For a while, the Democrats' entire election strategy for 2004 seemed to be: Wait for George W. Bush to make a mistake, seize upon it and ride it to victory. The president's handling of the Iraq War aftermath may be just the mistake they were waiting for.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 40 percent of Americans now feel that the war was not worth fighting (compared with 27 percent in late April). A roughly equal number, 41 percent, disapprove of the way Bush is currently handling Iraq. The situation in Iraq is affecting Bush's overall approval rating, too, which now stands at 59 percent.
Of course, 59 percent is still a comfortably high number for Bush, and more than he needs to win re-election next year. But it's not the 68 percent rating he enjoyed a few weeks ago. With the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq growing almost daily, 52 percent of Americans believe the number of U.S. deaths is unacceptable. And Bush's approval rating is likely to fall even farther as long as Americans keep dying in a war waged for questionable reasons -- and which the administration can't fully explain.
Case in point: Yesterday, George Stephanopoulos asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on ABC's This Week about a statement Rumsfeld made in March about weapons of mass destruction. At the time, Rumsfeld insisted, "We know where they are." Watching Rumsfeld try to worm his way out of that statement yesterday was like watching magician David Blaine trying to get out of a block of ice. Rumsfeld said he should have used the word "were" instead of "are." He said that not all of the testing has been done, but that we have found examples of weapons. Of course, if the administration has real substantive proof, this would be the time to release it and end all of the questions.
Democratic presidential candidates have started to seize on the Iraq issue -- and not a moment too soon. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said that Bush has misled the American people. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) told The New York Times, "The most important attribute that any president has is his credibility -- his credibility with the American people, with its allies and with the world. When the president's own statements are called into question, it's a very serious matter."
Remember in the good old days of the 2000 campaign how Republicans -- and the media, which was more than willing to go along with them -- kept bringing up Al Gore's inability to tell the truth? It wasn't necessary for Gore to embellish the facts of his life, but reporters called him on it because they said it was a character issue. Good thing we didn't elect Gore to the White House -- he might have lied about his dog's prescription-drug prices, not the reason for going to war and risking American lives.
The Iraq War never made much sense to me. Why, if we are fighting a war against terrorism, did we suddenly veer left and attack Iraq? I know there was bad blood between Saddam Hussein and Bush's dad, but that's not a satisfactory reason to send young Americans overseas, increase our already burgeoning debt and divert resources we need to track down al-Qaeda leaders before they launch their next attack on American soil. Was Iraq an imminent threat to Americans? No. Did it have weapons of mass destruction? Not that we know of so far. Was Iraq closely tied to al-Qaeda? Nothing suggests that.
The Democratic candidates still have a lot of work to do in developing their own messages and getting them to voters -- it's much easier to win an election, after all, if you have your own agenda to promote rather than just talking about how bad the other guy is. But the half-truths about the Iraq War may provide them with an opening to debate Bush on a more level playing field. No longer should the candidates be afraid to debate him on foreign policy. No longer should the media deify him because of his response to September 11. As an Edwards spokeswoman told the Times about the Bush administration, "It's the first time we've seen them sweat. It's the first time anything has ever stuck."
Let's hope that Democrats use this opportunity to confront Bush on his other major pieces of faulty reasoning -- that yet another tax cut will finally turn the economy around, for example -- as well. Democrats have a long way to go to win the White House in 2004, but the questions over Iraq could well be an opening bell.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.