"Stay the course"? Who said anything about "staying the course"?

The White House flip-flops on its resoluteness, and the media finally catches on.

Published October 24, 2006 1:04PM (EDT)

For months now, the folks over at Think Progress have had their fun mocking the Bush administration on "stay the course." Each time Tony Snow or some other administration talking head declares that the White House plan on Iraq isn't anything like "stay the course" -- "the idea that somehow we're staying the course is just wrong," Snow said in early September -- they roll a video compilation of all the times Bush and Snow have declared that the plan is, indeed, to "stay the course."

The mainstream media has just caught on. The Washington Post and the New York Times both have "stay the course" stories this morning. The Post says the White House is "annoyed" that people keep thinking its Iraq policy is "stay the course," then quotes the president using exactly those words to describe the policy on three separate occasions. The Times says Bush used the expression on Aug. 31 but has not repeated it "for some time." That vague description suggests that the Times isn't sure that Bush stopped using "stay the course" in August. Neither, it seems, is his wife. Asked about Iraq on Sept. 18, First Lady Laura Bush said: "I say exactly what the president says, that we need to stay the course."

The "stay the course" switcheroo isn't new. Democrats have been attacking Republicans on the "stay the course" front for month after month now; in June, Jack Murtha complained that Karl Rove was "sitting in his air-conditioned office with his big, fat backside, saying, 'Stay the course.'" Murtha said that "stay the course" wasn't a plan but a "political statement."

Republicans -- well, some of them, anyway -- have been dancing away from STC nearly as long. Way back on Aug. 13, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman insisted that Republicans are not "coming in and saying, 'stay the course.' The choice in this election is not between 'stay the course' and 'cut and run.' It's between 'win by adapting' and 'cut and run.'" Of course, "win by adapting" doesn't really have the bumper-stickery ring that "stay the course" offers. Nor does "adapt for victory," the phrase apparently favored by the National Review's Kate O'Beirne. We're fighting a war here, not ordering new ergonomically correct office chairs. The president understands that -- well, some of the time, anyway -- so maybe that's why he continued to use "stay the course" to describe the policy long after its official sell-by date had passed.

Even in trying to explain why "stay the course" is only "about a quarter right" earlier this month, Bush insisted that he's "staying the course." "'Stay the course' means keep doing what you're doing," he said. "My attitude is, don't do what you're doing if it's not working; change. 'Stay the course' also means don't leave before the job is done. And that's -- we're going to get the job done in Iraq. And it's important that we do get the job done in Iraq."

So why is the mainstream media jumping on the story now? Because the White House is spinning it so hard now. "Stay the course," Tony Snow said Monday, has left "the wrong impression about what was going on, and it allowed critics to say, 'Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,' when, in fact, it is the opposite." And why is the White House spinning so hard now? Because three streams have just converged: Democrats are saying that "staying the course" is a prescription for disaster. An overwhelming 65 percent majority of the American people say that the United States is losing ground in Iraq. And now the generals on the ground in Iraq say the current plan hasn't worked.

"Stay the course"? Who said "stay the course"? Tony Snow insisted Monday that the White House policy on Iraq is "not a stay-the-course policy."

So what kind of policy do we have? We're betting "stay the course" is replaced any minute now with "blame the military." In an interview with CNBC, the president says he has always been about flexibility, but suggests that his generals haven't done enough to keep America limber. "Well, I've been talking about a change in tactics ever since I -- ever since we went in, because the role of the commander in chief is to say to our generals, 'You adjust to the enemy on the battlefield.'"

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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