Whenever I ask Democratic Party leaders why they continue to be so timid about pushing the president on getting out of Iraq, I keep getting the same off-the-record answer: GOP fears about the '06 election are going to force Bush to start pulling out anyway, so why should they risk putting themselves on the line? It's the Democratic foreign policy establishment's mantra and Hillary's strategy for keeping her head -- and her voice -- down until the withdrawal starts.
But listening to the president's speech today, he sure didn't sound like a man looking at 2006. Indeed, he sounded like a man willing to sacrifice everything -- including Republican control of Congress -- if he believes that is what it will take to go down in history as a great president, one who dragged the Middle East kicking and screaming into the bosom of democracy.
What impact this will have on the GOP's political prospects will depend on what the Democrats do. But the president's fanaticism is a scary prospect for the country.
The latest issues of both Time and Newsweek paint a portrait of an isolated president detached from the reality of all that is going on around him. Nothing seems to be penetrating -- not the rising death toll, not his depressed poll numbers, not the continuing revelations about the deceptions his administration used to lead us to war. Not even the growing skepticism about the war being expressed within his own party.
And today's speech showed that it might be even worse than we think. Bush came across as a true believer who refuses to let little things like facts get in the way -- a zealot who has utterly convinced himself that fighting on (and on and on) in Iraq is the right thing for America and the world.
This man-on-a-mission mien was particularly evident during the brief Q & A session the president engaged in after his speech. You heard me right; the president actually took questions from members of the audience (you think someone on his staff might actually be reading the HuffPost?
He should do it more often. He came across as very relaxed and confident. Loosey-goosey, even -- at one point joking, after someone asked a question off-mike, "I'll repeat the question. If I don't like it, I'll make it up." Got a big laugh. Of course, he delivered this zinger immediately after estimating that 30,000 Iraqis had died in the war, so maybe he should spare us the stand-up.
The most revealing moment came when a questioner asked why the president continues to "invoke 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Iraq" when no such link existed (indeed, the president mentioned 9/11 in the first 30 seconds of his speech). After saying he appreciated the question, the president proceeded to once again link 9/11 to Saddam and said of the decision to remove him: "And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again."
Really? Wow. So knowing what we know today about WMD, and knowing what we know today about how poorly the occupation has gone, how surprisingly resilient the insurgency has been, how failed our efforts at reconstruction... knowing all that, he'd "make the decision again"? Not even his partner in zealotry Paul Wolfowitz is that deluded.
Just call him a cockeyed optimist. A deluded cockeyed optimist. Or, as Newsweek had it, Bush in the Bubble.
The president made the task of building "a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East" the central focus of his speech -- mentioning the words democracy and its derivations 59 times. I guess he missed the most disheartening part of the new ABC News poll, which showed that just 45 percent of Iraqis living in Shiite areas, and only 38 percent of those living in Sunni areas, "prefer democracy to either strongman rule or an Islamic state." Or the part that showed more than two thirds of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. troops in their country, and 45 percent want us to either "leave now" or as soon as the new government takes office.
The president ended his appearance by saying, "My job as the president is to see the world the way it is, not the way we hope it is." Well then, he's utterly failing at the assignment. Everything he'd said in the previous hour showed his approach to be the exact opposite to those marching orders. He's turning a blind eye to reality and operating entirely on wishful thinking.
I trust leaders of both parties were paying attention this morning. If they were, here's what each side should take away from it:
The Democrats need to realize that Bush is so far gone on Iraq, he's not going to allow himself to be driven by what's good for the GOP (which also happens to be what's good for the country). So they've got to stop waiting for Bush to do the political math, and start offering their full-throated support to Jack Murtha.
And Republicans, particularly those concerned about getting their clocks cleaned in '06, need to take a page from the Watergate years, and send a delegation of party leaders -- pick those not currently under indictment -- up to the White House to tell the president that the jig is up. In 1974, GOP leaders, including Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, convinced Nixon that it was time for him to get out of Washington. The question is, will anyone be able to convince George Bush that it's time for us to get out of Iraq?