House and Senate GOP leaders were becoming increasingly frustrated last week by what they see as the White House’s lackluster efforts to spread positive stories about the situation on the ground in Iraq.
Top lawmakers — House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), in particular — made clear last week in both public and private settings that they do not believe the Iraq message effort has been effective.
At a bicameral White House meeting Wednesday, the House GOP Conference gathering Thursday morning and the elected leadership meeting Thursday afternoon, DeLay criticized the White House message efforts in increasingly vocal terms.
According to a GOP source, DeLay said during the Conference meeting that the White House “is not communicating very well, especially on the issue of Iraq,” and that the issue is the “greatest vulnerability [Republicans] face.”
The White House did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
DeLay and other leaders made similar comments directly to President Bush during the bicameral meeting, and a source familiar with the exchange said Bush agreed that the White House had not done an adequate job on the message front.
On Friday afternoon, DeLay and three GOP colleagues also held a private meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to discuss their concerns.
The griping came before the announcement later on Friday that Bush would address the nation about the situation in Iraq Sunday night. On Friday evening, some Hill Republicans noted that the decision to schedule the speech may have come in response to Congressional complaints, and was a step in the right direction.
Some Republican lawmakers admitted that they also bear some responsibility for not putting out a strong message on the issue,
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said there is a “general frustration of why can’t America hear” the positive developments in Iraq, but was careful not to lay the blame solely on Bush’s doorstep.
Frist said Congressional Republicans also share responsibility for the GOP’s failure to keep the country united on the decision to wage war against Iraq, and must now help rebuild the support.
“In part, it is the fault of the Members of Congress that are not echoing that, but I think over the next several weeks we will hear that passion and that boldness,” Frist said.
But Republican Members and aides emphasized that the administration would have to do its part if it hopes to turn the Iraq story around.
“They declared the war over and there’s no more message machine,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide. “There’s a frustration that they have a good message but nobody’s going to hear it.”
Another Republican leadership aide added, “The bottom line is that our Members can’t communicate it without having the actual, real-life examples. The information is not readily available.”
As in the House, Iraq was a dominant issue at last week’s Senate Republican Conference meeting. Using data compiled by GOP pollster David Winston (who is a Roll Call contributing writer), Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) told his colleagues there has been a major shift in how voters view how the country is being run.
“Direction of the country has gone from 45-43 right direction-wrong track at the end of July to 38-49 at the end of August,” Santorum wrote in a Sept. 4 memo to Senate Republicans. “This is a significant shift.”
Still, Senate Republicans maintain a better brand image (48-40) than their Democratic counterparts (46-42), according to the GOP poll.
But Santorum pointed out that it is becoming more difficult to break through with effective messaging because “the communications environment has become more difficult as voters are growing more stressed about the economy and hearing reports of more casualties in Iraq.”
The Pennsylvania Republican noted in his memo that Democrats, too, failed to deliver an effective message during the August recess, but added, “now is the time that we must rectify the situation and re-establish a command focus on our central messages.”
The warning appears to have resonated with Senate Republicans, who agreed that delivering an effective message should be a top priority over the next few months.
“In July and August we weren’t really advancing the message,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “We need to refocus and get on a good solid message of jobs and growth and security. I am sure you will see in the next three weeks we will get that honed, and by October we will be humming.”
With support for continued involvement in Iraq slipping, leaders are anxious to once again gain the high ground on the Iraq issue, especially since Bush is on the verge of asking Congress to approve a $65 billion-plus emergency spending bill to pay for unforeseen war costs.
Last week, Republican leaders suggested that a national address by Bush might be the action needed to help convince the United States and its allies that the steps taken to oust Saddam Hussein were warranted.
“This is not a criticism, I do think the president though in the next couple of weeks needs to find a good forum to really remind the people of why we went in there and what we are trying to do and what we are going to have to do to achieve success,” Lott said Thursday. “I think to refocus the message is necessary.”
The primary concern of Republican lawmakers — particularly those who have recently visited Iraq — is that the positive humanitarian accomplishments they witnessed have not been properly trumpeted to the press.
“The message that needs to be received is that there are some great things going on in Iraq,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense.
The White House Office of Global Communications sends out a daily Iraq e-mail that Hill aides can sign up for, but the messages typically do not contain the kind of specific, human-interest examples Members say they want.
Last Wednesday’s edition, for example, consisted solely of a few quotes from Paul Bremer, the official in charge of reconstruction, and a handful of dry facts about the new Iraqi Governing Council.
Some Congressional aides also receive daily and weekly operational updates from the Pentagon, which mostly consist of statistics and military jargon.
House GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) is planning to hold a pen and pad briefing with the media on either Tuesday or Wednesday, where she will invite lawmakers who recently visited Iraq to share what they saw.
The Conference also plans to package the raw data coming from the Pentagon with more personal anecdotes and make them available to Members in the form of sample op-ed pieces and individual stories that lawmakers can include in their media appearances and office newsletters.
“We don’t have to wait for the administration to take the lead on this,” said a House Republican leadership aide. “We can do that right now with the Members we have.”
Whatever disgruntlement exists on the GOP side with the White House’s Iraq strategy, it pales in comparison to Democratic complaints.
On Friday, Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Bush outlining steps “critical to improving our performance in the war against terrorists.”
Obey’s first recommendation was that Bush “allow” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to “return to the private sector” for their “repeated and serious miscalculations.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.