As I intimated in my latest newspaper column, '06 swing voters concerned about Iraq seem to have two imperfect choices: they can either support the united Republican party that wants to "stay the course" and compound its documented errors; or they can support the divided Democratic party that has been mulling this war for three years, yet still doesn't have a clue what to do.
So take your pick: the delusionists or the clueless. Both teams were vividly represented yesterday on Fox News Sunday.
First up was Tony Snow, the new White House flak, spinning lines that probably work best with an audience of amnesiacs. For instance, revisiting the bad old days of Saddam Hussein, he remarked that clearly the dictator "was determined to try, to the best of his ability, to have a robust program of weapons of mass destruction at the earliest opportunity...Saddam Hussein had ambitions of WMDs."
I know this is shocking, but those remarks went unchallenged by the Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace. Somehow it was not deemed to be fair and balanced to point out to Snow, the ex-Fox News commentator, that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were on record numerous times in 2002, contending that Hussein had far more than "ambitions," and that Hussein was not merely "determined to try" -- but that, quite the contrary, he had already succeeded in amassing WMDs that were already poised to be launched at the U.S. and its allies.
None of those '02 remarks -- about "grave and gathering threats," about "reconsituted nuclear weapons," about "mushroom clouds" (that was from Condolleezza Rice) -- appeared on the big screen. Instead, we moved right along, as Snow made the argument that the terrorists in Iraq are trying to "chip away American support for engagement."
Chip away American support...that remark was too much even for Wallace, who then made the obvious point that American support for the war has not been "chipped away," it has already gone into the tank. He put up some new poll numbers on the screen, poll numbers gathered by Fox News: 37 percent of Americans support Bush's handling of the war; 50 percent say the Iraq war has made us less safe at home, with 43 percent saying otherwise; and 59 percent say that the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi won't make any difference.
Snow tried to answer by changing the subject and arguing why a fixed withdrawal timetable would be bad, which wasn't the question. Wallace pinned him down by then asking, "don't you have to show measurable progress by November," or risk big losses in the '06 elections?
Snow replied by lauding Bush's "leadership," which he said is hampered by media coverage --
specificially, "from a video standpoint, somebody can blow up a car in a marketplace in Baghdad, and get headlines the world over."
We have been hearing this "media is undermining our president" rationale for many months, usually from the president himself. It is fatuous. In reality, "from a video standpoint," virtually none of the most horrific violence in Iraq is being shown on TV screens in America. I am referring to the many hundreds of headless corpses and mutilated bodies that turn up every day, courtesy of the sectarian militia violence that -- according to the best think tank metrics -- has increased by 1150 percent during the past 12 months.
Speaking of metrics, Snow said hopefully that "there are some metrics you can use, to measure progress," such as increases in electricity production. He didn't mention -- and Wallace didn't, either -- that residents of Baghdad now receive less daily electricity than they had under Saddam.
That was it for Snow (who moved on to the other talk shows, contending at one point on CNN that the current comeback of the Taliban in Afghanistan is "predictable" -- another of those remarks aimed at amnesiacs who may not recall that, in September 2004, Bush stated that the "Taliban no longer is in existence"). And Fox News viewers were then treated with a visit from two Democrats...who couldn't provide basic information about where their party stands on Iraq.
Strategist Simon Rosenberg began by saying "the Democrats are very unified." But a few minutes later, when Wallace pointed out that the new Democratic campaign agenda doesn't even mention Iraq, strategist John Podesta replied: "It'd be better if we Democrats were united around one plan."
Podesta, a former Clinton White House aide, tried to explain: "(Democrats) don't have agreement on all of what should be in that platform. Maybe they can try to get that by November. But, you know, seriously, unity isn't everything."
Unity isn't everything...
Never mind, let's keep going: Wallace then asked, how is a swing voter supposed to support the Democrats when they can't decide what to do about Iraq?
Rosenberg: "Democrats are talking about Iraq quite a bit over the last few years....We have fulfilled our patriotic role here, which is to make sure that we're...coming up with the right policy for the American people."
Wallace: But what is that policy?
Rosenberg: "I think we're having a debate about that."
My words fail. So I'll just turn this over to Frank Rich, who wrote yesterday in his Times column that "as long as the Democrats keep repeating their own mistakes, they will lose to the party whose mistakes are, if nothing else, packaged as one heckuva show. It's better to have the courage of bad convictions than no courage or convictions at all."
UPDATE: The Senate Democrats say they're working on a policy. This afternoon, they plan to unveil a resolution calling on Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops this year, although they are reportedly skittish about positing a specific timeline. I doubt that will satisfy the liberal wing, which last week applauded Sen. John Kerry's date-certain stance, but at least the Senate Democratic approach might at least convey the intended impression that the party, or at least its Senate wing, has some kind of position on which most can agree.