Bush Argues Democrats Don’t Understand Threat to U.S.
By JIM RUTENBERG | August 21, 2006
WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 — President Bush seized today on Democratic calls for withdrawal from Iraq to make an election-year case that his political rivals did not properly understand the threats to the nation and would create a more dangerous world.
It was the most direct attack Mr. Bush has made yet against the Democrats from a White House lectern this election year, and it effectively marked the beginning of a more outright political season for the president and his aides as they work to help Republicans maintain control of Congress this fall.
The appearance marked an early, pre-Labor Day start to the official campaign season, but it comes as Mr. Bush and his party face the most daunting electoral challenge of his presidency, with continued voter dissatisfaction over the course of the Iraq war, the high price of gasoline and the president’s overall job performance.
Democrats have pointed to polls showing public support for the war is continuing to wane, and the president acknowledged as much today. “These are challenging times, and they’re difficult times, and they’re straining the psyche of our country,” Mr. Bush said during an hour-long news conference. “Nobody wants to turn on their TV on a daily basis and see havoc wrought by terrorists.”
Analysts from both parties have described the war as the biggest political liability facing the Republicans this year. Mr. Bush’s political aides have urged fellow Republicans to embrace the conflict, and Mr. Bush seemed to go a step further, by suggesting that he hoped the midterm elections would be fought over rival approaches on Iraq.
“What matters is that in this campaign that we clarify the different points of view,” Mr. Bush said from the press secretary’s podium in the White House conference center up the street from the Oval Office. “And there are a lot of people in the Democrat Party who believe that the best course of action is to leave Iraq before the job is done — period — and they’re wrong.”
In calling the opposition the “Democrat Party” Mr. Bush was repeating a truncated, ungrammatical version of the party’s name that some Democrats have called a slight, an assertion the White House dismissed as ridiculous.
Either way it was the president as political strategist that television viewers got a glimpse today, with Mr. Bush laying out what he believed his party members should focus on this election year and rehearsing an argument that uses Iraq as a foil, by contending that the early withdrawal advocated by some Democrats would embolden terrorists everywhere.
Democrats have sought to stoke public displeasure with the war, and they seized on Mr. Bush’s remarks about Iraq as evidence that he was choosing to stay with a failed policy.
“The president’s promise to keep American forces in Iraq as long as he is in office is no substitute for an effective plan to complete the mission,” Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Democrats believe its time for a new direction in Iraq, with responsible redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq that begins this year.”
The dissatisfaction over the war now extends even to Republican officeholders, with some who supported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 expressing displeasure with the execution of the war.
Mr. Bush acknowledged that “sometimes I’m frustrated” about the continuing violence in Iraq, even though that impression is one that some people around the president have sought to play down in recent days. But Mr. Bush also said he was sometimes “happy” over progress in Iraq, and that while “concerned” about the prospect of civil war, he believed the Iraqis would work for unity.
Mr. Bush appeared generally upbeat, occasionally rocking back and forth behind the lectern as he fielded questions from reporters. The White House announced the 10 a.m. news conference less than two hours before it began, acting after a weekend in which some of Mr. Bush’s own conservative supporters have argued that his Iraq campaign may need adjustment.
Among them was the conservative columnist George Will, who wrote in a column last week that the arrests in the London bombing plot seemed to have vindicated Senator John Kerry’s position during the 2004 presidential race that terrorism required joint law enforcement operations between nations.
“Law enforcement means kind of a simple, singular response to the problem,’’ Mr. Bush said. “This is a global war on terror.”
The Iraq war and the buildup to it helped fuel Republican victories in 2002 and 2004, but polls now show that a majority of Americans now have doubts about progress in Iraq.
The White House has argued that the Iraq war remains potent politically for Republicans when they cast it part of the broader war on terror, although the administration has found it at times difficult to make that case.
When Mr. Bush referred to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in reference to a question about Iraq today, a reporter pressed him, asking, “What did Iraq have to do with that?” Mr. Bush responded somewhat testily, “Nothing,” and added, “Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack.”
In the run-up to the invasion in March 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney did call attention to the theory, since discredited, that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers might have met in Prague before the attacks with an Iraqi intelligence officer.
In general, however, Mr. Bush struck a different tone than the vice president has used in recent weeks, including Mr. Cheney’s suggestion two weeks ago that implied that Ned Lamont’s victory in the Connecticut primary against Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut would embolden “Al Qaeda types.”
In response to a question today. Mr. Bush said he agreed with that analysis, but added: “We’ll continue to speak out in a respectful way, never challenging somebody’s love for America when you criticize their strategies or their point of view.”
White House officials said the president would use the fall to further elaborate a view of the war, a task that Mr. Bush said would be intended to “explain as best I can why it’s important for us to succeed.”
Strategists on both sides have pointed to Iraq as a major drag on the president’s popularity, which in turn has been a drag on the Republican Party. Just two weeks ago, a close White House ally, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had said in an interview on Fox News, “I wish the president’s approval rating were better than it is, and that’s not a plus for us.”
In a follow-up interview today, Mr. McConnell played down that remark and said he believed the Republicans would ultimately succeed in maintaining control of Congress because “we’re going to make sure voters know what having Democrats in control means.”
Mr. Bush said Republican Party could also score points on tax cuts and the economy. As for flagging support for the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush said, “Presidents care about whether people support their policies,” and acknowledged, “Of course I care.”
But, he added, “I’m going to do what I think is right and if people don’t like me for it, that’s just the way it is.”