Beset by criticism of its handling of intelligence before the Iraq war, the Bush White House is fighting back with familiar weapons. There have been sarcastic one-liners from Vice President Cheney. There have been rapid-response rebuttals to unfavorable editorials. Most of all, there have been pointed suggestions from President Bush that the people questioning his policies are emboldening America's enemies.
These tactics have worked before -- never more so than during Bush's successful reelection bid in 2004. And it is not a coincidence that they are being revived now. White House officials say they are quite consciously borrowing tested campaign techniques -- aggressive opposition research and blistering partisan invective, to name two -- to lift Bush out of his current problems of mounting criticism and falling public support for the Iraq war.
Cheney, dressed in a tuxedo as he addressed a conservative gala Wednesday night, began his remarks with a sneering wisecrack at some leading Democrats who voted for the war three years ago but have since leveled criticism: "It's a pleasure to see all of you. I'm sorry we couldn't be joined by senators Harry Reid, John Kerry or Jay Rockefeller. They were unable to attend due to a prior lack of commitment."
After Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) called yesterday for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, White House press secretary Scott McClellan accused him of endorsing "Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party" and called his stance a "surrender to the terrorists."
On a similar note, the White House so disliked a New York Times editorial accusing the administration of distorting prewar intelligence -- "Decoding Mr. Bush's Denial," the headline read -- that it issued a point-by-point rejoinder that at 11 pages and more than 5,000 words was several times the length of the editorial itself.
The White House news release that accompanied the document began with a cutting reference to an ethics scandal that was one of the newspaper's most embarrassing moments: "On Tuesday we were greeted by an editorial from the newspaper that gave us Jayson Blair. 'Decoding Mr. Bush's Denial' is so replete with half-truths, misstatements, and false statements that it boggles the mind, until one recalls whence it came."
Acknowledging the length of the rebuttal, the White House statement explained, "as parents of young children and dog owners know, it takes longer to clean up a mess than to make one."
Such trash-talking of opponents is commonplace for politicians in campaign mode. Even in the context of a polarized capital, it is noteworthy for a White House to strike such a tone in making its case on a sensitive national security issue. Bush aides suggested that if they sound as though they are waging a campaign, it is because a campaign is being waged against them.
"One way to look at it is that the need to respond aggressively is born out of the audacity of the Democratic attacks," said Nicolle Wallace, White House communications director. ". . . We recognized the need to set the record straight in a way that hasn't been necessary since the campaign."
The stakes surrounding the public's perception of the war could not be higher for the White House. With the American death toll in Iraq approaching 2,100, skepticism about both about the administration's case for war and the effectiveness of the war effort has been deepening. Public opinion is now decidedly against the war, an unease that has begun to erode confidence in Bush's credibility, polls show.
Overall, Bush's approval ratings are now at the lowest point in his presidency, paralyzing many legislative efforts and causing some once-loyal Republicans to back away from him politically.
But while the White House fights to restore the president's political standing with aggressive public relations, some observers believe that the public's view of the war and the administration will not change until there is demonstrable change on the ground in Iraq.
"It's understandable that the White House wants to inoculate itself against the idea that it misled America into war," said Gary Jacobson, a University of California at San Diego political scientist. "But the reality is they didn't find weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the conflict has absorbed a lot of money, more than 2,000 American lives, and there is no end in sight. Rhetoric doesn't defeat reality."
The White House has hardly been alone in the campaign-style battle over the case for war. Congressional Democrats also have stepped up with harsh rhetoric and detailed fact sheets questioning whether the Bush administration skewed intelligence to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Responding to Cheney's speech, Senate Minority Leader Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor to note that the deaths of 10 U.S. soldiers had been announced in the previous 24 hours. "On such a night you think Cheney would give a speech that honors the fallen and those still fighting by laying out a strategy for success," he said. "Instead we have the vice president . . . playing politics like he's in the middle of a presidential campaign."
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, charged: "It is hard to name a government official with less credibility on Iraq than Vice President Cheney. The vice president continues to mislead America about how we got into Iraq and what must be done to complete the still unaccomplished mission."
The White House has argued that Democrats in Congress received essentially the same intelligence it had about weapons of mass destruction, including the caveats about its potential pitfalls. "The reality is that there was a massive intelligence failure in this country," Wallace said.
Meanwhile, the White House is letting few provocations pass unnoticed. Among its official rebuttals was one regarding a Nov. 12 Washington Post article which asserted that it is not "wholly accurate" for the administration to say that members of Congress had access to the same prewar intelligence as Bush.
Also, the White House produced a statement taking issue with comments by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) saying it is wrong to link Iraq with the fight against terrorism, as Bush has done repeatedly. The statement quotes Levin and other Democratic senators saying in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that such a link exists.
"There is a recognition that debate and dissent are what make this country strong, especially in a time of war," Wallace said. "But a bright line has to be drawn that separates those things that are maliciously false and flat-out wrong."