Winners & Losers

With Saddam behind bars, Bush looks like a winner -- for now.

Tue Dec. 16, 2003 1:00 AM PST

Washington loves winners. And losers. In fact, in the short-focus, election-driven culture that dominates inside the Beltway, all that matters is whether you're a winner or a loser.

So it's hardly surprising that, a day after Saddam Hussein was pulled, filthy beard and all, from a dank hole next to a squalid farmhouse in northern Iraq, Washington's pundits were taking the measure of the political fallout.

During his Monday press conference, President Bush visibly seemed to be struggling against the urge to gloat. Clearly, the president's political handlers have learned their lesson: No more premature self-congratulations, no more 'Mission Accomplished' banners. Bush only let his studied restraint slip once -- when asked what greeting he would send to Saddam. "Good riddance. The world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein," the president quipped, happily. "And I find it very interesting that when the heat got on you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it."

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But if the president has a similar in-your-face greeting for his Democratic challengers, he declined to offer it. While Bush grinned and joked and seemed genuinely at ease -- a rarity for this press-averse president -- he refused to be drawn into electoral handicapping.

"I look forward to the debate. I look forward to making my case to the American people about why America is more secure today based upon the decisions that I've made.

But, as I said, there's ample time for politics. I know you all want to jump the gun. It makes exciting news. It makes the stories more interesting and more vital from your perspective."

So interesting and so vital, it seems, that the Washington punditsphere has been concerned with little else. The emerging conventional wisdom, as voiced by Dan Balz and David Broder of The Washington Post: Bush is the big winner, and just about all the Democrats are losers.

"The capture of Hussein robs Democrats of one of their most telling arguments -- and best applause lines -- to highlight the unfinished business in Iraq. The arrest may not lead directly to a diminishment of the terrorist attacks in Iraq, as Bush was careful to point out in his nationally televised address yesterday, but it provides the kind of psychological shift that could put the Democrats on the defensive as they argue against his policy.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff noted that, coming almost a year before the election, even an event as compelling as Hussein's capture will not by itself make Bush impregnable in his reelection campaign. 'What one hopes is this sets the stage for the cooperation we need and builds the argument as to why we removed him from power,' McInturff said. 'If that happens, then everything else -- consumer confidence, increasing economic growth -- augur very well for Bush's reelection by a very significant margin.'

...

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, said Hussein's capture will help the administration argue that 'we don't have a calamity or a quagmire' in Iraq. 'This is a sign of progress, which follows the bloodiest month in Iraq since we invaded. Basically it may check the pessimistic psychology or the rush to draw the worst possible conclusions about Iraq.'"

It will also give Bush a chance to do something unthinkable just a few days ago -- escape from Iraq with an important victory in hand. With Saddam still at large, Julian Borger of Britain's Guardian opines, a U.S. withdrawal could have been political suicide for Bush -- giving the Democrats yet another opportunity to question the justifications and costs of the war. No longer.

"On the campaign stump, where slogans count more than concepts, it is unlikely to matter much that Saddam Hussein had little to do with al-Qaida and September 11, or that he did not possess an arsenal of terrifying weapons.

Americans, like everyone else, require their government to look after their economic interests and vanquish their enemies. Few enemies in history looked more vanquished than Saddam when having his hair checked for lice and a torch shone down his throat by a soldier in rubber gloves."

Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard embraces the political wisdom and runs with it. While glibly hailing Bush as the big winner of the capture Saddam sweepstakes, Barnes also singles out Dean as the single biggest loser. Still, at least he's up-front about his agenda.

"Let's be crass and assess the politics of the capture of Saddam Hussein. No one is boosted more than President Bush, the beneficiary of so much good news this fall (surging economy, 10,000 Dow, Medicare drug benefit). For him, only one more thing has to fall into place to assure re-election. That's a sharp turn for the better in the twilight war against the Baathist diehards and their motley allies in the Sunni triangle of Iraq.

...

The big loser is Howard Dean--potentially. Dean has embarked on an image-altering effort so he'll be seen as a centrist on foreign affairs. In interviews with the Washington Post and New York Times, he insisted the differences between himself and Bush are not great, mainly about style, not substance. He offered this amazing statement to the Times: 'It's all about nuance.' In truth, there's rarely been a presidential candidate with a less nuanced approach to foreign affairs."

Ruben Navarrette of the Dallas News (who seems totally overwhelmed by the day's proceedings, calling them "the sorts of extraordinary events that leave their mark on generations and change the history of the world") argues there is another winner -- Joe Lieberman.

"As the candidate moves in and out of diners and shopping malls, voters have been known to make a beeline in his direction just to pick a fight with him over the war. One by one, they want to know how any self-respecting Democrat could have pushed so hard for the war in Iraq and done so from the very beginning. Implicit in the question is another: 'Why can't you be more like former Gov. Howard Dean?'

...

Now, the capture of Saddam Hussein gives Team Lieberman gloating rights and something to celebrate. It also gives them a great line to use against the front-runner."

