EXTON, Pa. -- The afternoon I spent interviewing voters in this Philadelphia suburb, in one of the prime battleground states, confirmed the seriousness with which people are taking this election. The answer to my opening question, "Do you plan to vote next month?" was often, "Absolutely!" The one man who hesitated turned out to be anything but indifferent; he was just agonizing over his choice of a candidate.
What these voters -- and their counterparts in other communities -- seem to realize is that Nov. 2 provides the opportunity to weigh in on a terribly consequential choice for the country and for their families. Elections are the great accountability device in our system of representative government -- and accountability has never loomed larger than it does now.
John Kerry and John Edwards both have insisted in the debates that they have been "entirely consistent" in their stands on Iraq. That is plainly not the case, and their waverings -- especially Kerry's -- have created the opening for President Bush to charge that the Democrats' "mind-set would paralyze America in a dangerous world." That criticism has sunk in; I heard it echoed over and over again among Pennsylvania voters who said they were supporting the president.
But the accountability questions for Kerry and Edwards are outweighed, in my view, by the startling refusal of Bush and Vice President Cheney to acknowledge the errors and failures of their audacious policy in Iraq.
When has the United States launched a preemptive attack on a foreign nation with as little provocation -- and as spurious a rationale -- as this war on Iraq? The great selling point was Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Last week, that contention was definitively demolished in a 1,000-page report from the head of the U.S. inspection team in Iraq. Charles A. Duelfer concluded that Hussein did not possess and had no real plans or programs to develop biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
Previously, the State Department and the CIA had both said that the secondary rationale -- a supposed link between the Iraqi regime and the Sept. 11 terrorists -- was without foundation.
Yet on the very day the Duelfer document was released, here was President Bush in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., declaring that he had to invade Iraq because "there was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks." That risk -- with no bill of particulars behind it -- is supposed to justify a war of choice that has taken more than 1,000 American lives, caused far more Iraqi casualties and shows no sign of coming to an end.
As for Cheney, the chief cheerleader for this war, his comment in the Tuesday night vice presidential debate was: "What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do."
This refusal to acknowledge error -- this rejection of accountability -- is more than personal vanity. It infects the entire approach of this administration. The top civilian leaders of the Pentagon failed to provide the number of troops needed for success in Iraq -- a point made repeatedly by the former Army chief of staff and by Sens. John McCain and Joe Biden and now belatedly confirmed by the president's handpicked Iraq administrator, Paul Bremer. Yet Bush and Cheney have done nothing but praise Don Rumsfeld and his team.
The intelligence services failed to pick up warning signs of the Sept. 11 attacks or to convince the policymakers that they might be misjudging the seriousness of Saddam Hussein as a military threat. But George Tenet was allowed to retire with full honors as director of the CIA -- and one of his supposed congressional overseers, Porter Goss, who raised no alarms himself, has been named to succeed him.
The reality is that except for a few whistleblowers, a handful of independent, opinionated legislators and some few enterprising reporters, there is no accountability mechanism operating in one-party Washington.
If Bush and Cheney are reelected, the Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House and Senate, with all the investigative and oversight powers that reside in the legislative branch. That is an inherently risky situa- tion, particularly when the president and vice president are disinclined to question their own or their associates' judgment.
That is why the voters I met are right to think this election is so important. They themselves are the ultimate -- and only -- enforcers of accountability.