Yes, it's campaign season. And, sure, politicians get defensive when they're running for re-election, particularly when control of Congress is at stake, which it is.
But the debate lately has gone beyond the predictable yammering. It's enough to turn off even a political junkie.
News event: North Korea apparently detonates a nuclear device — a chilling development. Should the United States hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang? Should the use of force be off the table?
Reaction: From Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, blame for the "failed policies" of the Bush administration. "I regret deeply their failure to deal with the threat posed by North Korea." Next, a return volley from Sen. John McCain — a preview of the 2008 presidential campaign. "I would remind Senator Clinton ... that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated (with North Korea) was a failure." Then, the presidential zinger: "North Korea has been trying to acquire bombs and weapons ... long before I came into office."
That's good to know. But if you're out there just trying to figure out what to do next about North Korea's nuclear ambitions, the blame game is not helpful. More annoying, really. "Voters have the capacity to understand when you disagree with them," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "They'll even give you the benefit of the doubt, so long as you're straight with them."
Sad to say, this debate doesn't qualify.
News event: Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigns over sending inappropriate e-mails to an underage page. Republican congressional leaders are shocked, shocked about it. Then it becomes known they were aware of some initial "overly friendly" Foley e-mails and still allowed Foley — maybe even persuaded him — to run for re-election to his safe seat. The obvious question: How could this happen?
Reaction: Outrage. Bipartisan outrage. All-out outrage, all the time. After frantic GOP conference calls during which Republicans begged someone to take responsibility — with some whispering that the scandal should cost the speaker his job — House Speaker Dennis Hastert finally said "the buck stops here."
This was good, except for the fact that some Republicans, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, decided to pass the buck — to the Democrats. "What we don't have to do is allow our friends on the left to lecture us on morality," Gingrich argued. Besides, he added, the Democrats have had their own sex scandals (wink, wink), and they "have wanted to punish their offenders less than the GOP."
Gee, is that actually relevant here? Does that let the GOP off the hook? Hardly. And here's what the public takes away: a sense that the majority is arrogant, interested in doing just about anything to keep its power.
News event: Bob Woodward's new book, "State of Denial," reports that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the 900-pound gorilla of Iraq planning — repeatedly misjudging the insurgency, paying little or no attention to his own advisers who were warning that the war was going badly. On top of that, Republican Sen. John Warner — a supporter of the war — returns from a trip to Iraq to announce that the country is "drifting sidewise," suggesting that major changes might be considered. Anyone interested in the war — both past and present — could hope this might inspire some serious soul-searching.
Reaction: The White House goes into full damage-control mode, describing the Woodward book as "sort of like cotton candy; it kind of melts on contact." Whatever you think of Woodward, cotton candy doesn't exactly come to mind. As for the president, he was at least willing to concede that Warner be taken seriously — while insisting blithely that the overall strategy in Iraq remains sound. "We're on the move," he said. "We're taking action."
He also lets us in on what it's like to be president. "You know, there's just a lot of look-backs," he says. "Presidents don't get to look back."
Actually, they do. More to the point, they should. Not to the extent of appearing indecisive, but how about at least appearing truthful? And lose the arrogance. That's what the voters want. A recent New York Times / CBS News poll reports that 83 percent of the public believes the president is either "hiding something" or "lying" when he talks about how the war in Iraq is going.
As for Congress, 69 percent believe members "consider themselves above the law." Less than half say Congress shares their moral values. "The finger-pointing," says pollster Fabrizio, "turns them off." Just wait until the election — that's when the voters get to point their own finger.
By Gloria Borger