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Debating "Defeatist"

(CBS)
A testy exchange popped up this week in the new White House Briefing Room between Tony Snow and CBS News' chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod. Public Eye reached out to Axelrod for his insight on the incident.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and I engaged in an exchange that sparked some interest. The subject was political support for the President on Iraq coming on the heels of several Republican defections. To set a baseline for the questions, I asked Tony if in his view Republican support was eroding. He said he wasn't sure. We then had this exchange:

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Q: Are you at all worried that, as sort of these basic questions are answered and the answer that comes back is not exactly, and it's not black and white, it's gray, and all -- are you worried that the American people listen to this sort of debate and perceive you and the White House as isolated and out of touch on this?

MR. SNOW: No, no more than I think that they look at you and think that you guys are focused on defeat.

Q: Wait a minute, that's not my question at all.

MR. SNOW: You just asked me if I'm clueless, and I'm asked if you're a defeatist.

Q: Wait a second, hang on. You have Republicans -- Voinovich, Lugar, Domenici -- people who are involved in shaping a new course for the mission, and they are leaving the President. Every time this gets asked about, you tell us, no, that's not what happening. When people listen to this back-and-forth, do you think the inference many Americans draw is, the White House is the last place to get the fact that the Republican Party is leaving them?

MR. SNOW: No, I think the White House is the last part trying to say, public opinion polls are not what the war is made of. Military actions on the ground, the brave sacrifices of Americans, the actions of Iraqis on the ground, the changing and shifts of tides of public opinion based on the fact that Iraqis are standing up and putting their lives on the front line, those are the things that ought to be guiding Americans' opinions.

As seductive as it may be to look at polls, or even to look at -- look, you're absolutely right, there's a lot of skepticism among Republicans. As I told you, they're getting an earful from constituents. But it's also important for us to remind people that the alternative to war is not peace, in this case. The alternative to -- the alternative, if you leave right away, is cataclysmic, and I think you'll find a lot of Democrats and Republicans agree.

So when you have a tough situation -- we're not trying to deny the political difficulties. I mean, that would be foolish. But on the other hand, what we're trying to do is to share with the American people the fact that there's a whole lot more going on than speeches in the well of the Senate. There are things going on in Baquba, and there are things going on in Basra, and there are things going on in Baghdad, and there are things going on in Anbar, and there are things going on in Mosul each and every day. And none of that seems to penetrate.

And so part of it -- we'll accept part of the blame. But if you want to ask what's going on in the war and who's got a clue about the war -- part of this has to do with taking a look operationally at what's going on. And, again, we'll accept -- I'll accept part of the blame, because a lot of the important pieces of information that would make Americans proud somehow have not poked through, and we'll do a better -- we'll try to do a better job.

Q: I want to be really clear in saying that, reporters asking questions about Republicans and what they're doing on the Hill does not make us defeatists.

MR. SNOW: No, any more than my answering your questions makes me clueless.

Q: I didn't say you were clueless.

MR. SNOW: Oh, I'm sorry, the American people thought we were clueless.

Q: I'm asking you --

(Ed Henry of CNN took over the questioning here.)

Q: How do you suggest the press is focused on defeat, which is what you just said a moment ago --

MR. SNOW: No, what I was --

Q: No, no, no, but that's what you said. So, go ahead, explain what you said.

MR. SNOW: No, what I was doing is that there was a caricature of our position and I responded with a caricature. And I believe I said, no more -- I said that that was not true.

Q: Okay, so it's not --

MR. SNOW: Okay, so go back and look at the opening phrase --

Q: So, just for the record, the press is not focused on defeat? Do you want to clear that up?

MR. SNOW: Yes, but I'm saying that sometimes you get accused of it.

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I've been asked since the exchange if I was angered. No, I wasn't. I don't think anyone was questioning my patriotism. However, knowing that the country is engaged in a passionate debate, knowing the power of language, and knowing that too often asking questions of our leaders is construed in some quarters as being "anti" -- "anti-military", "anti-administration", or "anti-establishment", I just wanted to be as clear as possible. Tony and I sort of patted each other on the arm after the briefing was over. He's a wonderful guy. He's got his job to do -- which at this point includes defending an unpopular President -- and i've got mine. I just wanted to be sure everyone knew -- if someone calls me "defeatist" they are dead wrong -- and they'll get a fight. Every time.