There are probably many reasons why Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent of the '06 election season -- a perception underscored this week by a new Quinnipiac poll that shows him trailing Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. by a whopping 18 points. I would bet that key factors are his stalwart loyalty to a president who has become broadly unpopular statewide, and to a war that has similarly become an albatross.
Consider what happened yesterday during the Senate debate on Iraq. Santorum
called a press conference and made a dramatic announcement: "We have found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Citing a newly declassified report, he declared, "This is an incredibly, in my mind, significant finding."
Stop the presses! Wait, let me amend that: Stop the conservative presses!
FoxNews.com did a piece, which is linked this morning on The Drudge Report, and referenced by Newsmax, an online conservative digest. On the air, Fox News host John Gibson told viewers, "Rick Santorum announcing a startling find....In fact, WMDs were found in Iraq.” The National Review website also posted some material, which is linked today on redstate.com, and Santorum visited the friendly confines of the Hugh Hewitt radio show ("You've made some news today," said Hewitt).
I should also mention that, right on schedule, my email box was flooded this morning with grassroots enthusiasts eager to share the great news, and to suggest that anyone who has ever questioned President Bush might take this opportunity to eat crow.
There's only one problem with Santorum's "significant finding": The fact that it's not significant.
This purported revelation about the 500 chemical munition shells has already been knocked down by: Bush himself, the White House's Iraq Survey Group, and (yesterday) a senior Defense Department official. In addition, a Bush national security official refused today to characterize the story as important; last Sunday, when Bush press secretary Tony Snow was first asked about it, he simply brushed it off.
The shells, found buried in 2004 near the Iranian border, were leftovers from Iraq's war with Iran, which ended in 1988; U.S. inspectors have long concluded that these shells were no longer active, and should not be categorized as part of the WMD stockpile that Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed on the eve of the American invasion. Even the declassified document cited by Santorum points out that the shells were "degraded."
Indeed, the Iraq Survey Group, led by Charles Duelfer, concluded two years ago that Hussein "unilaterally" destroyed his active chemical weapons in 1991, and wrote that "there are no credible indications that (he) resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter."
But what about old stuff from the old days that might still be around somewhere? Should that stuff be considered dangerous? Aren't those to be considered WMDs?
The ISG addressed those questions, and said no. It concluded on Sept. 30, 2004 that, while there was a "possibility" that some weapons still existed in Iraq, those weapons were "not of a militarily significant capability."
A week later, Bush accepted those conclusions, saying: "The chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, has now issued a comprehensive report that confirms the earlier conclusion of (U.S. weapons inspector) David Kay that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there."
Even FoxNews.com felt compelled to add a caveat last night, although it waited until the 10th paragraph before providing the information that undercut the first nine paragraphs: "Offering the official administration response to FOX News, a senior Defense Department official pointed out that the chemical weapons were not in useable conditions. 'This does not reflect a capacity that was built up after 1991,' the official said, adding the munitions 'are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had, and not the WMDs for which this country went to war.'"
Even Minneapolis lawyer John Hinderaker, a prominent conservative blogger and reliable Bush administration defender, while trying his best last night to trumpet the chemical shells as a significant find, nevertheless conceded that "what they're talking about is old munitions left over from, presumably, before the first Gulf War. This doesn't appear to constitute evidence that Saddam's regime had continued to manufacture chemical weapons in more recent years."
These various factual caveats, however, didn't stop various conservative analysts from hoping for the best. On a Fox News Special Report last night, commentator Fred Barnes (who is close to Karl Rove) spun the "story" thusly: "While these are pre-1991 weapons, and there might have been difficulty firing them, they could have used the material in them, sarin, and mustard gas, used that for a weapons program which was dormant."
But to Fox's credit, talk show co-host Alan Colmes confronted Santorum last night. First he quoted from the Duelfer report. Then he said, "The (Defense) official went on to say these are not the WMD’s this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had and not the WMD’s for which this country went to war. So the chest beating (that) Republicans are doing tonight, thinking this is a justification, is not confirmed by the Defense Department."
Santorum's response: "I'd like to know who that is. The fact of the matter is, I’ll wait and see what the actual Defense Department formally says or more important what the administration formally says."
Translation: "Uh, uh, uh..."
No wonder the apparent Bob Casey campaign strategy is to just let Santorum keep talking.
And, in closing, let me pose the most obvious question of all: If this report was really so revelatory, then why was it released by a senator with a 38 percent approval rating in his home state? Wouldn't the White House have insisted on announcing the good news, perhaps by having Bush parachute into the Green Zone with a cordless mike attached to his flight suit?
At his press conference, Santorum had an answer for that. Sort of. It went like this: "I think that's a question you have to ask them. It's certainly a question that we have asked them. You'd have to ask them."
Stephen Bainbridge, a UCLA law professor and a respected conservative blogger, was also pondering that matter today. After dismissing Santorum's scoop as "no big deal" and "nothing new," he answered his own question:
"Finally, why is a politico in the middle of the election fight of his life making this announcement instead of the Administration? It looks like more GOP politicization of intelligence."