The President: Paying the Price

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 30, 2004

When presidents take big chances, they have two choices. They can take all the responsibility on themselves and hope that when things go well, they will reap allthe rewards. Or they can choose to draw in the opposition from the beginning and count on some help and a feeling of solidarity if things start to go wrong.

President Bush took his big chance in Iraq without buying himself an insurance policy. He could have patiently built a coalition of the many — not only abroad, but also at home — rather than slapping together a coalition of the few, including the not-entirely-willing. He could have made clear, as his father did a decade earlier, that a decision to go to war is so momentous that Congress should consider the matter under circumstances that would encourage genuine deliberation.

Legislators from both parties will tell you that the congressional debate over the 1991 Persian Gulf War was one of the most ennobling experiences of their political lives. You don’t hear much of that this time around. That’s because approval was shoved through Congress by a president only too happy to turn war into a campaign issue.

Instead of reaching out to doubters, Bush derided them. On the campaign trail in September 2002, he characterized Democratic members of Congress who wanted a strong mandate from the United Nations — exactly what the administration is seeking now — as evading responsibility. “It seems like to me that if you’re representing the United States,” he said, “you ought to be making a decision on what’s best for the United States.” Didn’t his opponents think that defending the interests of the United States was exactly what they were doing? Bush continued: “If I were running for office, I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people — say, ‘Vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I’m going to wait for somebody else to act.’ “

No wonder the country is so polarized. Behind the president’s plummeting poll numbers and public restlessness about the war is an emerging truth about the administration’s way of doing business. Iraq was a preemptive war pursued by a president who governs by preemption.

There is a sad irony here, sad for Bush and for the country he leads. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush had the opportunity to transform himself from the winner of a disputed election into a leader with unparalleled political authority. If you are a Bush supporter, it’s worth contemplating the benefits of the road not taken.

At first, Bush did a masterful job of pulling the country together. Democrats as well as Republicans joined him at the ramparts. “We will speak with one voice,” Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle declared on 9/11. Bush’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan won support across the political spectrum because it seemed an entirely appropriate response to an attack on our country by terrorists harbored by that nation’s government.

Democrats were off balance, unsure of how to behave. Republicans recognized that the political ground was shifting in their favor. Rep. Tom Davis, the shrewd Virginia Republican, told me then that Bush had the chance “to reshape the image of the party from the top down.” At the time, it was possible to imagine the reappearance of something like Eisenhower Republicanism and a long-term Republican majority that would embrace 55 to 60 percent of Americans.

But Bush chose aggressiveness over conciliation. At one point, in the debate over a bill creating a permanent Department of Homeland Security, he even said that “the Senate” — meaning the bare Democratic majority that existed at the time — was “not interested in the security of the American people.” Don’t doubt for a moment that every Democrat in the Senate remembers Bush saying that. You can play political hardball or you can call for national unity. You can’t do both.

Give the current president this: His party won the 2002 midterm elections, whereas the first President Bush, after being more courtly on the war issue, saw his party go down to defeat in the 1990 congressional elections. So in the short term, hardball worked. And, yes, the first Bush did fail to win reelection, although his war had little to do with that defeat.

This President Bush put his potential opponents in a tough place. Sen. John F. Kerry voted to go to war, despite his doubts, because he didn’t want to seem soft on Saddam Hussein. Kerry has been explaining his vote ever since, and Bush supporters chortle over his various explanations.

So Bush got what he wanted — but at a higher price than he expected to pay.

For there is a cost to preemptive politics: Those who doubted your policies in the first place end up with no investment in them. When the administration’s predictions about Iraq failed to come to pass — we didn’t find the dangerous weapons, we weren’t seen as liberators for as long as we hoped — those who had been accused of not being interested in the security of the American people had no stake in rallying to Bush’s defense.

That’s why many Republicans are wishing this president had paid more attention to his father’s experience. Because the elder Bush took pains not to politicize the war issue, most of the war’s opponents returned the favor. (It helped, of course, that U.S. forces won a smashing victory in Kuwait.) And because the first Bush reached out to build alliances across the globe — how many air miles did then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III rack up in his quest for foreign support? — there was none of the resentment of American power that now characterizes public opinion in countries that had long been American allies.

There is one explanation for Bush’s preemptory posture: He genuinely believed that the weapons were there and that the transition to democracy in Iraq would be much easier than it turned out to be. I’ve been told by people inside the administration that the war’s staunchest supporters really did have an optimistic view of this venture — too optimistic, as it turns out, given the lack of planning for the alternatives. This could explain why Bush decided to place his bet without any insurance. He really did expect to be floating to reelection as morning came to America and Iraq and was about to dawn on that entity Bush likes to describe as “the greater Middle East.”

Bush struggled this week to keep that hope alive. In his speech to the nation on Monday, he desperately tried to recreate the world of late 2001 and 2002. He recalled our sense of national unity after 9/11. He reminded us of the victory over the Taliban and “a totalitarian political ideology.” He tried, again, to make the case that the war in Iraq is closely linked to the war on terrorism — he used the words “terror,” “terrorist” and “terrorism” 19 times.

But by reminding us of how united we once were, Bush only underscored how divided we have become. And that is why a president who once soared in the polls now finds himself struggling for reelection — less by touting his own achievements than by trashing his opponent. John Kerry has spent nearly 20 years in the Senate, so there are thousands of votes to go after, a lot of opportunities to say Kerry has flip-flopped, changed his views, done what’s necessary to win election.

All this might have worked in normal circumstances, and maybe it will this time. But at the moment, Bush is losing support among independent voters and has not nailed down moderate or even moderately conservative Republicans. Bush has signaled his own weakness by buying time on the Golf Channel, more a home to Republicans than to swing voters (except, perhaps, where the game itself is concerned).

By failing to embrace his opportunity to be a president of national unity, Bush has endangered the great project of his presidency: remaking Iraq. And he has offered Kerry the chance to be as tough as Howard Dean was — but in the name of uniting Americans at a moment when solidarity is desperately needed.

This is why Kerry has reason to hope that his identity as a Vietnam veteran can trump his history as a Massachusetts liberal. And it’s why President Bush, lacking the political insurance he should have sought, is right to be running scared.