OAKLAND, California - In the final days before the November elections, George W. Bush administration surrogates have taken to asking whoever they are conversing with about the Iraq war, "Do you want us to win in Iraq?"
As the U.S. death toll in Iraq for the month of October passed 100 -- making it the deadliest month in nearly two years -- and with polls still showing that the Democratic Party is poised to take control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate, Republican Party message-meisters appear to have devised what they hope will be the money sound-bite for electoral victory.
Whether it is the brainchild of Frank Luntz, the pollster and longtime Republican messaging guru, or an idea that emanated from the offices of Bush advisor Karl Rove or Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the "do you want us to win" question is clearly aimed at challenging the patriotism of critics of the war in Iraq.
"It's a good frame for the GOP [Republican Party] to roll out in these last few days before the election," Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based environmental group, told IPS. "The Bush administration has established a frame that is shorthand for saying you can either stay the course in Iraq and win àor lose."
"Since the 'stay the course' sound-bite was recently abandoned by the White House and is no longer the accepted frame, it makes sense that a replacement had to be found. And besides, the old frame no longer worked because staying the course has now been conclusively proved to be a failed concept and the frame itself is no longer effective," said Silver.
Within the same 24-hour period, both Lynne Cheney, the wife of vice president Dick Cheney, and Bill O'Reilly, the host of the highly rated -- for cable television -- Fox News Channel programme "The O'Reilly Factor," used the question in separate interviews.
Cheney not only used the question, she also challenged the patriotism of CNN and veteran journalist Wolf Blitzer. During Cheney's appearance on Blitzer's CNN show "The Situation Room" on Oct. 27, Blitzer asked her about the hullabaloo created by the campaign of Virginia Senator George Allen who charged his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, with writing novels about the Vietnam War that contained pornographic and salacious passages.
When Blitzer queried the second lady about "Sisters", her novel that, according to a press release issued by the Democratic Party, "featured a lesbian love affair, brothels and attempted rapes", Cheney refused to respond. Instead she went on the attack.
Cheney wanted to know why CNN was "running terrorist tapes of terrorists shooting Americans?" She said that she had seen California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter "ask you a very good question and you didn't answer it. Do you want us to win?"
The vice president's wife is no stranger to questioning the patriotism of opponents of the war on terrorism. Shortly after 9/11, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a Washington-based group co-founded by her and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, published an incendiary report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It." The report maintained that "colleges and university faculty" were "the weak link in America's response to the attack".
Also on Friday, Bill O'Reilly - fresh from an hour-long session with the queen of talk television, Oprah Winfrey -- appeared on the David Letterman show (the programme had been taped the previous day). During what turned out to be a mildly combative interview, O'Reilly said that he had "an easy question" for Letterman.
"Do you want the Untied States to win in Iraq?" O'Reilly asked. Letterman replied, "It's not easy for me because I'm thoughtful."
O'Reilly's question to Letterman was clearly not a spontaneous eruption. Earlier in the month, O'Reilly unveiled the question during an appearance on "The View," ABC television's morning talkfest. This time O'Reilly's target was two of the liberal co-hosts of the programme, Rosie O'Donnell and Joy Behar:
O'REILLY: Hold it, hold it, hold it. Want America to win in Iraq, by the way?
O'DONNELL: I don't think it's possible.
O'REILLY: Do you want, do you --
O'DONNELL: I think it's an ill-thought-out plan and I think we should get out of that situation before [more] Americans are killed. Out. Out of Iraq.
O'REILLY: Do you want America to win in Iraq?
JOY BEHAR (co-host of The View): What does it mean to win?
O'DONNELL: I want America to be what the founding fathers wanted it to be, a democracy, where we the people --
O'REILLY: OK. So you don't want America to win in Iraq.
"It's a 'when did you stop beating your dog' sort of frame," Scott Silver pointed out. "You ask the question and the person to whom you are asking it flubs the response. Or you ask the question knowing that no one wants to lose or would want to say 'I want the U.S. to lose.'"
What is "at stake in these next few days isn't the war in Iraq, its control of the House and Senate, and the framers of 'do you want to win' are evoking a competition frame," Silver added.
"Listeners are meant to have the knee-jerk response that says: 'winning is good -- losing is bad'," he said. "[They] are expected to make the association between the party saying we need to win in Iraq and the party for whom the listener is expected to vote."
The question is not meant to be thoughtful, said Silver. It is specifically "un-thoughtful. It's a knee-jerk/reflexive frame, a frame which may not actually dictate an answer, but makes it extraordinarily difficult for anyone to answer 'No' or 'Maybe' or 'I don't know'. 'Yes' is the only simple response to the question."
Whether winning the "round" on cable television is enough to shift public opinion away from the Democrats in the last days before the election remains to be seen.
*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service