As has been noted here before, the surest way for a Republican to get himself invited onto a broadcast network news show and accorded respectful treatment is to be prepared to take shots at the Bush administration.
The time-tested technique was on display on this morning's Today, as Newt Gingrich got the kind of kid-glove treatment he could have only dreamed of back in his Speaker days when the MSM was vilifying him as 'the Gingrich Who Stole Christmas'.
At the top of the show, Matt Lauer teased Newt's appearance in these terms:
"A prominent politican is saying US policy in Iraq since toppling Saddam Hussein has been an enormous mistake. This isn't a Democrat. It's a Republican - former House Speaker Newt Gingrich."
When Lauer interviewed Newt later in the half-hour, first up was the more pressing matter of Iran's nuclear ambitions and our plans to thwart them. For the record, Newt favors first trying to foment a popular uprising. At the same time, he observed that "the Congress and the American people would think the military was not doing its job if they didn't have [military] plans. Plans and actions are two different things."
But as Newt waxed on about Iran, Lauer was unable to conceal his impatience to turn talk to the subject that earned Gingrich his invite: his criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy.
Lauer wasted no time in trying to milk the matter for all its political worth: "Here's what you said about Iraq in South Dakota recently: 'It was an enormous mistake for us to try to occupy that country after June of 2003.' You went on to say 'we have to pull back and we have to recognize it.' If it was an enormous mistake, and by the way the administration wouldn't characterize it as occupation but as stabilizing the country for democracy, but if it was an enormous mistake in your opinion who's to blame?"
Newt's arm didn't have to be twisted too hard: "If you're playing the blame game, the President is the Commander-in-Chief. I assume [the installation of] Ambassador Bremer was his decision, the orders for Ambassador Bremer were his decision."
That said, Newt's criticism was much more limited than Today's build-up might have lead viewers to imagine. He argued that in Iraq we should have followed the same model as in Afghanistan, where we managed to create a government within three weeks and in which President Karzai assumed office in relatively short order. In contrast, he described the situation in Iraq as an 'occupation' and singled out Paul Bremer and the Bush policy that put him in Iraq for criticism. Gingrich described Bremer as having been a "proconsul" a term from from the days of empire for an official with great powers over a colony.
Newt prefaced his criticism with unequivocal support for the underlying mission: "I was totally for the war, I am totally for staying as long as it takes to defeat the terrorists and the murderers and the rapists who are trying to dominate the country. The Iraqi people want to be free and are dying every day to try to be free. I don't think we should cut and run."
Lauer mentioned that Newt has been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire - no doubt with an eye on '08. Is Gingrich trying to thread the Republican primary needle? Offer criticism that suggests he would make a better leader, while not appearing disloyal to the cause?
In any case, as can be seen from the screen capture, when it came to our Iraq policy, Today predictably highlighted Gingrich's condemnation rather than his support.