Bush's New Tack Steers Clear of 'Stay the Course'

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

President Bush and his aides are annoyed that people keep misinterpreting his Iraq policy as "stay the course." A complete distortion, they say. "That is not a stay-the-course policy," White House press secretary Tony Snow declared yesterday.

Where would anyone have gotten that idea? Well, maybe from Bush.

"We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed," he said in Salt Lake City in August.

"We will win in Iraq so long as we stay the course," he said in Milwaukee in July.

"I saw people wondering whether the United States would have the nerve to stay the course and help them succeed," he said after returning from Baghdad in June.

But the White House is cutting and running from "stay the course." A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say. Democrats have now turned "stay the course" into an attack line in campaign commercials, and the Bush team is busy explaining that "stay the course" does not actually mean stay the course.

Instead, they have been emphasizing in recent weeks how adaptable the president's Iraq policy actually is. Bush remains steadfast about remaining in Iraq, they say, but constantly shifts tactics and methods in response to an adjusting enemy. "What you have is not 'stay the course' but in fact a study in constant motion by the administration," Snow said yesterday.

Political rhetoric, of course, is often in constant motion as well. But with midterm elections two weeks away, the Bush team is searching for a formula to address public opposition to the war, struggling to appear consistent and flexible at the same time. That was underscored by the reaction to a New York Times report that the administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to disarm militias and assume a larger security role. The White House initially called the story "inaccurate." But then White House counselor Dan Bartlett went on CNN yesterday morning to call it "a little bit overwritten" because in fact it was something the administration had been doing for months.

The president has shifted language on Iraq before. At a news conference in August, he returned to his prewar argument that Saddam Hussein harbored terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Hussein "had relations with Zarqawi," Bush said. Weeks later, the Senate intelligence committee concluded that Hussein "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye to Zarqawi" and that the U.S. government knew that before the invasion. At his next news conference, Bush was asked about that. "I never said there was an operational relationship," he said.

Bush used "stay the course" until recent weeks when it became clear that it was becoming a political problem. "The characterization of, you know, 'it's stay the course' is about a quarter right," Bush complained at an Oct. 11 news conference. " 'Stay the course' means keep doing what you're doing. My attitude is: Don't do what you're doing if it's not working -- change. 'Stay the course' also means don't leave before the job is done."

By last week, it was no longer a quarter right. "Listen, we've never been stay the course, George," he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. "We have been -- we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics. Constantly."

Snow said Bush dropped the phrase "because it left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, 'Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,' when, in fact, it's just the opposite."

Republican strategists were glad to see him reject the language, if not the policy. "They're acknowledging that it's not sending the message they want to send," said Steve Hinkson, political director at Luntz Research Cos., a GOP public opinion firm. The phrase suggested "burying your head in the sand," Hinkson said, adding that it was no longer useful signaling determination. "The problem is that as the number of people who agree with remaining resolute dwindles, that sort of language doesn't strike a chord as much as it once did."

If anything, it is striking a Democratic chord, party strategists say. A commercial by Democratic Senate candidate James Webb in Virginia shows a clip of Bush saying "We'll stay the course in Iraq," followed by a clip of Republican Sen. George Allen, saying "I very much agree with the president. . . . And we need to stay the course." A caption on the screen says "Civil War; No End in Sight; We Need a New Course."

An ad for Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. in Tennessee shows Republican Bob Corker saying "I think we should stay the course," then rewinds and repeats "we should stay the course." Ford then comes onto the screen. "I support our troops, and I voted for the war," he says. "But we shouldn't stay the course as Mr. Corker wants. . . . America should always be strong. But we should be smart and honest, too. We need a new direction."

Juxtaposed against "stay the course," "new direction" has become the Democrats' poll-tested mantra, even if they don't define precisely what that new direction would be. "There's a reason why every Democratic candidate in the country is talking now about change in direction," said Democratic National Committee pollster Cornell Belcher. "When you ask 'change in direction' versus Bush's direction, you get solid majorities of 60 percent or so for change."

So now even some Republican candidates are changing direction, at least in terms of their language. "We can't continue to keep doing the same things and expect different results," Allen said last week. "We must adapt. We must adjust our tactics." Corker now says on his campaign Web site: "We need to fix our strategy in Iraq so we can get the job done and bring our troops home."

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