DeLay Seeks Clarity on Iraq

Leader Says Senators Not Helping Party

Posted May 14, 2004 at 6:36pm

Frustrated by how both Senate Republicans and the White House have handled Iraq message efforts in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, House GOP leaders are aggressively seeking to play a larger role in preventing an increasingly negative story from spiralling out of control.

Since photos of the Abu Ghraib abuses first came to light, many House Republicans have grumbled that their Senate counterparts have hogged the airwaves and done a poor job defending the Bush administration and putting the scandal into perspective.

Those complaints were the thrust of a strongly worded speech House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) delivered to the GOP Conference meeting Wednesday.

“I think he was expressing his frustration at the fact that Senators are the ones who are getting booked and they’re the ones who are getting weak-kneed,” said a senior GOP aide who was present.

At the same time, Members and aides have privately discussed what they view as the White House’s inability to convey a coherent, disciplined message about how the war is progressing.

Last Thursday, several senior House Republican Members went to the White House to meet with President Bush on the issue. The group included Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (Fla.), Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

“The purpose of the meeting was to talk about how we can get a better handle on communicating the Iraq policy,” said a House GOP aide.

The White House declined to comment on the substance of the meeting.

While the steady trickle of bad news from Iraq was already crowding out domestic policy message efforts and making it difficult for Republicans on Capitol HIll and the White House to set the news agenda, the prison abuse story has effectively taken over the airwaves.

House Republicans say privately that they would like to see the White House make a more concerted effort to distribute timely information and talking points while making sure that administration-friendly surrogates be given equal time in the media along with more critical Democrats.

The surrogate role is one that House Republican leaders believe their own Members should be filling, but in recent weeks their longstanding complaints that media bookers unfairly favor Senators over House Members have resurfaced.

According to aides, DeLay made the point in his speech Wednesday not just that Senate Republicans are on television too much but also that they’re sometimes delivering the wrong message.

“You’ll have Democrats on the [television news] shows representing the [Democratic] position and then Republicans on the shows with valid positions but not necessarily the Republican position,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

While DeLay did not mention any Senators by name, Republicans who were at the Conference meeting said they saw GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) as examples of Senators who strove to be balanced in their praise and criticism of the Bush administration and were thus getting a disproportionately large amount of television time.

To counter that perceived imbalance, House Republican leaders are strongly encouraging their Members to try to get on both national and local television while also reaching out to newspapers and talk radio stations in their districts.

That effort to increase House GOP exposure on Iraq issues was discussed at last Monday’s regular “war room” meeting of communications staffers and then emphasized again by DeLay on Wednesday.

DeLay also reiterated a point he and other Republicans had made the previous week in the wake of Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) harsh comments about the war’s progress. The Majority Leader emphasized that the Iraq war could be lost if political leaders did not remain united in their commitment to see the campaign through to the end.

“The leader’s message is simple,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy. “As American blood is flowing in Iraq fighting for freedom, it is that much more important to speak with one voice to support their mission of mercy. The war on terror is a war we must win. There is no return to the days of pre-9/11.”

That message won’t get out, though, unless House Republicans figure out how to attract more attention to it.

“We need to get out there,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “We need to get on offense on this.”