By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 31, 2006
President Bush and his surrogates are launching a new campaign intended to rebuild support for the war in Iraq by accusing the opposition of aiming to appease terrorists and cut off funding for troops on the battlefield, charges that many Democrats say distort their stated positions.
With an appearance before the American Legion in Salt Lake City today, Bush will begin a series of speeches over 20 days centered on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he and his top lieutenants have foreshadowed in recent days the thrust of the effort to put Democrats on the defensive with rhetoric that has further inflamed an already emotional debate.
Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."
Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
"A lot of the people who say we need to withdraw from Iraq say we'll be safer, and I don't think that's accurate," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, a key architect of the party's strategy heading into the fall congressional campaign. Mehlman noted that al-Qaeda leaders and other Islamic radicals have said they want to drive Americans out of Iraq and use it as a base. "We ought to not ignore when they say they're going to do that."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it is reasonable for Bush to presume that Democrats will try to cut off funding for the war if they take over Congress, noting that 54 House Democrats voted against a spending bill for military operations last year. "How would they force the president to withdraw troops?" she asked. "Yell?"
Democrats contended that the statements went too far. "Maybe there are some people in America who do not want to fight the war on terror, but I do not know them," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said yesterday. "We Democrats want to fight a very strong war on terror. No one has talked about appeasement."
The White House strategy of equating Democratic dissent with defeatism worked during the 2002 and 2004 elections, but it could prove more difficult this time. Some Republicans, such as Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), line up with Democrats in seeking a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq. When Bush and his allies accuse those favoring such a timetable of "self-defeating pessimism," as Cheney put it this week, they risk spraying friendly fire on some of their own candidates.
In an interview yesterday, Shays said the charges by Cheney and Rumsfeld are "over the top" and unhelpful. "The president should be trying to bring the country together and not trying to divide us," he said. Shays, a longtime supporter of the war who just returned from his 14th trip to Iraq and faces a tough reelection battle, said he plans to outline next month a deadline for replacing U.S. troops doing police-style patrols with Iraqi forces. But he fears the Bush administration might not be supportive.
Other GOP incumbents, such as Reps. Gil Gutknecht (Minn.) and Michael G. Fitzpatrick (Pa.), are also raising serious concerns about Bush's Iraq policy.
But many embattled Republicans remain reluctant to break with the administration's current approach. Rep. Rob Simmons, another Connecticut Republican facing a difficult campaign in a Democratic-leaning district, said he will oppose any effort by Shays to establish a pullout deadline. "I don't think that is a good idea," Simmons said.
Instead, Simmons highlights his military service and initial objections to invading Iraq three years ago. "I am a Connecticut Republican, and the environment in which I operate is quite different from elsewhere in the country," Simmons said. As for the emerging Bush political strategy on terrorism and the war, it "is hard to judge whether it helps or hurts," he said. "It may help candidates elsewhere in the country more than it helps me."
While no Democrat has the powerful platform that the White House affords Bush and Cheney, the complaints about the mischaracterizing of positions on the war flow in both directions. Many Democrats accuse the president of advocating "stay the course" in Iraq, but the White House rejects the phrase and regularly emphasizes that it is adapting tactics to changing circumstances, such as moving more U.S. troops into Baghdad recently after a previous security strategy appeared to fail.
"Strategically, we are staying committed to the fact that this is an important mission and one that should be accomplished," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Democrats, this adviser said, say "we're 'doing the same thing over and over' when that's not the case."
The intensity of the exchanges underscores the power of the issue. Although memories of Hurricane Katrina and disputes over the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast generated heated debate in recent days, strategists in both parties believe that the coming congressional elections will turn in large part on the Iraq war and whether voters believe it is part of the global battle against terrorism or a distraction from it. Bush advisers hope that the legacy of Sept. 11 will rally the public back to the unpopular president and his party, while Democrats are trying to tap into broad discontent with the Iraq war.
Republicans plan to load the congressional agenda with national security issues, including votes on spending for the military, terrorism-fighting measures and symbolic bills supporting U.S. troops. Democrats plan to force votes on providing more equipment to U.S. troops, implementing the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission and condemning Bush's Iraq policy.
Bush's speech to the American Legion this morning will launch his third intensive campaign in the past year to address public anxiety over the war. Aides said he will tackle the perception that the world is in chaos and tie together the conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere into the common ideological thread of fighting "Islamic fascism."
The effort will continue with other speeches in Washington and around the country, followed by a whirlwind tour of the Sept. 11 attack sites and a Sept. 19 address to the U.N. General Assembly. During a campaign stop in Arkansas yesterday, Bush denied that the efforts are connected to the election campaign.
"They're not political speeches," he said. "They're speeches about the future of this country, and they're speeches to make it clear that if we retreat before the job is done, this nation would become even more in jeopardy. These are important times, and I seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about."
The Democratic strategy for the next few weeks is twofold: First, punch back every time Republicans challenge their commitment to national security. Yesterday, for instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was among the half-dozen leading Democrats to strike back at Rumsfeld by noontime. "Secretary Rumsfeld's efforts to smear critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy are a pathetic attempt to shift the public's attention from his repeated failure to manage the conduct of the war competently," she said.
At the same time, Democrats plan a series of events in which to condemn Bush's Iraq policy and amplify their charge that Iraq is not a central front in the campaign against terrorism. In a late-morning conference call, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the Democrats' leading spokesman on national security issues, said only a small minority of those involved in the bloodshed in Iraq are the kind of international terrorists the United States should be hunting down.
Unlike in the past two elections, it is not clear which party benefits most from these debates. Most polls show that the public is essentially split over which party will keep the United States safe from terrorists. Both sides anticipate that Bush and other Republicans will get a slight bump from the Sept. 11 anniversary and the public's renewed focus on terrorism on that day, but that will not end the focus. "Over the next 69 days," Mehlman said, "there will be an important discussion in America over what it takes to make America safe."