The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


The consensus these days is that Bush is leading by a little bit.

But why?

Josh Marshall has one persuasive explanation: A "laq" of Iraq.
The president's campaign has managed to take Iraq out of the election debate.

Iraq remains ever-present, but as a rhetorical fixture, not a reality. Who's tougher; who's been consistent; who likes Saddam Hussein more, and so forth -- that's all there. The increasingly tenuous claim that Saddam Hussein had any relationship to Islamic terrorism -- that's there too.

But the actual Iraq war is nowhere to be found. Sunday was a disastrous day in Iraq, both for the Iraqis and for the American enterprise in Iraq.

But it garnered little attention here. The American death rate has creeped up as the occupation has continued. And to anyone who has eyes to see it, the entire American venture in Iraq has become a disaster of truly monumental proportions.
(Marshall adds all the relevant context in the remainder of his post, notably the reasons we went in the first place)

While it's not just this (I'll get to it), the shift in focus away from the situation on the ground in Iraq has been a net plus for Bush electorally, and has contributed to whatever lead he actually has. A number of factors have contributed to this shift. The "sovereignty"-transfer back in late June did serve to "Afghanize" media coverage of the Iraq war. And when the Bush campaign does talk about the Iraq war, they almost never talk about the objective progress being made (see: Bush convention speech). Instead, Bush's defense of the war is a two-pronged rhetorical assault that focuses on 1) framing his decision to go to war, largely upon the context at that time, in the most advantageous way possible, and 2) flowery "democracy" and "freedom" talk.

If Bush had to talk about objective reality in the context of the first prong, he'd have to seriously address the lack of WMD, and his running mate's Ahab-esque obsession with the idea that Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Atta played skee-ball together at a Chuck E Cheese's in Eastern Europe.

And if Bush had to talk about objective reality in the context of the second prong, he'd have to seriously address that large portions of western Iraq are not under control and are thus not nearly ready for democratic elections, and that even if we pulled off an election, four out of every five Iraqis want an Islamic state.

From a political standpoint I don't fault Bush for this strategy, he wants to get re-elected and this is pretty much the only way he can do that.

However, from a standpoint of decency, morality and well, reality, this is inexcusable. Bush wants the American electorate to judge him just on his decision-making process, and not on the actual results of his decisions. This coming from the leading face of the self-proclaimed "party of personal responsibility". We'll come back to this.

The other reason it's inexcusable to treat the Iraq war, or any war, like this is that doing so fundamentally ignores the human toll. My opinion -- and I've expressed this before on this blog -- is that support for a war cannot be fully processed in one's mind until one adjusts for the death and destruction involved. Without that, war becomes a video game -- or just "a game" as Republican congressional candidate Pete Sessions described it in a debate the other day.
And this is all a part of why Bush is ahead: He just goes around saying "Saddam bad, democracy good", and for whatever reason this alone works with some voters.

But there are two other reasons why Bush is ahead, or at least why Kerry can't overtake him right now:

1) Stupid bullshit. In August it was the lies of John O'Neill and his co-conspirators, and this month it's the amateur fontology of our friends on the right, regarding CBS News and the 1970's memos they found on Bush's guard service/lack thereof. I could get into the minutia of the debate over the authenticity of the memos, or I could point out that nobody has effectively rebutted Ben Barnes' account of how he got Bush into the "champagne wing" of the Guard, and I could even pat the right on the back for how easily they helped shift the focus of the reaction to the CBS story from Bush's service to typefaces. But I'm not going to do any of that. What I am going to say is this: When the American people are focused on the big issues, support for Bush creeps downward while Kerry's position improves. When Americans are focused on stupid bullshit, Bush's position improves, while Kerry falters. Hence the whispers that Bush may back out of one of the three debates.

This may be a winning strategy for Bush and his supporters, but not one I'd feel comfortable about if I were them when I went to sleep at night.


2) The fear fest convention. Boy, did I hear plenty from quite a few of my Democratic friends after the GOP convention, about how the Democrats should've hit harder against Bush. The premise for such sentiments was that Bush's convention helped him more than Kerry's convention helped Big John because the Republicans were on the offensive more than the Dems were. While a fair statement, I don't think that's why Bush got whatever bounce he did. The reason the RNC was viewed as effective is because the Republicans were willing to use blatant fear, vis a vis 9/11, as a weapon to get swing voters to support Bush. The Democrats were not willing to do that in Boston. Whether or not this is a choice between winning and sleeping at night is yet to be seen.

The entire Republican convention can be summed up in a couple sentences: "Remember 9/11? Weren't you scared? Good, now remember Bush with the bullhorn? Wasn't that great? Good, now vote for him!"

I do think John Kerry needs to be more aggressive in attacking Bush in the coming weeks, but I see no need for the Democrats to crassly cultivate and exploit fear.

Am I panicky about all this? NO! The realities of the Iraq war can only be avoided by certain people for so long, eventually they creep back into the mainstream. CBS memos and bittter, lying veterans cannot hog the first five minutes of newscasts forever, they will fade soon. The news cycle has ebbs and flows of trivialities and real focus on real issues; I'm glad we've reached the peak of a trivial phase now, hopefully that means our collective focus will become more substantial as the leaves begin to turn.

And the debates will help. If, however, after the third debate, the polls are the same and we're still talking about inanities, then yes, I will be concerned. Until next time, that's enough outta me for now.


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