It's the War, Stupid

The economy is recovering, so Dems double down on Iraq.

Wed Nov. 5, 2003 3:00 AM EST

President Bush's speech in Alabama on Monday marked a significant shift in his remarks on the war in Iraq -- in that he tried to avoid making any. Sunday's attack on a U.S. helicopter was the single most deadly assault yet against the U.S. occupation forces, but the president didn't directly mention it in his speech. Instead, he filled the silence with praise of the nation's growing economy -- not a theme he's had much cause to dwell on in the past three years.

The missile attack against a Chinook helicopter killed 16 soldiers and wounded 20 more on their way home for two weeks of R&R. An aide to the president remarked that the details of the attack were beside the point; the president's speeches "reflect reality without getting bogged down in one day's headlines." Instead Bush fell back on his old stump lines, conflating the terrorist threat to America with the current chaos in Iraq. "A free and peaceful Iraq will make it more likely that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up without the horrors of September the 11th," he told the crowd gathered in a Birmingham warehouse.

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Without last week's economic shot in the arm , Bush, it's fairly safe to say, would have taken a beating on Monday. Democrats and the media were getting lazily accustomed to clobbering him with both a lousy economy and a tailspinning Iraq. But the president, with palpable relief, was able to claim the jump in G.D.P. as a victory for his tax cut strategy. It's too soon to tell whether the economic growth will replace jobs lost under Bush, but the president wasn't going to sit around waiting:

"By reducing taxes, this administration kept a promise.... We did the right thing at the right time for the American economy...We're talking about how best we can continue to create new jobs all across America. This economy of ours is growing, the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, but there's more work to do."

More work is right. Democrats have been sure to point out that one good quarter doesn't make a recovery, and doesn't make up for the sickly economy of the last three years; but they're well aware that the good economic news is bad news for them. As syndicated columnist David Shribman points out, the Democrats are a little dazed and confused over the most recent boomlet.

"The Democratic calculus was simple: Trouble in Iraq plus trouble in the economy equals a fighting chance for them. But the possibility that the economy might be removed from the equation changes everything.

It changes the nature of their own fight, for example. Until now there was general agreement among them that the Bush economic stewardship was flawed, the Bush tax cuts worthless, the Bush long-range plan ruinous. Most of the audiences these candidates are greeting in New Hampshire and elsewhere are Democrats and thus predisposed to agree with them. But at the heart of nearly all of the Democratic contenders' strategy was the notion that the economic distress would be so widespread, even in a state not as battered by joblessness as others, that independents might be persuaded to come out in a party primary and vote for a Democrat. ...

Most of the Democratic contenders have, with holiday weeks removed, at best about 10 more weeks of campaigning. That's not a long time. They're stuck with the economic policies they've developed and stuck in the uncomfortable position of having their destinies determined by economic factors completely beyond their control."

But is Iraq enough of an issue for Democrats to swing it in 2004? If daily attacks against Americans persist and the American public, which was neither informed nor prepared for a long, bloody, and costly presence in Iraq, sour on the project, Bush could be in trouble. The recent emphasis on "Iraqification" is a sign that the administration understands this. But, as Fareed Zakaria argues in the Washington Post, Iraqification may be a losing strategy.

"This new impulse has less to do with Iraqi democracy than with American democracy. The president wants to show, in time for his reelection, that Iraqis are governing their affairs and Americans are coming home. But it might not work out that way. ...

"[T]he desperation to move faster and faster is going to have bad results.... If the American footprint is reduced, it will not make the guerrillas stop fighting.... On the contrary, the rebels will step up their attacks on the Iraqi army and local politicians, whom they already accuse of being collaborators. Iraqification could easily produce more chaos, not less."

It seems unlikely that the chaos in Iraq will ease up in the near future. And with no clear date for troop withdrawal, the president has got to be the worried about his chances in 2004. But given that the economy, other things being equal, for most Americans trumps foreign affairs, Bush might get himself re-elected himself not as the president who made the nation safe, but as the savior of our ailing economy."

Which doesn't bode well for either the United States or Iraq.

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