Saturday, October 02, 2004


Debate debriefing II: The "War President"

When did bad judgment in starting and conducting a war become a reason to re-elect a president?

When Bush was at his “best” – most clearly on message – in the debate, he was being the worst sort of demagogue. He argued, repeatedly, that it is un-presidential and, implicitly, un-American to question his policies during a war.

[BUSH:] I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis? No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined.

... what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time"? Not a message a commander in chief gives, or this is a "great diversion." [See debate transcript.]

Okay, so as I understand it, Kerry's position that the Bush administration has botched, and continues to mishandle the Iraq war, sends “mixed signals” to the world, and -- irrespective of whether it's true -- disqualifies Kerry from being "commander in chief." Think about what that means: essentially, any president who through a combination of incompetence and bad judgment embroils us in armed conflict that drags on to election time must be re-elected “because there’s a war on.” Doesn’t such a principle create a rather perverse incentive for presidents in a democracy?

This theme first surfaced at the Republican National Convention. In his keynote address, Zell Miller, foam bubbling at his mouth, said this:
Today, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.
Yeah, Zell, I guess I and half the country do have this "manic obsession" -- it's called "voting." What could be more undemocratic and un-American than to imply that we should somehow suspend the election because troops are engaged abroad. The Bush administration thought it important to finish out the 2001 baseball season after 9/11, because American institutions should not be shut down by terrorism. But these same folks, our president’s henchpeople, toyed with the idea of suspending the November 2 vote on security grounds; and they now use the "war on terror" as a pretext to urge voters to drop the idea of thinking critically about whom to vote for as president. Bush himself now attacks John Kerry for suggesting that American voters have an alternative in how the country should be led out of Iraq.

The worst indictment of the mainstream media, our First Amendment Watchdogs, is their almost complete failure to challenge this assertion by Bush. The job of the media is to question policies, particularly plainly wrong policies, and to refuse to let truth be the first casualty of war. Yet the New York Times simply reported Bush’s assertion – that a man is disqualified from the presidency by questioning the sitting president’s failed war policy – as though it were a legitimate position in a two-sided argument. It’s not a legitimate position: it’s an argument for tyranny, implying that war – even a limited conflict without a declaration of war, like Iraq – puts democracy on hold. The media’s implied acquiesces in this anti-democratic assertion is a terrible failure in its First Amendment role.

I don’t want in the least to minimize the war in Iraq – a mistake of judgment by President Bush that alone warrants turning him out of office. But as a national crisis, it is rather smaller in scale than, say, World War II. The Republicans ran a candidate against Roosevelt in 1940, when the world crisis was fully formed, and they ran a candidate against Roosevelt in 1944. Roosevelt and his proxies argued that he was doing a good job of conducting the war effort – not that it was treasonous to run against him.

In 1968, the Republicans challenged the incumbent president Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. Although Johnson bowed out of the race, no one seriously argued that Nixon, who offered his own plan to “win the war,” was un-presidential, unpatriotic or treasonous for challenging the sitting administration.

We have seen this demagoguery from the Bush administration, in spades, ever since 9/11. It’s un-American, and undemocratic, and there’s a democratic way to put a stop to it: vote the bums out.

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