguration in 2009."
Well, we didn't have to wait until 2009 for something to change. Last November, scientists discovered a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. In other words, we now have the potential to cultivate adult cells with the same pluripotent qualities that make embryonic cells so valuable -- and without having to destroy human life. That sure sounds like a welcome development. So let me ask: How many stories or editorials have you read giving the president his due?
Finally there is Iraq. By the end of 2006, sectarian violence was tearing Iraq apart, the terrorists were getting away with spectacular acts of murder, and our strategy plainly was not working. For a man said to resist unpleasant truths, the president acted boldly. He replaced his defense secretary, replaced his commanders on the ground, and completely overhauled his strategy. Granted, it would have been better had it come earlier. But it was a tough thing to do, he did it -- and he did it knowing full well that the critics would jump all over him.
The president announced the surge in a nationally televised address in January 2007. A conservative columnist accused the president of offering nothing but "salesmanship and spin." A cable TV host went on a rant declaring "the plan fails militarily, the plan fails symbolically, the plan fails politically." Columnists and commentators either hedged their bets or predicted disaster ahead, with allusions to Vietnam sprinkled in for good measure.
Yet the surge went ahead. In Anbar Province, Marines were sent in to take advantage of a popular Sunni revolt against al Qaeda -- and by April the capital city of Ramadi was being taken back from the terrorists. By September, U.S. and Iraqi forces were clearing out Baquba, a one-time al Qaeda town in Diyala Province. And though Gen. David Petraeus says that the gains can still be reversed, sectarian killings are down, civilian deaths are down, and the people of Baghdad are getting a taste of normal life. Surely the president deserves a little credit here.
Of course, if you are one of those experts who reassured us that a "well managed defeat" in Iraq was the way for America to go, you don't like hearing the president use plain words like "win" and "victory." Then again, you're not the audience George W. Bush worries about. During one of my first meetings in the Oval Office, the president told me and my fellow speechwriters that we must always be mindful of how his words would sound to the enemy -- and how they would sound to the young Marine risking his life against that enemy in some dusty town in Afghanistan or Iraq.
President Bush hasn't always been right. But he's been right on the things that matter most, and he's been willing to take the heat. I, for one, admire him for it.
Mr. McGurn, an executive at News Corporation, served as chief speechwriter for President Bush from January 2005 until February 2008.