The end of "slow bleed"? Don't count on it

An editor admits he invented the phrase. Will the GOP and the media stop attributing it to Democrats?

By Tim Grieve
Published February 28, 2007 3:43PM (EST)

Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan pounced earlier this month when Jack Murtha began floating his plan to slowly limit the number of U.S. troops the president could send to Iraq. In a "Dear Friend" letter posted on the RNC's Web site, Duncan said that Murtha had "let slip what he and Nancy Pelosi really intend to do, and it is genuinely frightening. They call it their 'slow-bleed' plan."

Only they don't, of course.

Pelosi's team may not always be masters of messaging, but we knew from the moment we first heard Duncan's characterization -- repeated ad nauseam by the mainstream media -- that it couldn't really have been what Murtha had said.

So who first used "slow bleed"? That would be the Politico's John Harris, who inserted the word into the lead of a story by John Bresnahan and now says that he regrets doing so. "'Slow bleed' is my phrase. Murtha had nothing to do with it," Harris writes in an "editor's confession" today. Looking back, he says, he'd "prefer" that he hadn't handed Murtha's opponents "ammunition in the form of evocative but loaded language."

Still, Harris isn't entirely apologetic, suggesting that his "snappier" take on Bresnahan's original lead wasn't so wrong in the "context." That "context," he says, is that "what is slowly bleeding away is the administration's political support to keep fighting the war."

See if that's how you read the "context" in the story the Politico posted earlier this month: "Top House Democrats, working in concert with anti-war groups, have decided against using congressional power to force a quick end to U.S. involvement in Iraq, and instead will pursue a slow-bleed strategy designed to gradually limit the administration's options." That's the lead. It took two more paragraphs before the story mentioned the idea that the war might be "politically unsustainable," and the piece later referred to Murtha's plan as a way to give "political cover to conservative House Democrats who are nervous about appearing 'anti-military' while also mollifying the anti-war left."

"Mollifying the anti-war left"? The last time we checked, two-thirds of Americans opposed Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. If that's the antiwar "left," then the "center" and the "right" must be sharing an awfully small corner of this country.

Now that Harris has made it clear that Democrats didn't call their plan a "slow bleed," will the media stop referring to the plan that way? Will Duncan retract his smear? Don't count on it. This morning, the RNC is distributing a new story from the Politico -- not Harris' pseudo apology, but a Bresnahan report describing how Senate Democrats are "accusing their leaders of mismanaging" the effort to stop Bush's escalation and end the war.

Tim Grieve

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

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Iraq War Nancy Pelosi D-calif.