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Losing the Fear Factor

How The Bush Administration Got Spooked

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 4:00 AM EST

It's finally Wizard of Oz time in America. You know -- that moment when the curtains are pulled back, the fearsome-looking wizard wreathed in all that billowing smoke turns out to be some pitiful little guy, and everybody looks around sheepishly, wondering why they acted as they did for so long.

Starting on September 11, 2001 -- with a monstrous helping hand from Osama bin Laden -- the Bush administration played the fear card with unbelievable effectiveness. For years, with its companion "war on terror," it trumped every other card in the American political deck. With an absurd system for color-coding dangers to Americans, the President, Vice President, and the highest officials in this land were able to paint the media a "high" incendiary orange and the Democrats an "elevated" bright yellow, functionally sidelining them.

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How stunningly in recent weeks the landscape has altered -- almost like your basic hurricane sweeping through some unprotected and unprepared city. Now, to their amazement, Bush administration officials find themselves thrust through the equivalent of a Star-Trekkian wormhole into an anti-universe where everything that once worked for them seems to work against them. As always, in the face of domestic challenge, they have responded by attacking -- a tactic that was effective for years. The President, Vice President, National Security Adviser, and others have ramped up their assaults, functionally accusing Democratic critics of little short of treason -- of essentially undermining American forces in the field, if not offering aid and comfort to the enemy. On his recent trip to Asia, the President put it almost as bluntly as his Vice President did at home: "As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them into war continue to stand behind them." The Democrats were, he said over and over, "irresponsible" in their attacks. Dick Cheney called them spineless "opportunists" peddling dishonestly for political advantage.

But instead of watching the Democrats fall silent under assault as they have for years, they unexpectedly found themselves facing a roiling oppositional hubbub threatening the unity of their own congressional party. In his sudden, heartfelt attack on Bush administration Iraq plans ("a flawed policy wrapped in illusion") and his call for a six-month timetable for American troop withdrawal, Democratic congressional hawk John Murtha took on the Republicans over their attacks more directly than any mainstream Democrat has ever done. ("I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done. I resent the fact, on Veterans Day, he [Bush] criticized Democrats for criticizing them.") Perhaps more important, as an ex-Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran clearly speaking for a military constituency (and possibility some Pentagon brass), he gave far milder and more "liberal" Democrats cover.

For the first time since the war in Iraq began, "tipping points," constantly announced in Iraq but never quite in sight, have headed for home. Dan Bartlett, counselor to the President and drafter of recent Presidential attacks on the Democrats, told David Sanger of the New York Times that "Bush's decision to fight back? arose after he became concerned the [Iraq] debate was now at a tipping point"; while Howard Fineman of Newsweek dubbed Murtha himself a "one-man tipping point."

Something indeed did seem to tip, for when the White House and associates took Murtha on, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats leaped aggressively to his defense. In fact, something quite unimaginable even a few days earlier occurred. When Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, the most junior member of the House, accused Murtha (via an unnamed Marine colonel supposedly from her district) of being a coward, Democratic Representative Harold Ford from Tennessee "charged across the chamber's center aisle to the Republican side screaming that Ms. Schmidts's attack had been unwarranted. ?You guys are pathetic!' yelled Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. ?Pathetic.'"

There could, however, be no greater sign of a politically changed landscape than the decision of former President Bill Clinton (who practically had himself adopted into the Bush family over the last year) to tell a group of Arab students in Dubai only two-and-a-half years late that the Iraqi invasion was a "big mistake." Since he is undoubtedly a stalking horse for his wife, that great, cautious ship-of-nonstate, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, should soon turn its prow ever so slowly to catch the oppositional winds.)

If you want to wet an index finger yourself and hoist it airwards to see which way the winds are blowing, then just check out how the media has been framing in headlines the recent spate of administration attacks. Headline writing is a curious in-house craft -- and well worth following. Changing headline language is a good signal that something's up. When the President attacks, it's now commonly said that he's "lashing out" -- an image of emotional disarray distinctly at odds with the once powerful sense of the Bush administration as the most disciplined White House on record and of the President and Vice President as resolutely unflappable. Here's just a small sampling:

The Miami Herald, "President lashes out at critics of Iraq war"; the Associated Press, Cheney Latest to Lash Out at Critics; the Buffalo News, Bush lashes out at war critics; even the Voice of America, Bush Lashes Out at Political Opponents Over Iraq Accusations.

In other headlines last week, the administration was presented in post-Oz style as beleaguered, under siege, and powerless to control its own fate: The Associated Press, for example, headlined a recent Jennifer Loven piece, Iraq War Criticism Stalks Bush Overseas; the New York Times, a David Sanger report, Iraq Dogs President as He Crosses Asia to Promote Trade; and CNN headlined the Murtha events, A hawk rattles GOP's cage.

The language used in such recent press accounts was no less revealing. Sanger, for example, began his piece this way:

"President Bush may have come to Asia determined to show leaders here that his agenda is far broader than Iraq and terrorism, but at every stop, and every day, Mr. Bush and his aides have been fighting a rearguard action to justify how the United States got into Iraq and how to get out."

While Loven launched hers with, "His war policies under siege at home?," attributing the siege atmosphere and the Bush "counterattack" to "the president's newly aggressive war critics."

Lashing out, stalked, dogged, under siege, counterattacking, fighting a rearguard action -- let's not just attribute this to "newly aggressive war critics." It's a long-coming shift in the zeitgeist, as evident in the media as in the halls of Congress.

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