Opening Another Front

Revelations in Bob Woodward's new book are putting the White House on the defense.

By William Schneider

In his new book, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, journalist Bob Woodward charges that the situation in Iraq is getting worse and that the Bush administration is keeping the bad news secret. Those allegations came on the heels of the release of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that the war in Iraq is increasing the threat of terrorism.

None of this is likely to come as a surprise to the American public. A CNN poll conducted in August by Opinion Research asked people whether they think the war in Iraq has made the United States safer from terrorism. By 55 percent to 37 percent, the answer was no. More and more Americans think that the war in Iraq is going badly for the United States: Fifty-three percent expressed that view in January; 61 percent in September.

Could the new revelations make things worse for Republicans? They could, for several reasons. The stories are putting the White House on the defensive. "Isn't that interesting?" President Bush responded when asked about the intelligence report. "Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes."

The most politically damaging charge in the Woodward book is that the White House is not being honest with the American people. Democrats are picking up on that theme. Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, "I think the White House is increasingly in an evidence-free zone in this election." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared, "It is long overdue for the president to speak the truth to the American people."

For weeks, Republicans have been trying to frame the midterm elections around the war on terrorism. The White House is hoping that people will see stories like the ones on the intelligence report in that context. Bush said, "Everybody can draw their own conclusions about what the report says." According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., "It said ... we have no choice but to be victorious, because if not, this will spread and continue to spread."

But the Woodward book and the National Intelligence Estimate shift the focus of the 2006 campaign to Iraq. That doesn't help Republicans. Nearly half of voters polled by CNN last month said that Iraq will be an "extremely important" factor in their vote for Congress. And among those respondents, Democratic House candidates were favored over Republicans by more than 2-to-1 (68 percent to 29 percent).

In his contentious interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News last month, former President Clinton opened another front for his Democratic Party: not just Iraq but the war on terrorism. Clinton was clearly angered by Republican criticism of his record on terrorism. Frist, for example, had said, "We may have missed it in 1993 with the bombing of the World Trade Center. We may have missed it with the bombing of the USS Cole and the African embassies and the Khobar Towers. But in 2001, we woke up. And we can't return to that pre-2001 [mentality], where you just sit back and just watch this happening."

In expressing that anger, Clinton had a strategic objective as well—to rally Democrats to fight back on the terrorism issue, something they failed to do in 2002 and 2004. "We, too, care about the security of the country," he said on Fox News. "But we want to implement the 9/11 commission recommendations, which [Republicans] haven't for four years. We want to intensify our efforts in Afghanistan against bin Laden."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., picked up the theme a few days later when she said, "I'm certain that if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team."

Is Bill Clinton a good spokesman for his party right now? Apparently he is. Sixty percent of Americans express a favorable opinion of him. He is more popular than almost any other public figure, including Bush (46 percent favorable), Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (50 percent), and Sen. Clinton (50 percent). Only one public figure is more favorably regarded than Bill Clinton: first lady Laura Bush (68 percent).

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/opening-another-front/305316/