On Tuesday the Iraq dam finally burst. After months of focusing on everything from Terri Schiavo to Social Security to funding for public television, President Bush and the Democrats rediscovered the war that has killed 1,745 Americans, including 311 since the Iraq elections were held at the end of January.
Last week'sfound that only 37 percent of Americans approve of the president's handling of Iraq, and even a quarter of his solid Republican base disapprove. President Bush scheduled the to give some "context" to the images coming out of the war zone, according to his communications director, Nicolle Devenish. His role as "explainer in chief" was on display a year after the much-heralded transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqis.
Republican strategists have wondered aloud in recent days how a White House that was so focused and disciplined during the 2004 campaign could be so meandering in 2005. Their message apparently got through. The president used the silver bullet that won him the election and cloaked Iraq in the mantle of 9/11. The speech, in fact, was titled "The War on Terror," not the "The War in Iraq."
The pageantry of going to Fort Bragg was sadly reminiscent of that "Mission Accomplished" moment of May 2003, although instead of dramatically landing on an aircraft carrier, the president began his evening by spending some private time with families of soldiers killed in the war. The tone of his remarks lacked the bravado of 2003 and was markedly different than Vice President Cheney's language last week proclaiming that we were in the "final throes of the war."
Democrats who have been tongue-tied on the issue this year fell all over themselves getting into the explaining game as well. John Kerry, who has been virtually AWOL on Iraq since the election, reported for duty on The New York Times op-ed page and then on the Senate floor with some thoughtful ideas about an exit strategy. Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, who as recently as last week was leaving Iraq to the policymakers, put out a hawkish press release calling on President Bush not to withdraw but to lay out a clear military strategy for success.
Even MoveOn.org PAC, a favorite whipping boy of both Democrats (who are worried they are too liberal) and Republicans (who want them as an opponent), has been holding back on a full-fledged mobilization around the war issue, focusing instead on firing Tom DeLay and getting more funding for Big Bird and his pals. But on Tuesday they let 'er rip with an ad featuring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's remark that "the White House is completely disconnected from reality." Hagel complained, saying he wasn't in favor of immediate withdrawal and MoveOn said they never said he was, although they were using his quote in an ad urging Bush to bring the troops home.
The Democrats have been struggling with what a Republican official has termed the called the "Kerry conundrum" over the war – having voted to give the president authorization to go to war has made it difficult for them to gain the credibility to criticize it.
But they are starting to find a voice. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has been a consistent opponent of the war, said that Bush's "pre-emptive strike" has made Iraq "now what it was not when the war began – a magnet for terrorism." Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, one of the president's allies on going into Iraq, has not worried about lacking credibility on criticism. On "Face the Nation" a few weeks ago and then again at Brookings, he laid out a case for setting public standards for success and establishing benchmarks on the training of Iraqis and economic reconstruction.
Democrats are still divided on this issue – some calling for bringing the troops home immediately, some advocating setting timetables and benchmarks, and others just settling for bashing Bush. The president has asked for patience and many Americans say they are willing to give it more time.
But it was the public and not their leaders who forced the issue of Iraq back onto center stage. They have put the policymakers in both parties on notice that they want answers on Iraq. They will give it more time but have said loud and clear that their patience has worn thin with political leaders who put their heads in the sand while asking the American people to make enormous sacrifices.