Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, February 9, 2004
Two-hundred and sixty-seven days, he must have been thinking. From now until the election, without any major disasters.
George W. Bush did not have an easy time with Tim Russert on Meet the Press on Sunday. He couldn't really answer why he led the country to war on the false premise that Iraq "had some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," and posed an "imminent threat" to the United States. At the time, his own intelligence agencies were saying otherwise.
He couldn't answer why his hand-picked commission to investigate the intelligence failures surrounding Iraq -- and not the misrepresentation of that information by himself and his administration -- needed to wait until after the election to issue a report.
He couldn't account for that missing year of service in the National Guard, responding -- inaccurately -- that he had already agreed to release all the records on his military service.
But there is a more important lesson here than the fact that this president has a lot to hide and doesn't interview well. We already knew that. The lesson is that when the Democrats actually muster the courage to go after George W. Bush, he turns out to be extremely vulnerable.
Bush agreed to this TV interview because he has been steadily sinking in the polls. The main reason for his troubles is that finally, after spending most of the last three years adhering to the conventional wisdom that politicians should not attack "a popular president," the Democrats have begun to go after him.
Not across the board, and not with anywhere near the ferocity that Republicans attacked former President Clinton. Most of the attacks have come from Democratic presidential candidates.
But NBC's Tim Russert would never have raised the issue of Bush's military service, if not for the harsh words of Democratic National Committee Chair Terence McAuliffe, whom Russert quoted: "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard."
This is the kind of offensive they will need if they are to win in November. They will need to attack the soft underbelly of the "chicken-hawks" -- draft dodgers like Vice President Dick Cheney who are quick to send American kids to war for dubious and shifting rationales, but never seemed to be available when it was their turn to fight.
Bush is vulnerable on the economy at least as much as on the war. He claimed that "there is good momentum when it comes to the creation of new jobs." But at the present rate of job creation it will take two and a half more years just to reach the number of jobs that the country had when he took office.
And then there are the scandals. There seems to be a new scandal involving Halliburton every week. The company that Dick Cheney headed until 2000 has made hundreds of millions of dollars from no-bid government contracts in Iraq, over-billed more than $33 million for army meals, and last week was accused of massive bribery in Nigeria.
But the Bush team has been able to dodge one scandal after another -- including the investigation, so far, of their exposure of an undercover CIA agent for political aims -- because the Democrats have not been aggressive enough. Imagine the Republicans, who impeached Bill Clinton for lying about sex with an intern, if they had this kind of dossier on a Democratic president. That president would be gone by now.
The Democrats might even question the legitimacy of a president who lost the popular vote, and according to the Florida recount sponsored by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, the election as well. Yet he has governed as though he had a mandate from an overwhelming, far-right, Republican majority.
"He betrayed this country!" shouted Al Gore on Sunday. "He played on our fears. He took America on an ill-conceived foreign adventure." But Gore's remarks drew limited attention.
The Democrats need a chorus -- a bold and unrelenting one. Until recently they have been hoping that the press would do it for them, but the media -- as Russert showed last Sunday -- will only expose this presidency for what it is if the Democrats take the lead. The White House is theirs, if they only have the guts to take it.