Lieberman himself seems to have reached a similar conclusion. But, on Lieberman's tongue, gloating sounds an awful lot like spite. While Dean hailed Saddam's capture and again encouraged the Bush administration to reach out to erstwhile allies, Lieberman gave the news a discordant, vitriolic spin, declaring: "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today... If we want to win back the White House and take this country forward, we have to show the American people that we're prepared to keep them safe."

Lieberman's pit-bull politics aside, the punditry, by and large, seems to be planted in reality -- at least for the moment. A snap Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted Monday night found that Bush's overall job approval rating had climbed four percentage points over the course of a week. But the poll also found that the dramatic capture of Saddam has done little to close the popular divide over whether the war was justified, or reassure Americans about the bloody occupation.

Which brings us to the unconventional antidote to all this conventional wisdom. Having Saddam behind bars may give Bush a short-term bump, a slew of left-leaning commentators argue, but Iraq remains a violent mess. In both Baghdad and Washington, Philip Reeves of The Independent argues, the euphoria won't last.

"The capture of Saddam Hussein will not bring an end to the resentment felt by many Iraqis - among them plenty of Saddam-haters - about the mass unemployment that followed the US-led invasion; about the deluge of western consumer goods in Baghdad that they cannot afford; about the humiliation and deadly violence visited upon them by ill-trained and trigger-happy American troops; about the useless public services, or the risk to women who venture in the evenings on to the streets, or the kilometre-long queues to buy petrol.

All these issues are still in the equation, generating anger and instability and complicating efforts towards reconstruction and political progress.

With Saddam's capture, the Bush administration has scored an undoubted political triumph, one which is likely to tempt it to explore the idea of speeding up the transfer of sovereignty so that it can declare a victory well before the US presidential elections. It hopes that such a transfer of power will reduce the bloodshed, which means that it can get some of its soldiers out of the firing line.

But the US must still settle some outstanding issues before it can expect to create a plausible interim government which satisfies the aspirations of a divided country and offers the 25 million Iraqi population the prospect of a peaceful future."

Having Saddam in custody could also revive other outstanding issues the Bush administration might like to leave buried -- such as the phantom weapons of mass destruction Bush cited as the driving reason to attack Iraq in the first place. In that vein, Mother Jones contributing writer Robert Dreyfuss predicts that Saddam will prove a problematic prisoner.

"First, Saddam's capture will present a significant political problem for Bush & Co. All by himself, Saddam can unravel the supposed mystery of Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction. Call him a liar, but on this subject he can tell the truth. Iraq's WMD were virtually extinguished in 1991, and lingering remnants dealt with by UN inspectors in the early '90s. Already, according to Time, Saddam in captivity ridiculed the WMD issue. "Saddam was... asked whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction," reported Time. "‘No, of course not,' he replied, according to [a U.S.] official, ‘the U.S. dreamed them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us.'" In coming weeks, unless the United States manages to muzzle Saddam and suppress leaks—not likely—Saddam can highlight Bush's prevarications on WMD and terrorism."

Already, Time has published notes from the U.S. command's initial interrogation session, during which the deposed despot does just that.

"Saddam was also asked whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. 'No, of course not,' he replied, according to the official, 'the U.S. dreamed them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us.' The interrogator continued along this line, said the official, asking: 'if you had no weapons of mass destruction then why not let the U.N. inspectors into your facilities?' Saddam's reply: 'We didn't want them to go into the presidential areas and intrude on our privacy.'"

Then there's the other half of the conventional wisdom equation -- that Saddam's capture will derail Dean. That's the way it may look this morning, Slate's William Saletan argues, but Dean is already working to lessen the damage. Dean greeted the news of Saddam's capture ("it's a testament to the skill and courage of U.S. forces and intelligence personnel") in much the same way that Bush discussed the Clinton-era economic boom in 2000, Saletan writes: "Somebody other than the president—in this case, our troops—gets the credit. The mission becomes history."

"Will this strategy work for Dean as it did for Bush? In some ways, it will be harder. Military success, unlike economic growth, is a direct result of administration policy. It's much harder to deny Bush credit for capturing Saddam than it was to deny Clinton and Gore credit for the boom. Furthermore, Bush never equivocated as to whether economic growth was good. Dean's comment last April that he "'supposed' Saddam's ouster was a good thing -- sure to be replayed in Republican ads -- will make it harder for him to put Saddam's capture behind him and focus attention on what to do next.

But other factors suggest that the strategy can work again. A dictator's removal is one of the easiest events to dissolve into history. When Saddam's regime collapsed, Americans quickly forgot its horrors, lost interest, and began agitating to get our troops out. Ask Winston Churchill about gratitude for winning wars. In this war, the stakes for the United States were far lower, and one "Mission Accomplished" moment—Bush's victory speech in April—has already been discredited. If Baghdad's collapse didn't nail down the war as a definitive success, there's no guarantee that Saddam's capture will do so, either. The goalpost has moved once and can move again."

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