Escalating the Rhetoric Offensive

President Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger are dealing with political setbacks in completely opposite ways.

Although their names were not on any ballot, President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were losers in this month's off-year elections. How are they dealing with their defeats? In precisely opposite ways.

The Republican governor was clearly chastened by his defeat. "The buck stops with me," he declared at a news conference two days later. "I take full responsibility for [the special election's] failure, for everything." The Terminator humbled! How often do you see that?

Schwarzenegger got the message at home. "I should have listened to my wife, who said, 'Don't do this,' " Schwarzenegger said at the press conference, referring to his decision to call the special election. He also got it at work. "I will get together and contact all the union leaders and let them know I am not anti-union," the governor vowed.

So far, Schwarzenegger has been as good as his word. Last week, he dropped his yearlong legal battle to overturn legislation requiring hospitals to maintain a ratio of one nurse for every five patients. "We took him on, and his poll numbers dropped like we've never seen," Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, said on Election Night.

Schwarzenegger is apparently taking the advice of Republican political consultant Allen Hoffenblum, who said after the vote, "If he wants to get himself re-elected, he has to reach out to the center and not be a polarizing political figure, and just reflect on how he won in the first place."

Bush's reaction to Election 2005 has been very different. Three days after his party's election setback, he went on the offensive against his critics—specifically, against Democrats demanding an investigation of whether the administration misused intelligence in making the case for war with Iraq. "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war," the president said on Veterans Day, "it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began." Bush portrayed his critics as undermining the cause: "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."

Bush cited the fact that more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He quoted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who said in 2002, "I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in [Saddam Hussein's] hand is a threat." Kerry, along with a lot of other Democrats, bought the flawed intelligence assessments. Democrats have to try to make the case that there is a difference between buying bad intelligence and selling it.

How the Bush administration sold it is what the Senate Intelligence Committee is now beginning to investigate—under pressure from Democrats. Bush is citing the committee's 2004 report, which "found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments." But the next phase of the Senate investigation deals with a different matter—namely, how policy makers used the intelligence.

It's pretty clear that Americans feel hoodwinked. In a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll last month, 53 percent of those surveyed said they think the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public" about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 55 percent endorsed the view that the Bush administration "intentionally misled the American public" in making the case for war with Iraq.

In answer to Bush's charge that criticism could undermine the war effort, Democrats talk about accountability. "The troops have a right to expect answers and accountability worthy of their sacrifice," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

The Bush administration's justification for going to war has evolved over time. It started out as Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's alleged ties to Al Qaeda. In 2004, Bush argued that the best way to protect the security of the United States is to promote democracy in other countries. Early this year, he said, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."

More recently, the president has portrayed Iraq as part of a new Cold War. "This fight resembles the struggles against Communism in the last century," Bush said on Veterans Day. Islamic radicals, he said, seek to establish a "totalitarian empire," starting with Iraq: "These militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all modern governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."

Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., praised Bush's resolve on Iraq but added, "There is an undeniable sense that things are slipping—more violence on the ground, declining [U.S.] domestic support for the war, growing incantations among Americans that there is no end in sight.... We need to make several significant policy changes."

Seven national polls released this month all show Bush's job approval below 40 percent, his lowest levels ever. Bush's support among Democrats and independents is in free fall. But the president is not reaching out to his critics, as Schwarzenegger is doing in California. Instead, Bush is escalating his rhetorical offensive. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are beginning to go their own way. They've seen the polls and the election results.