President Bush said the United States is "winning" in Iraq and urged against a fixed timetable for withdrawal from the country. Political journalists E.J. Dionne and Rich Lowry discuss the possible political ramifications of the president's policy.
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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.
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.