Bush Team Casts Foes as Defeatist - Blunt Rhetoric Signals a New Thrust
President Bush and his surrogates are launching a new campaign intended to rebuild support for the war in Iraq by accusing the opposition of aiming to appease terrorists and cut off funding for troops on the battlefield, charges that many Democrats say distort their stated positions.
With an appearance before the American Legion in Salt Lake City today, Bush will begin a series of speeches over 20 days centered on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he and his top lieutenants have foreshadowed in recent days the thrust of the effort to put Democrats on the defensive with rhetoric that has further inflamed an already emotional debate.
Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."
Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
"A lot of the people who say we need to withdraw from Iraq say we'll be safer, and I don't think that's accurate," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, a key architect of the party's strategy heading into the fall congressional campaign. Mehlman noted that al-Qaeda leaders and other Islamic radicals have said they want to drive Americans out of Iraq and use it as a base.
The White House strategy of equating Democratic dissent with defeatism worked during the 2002 and 2004 elections, but it could prove more difficult this time.
[S]trategists in both parties believe that the coming congressional elections will turn in large part on the Iraq war and whether voters believe it is part of the global battle against terrorism or a distraction from it. Bush advisers hope that the legacy of Sept. 11 will rally the public back to the unpopular president and his party, while Democrats are trying to tap into broad discontent with the Iraq war.
Republicans plan to load the congressional agenda with national security issues, including votes on spending for the military, terrorism-fighting measures and symbolic bills supporting U.S. troops. Democrats plan to force votes on providing more equipment to U.S. troops, implementing the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission and condemning Bush's Iraq policy.
The Democratic strategy for the next few weeks is twofold: First, punch back every time Republicans challenge their commitment to national security. Yesterday, for instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was among the half-dozen leading Democrats to strike back at Rumsfeld by noontime. "Secretary Rumsfeld's efforts to smear critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy are a pathetic attempt to shift the public's attention from his repeated failure to manage the conduct of the war competently," she said.
At the same time, Democrats plan a series of events in which to condemn Bush's Iraq policy and amplify their charge that Iraq is not a central front in the campaign against terrorism. In a late-morning conference call, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the Democrats' leading spokesman on national security issues, said only a small minority of those involved in the bloodshed in Iraq are the kind of international terrorists the United States should be hunting down.
Unlike in the past two elections, it is not clear which party benefits most from these debates. Most polls show that the public is essentially split over which party will keep the United States safe from terrorists. Both sides anticipate that Bush and other Republicans will get a slight bump from the Sept. 11 anniversary and the public's renewed focus on terrorism on that day, but that will not end the focus. "Over the next 69 days," Mehlman said, "there will be an important discussion in America over what it takes to make America safe."