Free Fall For The President

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This column was written by Terence Samuel.
The holidays are coming, people are not broke and they are feeling pretty good about themselves, and that for the moment may have arrested George W. Bush's downward spiral in the polls. It'll be interesting to see how Democrats react to that piece of good news for the White House.

In fact, the Democrats have one, simple job for the next 11 months: to not do anything stupid to get in the way of the GOP's overall campaign of self-immolation. And to that end, the evidence suggests that, at least for a little while, they shouldn't say anything at all. For one thing, there is a credible argument to be made that no one is listening anyway. And there is an even larger fear that they will say the wrong thing.

The recent attempts by President Bush to rescue his Iraq policy offer yet another example of why the biggest thing Democrats have in their favor is a White House that has lost its swagger. Their biggest problem may be a Democratic Party that can't seem to find its own mojo.

On Wednesday, House Democrats met to puzzle over the problem. And on Thursday Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she is not necessarily interested in forging or enforcing some kind of party position on Iraq in the same way she was on other issues, like prescription drugs. "There is no leadership conversation about pushing members to go one way or the other," Pelosi said. "We don't have a party position on matters of war."

The idea here is to take the high road and to avoid looking like political opportunists when people are dying every day in Iraq, but Democrats don't want a cackle of disparate voices to make them look like a weak alternative to guys who are messing up right now. But that is how they look: the president makes an utterly unsuccessful speech about victory in Iraq, demonstrating once again that his presidency may be effectively over, and yet Democrats still somehow manage to come across as divided, disorganized, and flailing.

Even in comparison to a president going down in flames.

Pelosi did make the point that the dissension among Democrats may be less significant than advertised: The debate, she say is "about when, not if we should reduce our troops" in Iraq.

In the end, I suspect Democrats have not hurt themselves much. And we know the president did not help himself at all. More than half of Americans think he is now just spouting rhetoric on Iraq: They appear to be done with the issue and to have made up their minds that this war was, and is, a mistake and there is nothing you can tell them now to make them feel better or to change their minds. Bush can make all the "major" speeches he wants: People don't believe anything he says anymore, particularly when the morning news out of Iraq is beginning to sound like the daily body count out of Vietnam, and when the Secretary of State is forced to spend her time assuring the world in vague generalities that the United States really, truly believes that torture is bad.

Without any other attractive options, the president is forced into a situation of trying to do to the political opposition at home what he has not been able to do to militarily to the insurgency in Iraq. As a result, there is the howitzer barrage that has been unleashed on anyone who has criticized the president or the war lately.

"Those Democratic congressional leaders who try to suggest that we don't have a plan are deeply irresponsible," declares White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace said military personnel needed to do a better job spreading the good news about Iraq. "We can say, 'We are winning,' and we will stay at it because our children and grandchildren deserve to live in the kinds of freedom you and I have enjoyed all our lives," he said, "We have done ourselves a disservice in the way we have defined the progress of Iraqi forces."

But Bush and his apostles may find themselves in the interesting position of talking more when everyone is listening less. That's what happens in a credibility gap. It may be that Americans have decided that they have had enough of this war whether Saddam had WMDs or not, whether the White House believed everything it said that turned out to be wrong or was lying, or whether there are 100 battle-ready Iraqi army divisions or just two guys on a corner ready to take up the slack when the Americans leave. They don't like this war anymore, and it's Bush's war, so they don't like him much anymore either. And it would behoove Democrats to not to get in between a sinking president and an increasingly disdainful electorate.


Terence Samuel is a political writer in Washington, D.C.
By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved
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