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.
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
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.
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.' "
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bush got what he wanted -- but at a higher price
than he expected to pay.
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.
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
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."
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"
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.
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).
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
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.
Dionne is a Washington Post columnist, a senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor
at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. This
article is based, in part, on his just-published
book, "Stand Up Fight Back" (Simon & Schuster).
2004 The Washington Post Company
Posted: June 1, 2004