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Journalists Gauge Possible Fallout of Bush Speech on Elections

October 25, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: How do the president’s words play out politically? For that, we turn to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and National Review editor Rich Lowry.

E.J. Dionne, we’re two weeks away from an election, with voters telling public opinion researchers the war is their number-one issue. Was the president politically effective today in what he called his “explanation” of the war in Iraq?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Well, you know, I think the large story of today is that the very last thing President Bush wanted to be doing 13 days from this election was having essentially a defensive press conference about his policy in Iraq.

The president wanted to be on the offensive; he wanted to attack Democrats as soft on terror. And, instead, he had to get up there and say that a lot of things had gone wrong in his Iraq policy. I mean, he can’t ask the Republicans to run on the record of what’s happening there now, because the American people, as all the polls show, are very upset about what’s happening there now.

So he kind of ran against his own record. I was very struck when he said, you know, we overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq. Of course, we did kind of mess around with the civil service, kind of pushed it aside. We did not expect the Iraqi army to melt away.

I think the biggest problem he had today is it sounded like he was saying, “Our policies have failed. Let us continue.” And maybe he’ll excite some of his Republican supporters to say, “Well, we’ve got to go out and support the president.” I’m not sure he was very persuasive to those middle-of-the-road voters who have really gone south on the Republicans in the last six months.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rich Lowry, given the political situation as today began, did the president meet his mark?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: I think so. Look, it’s obviously — these are not ideal circumstances for the president or the Republican Party, as E.J. pointed out, but he did a couple of things that I think are important. One is there was a sense that the president was detached from reality in Iraq, partly borne of his own sometimes simplistic and repetitive rhetoric about staying the course.

Today, I thought it was very important when he basically said, “I see the same things everyone else sees in Iraq, and I understand why the American public is unsatisfied with it, and I’m not satisfied with it, either, and this is where we’re going to go forward, and this is why it’s still important to win.”

I think that’s the most effective rhetorical and political positioning the president can have on this war. E.J. is probably right: He’s not going to win over a lot of war skeptics or opponents with this. But there are people who are still persuadable on the war.

It’s just a mathematical certainty, if you look at the polls. Among the people now who are discontented with the war, there are Republicans who once were war supporters. And those are the people that President Bush can still reach out to and still persuade.

And I think also implicitly in this press conference, he was saying to Republican candidates all across the country: Here’s how you should talk about the war now. This is the rhetorical ground we can try to stand on for at least the next two weeks.

Staying the course in Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: You wrote in a recent column, Rich, that "there's a crisis in Iraq for all to see. Bush has to make it plain that he sees it, too." And you said he has. But then he go on to say, "And that his government is going to react to it, lest his resolve become a millstone around his party's neck." Is that potential milestone a little smaller now for the next two weeks?

RICH LOWRY: It's a little smaller, because of what's happened in the last 48 hours, where you saw, you know, Tony Snow just explicitly saying, "Stay the course is a misrepresentation of what we want to do in Iraq."

Now, the Republicans have been trying to make this pivot for some time. Several months ago, Ken Mehlman on "Meet the Press" rolled out the language, "We're not going to stay the course; we're going to adapt to win." And President Bush at times has used that rhetoric himself, but not very consistently.

And the fact is very few people want to stay the course in Iraq. I'm a hawk; I'm a supporter of the war originally. I still am. I don't want to stay the course in Iraq. So, it's important for President Bush to again, as I say, acknowledge the reality, acknowledge the mistakes, and talk about adapting to try to react to the conditions there on the ground now.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it a little late to disavow "stay the course"?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, that's what I thought. That's exactly what I was thinking when Rich was speaking. I agree with Rich that acknowledging reality is far better than the alternative.

But when you do it 13 days before the election, I think there's a certain understandable skepticism about what this means. Is this kind of pre-election -- it's not a deathbed conversion so much as a conversion pushed by the polls. And so I'm not sure how persuasive that is.

I think what's really striking is how many Republicans out there have begun to doubt the war. And it seems to me that the president's policy -- it seems to me there are two pools of doubters out there. One pool really has started to say, "This thing is not going to work. We've got to have an alternative that gets us out of there with as little trouble as possible."

The other side are people represented by Rich and Bill Kristol. They wrote a piece in the Washington Post a few months back saying really what we need to do is to send a whole lot more troops in Iraq because the current troop levels won't work for us there.

I think that's an honest position. I'm not sure it would work, but what I do know is that it would not be a politically popular position right now. So the president is not going out there and saying what hawks like Rich are willing to say, which is, "This isn't working, so we need more troops."

