Monday, November 01, 2004
Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that this is a prediction of a Bush loss, it isn't. In fact, I am firmly of the view that he will win the election, based largely on the belief that John Kerry has not provided a positive reason for America to change its leader at this crucial time in its history. Having gotten that out of the way, I also want to be on record if it doesn't quite work out that way. As we all know, this looks like an extremely close election. People usually wait until after they're done to write their post mortems. I won't. Just in case Bush loses, I think it's important to point out why he put himself in a position where such an outcome became a real possibility.
Number one on that list is his loss in the media wars. Negative developments in Iraq allowed Democratic presidential contenders, starting with Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, to throw all kinds of red-meat allegations at the president with little need for justification or accountability. And events spiraled from there. From the inability to find WMD after the invasion, to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, President Bush has taken one hit after another resulting in an approval rating which went from sustained historical highs to below the important 50% mark.
Taking these hits was almost inevitable. You simply cannot ignore reality; the two most important components of which were the missing WMD and the continuing persistence of the insurgency. However, what you can do is get your message out there to combat media coverage hostile to your agenda. Time after time, Bush and Rove have decided to take the hits sitting down.
Nowhere was this more evident than with the story of the WMD, an issue I believe was completely conceded by the Bush administration. Obviously, the failure to discover weapons stockpiles was and is a continuing embarrassment in relation to the justification to go to war. Yet, finding WMD was not the justification for going to war. Saddam's compliance with UN Resolution 1441 was. When he failed to comply with disarmament requirements, yet again, and with a formidable buildup of US and British soldiers waiting in Kuwait as an enforcement precaution, Bush had little choice but to act. Otherwise, the inspections games would have continued, the soldiers would have eventually needed to be sent home, and we would have been right back where we started: Saddam in power, inspections not working, and international pressure to lift sanctions building.
Why President Bush has failed to make this particular argument for the war, after it was waged, remains a mystery. He continued to insist that weapons would be found, even though that wasn't the precise justification for war. He played right into the hands of critics who were just waiting to say, "See, I told you so. Bush lied to go to war," even though the number of these critics who were actually saying this before the war was as high as the number of actual WMD found in Iraq.
Perhaps the single greatest reason for Bush's currently lower than desired approval ratings is the perception that the Iraq war was an unjustified war. Despite numerous efforts to cite other justifications for the war, the President was never able to emerge from the cloud which he himself helped create: the failure to find the WMD which were billed as a vital threat to the security of the United States and the rest of the world. Instead of keeping the focus on Saddam's actions, the President persisted in wanting to assume responsibility for the WMD search in Iraq. And assume that responsibility he has. Saddam was the one who refused to comply. Yet Bush allowed himself to be cast as the villain when it comes to weapons disarmament. Even Machiavelli could not have described a more ironic twist of events.
This acquiescence from Bush and Rove was not an isolated event. It has been a defining characteristic of their method of operation. The accusation that Bush, the 'uniter not a divider' candidate, is a 'divisive' president was not met with the response that, "it takes two to tango," a reflection of some Democrats' itching to break ranks since shortly after 9/11. Instead, Bush says he has tried, but that the nation was divided in 2000, and it's still divided today. Not a very inspiring sentiment.
Just pick your issue. Democrats, including Kerry, who were rushing to be on side for this war are now trashing it every chance they get. They say Bush lied to them. Bush says nothing in return. The 9/11 Commission was trying hard to lay some blame at the feet of George Bush for allowing that homeland attack to occur, Bush says nothing about the obvious reality that a former president had more than seven years to do something about the problem. The economy is deceptively portrayed as the worst since "Hoover", Bush decides to combat this perception long after it is already widely disseminated. If Bush was trying to hang onto the "uniter" label, it didn't work. The "divider" tag has stuck. He hasn't done much to explain his side of the story.
It's unclear why President Bush has decided to allow himself to be defined this way for the better part of this entire campaign season. A lesson he says he learned from his father was that you can't allow yourself to be defined. But hasn't Bush done exactly that over the course of the past twelve months?
Perhaps the only explanation is the calculation that, in the end, none of it will matter. Bush took the challenge of 9/11 and, despite all the formidable obstacles he has had to endure since, the American people have never really abandoned him. They have their doubts. Many people have done their very best to fuel those doubts.Yet, through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad, Bush has taken all the mud anyone can throw at him and he still finds himself in a strong position to remain president.
Perhaps Bush has seen the landscape, and knows in his heart that he still owns it. It might be the only explanation of why he has taken almost every opportunity to stay the course, even though it meant taking hit after hit after hit after hit. For his sake, I hope he was right. Otherwise, one of the most important elections in memory will have been decided in part because a president allowed the critics to shout down his justification for staying on the job.