The Iraq Debate & Other Short Stories

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.
The Democratic narrative for the 2006 elections runs something like this: The Republicans are vulnerable because of President Bush's very low approval ratings, the public's deep worries about the Iraq war, Washington ethics scandals that have touched both the House and the White House and high gas prices.

The Democrats' strategic response: Run an essentially negative campaign that attacks the president at every juncture, turn the spotlight on scandals, force high-profile debates on Iraq in Congress and blame gas prices on the White House.

The Republican story of Campaign '06 goes like this: Our perceived weaknesses have now been fixed by good news — the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formation of a new Iraqi cabinet and the announcement that Karl Rove won't be indicted — so we will do as well as we did in the other two post-9/11 elections because voters fundamentally trust us more to keep the nation safe and the Democrats are a fuzzy alternative.

The accompanying Republican strategy: Ignore ethics scandals just like the voters will, aggressively welcome all debates on Iraq as opportunities to be the national security heavyweights and to accuse the Democrats of wanting to "cut and run," press issues like immigration and gay marriage — and then outspend the opponents in every race.

These stories are not only fiction, they are specialty fiction — as formulaic and shallow as romance novels and with niche audiences like science fiction.

Only political reporters, talking heads and political professionals tell and consume stories like these. Normal voters don't think, for instance, that the situation in Iraq has changed substantially because al-Zarqawi is dead and Iraq has a cabinet.

While normal voters might think corruption flows more to the party in power than to the outs, they don't believe that Democrats are so much cleaner than Republicans that they'll vote based on that: nor do they think it matters that Rove wasn't indicted. The only people who think Bush is to blame for gas prices are people who hated him anyway. These tidy storylines exist in a world apart from normal people.

This is partly why it seems so absurd and even farcical when you see the political performance art these stories and pseudo-strategies spawn in real life settings like the Senate floor.

The Senate voted on two resolutions about the war in Iraq Thursday, only a bit more than three years after the invasion began. Though they were divided among themselves and had no chance of passing any kind of binding law, the Democrats still wanted to put on a show. The Republicans welcomed it as an opportunity to help the American people watch their political enemies destroy themselves.