And so I think he's struck, because if he's a real hawk, he can't say what they're saying, and yet he's not going to satisfy those who think, "Well, really, we should begin to wind this down," with the sort of thing he said today, which is kind of "stay the course"-lite.

Impact on voters

RAY SUAREZ: Rich, with about two weeks to go until the polls open, do voters take more information out of what they see on the front page of newspapers and in the moving pictures coming out of Baghdad on the television, or do they also look at that along with policy statements, definitions of what the government's posture is, and so on?

RICH LOWRY: I think the pictures are probably more important, but what the president says matters. And I think the chief political effect, negative political effect for Republicans of the Mark Foley scandal was, for about a week-and-a-half, it really knocked President Bush totally out of the picture at a key time in the Iraq debate, when you had the National Intelligence Estimate controversy, when you had the Bob Woodward book.

And prior to that, when Bush was out on the war on terror, out on the war in Iraq, making his case, the numbers had ticked up a little bit, and the Foley scandal just hit exactly at the wrong time. It was a perfect storm. And that's when you really saw somewhat the bottom falling out.

So it's very important for Bush to be out there, because he has a case to make. And I know everyone is talking about policy alternatives. I'm all ears when it comes to policy alternatives. I think Bush was trying to signal today, within limits, he is, as well. He's open to good, new ideas, but I'm not sure what the radical departure from the current strategy is that makes more sense than what we're trying to do now.

I would certainly advocate more troops in Baghdad; I think it was predictable that that Baghdad security plan was going to fail. But a partition in any sense I think has a major -- would probably create more problems than it would solve.

Some people say, "OK, not quite a partition, a weak central government with more federalism." But the problem in Iraq right now is we have a weak central government. And a key task now is trying to increase the state authority in Iraq, and so I'm just not sure there are good alternatives at the moment.

E.J. DIONNE: You know, the Foley case clearly did have a negative effect on the Republican, including, as Rich suggests, blocking the ability of the president to make a case. But I actually think that the news in Iraq has really driven the public attitudes that you're seeing out there now.

Just today, when you look at Prime Minister Maliki saying, "No, no, no, we reject these sort of benchmarks that they're talking about in Washington," and also, by the way, raising questions about the move by our troops there against a member of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, it really sort of -- I guess the technical term is "disarray." It really looks like a policy that's really not under control.

So that while, yes, the administration has had some problems in its case being brought, I really think the news over the last couple of months have been the driving force in public opinion.

Republican strategies

RAY SUAREZ: Rich Lowry, when a reporter asked the president what his party is going to run on, on Election Day, he said two things: keeping the country safe and keeping taxes low. And then he made a pitch for the health of the economy, trying to bring that back into the spotlight. Is that an effective gambit?

RICH LOWRY: Well, economic conditions are pretty good, and you'd think it would be helping Republicans. I think Iraq is kind of blocking those facts from coming through. And the fact is, in politics, sometimes the facts don't matter so much; it's the master narrative that matters.

And if facts fit into that narrative, well, then they matter. If they don't, they tend to get ignored. And I think the master narrative of this election, primarily because of Iraq, is just a sour mood on the part of the American public. So the records, you know, that the Dow is setting, the low unemployment rate, they really can't break through that.

It makes sense for Republicans to try to talk about them, but what you're really going to see -- and you've already seen it in this election -- is Republicans emphasizing the contrasts with their Democratic opponents in these state and congressional races and really going negative.

And traditionally, campaigns, they go negative towards the end. And at the very end, candidates like to close positive. They think it makes them feel better about themselves, and they think it makes voters feel a little better about them. I think you see top Republican strategists this year saying, No, no, no, stay negative all the way through, because the way Republicans are going to survive is if the Democrats are made -- if the credibility of the Democrats is undermined. And you're only going to do that with a negative sort of campaign."

RAY SUAREZ: Negative all the way to the finish line? Quick response, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: I think that is what the Republicans have to do right now. I think the problem on the economy is it seems to be playing most in those states where people are dissatisfied with the economy. Ohio is a good example. Where it seems to be bad, where manufacturing is going down, those voters are actually voting on the economy.

I think in states where things are going better, people are looking at Iraq and saying, "I want to cast a vote against a failed policy." So, paradoxically, despite the high stock market, the economy may be hurting the Republicans to the extent that it's an issue at all.

RAY SUAREZ: E.J. Dionne, Rich Lowry, good to talk to you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to talk to you.

RICH LOWRY: Thank you very much.