Friday, October 20, 2006

If it's October, it must be Osama

The crush of competing responsibilities, combined with some traveling, has disrupted my writing regimen. The goal is to resume normal scheduling early next week. In the meantime, new columns will sporadically appear, as time permits. Right now, for instance:

Nobody can fault the Bush team and the GOP for consistency. They worked hard to spook the voters in 2002, and it worked. They worked hard to spook the voters again in 2004, and it worked. And presently, with their backs to the wall and with all indications that their public support may be crashing on ’06 election eve, they have predictably decided to push all their remaining chips across the table, invoke Osama bin Laden yet again, and rattle the voters’ nerves one more time – banking on the (arguably misguided) belief that most Americans still view the GOP as the party that can best shield us from terrorism.

National GOP headquarters announced this morning that it plans to feature bin Laden and some of his henchmen in an ad slated for national cable TV this weekend. Choice excerpts include a bin Laden quote from 1998 (“With God’s permission we call on everyone who believes in God…to comply with His will to kill the Americans”), and a 2004 quote from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, threatening suitcase bombs. The ad concludes with the GOP warning the viewer, “These are the stakes.”

So with just 18 days remaining on the electoral clock, the most fundamental question – on which control of the House and Senate may well hinge - is whether most voting Americans will still buy this pitch. All the available evidence suggests that they will not, largely because the war in Iraq has seriously undermined the GOP’s meta-fear message.

Nobody – in either party – would dispute the argument that al Qaeda and its offshoots want to kill Americans and will continue to plot; nobody would dispute the argument that they should be fought with all available tools. But, as evidenced by all the pollsters, from Galllup to Fox News, it has now become clear that most Americans view the Iraq war as a testament the governing party’s demonstrable inability to fight global terrorism effectively.

In essence, President Bush set the terms on which he is now being harshly judged. He asked that Americans view Iraq as the central front in the war on terror – but if that’s the measure, it is therefore clear that the central front is going badly. And what generally happens, in a democracy, is that the people in charge of running such a war tend to suffer at election time; in Bush’s words, after all, an election is “an accountability moment.”

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Washington analyst who until recently was openly skeptical that the Republicans would cough up either congressional chamber in the ’06 election, has since recalibrated his thinking, thanks to the Iraq/security issue. He wrote yesterday, “Consider what we all have been witnessing in Iraq: a growing number of U.S. casualties and fatalities; increased reports of violence and anti-Americanism; ineffectiveness on the part of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government; and little or no progress toward the establishment of a stable Iraqi government that can overcome sectarian loyalties and make progress toward a sustainable democracy. It's no wonder Americans give the president increasingly poor grades on his handling of the war on terror.”

And Rothenberg quotes one Republican as telling him, “They have destroyed their great numbers on the war against terror by linking it to Iraq.”

I hear the same lament from my own Washington Republican contacts, although they don’t want to say this for attribution, because the sentiment runs counter to the official White House and Republican National Committee message. Yet they are merely responding to the weight of the polling evidence. The latest numbers come from the NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, which is jointly conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. They report that, while the GOP retains a slight, and diminished, edge as the party most trusted on national security, nevertheless the Iraq war has seriously eroded that trust:

Bush’s prosecution of war is supported today by just 33 percent of Americans. (He is also personally less popular today than Bill Clinton was on the eve of the ’94 congressional elections that proved disastrous for the Democrats.) Moreover, 68 percent of likely voters say they are pessimistic about the future in Iraq, 57 percent say that Bush hasn’t provided good reasons for keeping our troops in Iraq, and, by an eight-point margin, a plurality of likely voters say that Democrats would be more effective at dealing with Iraq (reversing a pro-GOP margin of five points just one month ago).

But the real stunner is that, by a nine-point margin, a plurality now believes that Iraq has devolved into a civil war – and, according to Republican McInturff, this belief is strong across the political spectrum, held even by those who backed Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Further complicating the GOP’s scare message is the mounting pressure on Bush to essentially admit that his administration’s Iraq policy is in dire need of a major course correction. How can the Bush political team expect to get serious political mileage from its latest Osama bin Laden TV ad, when even their own Republican allies are saying – with only a minimum of diplomatic politesse – that Bush is screwing up the central front in the war on terror and that he needs to face that fundamental fact? Just decode this quote from Republican senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, and the rebuke to Bush is abundantly clear: “I would hope that members of the administration are willing to learn from past mistakes . . . and choose a different path that would allow us to meet our objectives."

The White House is also spending valuable time on defense, seeking to explain away some of its own remarks. A few days ago, Bush told ABC that, yes, he saw a parallel between the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam (which ultimately sunk President Lyndon Johnson) and the current violence in Iraq. Then, yesterday, Bush spokesman Tony Snow declared that, no, Bush wasn’t trying to equate Vietnam with Iraq at all.

Snow said that Bush was merely trying to say (although Bush didn’t say this to ABC) that the enemy in 1968 was trying to influence the ’68 elections, just as the enemy in 2006 is trying to influence the ’06 elections. In Snow’s words, “The president was making a point that he's made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States.”

Well, that’s an interesting complaint...when one considers that the Bush political team is putting Osama bin Laden into a TV ad this weekend, exploiting his picture and trying to use the media as a conduit for influencing public opinion in the United States.

The clear message is that Americans should be worried about Osama and thus vote GOP. Yet, way back on Jan. 22, 2002, Bush said of Osama, "I'm not too worried about him," and on March 13, 2002, Bush said, "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Apparently the worry meter can be recalibrated according to the dictates of the election calendar.