During the ’06 campaign, the third straight national security election in the aftermath of 9/11, the governing Republicans again have been advertising themselves as the people who can best keep Americans safe. This pitch worked in 2002 and 2004. The vote on Tuesday night will tell us whether it has worked again. All the late polls indicate, however, that the GOP is battling a strong headwind – and now these reports, circulated today, can’t possibly be helping.
It turns out that the congressional Republicans, still convinced that Saddam Hussein must have possessed weapons of mass destruction, and still looking for ways to justify their war authorization votes, recently set up a website that would supposedly demonstrate Hussein’s prewar lethality. Yet now it turns out that, in their eagerness to make their case, the Republicans have managed to post some pre-1991 Hussein documents that give our potential enemies all kinds of handy tips about how to build nuclear weaponry.
This little detail triggered alarm bells at the International Atomic Energy Agency (which says it was "shocked by the explicitness of the contents"), angered various diplomats and weapons experts - and now the press exposure has compelled our director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, to suddenly take down the entire website, pending the usual “review.” And no wonder: According to former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, it now turns out that Negroponte had warned some time ago that these documents were being posted “at some risk.”
The best way to really understand the political dimension of this incident is to simply imagine, purely as a hypothetical, that a Democratic president had taken us to war in Iraq by claiming that WMDs were being aimed at America; that we had then discovered that not only were there no WMDs being aimed at America, but that in fact they did not appear to exist; and that a Democratic Congress had then set up a website seeking to justify the decision – and, in the process, had wound up posting a nuclear tip sheet for the axis of evil.
Here’s how the Republicans would play that news in their TV campaign ad:
Grainy black & white images of terrorists, and a thrumming bass guitar chord.
“Our enemies are gathering. Just waiting for their moment to attack you and your children. Yet the liberal Democrat party in Congress has actually been helping them out, giving them aid and comfort and new ideas about how to hit us as we’ve never been hit before. On November 7, don’t reward the incumbent party of weakness. Vote Republican, because your life depends on it.”
Nevertheless, back here in real life, the incumbent GOP will still try this weekend to play the Hussein card. It did not escape notice, two weeks ago, that Iraqi justice officials had decided to postpone the court verdict against Hussein until Nov. 5, which, as the calendar demonstrates, falls on the final Sunday of the U.S. election season, 48 hours prior to voting. I will leave it to others to speculate, in the absence of a smoking gun, as to whether this decision was wholly a coincidence.
But even if the new date is a coincidence, there’s little doubt that the GOP will seek to invoke the verdict (presumably, guilty) as part of their final pitch for re-election – seeking, it would appear, to justify the Iraq war by demonstrating that Hussein has been found accountable in a court of justice. Whether this will be enough to mollify independent swing voters who have long rejected the war as a debacle, I can’t help but wonder. More likely, the White House will probably seek to invoke the verdict as part of their final push to motivate their conservative base.
Anyway, White House spokesman Tony Snow launched the effort last night on Fox News, with minimal prompting from the usual helpful host.
Q: “Is there November surprise coming out of Iraq? Will the Iraqi court find a guilty verdict for Saddam Hussein and a possible death sentence? Rumors are flying that it’s going to come down this Sunday, November 5th — which of course will dominate the political news cycle, in the last two days in the midterms. Tony, what can you tell us about this?”
SNOW: “Larry, that is when this verdict is scheduled to come down. I’m not going to tell you what it will be, because I don’t know. But you are absolutely right, it will be a factor.”
For the record, Snow also denied that the White House will invoke the Hussein verdict as a way to justify the war, because, as the White House sees it, there is no need to justify the war:
“What you now have is an Iraq where people are fighting and working actively to build a democracy where they don’t have to worry about that kind of reign of terror in the future. This (verdict) is a benchmark episode, where the Iraqi people are taking control of their own destiny and saying to the world, we are going to be free, trust us, watch us, help us and that is what the United States is doing and that’s what we are going to do. We are going to finish the job.”
The Fox News host, of course, failed to ask Snow whether the Iraqi people would be wise to worry about the ever-worsening current reign of terror.
In any event, not all imperiled Republican incumbents plan to invoke the Hussein verdict on their own behalf in the final days. Rather, many would seem to prefer to ignore the war altogether. As imperiled Ohio congresswoman Deborah Pryce said yesterday on CNN, “What’s happening in Iraq is not a direct reflection on me.”