Hit 'Em Again, Harder
When he took the nation's highest office, George W. Bush famously called himself a uniter, not a divider, signaling a kinder, gentler approach to Washington politics. Fat lot of good it did him. He faces opponents who offer no quarter, even when the national interest is at stake. It is well past time to take off the gloves and return fire.
The President's speech at the United States Naval Academy this week was powerful. It said most of the things that need saying about our war in Iraq and it left the Democrats backpedaling as they gasped for breath. At the heart of the President's argument, however, was a contradiction which undercuts his case for the war in Iraq.
The President castigated those who demand an 'artificial timetable' for an American withdrawal, but only after making this remarkable disclaimer:
'Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere, but I believe they're sincerely wrong.'
But then the President went on to say
"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America.
"To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief."
How is it possible that purportedly patriotic American public officials can be sincere when they conspire to cut and run from our deadly enemies, to portray America as a weak and unreliable ally and to invite new attacks on our homeland? The President can't have it both ways. If he is right about the dire consequences of preemptive withdrawal, he must be wrong about his opponents' sincerity. When he concedes their sincerity he calls his own into question. The average listener hears him say that the Democrats are sincere and concludes that their policy prescriptions can't be as outrageous as he says they are.
As it happens, the Democrats aren't sincere. They aren't anywhere in the vicinity of sincerity. When they call for withdrawal from Iraq, as Nancy Pelosi did again in a response to the President's speech, they are damaging their country. As the President pointed out, this is obvious. No Democrat has even tried to argue that scheduling a withdrawal would not have the consequences the President outlined. We must conclude that the Democrats know they are working counter to America's interests at the same time they present themselves as patriotic public servants. This is the antithesis of sincerity.
The Democrats are, in fact, so insincere that they will not even acknowledge their own words, let alone defend them. Senator John Kerry, responding on behalf of his party, whined that Democrats never wanted a timetable for withdrawal, just a timetable for success.
This is the same Senator Kerry who, on October 27, 2005, called for an immediate withdrawal of 20,000 troops with the great bulk of the remainder to follow by the end of 2006. The Washington Post certainly thought Kerry was proposing a timetable for withdrawal. It noted that Kerry was 'the highest—profile figure in either party to back a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq.'
Maybe Kerry is so complex and profound that even the Washington Post cannot follow his interlocking nuances. On the other hand, he just might be a pompous windbag without even enough wit to gesture in the direction of consistency. Pompous windbag seems about right to me.
Kerry didn't try to reconcile what he said in October with what he said in November. Nor did he bother to explain how the President might be able to provide a timetable for success without consulting Ms. Clio. His speech was, as usual, nothing but bland, meaningless mush. It is incredible that Kerry ever rose above trying dog bite cases in Boston. In a sense, he never did.
President Bush has been extraordinarily fortunate in his political enemies. They, in turn, have been fortunate in him. He has no appetite for rhetorical hardball. Now and then he will state an unpleasant truth about the Democrats in Congress, but he never follows his own insights to their logical conclusions. The rest of us are left wondering whether he believes what he says.
A war leader can't afford to raise that kind of doubt.
As every parent learns, leadership is largely about consistency. When the President describes outrageous conduct but fails to condemn it or to show outrage he is sending a mixed message. No war leader can afford mixed messages. President Bush, in particular, needs to speak with clarity and urgency.
We can't lose in Iraq; the balance of forces favors us overwhelmingly. We can, however, lose the political battle at home. Everything depends on the President's ability to fight that battle. If he is going to do that effectively he has to start treating the Democrat Party as the domestic enemy that it is. Continuing to pretend that the Democrats are a loyal, if misguided, opposition will only introduce more confusion where we most need clarity.
Of course, the President may be engaging in a bit of insincerity of his own when he concedes his opponents' good faith. He may be following in the tradition of Marc Anthony's funeral oration from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Marc Anthony punctuates his praise for the assassinated Caesar by saying repeatedly 'But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.' The scene ends with Mark Anthony's audience storming off to burn Brutus' home.
Subtlety worked for Marc Anthony but, he had history's greatest speechwriter in his corner. Saying exactly what you mean in consistent, direct declarative sentences is a better approach, particularly if you have the verbal grace of George W. Bush.
If the President is trying to sweeten his image by avoiding any direct attack on his domestic enemies he is going to be disappointed. His enemies include the entire Democrat establishment (with the sole exception of Senator Lieberman), all the major daily newspapers and all three of the old line television broadcasting networks. Their hatred for him is white hot. They will remain implacably hostile even if he blows them kisses and throws roses at their feet. They will view everything he does and everything he says through the prism of their hostility. He has nothing to lose by telling the truth about them. He might as well be hanged for a sheep as a goat.
The President has nothing to lose by attacking the Democrats and a great deal to gain. Democrats are extremely vulnerable right now and President Bush should press his advantage. It isn't enough to beat their pathetic arguments. The goal is to beat them and to do so decisively. That goal is well within reach.
The Democrat Party has just entered the McGovern Zone. The nation is at war against deadly enemies and the Democrats are going into an election committed to capitulation. They are gambling everything on failure in Iraq. If, in six months, successful elections have been held in Iraq and we have begun reducing our troop levels there, only a few hardcore nutjobs will still cling to the idea that Iraq is a hopeless quagmire. That idea is all the Democrats have to offer and when it dies the Democrat Party itself will be teetering on the edge of extinction.
We know what an election looks like when one party nails its colors to the mast of the SS Surrender while the other makes steady progress toward 'peace with honor.' It happened in 1972. If the Democrats want a rerun it is up to President Bush and the Republican Party to make that rerun as devastating as possible.
Make them pay through the nose for their defeatism, Mr. President. Remember Al Gore sweating and frothing and the mouth as he bellowed that you 'betrayed this country.' Throw it back at them with interest.
Attack until they stop twitching and then attack some more. If this seems unpresidential, the Vice President can do it. But one way or another, it's past time for a serious offensive on the home front.
Fortune favors the bold.
J. Peter Mulhern is a frequent contributor. He is lawyer in the Washington, DC area, and a regular guest commentator on KSFO radio in San Francisco.