Democrats Attempt to Turn Debate Back to Iraq

Democrats and Republicans are reacting to an intelligence report that concludes the Iraq war has led to more — not fewer — terrorist threats. Washington is also talking about former President Bill Clinton's performance during a Fox News interview.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush returns to the campaign trail today. He's expected to stump for Republican candidates in Connecticut and Ohio. The president's push comes as reports have surfaced about the impact of the war in Iraq on terrorism.

Joining us now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Published reports yesterday claim that the intelligence community has judged that the war in Iraq has actually made the terrorist threat greater. What is the effect of that news?

ROBERTS: Well, it is quite striking. Sixteen spy agencies got together to write what's called the National Intelligence Estimate. According to The New York Times, The Washington Post and the L.A. Times yesterday, it says that terrorism has been, as you say, fueled by the war in Iraq rather than the war in Iraq helping to defuse terrorism. The director of intelligence, Negroponte, says well we are making progress against terrorism. The White House says these news reports are not the whole picture of the very secret National Intelligence Estimate.

But the Democrats have, as you would expect, seized on this to show that it proves what they have been saying, which is that the war in Iraq is the wrong course and going in the wrong direction. And they of course desperately want to get the subject back to the war in Iraq, get people talking about the war in Iraq, more than the war on terrorism as has been the case in the last couple of weeks as they head into the election because it's a good issue for the Democrats.

MONTAGNE: Well, former Democratic President Bill Clinton got caught up in this yesterday. He was very defensive when he was asked about his role in helping to disrupt terrorism during his administration. Talk to us about what that was all about.

ROBERTS: Well, that was a fairly extraordinary interview. He was out yesterday talking about his global initiative. But he was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about the Clinton administration's failure to get Osama bin Laden. The former president, as you say, got more than a little bit testy. Let's listen.

President BILL CLINTON: You did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. What I want to know is...

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Host, Fox News Sunday): Well, wait a minute, sir. I asked a question. You don't think that's a legitimate question?

President CLINTON: It was a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you ask this question of?

ROBERTS: Now what's interesting here is the politics, aside from the theatrics. The Democratic base completely agrees with former President Clinton that there is a right-wing conservative conspiracy out there, particularly when it comes to the media, particularly Fox News. So the former president probably really helped Democratic candidates by energizing the base yesterday in that appearance.

MONTAGNE: And the former president wasn't the only Clinton taking political heat this week.

ROBERTS: Well, that's true. And this gives credence to the Clinton's thinking there is a right-wing conspiracy out to get them. The Reverend Jerry Falwell said at a gathering of conservatives that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy for the presidency in '08 would do more to energize the conservative base than Lucifer. We're talking here about the devil himself. Now since then, Reverend Falwell has said that he was kidding, that he was talking tongue-in-cheek. But this is where our politics are, is we're now comparing candidates to the devil and that's what gets the base of one side out there and energized, and the base of the other side when you talk about conspiracies.

MONTAGNE: Although, Cokie, there was apparently at least one moment of unity in Washington this past week. Republican dissidents and the White House came together over a bill determining how to deal with detainees in the war against terrorism.

ROBERTS: Well, yes and no, they've come together. The Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Arlen Specter, says he still has problems with this agreement. He expects to hold hearings today on the question of evidence for people who are not brought to trial. But Republicans who objected to the original White House plan who have made the deal with the White House are finding themselves on the defensive about what it is they've agreed to. Some human rights groups are objecting. So we'll see if they can get it passed this week. That's their goal.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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