Tuesday, February 10, 2004

WHAT HAPPENED ON SUNDAY'S MEET THE PRESS?

I have been digesting and discussing the President pro tem's appearance on MTP with my inside-the-beltway political operative friends for a few days now, and we're still struggling to assess the fallout.

As noted earlier, many conservative/Republican pundits were dismayed at Bush's performance. Here's a representative response from Peggy Noonan. My Spidey sense is so acute for Bush administration mischief that I don't feel I can get an accurate read on how regular people and less rabid critics of the President are reacting to his performance.

First instincts told me that the interview was neutral to slightly negative for Bush. Other friends more astute in the world of political communications argued that the interview was intended only to re-ignite Bush's political base left reeling after a few weeks of heavy coverage in the Democratic primaries and the major blow of David Kay's testimony that Iraq has no WMDs or WMD programs. He knew he would never satisfy detractors and that those who loved/hated him would still love/hate him no matter what he said. If this was the case, why not just send out a direct mail piece? Bush must have been reaching for the middle ground (if any still remains in the American polity)--and it seems to have slipped through his bumbling clutches.

Though the Bush stumbled and paused slack-jawed for uncomfortable periods of time before answering some questions, I am starting to see where his MTP performance is succeeding in establishing boundaries that will henceforth guide the public disourse on the Bush presidency.

Take the issue of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war. Bush has commissioned an inquiry into how the intelligence on Iraq went so wrong, spawning a debate about the politics of the commission and the date when the commission will report. His story is that he was presented bad intelligence, but made good judgements and leadership decisions in the interest of protecting the American people ("the most solemn responsibility" of his office) based on flawed intelligence.

But the intelligence is really a non-issue. It was previously well reported (both prior to the war and before the discourse shifted with the Kay revelations) that the intelligence on Iraqi WMDs was ambiguous, nuanced, inconclusive, etc. Yet Bush told the world that there was "no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." So, it's not that the intelligence was bad, but that the intelligence wasn't really there or was manipulated or trumped up to sell the war. No matter how much the intelligence gathering and analysis process is scrutinized and tortured, it still won't reveal that the Bush administration pushed for war without evidence that would justify a war even under their murky doctrine of pre-emption.

Commissions are the best means available to Washington politicos to bury/kill an issue without looking like they are burying/killing an issue.

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