To hear some of the Beltway media tell it, on Sunday White House press secretary Robert Gibbs predicted that the Democrats could lose their congressional majority in the November midterms. The L.A. Times captured some of the sense of crisis (7/14/10), noting that
party leaders also tried to improve the gloomy prognosis. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, reversing course from comments he made over the weekend, said Tuesday he now believed Democrats would retain control of the House, a sentiment shared by the House majority leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
It's odd, then, to look at what actually Gibbs said on NBC's Meet the Press--which does not seem at all controversial:
DAVID GREGORY: Two final points. First of all, I want to get a prediction from you on, back on the political debate. Is the House in jeopardy, the majority for the Democrats in the House, in jeopardy?
ROBERT GIBBS: I think there's no doubt that there are a lot of seats that will be up, a lot of contested seats. I think people are going to have a choice to make in the fall. But I think there's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control. There's no doubt about that. This will depend on strong campaigns by Democrats. And again, I think we've got to take the issues to them. You know, are--do you want to put into the speakership of the House, a guy who thinks that the financial calamity is, is tantamount to an ant? The guy who's the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Barton, started his congressional testimony of the CEO of BP by apologizing, not to the people in the Gulf, but to the CEO. I think that's a perfect window, not into what people are thinking, but the way they would govern. Joe Barton, John Boehner, those are the type of things you'll hear a lot, I think, from both the president and local candidates about what you'd get if the Republicans were to gain control.
Somehow this message--that mathematically speaking the Republicans could win in November if Democrats do not run strong campaigns--is the one Beltway pundits and reporters misrepresented and seized on.
A more revealing exchange in the same Meet the Press interview came when host David Gregory asked a question that was essentially posed from the left, wondering if Obama's campaign rhetoric about breaking with Bush-era practices had been all talk:
The promise to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, yet it's still open. The Afghanistan war is not scaled down, it's been escalated. This administration has upheld the state secrets exemption in its pursuit of terrorists legally. It appears the worst-kept secret in Washington is that there appears to be abandoned plans to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in front of a civilian trial. Same strategy for North Korea and Iran, basically.
Gibbs' response was to argue that the Obama White House has outflanked the Bush administration to the right on some of these issues--a much more revealing window into White House thinking than Gibbs' completely uncontroversial take on the midterms.
GIBBS: I hate to interrupt, but let's understand this. We have the toughest sanctions on North Korea that we've ever had as a result of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution.
GREGORY: Same strategy. Same strategy.
GIBBS: Same strategy... GREGORY: Pursued by the Bush administration.
GIBBS: More important, better tactics. We've got the strongest sanctions regime on Iran that has ever been in place. And, David, go back... GREGORY: Same strategy as the Bush administration. GIBBS: But, but understand--let's go back to the Bush administration.
GIBBS: You brought this up. I know the next panel's going to say I blamed this all on the Bush administration...
GREGORY: No, no, no. But can I just finish? GIBBS: But--let me... GREGORY: The predicate here, which is, is it harder to do a reversal from Bush foreign policy than you originally thought?
GIBBS: No, because I think you've greatly oversimplified it. It--if you ask Ed Gillespie, ask any of the folks that you had right now, if in September of 2008 or October of 2008 or November of 2008 whether China and Russia were going to come on board for strengthening sanctions against Iran. The answer to that would be a flat no. You wouldn't have gotten to the Security Council because you would have had at least two countries raise their hand to veto those. This president has put together a coalition that includes Russia and China, that's actually strengthened our sanctions regime on South Korea [sic]. We have better relationships with virtually every country in the world as a result of the president's foreign policy outreach. We're reducing nuclear weapons in this world that we know can cause the type of calamity, whether they accidentally launch or whether they fell into the hands of a terrorist. There's no doubt, David, that we have taken foreign policy in a different direction. We have improved relationships with countries, but not just as a means to an ends. That's actually making our country safer and more secure as a result. I think you created, oversimplified, sort of, what the president is trying to do, because the things that he's instituted couldn't have been done in the last administration.
"Same strategy...better tactics." If that's the new White House motto, that's a lot more newsworthy than saying that Democrats are going to have to work hard to win the midterms.