This column was written by David Corn.
Is it possible the White House doesn't want Republicans to win the congressional elections on Tuesday? I know this sounds crazy. But consider the evidence.
1. Last week, George W. Bush vowed to retain Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense until the end of his presidency. (He said the same about Dick Cheney.) The debacle in Iraq is responsible for Bush's political decline and the GOP's poor electoral prospects. And Rumsfeld is the poster boy for that debacle. (Days ago, the Army Times called for his resignation.) Bush had no obligation to say whether Rumsfeld would remain at the Pentagon for another two years. He went out of his way in the homestretch of an election to tether himself to the fellow who symbolizes the mess in Iraq. Why do that — unless he has a political death wish?
2. On Friday, Dick Cheney said that the administration would indeed stay with its current course in Iraq and move "full speed ahead." He said, "We've got the basic strategy right." He added, "It may not be popular with the public — it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right." Perhaps. But the previous week, his boss held a press conference and tried to convey the impression (though false) that the administration was going to rejigger its Iraq policy by introducing and aiming for "benchmarks." Bush's benchmark comments were not sufficient to win the confidence of the electorate. Days later, a CBS News/New York Times poll noted that only 29 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling the war in Iraq. So if 71 percent do not have faith in the White House's Iraq policy, why would Cheney make a point of declaring — defiantly — that he and Bush are committed to racing down that unpopular road? It was as if he were shooting the bird at the American public.
3. Speaking of which, on the weekend before the election, Cheney's office had an announcement: Cheney would spend Election Day on his first hunting trip since he shot a friend while trying to kill quail on a private ranch last February. Was this the right time for the White House to remind voters of Cheney's hapless moment? Couldn't Cheney wait until after the election before picking up a gun again? Why won't he be in a toss-up state stumping for a Republican candidate on Election Day? Or knocking on doors? And why does he get the day off? Election Day is not a federal holiday.
All of the above is quite puzzling behavior for a president and vice president facing the possibility their agenda, their war, and their party are about to be soundly refuted by American voters. Do they already know all is lost? On Sunday, I spoke with a former senior Bush administration official who has publicly predicted the Republicans will retain a one- or two-seat majority in the House and keep control of the Senate. But his manner indicated he didn't believe it. "This is what I have to say," he told me. "This is my public position." I asked what his private view was. He rolled his eyes.
Of course, the Republican Party is doing all it can to beat back what appears to be an anti-GOP wave — and that includes airing far-below-the-belt negative ads. Bush and Cheney have been campaigning in conservative areas — in spots where they won't do harm to Republicans. (On Monday, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida elected not to campaign with Bush in the Sunshine State.) And GOPers are talking up the vaunted get-out-the-vote machine created by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman that is now in motion. So it is bizarre that in the closing days of this critical election Bush and Cheney would so dramatically remind voters of what they don't like about the Bush-Cheney administration. If these episodes are not indicators of a secret desire to lose, they are additional signs that Bush and Cheney are woefully out of sync with the public. This prompts a question: if the electorate does rise up against Bush, his party and their war, will Bush and Cheney be able to process that? If not, the republic may be in for a rather bumpy ride.
By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from The Nation